RTW: Best Book of September

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where the ladies at YA Highway post a weekly writing- or reading-related question for participants to respond to on their own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

Today’s Topic: What’s the best book you read in September?

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – This one came highly recommended by both Agent Vickie and talented author friend Jessi Kirby. Let’s just say, I was not disappointed. Plot and Structure is one of the best craft books I’ve read and I plan to use everything I learned from it to draft, revise, and rewrite. Clear and concise, fast-paced, and full of fantastic examples. Recommend!

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – I’m not going to go into this one in too much depth today because I’ll be posting a full review for Fall Book Club on Friday. Please do check back then!

Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles – I enjoyed the third and final book in the this trilogy more than the second book, Rules of Attraction, but not quite as much as the original, Perfect Chemistry. Nikki and Luis were both fantastic narrators with believable motivations and arcs, but I find this author’s style to be a bit too telling at times. Also, it takes A LOT of violence to upset me, and there was one scene in this book that actually made me feel a little nauseous. Fair warning to the faint of heart.

Forgotten by Cat Patrick – The concept (a girl whose memory “resets” every night, leaving her with no recollection of the past but with strange glimpses into the future) was definitely intriguing. It’s fresh (to YA, anyway), and quite well-written. Main character London was sympathetic and likable, and love interest Luke was adorable. I’ve read reviews stating that the conclusion of this book came out of left field, but I didn’t feel like that at all. I found it to be action-packed and satisfying. Recommend!

And, September’s Best Book of the Month: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly…

From GoodReads: BROOKLYN: Andi Alpers is on the edge. She’s angry at her father for leaving, angry at her mother for not being able to cope, and heartbroken by the loss of her younger brother, Truman. Rage and grief are destroying her. And she’s about to be expelled from Brooklyn Heights’ most prestigious private school when her father intervenes. Now Andi must accompany him to Paris for winter break. PARIS: Alexandrine Paradis lived over two centuries ago. She dreamed of making her mark on the Paris stage, but a fateful encounter with a doomed prince of France cast her in a tragic role she didn’t want—and couldn’t escape. Two girls, two centuries apart. One never knowing the other. But when Andi finds Alexandrine’s diary, she recognizes something in her words and is moved to the point of obsession. There’s comfort and distraction for Andi in the journal’s antique pages—until, on a midnight journey through the catacombs of Paris, Alexandrine’s words transcend paper and time, and the past becomes suddenly, terrifyingly present. Jennifer Donnelly, author of the award-winning novel A Northern Light, artfully weaves two girls’ stories into one unforgettable account of life, loss, and enduring love. Revolution spans centuries and vividly depicts the eternal struggles of the human heart.

I’ve had Revolution sitting on my nightstand since March. It’s outward appearance is a bit daunting, to be perfectly honest. It’s part historical (not my preferred genre) and it’s HUGE (123K words). But, I’d heard some wonderful things about it (particularly from my sister-in-law, who loaned it to me), so I was determined to give it a go.

I’m so glad I did, because this is one stunningly sophisticated novel. While Andi’s voice is authentically YA, the book’s themes are mature, and the subject matter is very graphically addressed. Andi is an addict (she over-uses prescription drugs an effort to cope with her grief), there is much suffering in both time periods, and there are beheadings described in great detail. Seriously.

Because of all its intensity, Revolution is layered and incredibly rich, both in Andi’s present day narration and  Alex’s French Revolution-era journal entries. And Jennifer Donnelly totally takes you there. She’ll make you feel Andi’s deep, deep depression, as well as Alex’s unyielding loyalty.  You’ll hear the soulful guitar music, you’ll taste the crusty bread, and you’ll smell the stench of dirty Parisian streets. You’ll fall for Virgil, who’s subtle yet awesome, and you’ll root for Andi to recover from her loss and her guilt, and to reclaim her life.

Now that I’ve finished Revolution, I want to read the rest of Jennifer Donnelly’s work. I also want to travel to Paris and research the French Revolution and explore the catacombs. It’s that kind of book, one that broadens your horizons and makes you think more critically about the world around you.

Definitely check out Revolution if you haven’t already!

So, what’s the best book you read in September?

On making it yours…

You may have seen my tweets about the local writing seminar I attended on Saturday (Sumner, Washington’s Write in the Valley, in case you’re wondering). It was a fun event; small and intimate, with a diverse panel. There were traditionally published authors (Kimberly Derting! Love her books!) and self-published authors, authors of fiction and nonfiction, and a Book Doctor who shared all kinds of useful information.

The audience was full of writers, both starting out and experienced, and some fantastic questions and conversations came up. One topic that seemed to dominate much of the discussion, though, was that of plagiarism. People seemed very afraid of copying another writer’s work (unintentionally, I presume) and getting called out on it down the road. They used gentler words to discuss plagiarism (“borrowing” and “honoring”), but the gist was pretty much the same: How can a writer ensure that their work is original when there’s so much published material already out there? 

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never worried about this. There are hundreds of ghost stories on the market, thousands of books set in old houses, innumerable protagonists dealing with the loss of a loved one, countless teens sent to live with relatives, zillions of girls forced to choose between two boys. Yet, I know my story, Where Poppies Bloom, is unique. It’s told from my perspective, with my life experiences to back it up. My characters are original, the setting is my own creation, and my inimitable author voice carries the story. I did the creative work to draft, revise, edit Poppies, and I’m certain that no one else has written (or will write) a story quite like it. Nobody can tell Callie’s story the way I can.

People have been writing stories since they dwelled in caves. To think that you’ve come up with an idea that’s never been done is a little presumptuous and a lot arrogant. My mom and I were just talking about this the other day: She mentioned that every piece of women’s or literary fiction she’s picked up lately has been about a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a cheating husband who has to rebuild her life from scratch. Gosh, I feel like I’ve read that book one or two (or one-hundred) times.

I mean, really… How many fictional YA girls are there out there who have an exceptional ability and are fated to save the world? How many dangerous paranormal boys have we seen fall in love with a Mary Sue? Was Stephenie Meyer the first author to write about vampires? Of course not. Before her was Anne Rice, and before her was Bram Stoker, and before him was John William Polidori. I’m willing to bet every subsequent author drew inspiration from those who came before them. But did they commit an act of plagiarism? No way. They each gave the old vampire tale a spin of their own. Edward Cullen sparkles in the sun… didn’t you hear?

That said, there are only so many basic plots. I’ve found arguments for the idea that there is only one (ONE!) plot with millions of variations. I’ve also seen research that claims there are three (The Basic Patterns of Plot by William Foster-Harris), seven (The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker), twenty (20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias), and thirty-six (Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti).

We can subscribe to whatever idea of maximum number of basic plots we want. What’s important is that we embrace that fact that, when boiled way down, there are only so many original ideas. Every story, at its very core, can be sorted into one of these: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. the environment, man vs. machines/technology, man vs. the supernatural, man vs. self, or man vs. god/religion. It’s what we DO with the fundamental “plot” we choose that makes our stories innovative and imaginative and  memorable and ours.

Tell me… What, in your opinion, makes a story unique? 

A few random-ish things…

Ahh, the start of a new week… I’ve got a few random things to share on this lovely Monday morning:

Last night I watched Disney’s Prom. I’ve wanted to see it since I caught the trailer ages ago, but I don’t make it to a lot of movies and when I have “free” time at home, I’m usually writing or cleaning or reading. So…

I finally got to spend a full ninety minutes lost in high school melodrama. It was glorious. Honestly, I’m partial to any movie set in a high school (The Breakfast Club, Clueless, The Girl Next Door, Grease, and Ten Things I Hate About You are a few of my favorites), and Prom was fairly average high school fare. A little slow, a little fluffy, but still cute enough to hold my attention and leave me with a tiny crush on Jesse, the movie’s bad-boy-heartthrob and, in my opinion, a baby Johnny Depp.

Tracey Neithercott’s Fall Book Club has officially begun! Click HERE for the official stuff (don’t worry, it’s all easy). Wondering what we’re reading?

Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. I started this weekend and yeah… absolutely loving it so far. I highly recommend you jump into the fun and join the Fall Book Club.

I’m revising again, this time with a heavy focus on pacing. I recently read James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure (thanks for the recommendation, Jessi Kirby and Vickie Motter!) and it has been immensely helpful. Here’s what my copy looks like:

Sheesh. You’d think I’d never read a craft book! But there’s just something about James Scott Bell’s approach, his simple way of explaining what’s already trapped in the mind of any avid reader, that spoke to me. So, I highlighted the heck out of Plot and Structure, then drafted a revision plan that’s working miracles. Yippee!

Over the  last month I’ve become obsessed with this:

Best workout DVD ever. Seriously. I happily hop out of bed a half-hour early each morning to do it. I love Jillian Michaels’ no-nonsense approach. I love how I feel when I’m done. I love that my daughter now knows what “Down Dog” is. And the results! I’m seeing them! It’s so motivating!

And, finally, these photographs beg to be shared:

That’s my husband there on the left–you know, the deliciously handsome one :)–and that’s the Washington State University flag he and his buddy are raising in Afghanistan. Yep, our beloved Cougs are representing half-way around the world. Crazy to think about, right?

And one final, incredibly important thing: Happy birthday, Dad! Love you!

So, how was your weekend?

For the Birds…

I recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (mentioned it in last week’s Reading Wrap-Up). If you’ve yet to read it, I highly recommend picking it up. Bird by Bird is an excellent craft book–not too technical, not too preachy, full of concise,  snappy chapters, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

As I was perusing Bird by Bird, I got the urge to reread bits of my very first manuscript. As I’ve said before, Novel One is tragically low concept epic teen romance that has lots of sweet little scenes I’ll always love. It also has a forced “plot,” loads of over-writing, and characters that are conveniently clueless. In other words, Novel One is completely unsellable.

Now, I’m sure Novel One’s flaws are run of the mill for first (and second and third) efforts. I made mistakes lots of new writers make, learned as I went, and improved with time. I read tons of YA and piles of craft books, and picked up tips and inspiration and lessons along the way. And, it just so happens that a few of my favorite lessons from Bird by Bird  apply directly to Novel One. I’ll share them as they apply to my own writing and maybe save you some trouble. 🙂

1: BE FLEXIBLE – While writing Novel One, I had a very specific direction for the story. And I took it there, even though at times it felt forced and unnatural.  I also had exact, detailed scenes in mind, scenes I eventually wedged in, whether they fit the overall story arc or not. All this pushing and coercing and throwing around of my writerly weight resulted in a story that reads like this: Say what?!

I failed my characters. I neglected to listen to them. I didn’t let them guide the plot. Instead, I molded them, made them do certain things and act certain ways just for the sake of the storyline (which, honestly, wasn’t even all that strong). What I should have done was let the plot grow and expand and change as I got to know my characters.

2: DO NOT BE AFRAID – The earliest drafts of Novel One are so very vanilla. I followed all the rules. I didn’t let my characters swear. I barely let them kiss. They all drove nice cars and lived in tidy houses in a lovely town. They spoke politely and made good choices. Sure, a few bad things happened to them, but through no fault of their own. These people–their lives–were flawless. The reason for all this vanilla? I was afraid of what people (my parents, my husband, my friends) would think if I really went there.

Over time, I’ve developed courage and an anything-goes attitude. What difference does it make if one of my characters drops an F-bomb? Who cares if she wears a skanky top or drinks a beer once in a while? So what if she thinks about school and friends and family and boys and–gasp!–sex? If she’s in character and the story is moving forward, she can do no wrong. But I never went to any of those places in Novel One because I was too focused on my mental naysayers, watching them shake their heads and wag their fingers, listening to them preach about what’s appropriate. And now the story’s a snoozefest.

3: GET IN THE ZONE – Novel One is choppy and lacking in voice. This is partly to blame on my previous lack of flexibility (and experience), but my failure to get in the zone and stay there is also responsible. By “the zone” I mean that delightfully elusive place where you’re focused and typing and barely thinking. Suddenly you glance at the clock and three hours have passed. You’ve written 5K words without ever looking up from your computer screen.

For me, the zone is a silent room, a comfy chair, and a burning candle. I have critique partners who find their zone while listening to loud music through headphones. Others like to work at a certain table in a specific coffee shop with an iced Chai beside them. I need to be in my the zone in order to listen to the voices in my head. I need to listen to the voices in my head in order to find MY voice. (Is this all making me sound slightly crazy? I’m not alone, right?)

I didn’t know about the zone while writing Novel One. I wrote whenever and wherever, and it always took me ages to find a groove–if I did at all. Now I try hard to give myself the best writing conditions possible because only when I get into the zone does my best writing emerges.

I’d love to hear about your first manuscript. What beginner mistakes did you make? What craft books have you found most helpful?

July’s Book of the Month

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where the ladies at YA Highway post a weekly writing- or reading-related question for participants to respond to on their own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

This Week’s Topic: What’s the best book you read in July?

July turned out to be one of those rare months where I genuinely enjoyed every book I read, though they were all quite different. Here’s my reading wrap-up:

A Need So Beautiful by Suzanne Young – This book grabbed me from the beginning, thanks mostly to boyfriend Harlin. He was so sweet and loving and attentive and HOT, I flew through the pages wanting to read more scenes with him. The story as a whole was incredible and–dare I say–rather inspiring. And the ending… yowza… I’m still sort of reeling from it, but in the best of ways.

Chime by Franny Billingsley – I raved about Chime in this POST, so I won’t bore you with further accolades. I will simply say: I LOVED it.

The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder – I’m not sure why I continuously shy away from books written in verse. I always end up enjoying them. This one, especially, was lovely. I’m awed by how much story was packed into one day in Amber and Cade’s lives (only about 20K words), and  I’m seriously envious of Lisa Schroeder’s gift for language.

Forever by Maggie Steivfater – If an author can truly sell me the love story in her book, I can overlook many a flaw relating to pacing, plot, and character development. I ADORE Sam and Grace of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy. They’re sweet and romantic and so respectful of each other, plus,they have subtle but undeniably hot chemistry. It’s because of them (and Cole!) that I didn’t mind Forever‘s fairly predictable plot, or the continued weirdness of Grace’s parents, or the complete implausibility of the last quarter of the story. Forever struck me as a fitting end to this trilogy, yet I still wanted more from it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – It’s been awhile since I read a craft book, and lately I’ve been in need of some writing inspiration. I’d heard great things about Bird and it did not disappoint. It’s succinct, funny, and honest. My favorite take-away lessons? Be authentic, view the world reverently, and do not be afraid to make mistakes. I highly recommend Bird by Bird if you’ve yet to read it.

And July’s Book of the Month is… Room by Emma Donoghue.

From GoodReads: To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world. . . . It’s where he was born, it’s where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in this eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But with Jack’s curiosity building alongside her own desperation, she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer. Room is a tale at once shocking, riveting, exhilarating–a story of unconquerable love in harrowing circumstances, and of the diamond-hard bond between a mother and her child.

Admittedly, I was hesitant to read this book. While I like stories that are bizarre and/or disturbing, books that include sensationalized violence against women do not appeal to me. Also, Room is narrated by a five-year-old boy. As the mother of a precocious almost-four-year-old, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend 300 pages locked in that mindset. Well, I’m glad to report that Room is neither the lurid account of a tortured woman or the juvenile narration of a preschooler. Room, instead, is about the strength of the human spirit and an incredibly unique mother-son bond.

A comment on Jack’s narration: In my opinion, this story couldn’t have been told by anyone else. Jack is an intelligent, thoughtful boy, and his observations about what’s around him (from Room to his Ma’s sometimes erratic behavior) are eye-opening. His simplicity veils the brief scenes of violence, and he is key to all the action that takes place–we’d miss out if we weren’t in Jack’s head. It’s fascinating to view the world through his innocence. Donoghue did an amazing job capturing the mindset of a child.

I don’t want to tell you too much about Room‘s plot; I think its  impact will be stronger if you travel through the pages uninitiated. While I wouldn’t call this book a “thriller,” I certainly found it to be a page-turner. I was desperate to know what would happen to Jack and Ma as their story unfolded. Yes, I know Room isn’t a young adult novel (I think it’s actually my first adult Book of the Month!), but I highly recommend you check it out.

Tell me… what’s the best book you read in July?