Category Archives: Books
Dear Meg Cabot,
I’m coming to see you this weekend. I’m bringing you a gift.
Don’t be afraid. This is totally legit because you’ll be speaking at the Decatur Book Festival and you want people to come see you, so it’s not like I’m googling you to figure out where you live in Key West so I can walk by your house twenty times. I swear I have not done this even though I will be going to Key West in the near future and I think you would find me amusing over cocktails. (I will require two before I have enough nerve to act like myself in front of one of my idols.)
Also, the gift is not weird. I’m not giving you your portrait made out of used gum or a friendship bracelet made out of my hair. I’m appropriate and normal that way.
I’m writing you this open letter because chances are when I see you at your book signing, I’ll be too dumbstruck to say much of anything. I know you’re not Ryan Gosling and you’ve totally tweeted at me before, so I should be completely cool and collected. But I remember when I met Neil Gaiman a couple of years ago and I didn’t manage much more than a weak smile and something about loving his books, even though I rehearsed something really clever and funny in my car on the way there. Nope. As soon as I stood in front of him with my copy of The Graveyard Book, I became a wide-eyed fan girl. And your writing is more significant in my own reading/writing journey, so I figure I’ll thrust my gift at you and say something awkward and then run to the bathroom and frantically text my friend J.
J’s part of the reason I adore you. She’s my long distance writing partner and a true friend. We found each other on a writing board when she made an intelligent comment about a TV show we both love and I screwed up the courage to send her an email. Until I met J, I didn’t know anyone who liked The Princess Diaries or High School Musical or any of the other geeky YA stuff I adore. Most people my age don’t bother, think it’s too young and silly. J sees what I see and we’ve built this great friendship that’s now way beyond gushing over Michael Moscovitz as the perfect fictional boyfriend and dogging broody loner boyfriends who like to suck blood. For me, your books were like a secret password. Once I knew J loved your books too, I knew we were in the same club. Now we share our writing anxieties and excitements, and I don’t know if I ever would have taken the writing dream seriously without her egging me on. So thanks for that.
Thanks for writing light, funny romances that don’t take themselves too seriously. It seems like so many writers focus on Saying Something, and so many high profile books concern Very Grave matters. I knew I didn’t want to write angsty fiction, and reading your various series showed me that we can write good-natured stories that are there for the sake of being happy and entertaining that do not force us to live in Sweet Valley (although it is admittedly interesting there). There can be messages (The Gospel of Mia!), but they don’t have to come to us through impossible language and dark imagery. We can write things that are both fun to write and fun to read. We can include pop culture references, dammit; they are amusing and people like them. We can leave our terrible days at work and go home to books that make us smile instead of cry. We can be girlie girls who want equal rights and good jobs, but we can still want a nice boy to kiss the heroine at the end. What a relief.
In short, I’m thankful that you write what you write because it’s helped me figure out who I want to be and what I want to do with my life. Kind of a big deal.
Anyway, I’ve gone sentimental and sappy, and I hope you won’t think I’m all boring because of that. I’m totally interesting. I once stopped a kid from mugging me by grabbing his hoodie and yelling for help. I can also say the alphabet backward while drunk, if that helps.
I’m looking forward to hearing you speak this weekend. I’ll try to say something witty when I see you, but I think it’ll come out sounding like, “I love The Princess Diaries. The weather is gross today.”
But you’ll know what I mean.
Cheers to you, Meg!
PS Have you seen this?? I found it on Tumblr. I wish I knew who made it so I could credit them.
Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing? Just read it for the third time in my efforts to get a fake MFA in the next month while I gear up to Write The Novel. You can read my review of it on my writing blog, but I don’t think you actually need to go read my review because I’m just going to tell you now that I really like it and it’s a great resource for beginning writers. Folksy but firm, practical but amusing.
Since I’m collecting writing wisdom, thought I might share some high points. One of these days I’m going to do some kind of data analysis on all the writing advice from all the authors I like and prove that there is no correct way to write. But here’s what Uncle Stevie thinks.
*Plotting? Don’t do it! Your characters will tell you what to do.
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life though your speech. You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway, is nowhere…. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. … my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.
* Where should I write? In a quiet place, no TV, no phone, door closed, desk in corner of room to remind you that writing should reflect life and not the other way around.
*How much should I write? Every day, at least 1000 words. Write at the same time of day too, if you can help it.
Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind… Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.
*How long will it take? Three months for the first draft, probably
* How long do I let the first draft sit? 6 weeks.
* Do Not: use adverbs, write in the passive tense, get carried away with descriptions, write above your natural vocabulary, start out thinking about symbolism or theme
* Do: Keep dialogue tags simple, read or write 4-6 hours a day, look for natural symbolism and themes in your second draft and then polish them up so they shine
So we read to experience the mediocre and outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.
* Do Not: Rely on the muse, but DO: make a comfortable place for him/her to land.
And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so you can train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work on vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction. But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal… don’t wait for the muse…. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re doing to be every day from nine til noon or seven til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.
* Characters? Very important. In fact, they should grow and the stories should really be about them and not just “what happened.”
* What to look for in editing?
During the reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: Knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents, adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with… Underneath, I’m asking myself the Big Questions: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What it’s all about…. What I want most of all is resonance.”
*Critique groups? Meh. More important to have an Ideal Reader whose taste and opinion you trust. Write for them and pay attention to what he/she likes or dislikes. Too many writing classes make you too impressed with your own intelligence and imbue meaning where things are really more simple..
* And finally, the point of it all:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay?
And there you have it! Next stop: vacation home in Florida.
Earlier this summer, Dad said he wanted to read a book from each of my bookshelves as a kind of tour through my literary interests. We started with the “Road Trip” shelf, and I chose the classic Newbery Award winner A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Yeah, Madeline L’Engle has the balls to start her book that way.
Meg Murry doesn’t quite fit in, and her younger brother Charles Wallace is a child prodigy who doesn’t talk to most people. Between the two of them, they don’t get out much. They live with their brilliant scientist mother and their popular twin brothers, but their father has mysteriously vanished while doing his job. Charles Wallace might be more social than Meg realizes, though, because he’s made friends with some dotty ladies that live in the woods. One day, they whisk Meg, CW, and Calvin (a guy from school) through a wormhole with the intent of stopping a dark force from taking over the universe. Meg must show her intelligence and courage as she battles the treacherous IT and tries to keep her baby brother from succumbing to his darker nature.
Chances are you read this in middle school. I know I did, and I drew a picture of the Happy Medium for reasons I cannot entirely remember. It’s a favorite of librarians and regarded as one of the best books for children ever written.
Here’s what Dad has to say: (Spoiler warning here- Dad comments on the ending)
I finished A Wrinkle in Time today. Here are my thoughts. Basically a good story. The first half was slow but the second half of the book picked up in the action department. I think the place called Camazotz was a take off on “Camelot”, where everything was supposedly peaceful and wonderful. I also thought the ending was a little weak in how easy it was for Meg to overcome IT with just a little love. IT appeared to be much more formidable than that. As a side note, I think you can write as well as Ms Madeline and it would be fun to see you take on a magical story topic to challenge your imagination.
So there you have it– Dad’s not convinced that Love Conquering All is a compelling ending, and he thinks I’m good enough to take on Madeline L’Engle. While I’m obviously flattered my father thinks so highly of my writing skills, I wonder if love might be clouding his judgement. Just a little bit.
I spoke with him on the phone tonight about the book and he basically reiterated the same points, and his opinion seems to come down to the ending. He thought it was pretty weak sauce that Meg just had to say “I Love You” and everything was cool. I argued that the point is that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Dad said if love was enough, it doesn’t explain why their father was trapped for so long because it’s not like he didn’t love his family. Dad makes a fair point. He also said he didn’t get the acclaim and he thought Harry Potter was miles better. I could almost hear my mother in the background wincing.
Next time: Dad will have to Think Greek on my mythology shelf. We’ll see how he does with Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief.
This post will be cross-posted on my book blog, The Bibliotherapist.
Dad’s pretty smart: two masters degrees, virtual assassin in Words With Friends/Scrabble, and former engineer. Unlike the three women in his life, he’s not a voracious reader. He’s most likely to read something in which a government agent gets involved with a conspiracy theory and teams up with a smart and cute specialist to take down bureaucratic evil. He does read this blog, however, and he recently commented that he wanted to read one book from each of my shelves from my office reorganization project. Dad’s life goal was to visit all of the continents. Now that he’s finished, his new goal is to visit all of my bookshelves. I’m flattered.
I’ve done the math: with my two big office bookcases and a couple of others in my apartment, I have 17 total shelves. (I know, Dad, I originally said 14 but that was just an estimate and I was wrong.) So I have 17 opportunities to share my favorite books with my Dad.
Some shelves will be harder than others; I’m particularly thinking of my princess themed shelf. I just don’t know that Dad will appreciate Princess Mia. My goal is to choose books out of his comfort zone that he might actually like, though it is tempting to make him read something really complicated and dense, like As I Lay Dying. for my own twisted amusement.
As he finishes each book. we’ll have a conversation about it and I’ll post the results here.
First shelf: The Road Trip Books.
There’s a couple of good options here to get him hooked. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman has the kind of mild mannered but destined for greatness hero that Dad likes, but the fantasy element might be too much for him. I could also make him embrace Maureen Johnson on this shelf, but I might save her Jack the Ripper book for that purpose. John Green is represented here too, and that’s pretty tempting.
Ultimately, it came down to A Wrinkle in Time or The Phantom Tollbooth, two books from middle school with some fantastical elements. I finally decided on a A Wrinkle in Time because I think he’ll like the adventure and I want him to read something with a female protagonist.
I’ll give him the book this weekend and report back once he finishes; my guess is that he’ll have something amusing to say, so stay tuned.
Here we have the mythology shelf, where two very different males engage in personal odysseys through a modern world populated by the ancient gods. Teenage Percy Jackson and his pals might be frightened by hardened criminal Shadow from American Gods. True that Percy’s faced down snake-headed ladies and fought death itself, but Shadow’s a little rougher around the edges. Shadow would probably order a straight vodka with his breakfast and Percy would say, “Uh, I’ll have OJ. Straight.” Shadow would smile and say something manly and Percy would shoot a panicked look at Annabeth, who would roll her eyes and reach for Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to correct everything it got wrong.
Here we have a little stack of nice YA romances, and I’d like to send all of them on a triple date together. True that one of them is dead (I won’t say who), but we’ll pretend they’re all alive and healthy enough to sit around a table at a kitschy diner with a fantastic jukebox. Nick and Norah would be engaged in lively debate about music with Audrey and James, and Hazel and Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars would share a milkshake and grins while they listened. Eventually the talk would turn to bad ex-boyfriends and girlfriends, Augustus would impishly play “Audey, Wait,” and the whole group would end up dancing like maniacs.
This is where the upper class hangs out. Naturally, Emma is holding court in the middle and happily telling the Annes from Persuasion and Jane Austen in Scarsdale exactly who they should marry and when. The Annes are making eye contact over head and rolling their eyes. Luckily, Emma has a couple of disciples in Megan from How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls and basically all of the teenagers in Sweet Valley. Emma would really like to be sharing tea with Gatsby, but he considers her to be too frivolous and the rest of them to be too nouveau riche for his tastes. Jessica Wakefield is confident she’ll be BFFs with Daisy though because Jessica Wakefield is delusional.
A while ago, I found this suggestion online:
Imagine your books are persons. Then arrange them according to the conversations they could have with their neighbors.
Naturally, it captures my imagination to think of my books waiting until I flick off the lights to engage in their after dark chats. When I built my new bookcases and rearranged my home office, I spent hours one Sunday afternoon arranging many of my books in this way. I’ll be sharing some of my favorites over the next couple of days.
The books about precocious kids all got together for a wild rumpus on one of the lower shelves. Allie Finkle is pretending to be a foreign ninja warrior princess with Betsy and Tacy, while Turtle Wexler and Flavia de Luce start a girl’s detective agency. The kids from The Goonies (Yeah, I have the movie novelization. Jealous?) are joining up with Stanley Yelnats and the other delinquents from Holes to find a way to rescue the Lemony Snicket kids (“Orphans never say die! Down here, it’s our time!”), while Matilda and Kat Incorrigible sip tea and discuss Regency era romances and take turns moving things with their eyes to freak out the other kids. I thought about pairing Nanny from The Nanny Diaries with a cute single memoir guy, but I needed someone to wrangle the moppets at bedtime.
I like to imagine this stack gathered around a flashlight at a sleepover when a storm is brewing outside. Catherine from Northanger and the nameless new Mrs de Winter from Rebecca could get themselves all in a dither with their tales of gothic fright. Then the ghostly narrator from The Lovely Bones could be like, “You guys are weak sauce. I have a better story about a creepy neighbor guy who built an underground cave.” And then Ms Roach, who would be surprised to find herself on my bookshelf in the dark, would roll her eyes and tell them that so-called “mediums” used to stuff gauze up their ladyparts to trick people into thinking they were spewing ectoplasm and, sorry Susie Salmon, but you probably don’t exist. But then Rory from Name of the Star would be like, “Uh, hey, I see dead people, so maybe they’re right.” And then thunder would boom through the room and they would all scream and jump.
On this shelf, Katniss from The Hunger Games and Katsa from Graceling compete in a super intense archery contest complete with flinty stares while Peeta and Po sit to the side drinking beer and exchanging war stories. They’d kind of be hoping for a Girl Fight when the lost boys from Lord of the Flies would come over the hill screeching that they’re going to kill the pig, but they’d stop dead when Katniss and Katsa turn the power of their stone cold gazes on them. Peeta would say, “Hey, guys, have a beer or something. The girls will shoot us a pig for dinner later. Where’d you get that face paint? Do you have any left? That really takes me back.” And Po would say, “I sense these guys could use a bath.” They’d all have a good laugh, and then they’d discuss survival skills and form an alliance to take down the rest of the bookcase.
Tomorrow: Mindy Kaling and Bridget Jones have lots of questions for Elizabeth Bennet-Darcy and a bunch of books take a road trip together.
This month, book club read Jen Lancaster’s My Fair Lazy. For the un-jenitiated, JenLan writes humorous memoirs about her various projects. One book follows her quest to lose weight, one follows her self exploration after the dot-com bust, and this one follows her self-assigned directive to get some culture into her reality television saturated life. She goes to the ballet, she eats good food, she attends the theater, she reads classic literature, and so on.
Group opinion of the book varied: “Liked her at first, liked her less as she got cultured,” “Disliked her at first, liked her once she got cultured,” “Laughed all the way through,” “Stopped after two chapters,” “Barnes & Noble didn’t have it so I’m just here for the food.”
Speaking of the food, nobody debated about that point. Every month we choose a food theme, and this month we challenged ourselves to create dishes combining high and low cuisine elements to honor JenLan and her dichotomous personality.
Feast your eyes on this.
Not pictured: Heather’s fancy ice cream dessert– your choice of salted caramel gelato or sherbet push pop.
Next month we read Farenheit 451 to honor Ray Bradbury, but we’re eating at a restaurant because we can.
Hopping a plane or a cruise boat or an interstate this summer? Want to be entertained without resorting to the “I Like” game? (Rules: Take turns saying things that you like. That’s it.) Make like LeVar Burton and read a book.
In the summer, I prefer books that are completely frothy or completely absorbing. Also, they must be paperback. I know everyone has e-readers now, but you can’t bring your Kindle on the beach without risking a sand invasion. Here are some suggestions for Summer 2012.
If you want to snort laugh on the airplane and cause your seat-mates to give you strange looks:
Go for something by Jen Lancaster. I just finished My Fair Lazy, her attempt to exercise her reality tv atrophied brain with some high culture. Pretty in Plaid is another safe bet if you like coming of age stories. JenLan is like your loudest and most ridiculous friend from high school except she’s more articulate. You can freak out with her over the new season of The Bachelor, but you can also rub elbows with her high society pals who take her to the opera to Eliza Doolittle her.
(image from the author’s website)
If you want to get really absorbed in an epic that will take you all summer to read:
Try to get through George R.R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series. This seems obvious, right? Like, we’re all watching Game of Thrones on HBO anyway and we all want to know when Joffrey the Jerkwad gets what’s coming to him. I’ll admit that I tried to read this before and gave up midway through the third book because I got bored with all the war, war, war. The first book was pretty easy to get through thanks to the visuals in my mind from the TV series, and I have a feeling that will help the rest of the series for me too. I’m planning to try again this summer. You should too!
(image from the author’s website)
If you don’t care if you ever the touch the beach again:
You’re not going to want to spend much time on the sand after reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Every fall, the beach on this Irish island is overrun with vicious flesh eating horses that emerge from the sea. The wacky locals catch the horses, try to tame them, and then they ride them in a deadly race down the shore. Don’t let the YA designation fool you; it’s a lyrical book with evocative descriptions that bring the salty air right to your nose.
If you have a short attention span:
Depending on your literary tastes, crack open Jennifer Weiner’s The Guy Not Taken or Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors. Very different but satisfying experiences. Each book collects many of the respective authors’ best short stories. Truthfully, Weiner’s tales skew more feminine, but that doesn’t make them less worthy or engrossing. Smoke and Mirrors includes one of my favorite Gaiman stories: “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Makes these new Snow White movies look like child’s play.
If you want to screw it all and just watch a fun girl meet cute with a handsome dude:
Zoey Dean’s How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls has everything I look for in a rom com: smart girl who likes to write, handsome but nice boy who happens to have money, bad boyfriends who get comeuppance, rich people, budding socialites, and a cover that has metallic accents. You already know exactly what you are getting with this one, but it’s still pretty fun to watch Megan stumble through her own personal love story.
If you want to feel intellectually superior to everyone else on the cruise ship:
Just pick up whatever Toni Morrison just released. I promise it will be well written and heart wrenching and it’s like carrying a sign with you that says, “I’m smarter than you.” It will not be frothy though. You’re on your own there. Read Rebecca or something if you’re looking for some literary fluff.
If you want to embrace the YA side:
Read Spoiled by the Fug Girls. I think of this as a gateway drug because the Fug Girls are widely read on their celeb fashion snarkfest website. If you’re not already a YA fan, you can just say that you think they’re funny and wanted to read their book. And it is funny! It pokes fun at Hollywood and celebutantes, but there is some heart underneath. The cover looks like your average beach read too, so it doesn’t scream “YA” so much as it screams, “I am on vacation and I don’t care if I get smarter here.”
(image from the publisher’s website)
If you want to spout annoying facts for weeks after your trip:
I’ll admit that I haven’t finished The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean yet, but I did read the introduction and part of the first chapter and it is a readable science book. It’s about the periodic table of elements and the author collected all kinds of interesting factoids about each element and put it in narrative form. If high school chemistry had more storytelling, I would have done better.
(image from author’s website)
For my own summer reading, I’m trying to finish all of the 53 books that I’ve bought without reading in the last couple of years. 53 books in three months… I must be mad.