Friday, February 19, 2010

Sorry, and a bit of an update

Sorry, I have totally been slacking lately on the blog updates. And I haven't cracked open my book in a week. So I am going to take a bit of time to explain why. Some of you may want to skip this post today, since it's not really related to the blog subject. :)

Anyway, so work has been rough lately, for multiple reasons. As you may know, I work for a Big 4 accounting firm as my "real job", and due to the soured economy, we've gone through rounds of layoffs and reorganizations over the last year-and-a-half. It’s been a challenging environment to work in, although thankfully, I have been spared in all 4-5 rounds of layoffs that have occurred so far.

Most recently, we’ve had a joining of regions in my firm, and with the reorganization, we have new leadership and new policies and procedures. It’s gotten to a point where we all feel like the new set of expectations are almost ludicrous. No, wait. They ARE ludicrous. And so, my whole team that I work with wants out—myself most definitely included.

Unfortunately, it becomes a bit of a race at this point. We all want to go, and we can’t time it perfectly so we leave at the same time, so the earlier you jump off the ship, the less you have to deal with the repercussions of having your team shrink. The last man holding the bag… well, he’s effed, is all I’ll say.

So in my spare time, what have I been doing? Scouring the internet for job postings, talking to recruiters, polishing and customizing my resumé, writing cover letters (ooh, there’s some writing!), and ranting with my co-workers about our intense desire to leave. In some ways, it’s uplifting, as we all have these delusions of grandeur about how awesome it will be to be gone by the end of next quarter. And I actually do believe that’s a “fantasy” that will come true. I’m crossing my fingers, at least.

So yeah, basically, that’s my big excuse for not posting much, not reading much, and not writing at all as far as my WIP goes in the last couple weeks. Even when I have downtime from my new job search, I’m not in a good mental state to write (i.e., I’m not motivated, for some reason).

I’m still here, I still follow you guys, and I still love hearing from you. I hope you’ll keep being patient with me, even if I’m not here as frequently as I would like for the next little while. Good thing is, I think I might have an in on a job very soon, so maybe life will be back to normal quickly after. (And Pig, it would still keep me local!)

Anyway, rant/whine/excuse off. TGIF!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why fantasy?

First off, oops. Sorry for not posting yesterday. I need to do what Jon does and prep my post the night before to be published the next morning. But that requires so much planning! :)

I’m really good friends with the gal who cuts my hair. Like I’ve been going to her for almost 8 years now, and I worked for her husband’s company my last year of college. Anyway, she knows about my writing project and blog, so we chat about that sometimes when I come in.

Last night, Anya asked me, “Why fantasy?” A valid question, right? What is it about the genre that draws my interest? Why do I want to read it (almost exclusively)? Why do I want to write about it?

A more polished version of the response I stumbled through last night:

I love the realm of possibility and creativity that the fantasy genre opens up to readers and writers. Fantasy holds stories that take place in worlds where wizards and dragons and elves are commonplace, where men challenge the will and intentions of gods, where magic makes the impossible possible. It’s simplistically idealistic at times (or dystopian, if that’s your flavor), it’s got powerful and symbolic embodiments of good and evil, and it’s pretty damn epic in scope. It’s… well, fantasy. And we sometimes gravitate towards what lies beyond our reality, if nothing more than for the sheer entertainment that such a brief departure provides.

Oh, and a bit of a nerdier detail (to which my sister will wholeheartedly attest): I am (well used to be) a huge gamer. RPGs and MMOs were “my thang”. But is it the games that drew me to the genre or the other way around? Hmm…

So what is it about the fantasy genre that draws your interest? What do you like about reading that “made-up stuff”? And, if you write fantasy (as I intend to), why delve into that genre?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Percy Jackson #1 Movie: Thoughts?

So I meant to post this last Friday, but didn't find the time to do so.

Percy Jackson #1 debuted on the big screen last weekend. I loved the first book, and have been eagerly anticipating the movie's arrival in theaters. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it just yet (hopefully, this weekend!).

Now, reviews have been mixed and Rotten Tomatoes is at 49% at the time of this post), but I don't put much stock into critics' movie reviews. Well, other than for entertainment value. Some of those reviews are very cleverly composed.

From what I've gathered, the book has definitely gone through some "adaptations" to fit the big screen. Percy is 17, not 11, a choice consciously made to appeal to an older audience. I hear that Ares and Clarisse are also conspicuously missing from the cast of characters. Seems a bit of a shame, as they were some of the more memorable additions to the book.

This will likely be my first time watching a movie for which I've already read the book beforehand. (Don't laugh!) I'm not sure how I will react, knowing what the "real" story is. However, I'd like to think I am not so high maintenance that I would nitpick every single discrepancy between the book and film. They are, after all, different media and meant for different audiences. A strict, direct conversion would likely be less successful than an adaptation with the proper considerations and liberties. Of course, "proper" is subjective in this case, right?

Have you seen the new PJ movie? What did you think? Or do you have no intention of seeing it?

Oh, and please refrain from spoilers. I still haven't seen it yet!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Have a great weekend!

I'm not even gonna fight it.  Busy day at the office, and I'm leaving very early today.  Won't have much computer access after that until Monday, most likely.  Hope everyone has a great weekend!  Winter's end is drawing nigh!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

When life gives you lots of crap to do...

So in case you can’t tell, work/life has been imposing a little too much on my blogging, commenting, reading, and writing time these last few days. It really stinks. I feel almost guilty, like I should be staying up late to make up for the lost time. Even with mini-breakthroughs like I talked about yesterday, I’ve made very little headway this week. Little as in almost none.  And don’t even get me started about my current review book, which I’ve had on my nightstand for almost two weeks now, still with 60ish pages to go. Grr…

So I need a bit of advice/encouragement/e-hugs today. Do you guys experience dips in your writing productivity because of life? Do you have a good way to handle the extra demands on your time and still keep your writing goals within reach? Do you feel guilty? Stressed? Suicidal? (JK on that last one. I hope!)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another reason to clock gym time

My story comes in bits and pieces. Very small ones--microscopic, perhaps. And apparently, there are a lot of them, because I still have way too much to write, let alone revise, edit, get critted, etc. Ugh, when I think about it like that, I get pretty frustrated...

But there are pockets of inspiration when a moment or a scene from my story-in-waiting just flows through my head. Sometimes, even the words seem to write themselves on the e-page. (First draft-level words, anyway. Not saying it's all that pretty.)

Take this morning, for example. Cardio time at the gym. I don't always think about my MS during those times, but today, my book decided to impose upon my thoughts while I was stairclimbing. And I was grateful it happened, because a key moment/scene/realization for my MC ended up figuring itself out in my head. Something heartfelt with some warm fuzzies, perhaps capable of eliciting a few tears from some readers (well, my mom, at least :P). Nicholas Sparks would be proud. Oh wait, he writes sad stuff... nevermind.

I rushed upstairs to put my thoughts in my laptop as soon as I got back home. Creatine and protein shake be damned! I had a story to write!

For you writers out there, what sort of fun/unexpected experiences have you had with writing breakthroughs?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Death becomes who? And how?

Okay, sorry for yesterday's slackin'. Today's post is a bit more cerebral... :)

In more modern and domestic genres/settings, death is not always a realistic part of the picture (terminal illnesses and accidents notwithstanding). In fantasy, though, the world is more cruel, the enemies more bloodthirsty, the perils more treacherous--at least, in a literal sense. If we’re being “realistic” in the genre, death is probably something that lingers in most characters’ minds in the story.

But authors are typically loathe to kill off important characters, and death is not nearly as frequent as may be realistic (there’s that word again!). Rightfully so, I’d argue, as the writer spends considerable time, effort, and word count crafting and sharing these personalities. We, as readers, also form a bond with these characters, and reading their deaths can be a shocking, perhaps even infuriating, experience if we are unprepared or if the death is poorly timed or handled.

Even the death of the “Big Bad” of the book/trilogy/saga is something that should be appropriately paced and preceded by the right amount of suspense and danger so that the reader doesn’t feel like the villain’s defeat is inevitable or too easy. And hopefully, prior to that culminating battle, the author has fleshed out the villain enough that we have plenty to hate/pity/empathize before the character is written into the ether.

Dipping this post a bit into the YA section (which is, after all, my WIP’s focus), it seems that death might need to be handled even more gingerly than with adult fantasy. Do we really want to thrust such a permanent, sometimes traumatic experience on a younger reader? Chima’s Heir series does not exactly shy away from death, although the story tends to flirt with the theme rather than commit to it (with a couple big exceptions, off the top of my head--no spoilers!). For Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, targeted at an even younger audience, the author cleverly explains that the ancient Greek monsters magically dissipate, rather than die, upon defeat, only to return another day to plague our lil’ hero. (Cheesy, some may say, but probably a wise move on the author’s part.)

So what is your stance on death in your stories (reading and writing!)?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Checking in...

Sorry, I'm slacking today. Weekend was busy, and work is today as well, so I don't think I'll get to a substantial post before the morrow. Hope you guys are all doing well! I will have something to sink your teeth into and comment on tomorrow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Funniest MC names

Sorry, it's Friday. Trying to wrap up at the office early so I can head home.

I thought it might be fun to post some of the funniest/strangest/yuckiest main character names you've run across in your reading. I probably put more emphasis on names than most (my MC's name for my WIP has gone through at least 3-4 name changes already, all without documentation at the courthouse). It's interesting to see what names some authors have chosen for their characters.

Probably the one that sticks out most for me is name of the main character in Raymond E. Feist's Magician:


Yeah, me too. Granted, that was just his birth name, and he got some other names later on (a la Gandalf/Mithrandir/etc.), but still, really? Pug? I kept imagining he had a dog face while I was reading the first time. (Still a great book, though. Not bashing the novel as a whole, by any means.)

Um, also, pretty much any DC comic book hero. As iconic as Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and Green Lantern are--sorry, Marvel comic book names are soooo much cooler. (As a general rule, anyway. Captain Marvel is an anomaly, for sure, although a very intriguing character in the early 2000s.)

Any fun, interesting, or downright annoying names you've encountered for main characters in your books?

And Happy Friday to all!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Virtual reality

Obviously, “fantasy” literature is going to take liberties with the scientific laws and/or historical accounts of our world. In some cases, such as when the story takes place in an alternate time and/or planet, those paradigms are utterly shattered by what the author presents us. It’s part of the draw and charm of fantasy lit—testing the boundaries of what could have been or what might be in another time or place, while still exploring personalities, conflicts, and themes that are very real to us.

But in order to keep us somewhat grounded and give us a point of reference, authors typically provide context for the “fantastical” elements in their stories (magic, mythical creatures, high-powered steam technology, etc.). This may include some semblance of logic or historical background to validate the “reality” of these unrealistic features. In some cases, there are volumes of history or highly elaborate, almost scientific explanations to persuade the reader to take the fantasy as truth.

I find the ways authors establish their fantasy worlds to be some of the most intriguing aspects of their works. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and follow-up comic books borrow heavily from occult legend to intensify the battle between good and evil. (Awesome TV show, btw. Don’t judge!) Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst is full of “secret history,” recounting real historical events and people with a magic twist. And I haven’t read the books yet, but even from the movies, I can tell that J.K. Rowlings’ magical Harry Potter realm is so detailed and airtight, you can’t help but question whether it just might co-exist with the modern-day UK. All are great examples of the interplay between fantasy and reality; they are testaments to the creativity and craftsmanship that exist on our bookshelves (well, mine at least).

It’s interesting to note that authors seem to successfully establish these new paradigms with varying levels of complexity and detail. David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series, for example, has “the Will and the Word” as an explanation for magic. It’s a simplistic system, but rife with religious and literary parallels that allow you to gloss over its unadorned, matter-of-fact nature. (Of course, simplicity is also part of Eddings' distinctive style.)

On the other extreme, you have Tolkien’s Middle-earth, with hundreds of pages of made-up history, language, and names that challenge you to deny its existence. We take for granted the accepted canon of elves, dwarves, and wizards in fantasy writing, but Tolkien was one of its pioneers in his day. Even now, contemporary authors, script writers, and video game creators borrow from the conventions he helped to establish.

What were some of the best fantasy elements you’ve encountered in your reading, and what did the author do to give it that “coolness factor”?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Love is in the air...

I feel like I should be saving this post for Valentine’s Day. However, since it falls on the weekend this year and I’m not nearly as cool as the seven day samurai Jon, I’ll opine and muse on this topic a bit early.

My sister is under the impression that I’m vehemently against romance elements and subplots in books. “This one has a little romance, but not really,” she said about one of her book recommendations. “Oh, this one is more mushy than her [the author’s] other books, so hope that’s okay,” she apologized another time. I thought it was funny that she always felt compelled to add a romance disclaimer.

To her credit, my sister does know me very well; I’m not big on romance as the dominant theme of books and movies. I can handle (nay, even enjoy) romantic comedies, as long as the comedy part is good. But serious romantic stories? No, thank you. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find Titanic to be the superb experience that countless others did.

Does that mean that I must suppress the urge to puke when I read a romantic passage? Or avert my eyes when we see two characters share an angst-riddled kiss? Absolutely not. I’m actually a proponent of romance--on two conditions:

1.) It is supplementary to the main theme and story.

2.) It adds meaningful layers of complexity and depth to character motivations and relationships (e.g., it doesn’t detract from the main plot; see #1).

For my genre of choice (fantasy), I think those qualifications are key. Fantasy books are about epic struggles against tyranny, society, or nature. They are tales about fulfilling or defying prophecy. They take us on journeys of growth in stature, power, and maturity. Romance can enrich these stories, but I don’t think they should dominate them.

The books that inspired my sister’s disclaimers (Cinda Williams Chima’s Heir and Seven Realms novels) are actually “good” examples of weaving romance into a fantasy tale. Princess Raisa in The Demon King pines after two fellows, a wizard and a soldier. The author keeps the thoughts and actions rather chaste, and the positions held by Raisa’s love interests add a definite level of suspense and complication to the story. (Both of these boys are strictly forbidden as suitors, and Raisa’s mother seeks to marry sixteen-year-old Raisa rather quickly for political reasons. Oops, I should save this stuff for my review post.)

One example that got romance wrong for me? The film version of Harry Potter 4. Harry’s mostly unrequited feelings for Cho and the awkward, sometimes heated exchange between Hermione and Ron were too over-the-top for my taste. They imposed too much on the main story of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, making the movie feel like it was trying to be a part-romance as well as part-action/adventure. (And part-drama. And part-comedy. That movie tried to do and be too many things, IMO. Like the director couldn’t make up his mind on what the main flavor should be.)

Okay, enough of my soapbox. TL;DR. Basically, I’m okay with romance when it adds good flavor to the story without dominating it. The kicker? There’s some love interest in my WIP. Pretty tame, but it’s there. No heaving bosoms or anything like that, mind you. I'll leave that to Danielle Steele. :)

I’m interested to hear how you guys and gals feel about romance in your novels. In particular, YA books, since that is a preferred section for the current reader list. How okay are you with romance? How deep can authors go before it feels forced or unnecessary? Who did it right/wrong?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book selection: What's your method?

I feel like book selection is an important ritual. Reading a book is a significant investment in time. Well, it is for me, at least. I'm not a speed reader, and my attention span isn't gonna win any marathons, so it takes me a few days to finish any novel. (My sister, however, is a book fiend! She can spend the entire weekend plowing through a new book to get to the end, even foregoing sleep to reach her destination. Hats off!)

To that end, I have developed a highly scientific method of picking out books:

I go to the bookstore/library and pull something off the shelf.

Okay, it's not quite that haphazard. I read the blurb on the jacket cover (I'm having a brain fart on what that's called again, grr). I peruse the first few pages. I even look up book reviews on my phone while scanning the bookshelves (thank goodness for smartphones and 3G!).

But after all this impromptu "research", I usually end up going with my gut feeling.

My track record isn't spotless, by any means. I ended up settling on Michael Scott's The Alchemyst and Angie Sage's Septimus Heap: Magyk this way. Those were enjoyable enough reads. I'm also very much enjoying my current book Here, There Be Dragons, which I also stumbled upon at the library. However, I've also managed to pick up books I never finished (e.g., Wayne Thomas Batson's The Door Within and DJ MacHale's first Pendragon book Denduron).

Unfortunately, I don't have many face-to-face reader friends. My sister is about the only one, and I will say that I've very much enjoyed her recommendations so far. I have picked up some suggestions from you guys as well, so maybe I can ditch my hit-and-miss method in the near future.

How do you guys normally pick what's on your to-read list? Do you have a book club (online or otherwise)? Do you peruse Amazon's favorite lists? Do you use Goodreads?

Or do you get awesome Christmas gifts from your sister? :P (Thanks, Pig!)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Fantasy lit conflict: Epic vs. intimate, external vs. internal

Spanning genres and media, conflict is a main driver of interest in stories. We follow along in a book or movie to identify and observe the escalating struggles that our heroes face, eager to learn their solutions and resolutions.

Fantasy lit affords its stories the freedom to explore conflicts of all shapes and sizes. We have the classic, epic flavor, of course. Harry vs. Voldemort. The Fellowship vs. Sauron’s forces. The Na’vi vs. the Sky People. (Sorry, still a huge fan of Avatar. Can’t wait for it to break the last Titanic record this week!) This level of conflict is typically the most obvious. It gets the most air (or page) time. It’s what’s featured on the jacket cover or in the movie preview narrated by that guy with the cool, raspy voice.

But good stories go beyond the apparent and develop the plot with more subtle, personal layers. What about the condemned relationship between Arwen and Aragorn, two lovers who hail from differing societies and life expectancies? Or the scholastic and social rivalries between Harry and Draco, or even Harry and Ron at times? Or little Percy’s quest to win the approval of an all-powerful, but aloof father? These types of struggles are supplementary to the main conflict, yet in many ways, they are just as vital to the success of the story as the “Big Bad” that our heroes must overcome. Without these more intimate battles, the story itself would feel bland, tired, and derivative.

What are some of the most intriguing, compelling conflicts you’ve encountered in your favorite stories, and why did they draw your interest?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Flashback Friday: An author I grew up with (David Eddings)

Today’s post title is a blatant nod to Jon’s awesome alliteration. Don’t worry, Jon. I’m not trying to steal your thunder. This is a one-time deal. Or at least, not a regular thing.

After mentioning David Eddings yesterday, I remembered that he was a fantasy author (perhaps the fantasy author, for me) that I cut my teeth on when I first ventured into this genre. I believe the first book I read was Magician’s Gambit (book three of the Belgariad series).

Instantly enchanted, I amended my out-of-orderly ways and started over with Pawn of Prophecy. Fortunately, Mr. Eddings had already finished both the Belgariad and Mallorean (follow-up series) by the time I discovered his works, so I didn’t have to wait for any of those books to come out. Ditto with the Elenium and Tamuli series. (Sidenote: I’m a bit anxious for Chima’s The Exiled Queen. Ugh, September? Really? I need to pull a Miranda Priestly and have my non-existent assistant get the unpublished manuscript by noon! *wink*)

It’s been years since I picked up an Eddings book, but I remember that his writing was so accessible without sacrificing imagery and rich detail. He proved that you don’t have to use fancy words or a lot of words to tell a good story. And I loved the marriage of uber-epicness and intimacy of his stories. His books wow us with wars between or against gods and saving the world from certain destruction, while at the same time endearing us to his cast of characters by showing development of individuals and relationships. Eddings was a master of the multi-layered, stories-within-stories aspect of high fantasy that typifies this genre.

Sadly, Mr. Eddings passed away in 2007. For our consolation, he is survived by a mini-library of tales that will continue to charm readers from beyond the grave.

This trip down memory lane makes me want to re-read those stories (as well as pick up Eddings’ Dreamer series; I haven’t read those books yet). So you might see some reviews inspired by this post.

What books and authors did you grow up on? Fantasy or otherwise. :)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Familiar fantasy elements: accessible or uninspired?

I’ve been fleshing out the “world” for my WIP while busting out cardio at the gym these last few days. Key people, history of events, allied and competing factions, the role of magic, that sort of stuff. It’s a lot harder and a lot more involved than I expected!

Additional depth and flavor to a story comes by establishing a setting rich with background detail. I think this is especially true of fantasy lit, since the reader can’t necessarily draw from real world knowledge to fill in the gaps. You essentially have to build the world for them from scratch.

While dreaming up these world elements, I often wonder where the sweet spot is between using familiar conventions for accessibility and coming up with unique ideas to demonstrate originality. For example, is it bad to have Tolkien-esque elves in your world, ones that live hundreds or thousands of years and maintain only tentative, lukewarm relationships with mankind? Or fire-breathing dragons that dominate the sky and instill awe and fear in your main character? Or kind old wizards who are a key source of wisdom, encouragement, and power?

I think the term “unique” is very relative in the realm of fantasy lit, particularly those with a medieval, high-fantasy flavor. With all the Middle-earths and Narnias and Prydains on the shelves already, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with anything truly original.

But there’s a difference between “familiar” and “trite”, and perhaps, the elusive formula involves keeping the amount of borrowed elements low enough that your setting doesn’t slip into that latter category. An original story or perspective also seems to go a long way in excusing the use of less innovative material. David Eddings’ Elenium series is an excellent example, including Crusades-style knights, a poisoned queen, and a powerful sorceress among its key pieces. Yet the author’s tweaking and positioning of these elements make for an enjoyable story that has that distinctive Eddings touch. (I think language/writing style has a lot to do with it as well.)

What do you guys think about borrowed fantasy elements? Does it irk you when you encounter them in your reading? Do you appreciate the familiarity that comes with it? Is there a line that should not be crossed? Do you have examples of books that marry familiar fantasy components with unique elements and perspectives? (That last one is a bit of a solicitation for future review material. I have three books on my reading queue already, but I'm always looking for more suggestions!)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: The Dragon Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

Title: The Dragon Heir

Author: Cinda Williams Chima

Score: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: In the war raging across the splintered Wizard world, Jason Haley is determined to prove himself a big player. Risking imprisonment, death, and perhaps far worse, he braves enemy territory in England, where he stumbles upon an age-old hoard of artifacts—weapons that may turn the tide in team Trinity’s favor. Among Jason’s cache of mystic firepower is the Dragonheart, a stone powerful enough to rule the magical Guilds—or destroy them.

In the conclusion to Chima’s Heir trilogy, the author masterfully brings the escalating conflict to a head. The first two books flirted with the idea of an all-out war, but that nightmare is fully realized in this the finale. The stakes are high, the consequences severe. And our band of adolescent heroes is forced to face life, love, and loss all too quickly as adults.

Chima gracefully weaves the intertwining plotlines and agendas, making us privy to the thoughts and motivations of the entire suite of main characters. Although our journey begins with Jason, we get to see the war through the eyes of many other players, both old and new, as the plot progresses. The author stays true to the personalities she established in the prior books. Jack is still the story’s white knight (flaming sword included), Ellen is as spunky as ever, and Seph’s sense of duty hangs even heavier over his heart. Thankfully, the author’s presentation allows these layers to enrich the story without becoming overly complex or disjointed.

One of the book’s most intriguing undercurrents is the moral ambiguity of the characters’ personalities and decisions. None of the “good guys” are spotless, and most of the villains will somehow appeal to your sympathies. The choices these people must make are tough, and you can’t help but give pause, wondering whether you would act as they did.

The Dragon Heir is true to its legacy of eloquent, enrapturing storytelling. This is a fantasy book of epic proportions, laced with themes as real and personal as anything you’ve ever experienced.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Props (but not a book deal) from a literary agent

So, a very off-topic post, but literary agent Nathan Bransford just posted about Apple’s tablet device (to be announced tomorrow), and gave me a nod for tipping him off to Amazon’s new revenue-sharing model with authors as the book giant's pre-emptive response to Apple's anticipated author/publisher split. I'm credited at the end of the second paragraph. No, that's not another Brandon. Promise!

Bless his heart! That totally made my day!

Okay, you are allowed to laugh at me now. :)

I think, therefore I write

I had a bit of a writing/story breakthrough this weekend—at the gym, of all places. See, I’ve recently ditched my workout buddies in favor of some quality “me” time during my workouts. Not to mention that working out with one of my friends typically involves more chatting and catching up than real exercise. So an hour at the gym alone is much more productive than an hour with a buddy. Hooray for efficiency!

Since I don’t have an iPod strapped to my arm (I’d end up singing along, and I don’t want to be “that guy”), I find the gym’s great for clearing my head and thinking things through, writing ideas included. Cardio is a pretty mindless activity (unless I’m doing interval training, oh goodness, I need to start another blog */em grin*), which leaves 95% of my brain to mull over and muse on whatever I fancy. And for the time being, that fancy is my manuscript-in-progress.

I don’t know how unconventional this method of finding think time is, or the fact that I even feel compelled to schedule (to use the term loosely) time to plan my story and thoughts. That’s partially why I’m rambling about it today. I struggle with just sitting down at my laptop and thinking about my story. Perhaps it stems from some self-imposed guilt around time management, like I should be snatching up pockets of contemplation while doing other activities, since a full-time job and the semblance of a social life already impose enough on my desire to put my e-pen to e-paper. When I block out time to sit down and write, I want as much of that time spent increasing my word count meaningfully.

So for you writers out there, do you mix your thinking time with writing time? Do you have designated time away from your home or laptop (whether dedicated specifically or merged with another activity, like gym time)? Or do you just dive right into your writing stream-of-consciousness style? (I’m incapable of that last one. It scares me too much!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Our beloved hero(ine), and (s)he had better be beloved (by the reader, at least)…

I saw Avatar this weekend. Third time so far (second time in 3D). Yes, it’s that awesome. Kudos, James Cameron. I’m happy to see your Titanic records broken. (Honestly, I didn’t think Titanic was all that. Avatar, though? All that, a bag o’ chips, salsa, guac, queso, and whatever other metaphoric awesome sauce you can conjure.)

Now, I’m usually not one to analyze or criticize movies (I’m actually pretty easy to please as a moviegoer). But as I was watching Avatar this weekend, my mind kept dissecting the main character Jake Sully. His personality, his actions, his motivations. I came to the conclusion that Cameron had very successfully created a “beloved” hero. Not beloved necessarily by the other characters in the movie. In fact, there are times during the movie where perhaps the only one cheering for Jake in the stands is the viewer.

But isn’t that what is most important? That we as viewers/readers are rooting for the hero? (Or heroine. I’m going to refrain from being PC from here on out, and just refer to the main character in the masculine. Sorry, ladies.)

The hero of our story has to be carefully crafted to appeal to our inner cheerleader, and Jake Sully is a great example. He is good-natured and has good intentions at his core. He is flawed, but in a way that makes you hope that he overcomes his weaknesses and succeeds despite his shortcomings. He has deep motivations that fuel his actions and keep us engrossed in the story, eager to see whether his goals are realized. And he grows and changes as the plot progresses, eliciting our approval and pride like a parent seeing the development of a child.

It might be a bit formulaic or derivative to break down the anatomy of a good hero like this, but I think if you look at your favorite heroes from books, movies, even video games, you’ll find that they share many (perhaps all) of Jake’s "heroic" qualities. Certainly, the circumstances and details are different for each story and each character. But at its most basic, there seem to be some very general, universal themes of heroism that entice us to join the fan club.

What are some of your favorite heroes (or heroines) from your reading (or movies! or video games!), and what was it about them that made you love them so much?

Friday, January 22, 2010

My penchant for YA fiction

Hooray for campus interview days at work! Since I’m low enough on the totem pole to not actually do the interviews (I “greet” for an interviewer, which means I'm a glorified receptionist for the day), I have time between escorting hopeful candidates to… get more work done, of course! And post on this blog.

So those of you who have perused my reviews thus far have probably noticed that I have a hankering for the teens and tweens section of the bookstore. I promise that I will review works from the normal sci-fi/fantasy section in the near future! I actually used to read almost exclusively from that sub-genre a few years ago (much love to David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, and Robert Jordan).

Currently, however, I have been drawn to YA fantasy novels. And not because of phenomena like Harry Potter. (I have yet to read any of Rowling’s mega-hits as of this posting. Don't worry, Sis! It's on my to-do list.) I think I can distill my reasons down to one word:


In setting, in theme, in language. I love that YA authors tend to keep things simple. For me, one of the challenges of adult fantasy is the complexity and detail overload that bombards the reader. Factions and organizations are interconnected by tentative alliances or centuries of bad blood. Witch-kings and warrior-queens and lord regents and high inquisitors and what-have-you all seek to help or hurt the cast of 50-something main characters, each of whom have suffered the loss of a parent, made love in secret with the enemy, and/or must gather the 198 sacred stones to prevent armageddon. It’s a lot to take in!

Sure, being able to describe the story elements with such attention-to-detail enriches the book’s background and speaks to the genius and creativity of the author. But at the same time, it can bog down the reader who, after a 9- or 10-hour work day, does not have the mental fortitude to make a relief map of the faerie realm or sort out the intrigues within intrigues. (I’m talking about me, obviously.) I’m sad to admit I have yet to finish any of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels; that boy had a LOT to say about Middle-earth!

Keep in mind that simple is not mutually exclusive with profound, captivating, or compelling. In many ways, I feel like the spare-yet-elegant nature of YA fantasy fiction enhances the reader's experience, and the author's judicious choice of detail serves to direct, rather than distract, our focus.

Like I said, I will cross back over into “grown up” fantasy for the occasional book or series, but the “page turner” allure of the young adult realm has my heart for the foreseeable future. Haters may call me shallow, immature, simple-minded. I like to think I’m… efficient. :)

Plus, I’m working on a YA novel right now. I need to see what I’m up against!

What is it about the young adult shelf that draws your eye? (Please don't say it's the sexy covers.)

Review Archives

A bit of a quality-of-life enhancement. Or a necessity, if you wanna be mean, since I didn't think of this until now.

Here's a convenient listing of book reviews posted on this blog. Alpha by author. Enjoy!

Number of Reviews: 8

Chima, Cinda Williams - The Dragon Heir
Chima, Cinda Williams - The Warrior Heir
Chima, Cinda Williams - The Wizard Heir
McKinley, Robin - The Blue Sword
Riordan, Rick - Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Riordan, Rick - Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters
Sage, Angie - Septimus Heap: Magyk
Scott, Michael - The Alchemyst

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Percy Jackson #2 (The Sea of Monsters) by Rick Riordan

Title: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

Author: Rick Riordan

Score: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: Despite my initial prejudices, I admit that I was thoroughly enchanted by the first Percy Jackson novel. So much, in fact, that during my New Year’s vacation in NYC, I braved the blustery cold of Manhattan and took the 6 Train down to the Penn Station Borders to buy the second book. I know, reading a book while visiting New York? Blasphemy!

I was completely satisfied with my purchase, particularly since I had a 15+ hour day of flights and layovers ahead before I would be home.

In Percy #2, we are fast-forwarded almost one full school year from the first book’s conclusion. Percy has nearly completed the seventh grade without mythological monster incident. His spotless record, however, gets a big black mark when a group of burly dodgeball opponents turn out to be Laistrygonians (giant cannibals, as the all-knowing Wikipedia describes) sent to kill Percy with their cache of explosive dodgeballs.

With the help of friends both old and new, Percy survives the attack and escapes to Camp Half-Blood, where he learns that the great tree that protects the camp from monsters has been poisoned. Our hero faces opposition from both sides of Camp Half-Blood’s waning magic wall, but with some unlikely aid from a godly source, he sets off to restore the camp’s protection and save a loved one who’s gone MIA.

This second trip into Riordan’s modern-day twist on mythology is even more delightful than the first. The story is fast-paced and lighthearted, with plot developments that, while oftentimes predictable and/or convenient, are still fun and fitting.

One of the more touching points of this book is Percy’s epiphany on true friendship and loyalty and the value of such virtues over peer pressure and acceptance. (I won’t disclose too many details, since I don’t like spoilers.) It’s a didactic moment squarely aimed at Riordan’s childhood audience, but it’s a heartwarming refresher course for readers of all ages. (I promise I didn’t cry; I’ve only cried twice while reading a book.)

Fans of Percy #1 will find more to love in The Sea of Monsters. Be sure to have the Internet or a Greek mythology professor handy, though; Riordan includes some references that are less mainstream this go-round.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fun post about breaking the grammar rules (and that it's okay!)

I ran across this post while catching up on Nathan Bransford's blog today. Nathan is a literary agent (and a damn cool one, from what I can tell!), who maintains a great blog to help aspiring writers learn how to woo agents and break into that elite group of the published. The post I've linked to is actually a guest blog post by one Susannah Windsor Freeman of Write It Sideways.

The article is an interesting read, discussing two groups of people: Word Nerds (or Grammar Nazis) who require strict compliance with grammar rules (boring!) and Grammar Rebels who know those rules, but knowingly choose to break them for the sake of smooth-sounding phrasing or some other desired effect. Me personally? I'm a freakin' rebel, of course. Who wants to always rearrange their sentence structure to prevent ending with a preposition?

So apologies in advance to you Nerds/Nazis for my judicious use of sentence fragments and first word conjunctions. As I'm not writing a research paper, I don't feel particularly bound to the English rules in my manuscript.

Actually, I take back my apology (or take my apology back, if you want to split infinitives, hah!). Rebels don't apologize, do they? :)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What makes a good story?

Way back when, I talked about figuring out other blog topics besides book reviews, since I can’t read a book a day, but want to post here at about that frequency. I’ve decided to explore this idea with a bit of a selfish twist. Since I am working on a writing project of my own, I’d like to tally up elements of what I believe to be a good fantasy read. I think this will help me to focus and evaluate my own writing as I prepare to eventually embark on that dreaded quest to get published.

Some of these future posts (or sections of them, at least) will probably feel specific to the fantasy genre. However, I think you’ll find that some ideas also have an application to literature and storytelling in general. Dragons and dwarves and damsels-in-distress may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but oftentimes, they merely contribute to a magical, medieval veneer, making pretty wrapping around a universal theme or message that transcends the setting or characters. Isn’t that part of why Harry Potter has enjoyed such widespread success?

I have several “good story elements” spinning in my head at this point. Those will come out in the coming days. In the meantime, I’d love your own thoughts on what constitutes a great story. Getting others’ perspectives will help me to refine my own concept of what a good book will have within its pages.

In other words, comment away!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

A review two days in a row? Impossible, you say? Well, yes, if I had started reading this book yesterday, but I finished this book early last week. I debated on saving this review until the weekend, but I figure that would be selfish of me. Besides, the longer I wait, the most spotty my recollection of the book gets. And this is a good one, so I want to do it justice.

Title: The Wizard Heir

Author: Cinda Williams Chima

Score: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: The Wizard Heir is Chima's sophomore offering in her Heir series. In this book, our hero is sixteen-year-old Seph McCauley, a trust fund baby with no parents and a history of disasters caused by the magical energies he can't control. Blowing up and melting things involuntarily has forced Seph to hop from school to school and country to country, seeking a fresh start as well as instruction that will help him harness his talents and prevent further catastrophe. Unfortunately, Wizard teachers seem to be in short supply.

A final incident at a Toronto rave lands Seph at a boarding school for troubled teens, where Seph finds a headmaster willing to teach Seph to hone and control his gift. However, Seph soon learns that the headmaster's intentions for him and the school are anything but altruistic, and the price of training goes far beyond any amount of money or time.

Chima's second foray into this world of incantations and intrigues is even better than her first. I thought that The Warrior Heir was a superb read, but The Wizard Heir features a tighter plot and more complex character development and interaction. Since this is not our first exposure to the magical Guilds, Chima bypasses much of the setting and background exposition that may have slowed her first story. She jumps immediately into the action and plot building, even using the prologue to reference characters and events from the first book's final chapters. The author does a good job of including some cursory background at strategic points so that a new reader isn't completely lost. But as with any series, you get much more by having read what's come before.

I thought the transition to a new suite of main characters was a refreshing move. The protagonists from book #1 (Jack, in particular) are still important pieces on the board, but their roles are more subdued to allow Chima to flesh out another set of characters for our enjoyment. The new cast members are also, perhaps, more interesting than their predecessors from a moral and motivational standpoint. Seph is a selfish, sorcerous playboy when we first meet him. Not evil by any means, but also not the innocent, wholesome specimen that Jack was/is. Jack is immediately likeable, but Seph is, in some ways, more relatable, much as we may hate to admit.

The Wizard Heir is a fine follow-up to the first book, showing further refinement in Chima's storytelling strengths and setting our heroes up for a 3rd book showdown that will rock the realm of magic.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Percy Jackson #1 (The Lightning Thief) by Rick Riordan

Oops, sorry. Still playing catch-up on my reviews, obviously. I spent the weekend catching up on housework (i.e., laundry), making eggs benedict for my friend Diane (highly successful, but time-consuming), ridding my pantry of pantry bugs (bleh, don't ask), and finally taking down my Christmas tree (I know, waiting this late puts me in the running for a white trash award, bring it!). I also finished another book (Percy Jackson #2), started another one (Chima's "The Dragon Heir"), and actually did some writing for my own personal project.

So, here's to catching up still...

Title: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Author: Rick Riordan

Score: 5 stars (out of 5)

Review: So I must admit, when I first thumbed through this book at the store, I rolled my eyes and put it back on the shelf. Skimming the first few pages gave me the impression that Mr. Riordan had simply conjured up a whiny, sarcastic child who would fumble and stumble his way through an impossibly epic legacy, and I would be pissed reading about it. I was not about to waste time on something like that. And even though my sister raved about the series, I almost made it a personal quest to never read these books.

Thankfully, my sister ignored me and included this book among her Christmas gifts.

In this first book of the series, we meet 11-year-old Percy Jackson, a good-natured boy who has been plagued by bad luck and bad circumstances as long as he can remember. At a school field trip to the museum, Percy faces off against a teacher who wants to inflict more than just the pain of detention. The resulting fight for his life puts Percy on a path to discover his special heritage and the responsibilities that such lineage bestows.

I won't pretend that Riordan's first book here isn't, first and foremost, meant for children. The narrative voice, the characters, the plot expositions and twists, these are all decidedly aimed at a youthful audience. Percy is as impetuous and innocent as any 11-year-old, and his sidekicks are not much older (though thankfully, they are oftentimes much wiser). Camp Half Blood, where Percy eventually settles to learn and train as a demigod, is filled with children preparing to fulfill their destiny as the offspring of the Greek pantheon. It's every kid's dream--to have special gifts and talents that set you apart from your peers.

But it's also a dream that adults share, albeit on a more worldly, cutthroat level. Perhaps that is partially the source of universal appeal this book seems to have. We live vicariously through Percy's adventures as someone with greatness on the horizon, mammoth challenges to overcome, and loyal, lovable friends to help along the way.

Reading The Lightning Thief is an indulgence much like watching a Hollywood blockbuster at the theater. It's a story that's not meant to invoke any paradigm shifts, nor does it stir you to action or call you to repentance. But it's a delightful, fast-paced tale that delivers in spades the entertainment and warm fuzzies we all crave. For so masterfully meeting that objective (as well as inspiring me to brush up on my Greek mythology), I can't help but give this book top honors. Call me a sheep. Call me as corrupt or brainwashed as the Academy Award voting body. I don't care. :)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Septimus Heap: Magyk by Angie Sage

Today’s post marks the beginning of my playing catch-up with book reviews. As I mentioned yesterday, I finished three books over the holidays. All page turners, mind you, and I clocked a LOT of time at airports and on planes (including a 16-hour stint from my friend’s Manhattan apartment to JFK to LAX to home, whew!), so don’t be too impressed. For those of you who know me, however, I’m guessing “flabbergasted” is a more appropriate term. Prior to this whole reading/writing endeavor inspired by Mom, I hadn’t really read a book since college a few years ago.

Title: Septimus Heap: Magyk

Author: Angie Sage

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Review: Ordinary Wizard Silas Heap and his wife Sarah are crushed when their seventh son is pronounced dead at birth, but the sudden, unexpected arrival of a newborn baby girl (whom the Heaps name Jenna) provides a new addition to their family to help fill the void. The arrival of Jenna's tenth birthday, however, brings with it the beginning of an epic story that sheds light on the Heap daughter's mysterious origin, sees a kingdom overtaken by an evil Necromancer, and reveals what really happened to Silas and Sarah’s last son.

From its opening sentences, Magyk is immediately recognizable as a book written for young readers. The language leans towards the conversational, and the terms and titles are simplified for an audience less familiar with fantasy jargon or English vocabulary that is too advanced or vague. The most powerful wizard, for example, has the title of “ExtraOrdinary Wizard.” Other official titles given to various characters are Hunter, Assassin, and Apprentice.

This is not to say that the book is particularly boring or lazy in its execution. The book is still a fun, flowing, lighthearted read, and the characters are endearing, if a bit lacking in real depth of personality. Of course, if Angie Sage is targeting the prepubescent crowd, she doesn’t necessarily need to employ a cast of characters who must come to grips with their own personal demons and moral ambivalence.

Still, I think weaving a bit more complexity into the plot and characters would have helped the book appeal to a wider (i.e., more mature) audience. I would have liked, in particular, to see more done on the part of foreshadowing and explaining certain aspects of Sage’s world and history. At times, she suddenly breaks into long expository sections to illuminate the background of an event or character, but some of that explanation could probably have been introduced earlier in the story to hint at things to come. (One very large example towards the end of the book comes to mind, but I will refrain from going into further detail. I have a “no spoilers” policy here.)

Overall, Magyk accomplishes its goal of engaging a young audience in an enchanting, yet accessible adventure, but from an adult’s perspective, the book lacks additional coloring that would appeal to the older crowd. As one of those "old fogies" by comparison, I doubt I will continue the series (5 books so far, at the time of this post) anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I'm baaaack!!!!!11111oneeleven!!!!!

Sorry for being MIA. The holidays and a trip to NYC broke my routine. I didn't even have internet access in New York, except through my phone.

But worry not, my faithful readers (all one of you :P). I have not read one, not two, but THREE books in the last couple of weeks, and will likely finish a fourth within the next couple of days. So expect a slew of reviews by week's end. I know, no one really cares. That's partially why I didn't feel like I needed to "blog in" during the holidays.