“Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

I’m not sure what it is about YA fantasy books taking place during carnivals, but I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. There’s something seductive about a dark dangerous carnival where magic thrives and mysteries abound. In the past little while I’ve read Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” and Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls.” So what makes “Daughter of the Burning City” different from the others?

First, the magic in “Daughter of the Burning City” is more subtle perhaps than other fantasy books. The heroine Sorina has an unusual power of illusion-work. Although other people in this novel’s carnival have more flashy kinds of magic such as mind reading and fire abilities, the main focus is on Sorina and her illusion-work which allows her to create illusions that are people with their own personalities. These people become her family. Since this kind of illusion-work requires a lot of skill, Sorina doesn’t ever create a family member in the novel. Her family shows up in the novel already made. Instead of magic, most of the plot revolves more around the mystery, which we’ll get to later.

Another thing that makes “Daughter of the Burning City” stick out is that Sonia’s family is really, really bizarre. There is a life-like tree man, a dude with fingernails growing out of his head, and a half-fish half-man. Together with Sorina, they form a Freak Show. Even though the characters are grotesque and unusual, they are given fairly likeable personalities, although admittedly the tree man doesn’t have much to say. Because he’s a tree. These characters are unlike any that you’ve ever seen before.

The final component that differentiates “Daughter of the Burning City” from other carnival YA fantasies is the plot. When one by one, Sorina’s family members are murdered, Sorina needs to find the killer to protect them. In itself this isn’t that groundbreaking, however the way in which the killer is found is pretty unique. Sorina enlists the help of Luca, a gossip-worker. Although some twists were easy to pick up on, one of most major twists in the novel I did NOT see coming and it was a biggie. Amanda Foody has an unusual creativity that makes this novel worth a read even if you’ve read other carnival YA novels. It’s exciting and mysterious and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

“Furthermore” by Tahereh Mafi

“Furthermore” is a middle grade fantasy novel written in the style of such old time classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” or the more recently written “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.” The author, as an  omniscient narrator leads us through the scenes with gentle and sometimes humourous commentary. Although this point of view has fallen out of fashion recently, it was so refreshing to see it here and really added colour to this fairytale in every sense of the world.

You see, Alice is from the land of Ferenwood where the more colourful you are the more magic you have. As Alice lacks all pigment except for some colour in her eyes, she feels like she is an outcast. During the Surrender, a festival where all twelve-year-olds showcase their talents, Alice places last, confirming that she doesn’t belong in her community.

However, an unusual opportunity presents itself where she teams up with an unlikely ally and sets off on a quest to find her father. The pair have to journey to a strange new land called Furthermore. There, Alice will be forced to accept her unusual form of magic and her identity in order to bring her father home.

This is a beautifully written book that often has a lyrical flow not unlike poetry. The fantastical world is both whimsical and terrifying. “Furthermore” has many uplifting messages about friendship, family and accepting oneself. It is a suitable read for readers both young and old alike.

Thoughts On How To Edit Your Novel Part 2

Last week, I wrote down some thoughts on how to edit your novel. Since I’m still editing myself (it never ends!), I have more thoughts on what I’ve learned about the process that I’d like to share in hopes that they help someone else. Of course, everyone’s creative process is different, so do what works for you.

1) Editing takes time. This is perhaps the most crucial lesson I’ve learned from tackling my manuscript. Sure, you can write a first draft in a month or two, but fixing that draft is not easy. You will have to answer questions such as are you consistent? Do you switch days in the middle of a scene? Is your character wearing mittens and suddenly swaps them out for gloves mid-discussion with the abominable snowman? Those sorts of silly things.

Then come the more complicated questions like are your characters consistent? Do they seem to switch personalities part way through the story in a way that can’t be attributed to character development? In one of my drafts, a character ripped his jacket and I had him moaning about a replacement, which didn’t make any sense because he was ridiculously rich. So. Those kinds of things are important too. Character consistency also comes from examining if your character is driven by the same goals throughout the story or if their goals change they make sense.

And then there are more complicated issues like “I want a helicopter search party in the ending, but nobody can drive a helicopter/where does the helicopter come from/how does this scene fit with the others/is this even a good idea.” This sort of issue is difficult because it is vague. You can’t figure out how to write the scene because you aren’t totally sure what the scene is and how it fits with the whole novel. These are tricky. These issues take time to solve. You can’t just happily type in a helicopter search party in ten minutes if you don’t know what the heck is going on. Sometimes you have to think about what best serves your novel and although your instinct might be spot on, orchestrating everything together might only happen after days, weeks, or months of thinking it through.

Also, these character, plot, or general manuscript problems require solving like any other problem. It can help to treat them like a tricky question on your high school calculus assignment by which I mean try, try again, try ten million times, swear, crumple the paper in a ball, moan about how stupid you are – just kidding. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is, mull over the problem in the story. Scribble down a few solutions. Discuss solutions with another person if you’re stuck. If you get frustrated with the problem, put the manuscript away, do something else, get a good night’s sleep, and try again in the morning. Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I put my manuscript away for an entire week. This has never failed me. Once the week is over, I usually can solve the problem with a fresh mind. See my article on the importance of breaks during the creative process for more information.

2) Stuck about whether something sounds good? Read it aloud.

This method is kind of dorky and embarrassing, but sit alone in your room and read your work out loud. Things that are awkward and odd will sound strange and you can figure out how to fix them.

This is especially useful for dialogue. If you can’t say what you’ve written on the page out loud, neither can your character. Speaking your character’s lines will show you what works and teach you how to recognize their voice.

However, this method isn’t just limited to dialogue and is extremely useful for prose as well. The only thing I’ve found better than reading my own work aloud is having someone else read my work aloud. Hearing it in someone else’s voice makes repetitive words and awkward phrases that much easier to pick out. Of course, finding someone willing to read your full +50,000 word manuscript is a pretty tall order, so I mostly end up speaking by myself in my room.

I’ve heard that having the computer read it aloud for you also can work wonders. I haven’t tried this myself (the complete lack of inflection kind of scares me), but I’ve heard that it works for a lot of people.

Since this post is getting rather long, I’m going to stop here. Stay tuned for part three next week!

“Rebel Mechanics” by Shanna Swendson

“Rebel Mechanics” takes place in an alternate history where British magic prevents the American Revolution from ever occurring. Verity Newton arrives in New York to find a job as governess and winds up working for one of the most powerful magical families in the city. Concerned about toeing the line in such a household, she discovers that not everyone in the family is as they seem. Although this magical family has held power for years, many members sympathize with the rebels, a group in the city reliant on engineering and machines instead of magic.

Verity finds herself swept away by the rebel group she encounters in the city. She agrees with their cause to bring equality to the non-magical people and decrease reliance on magic. It also helps matters that Verity starts falling for a rebel inventor. But will her magical employers mind the company she’s keeping? Although some of them are opened minded, Verity isn’t sure if they’ll be opened to all her secrets.

This book had a rollicking steampunk feel. The characters wore strange clothing and made quirky inventions and had unusual gatherings. As a reader you can’t help but like Verity who struggles as a bookish outsider to New York. I love authors who make their characters avid readers – a sure way help the readers of their own books identity with their characters! Although I caught many of the plot twists before they happened, a quite a few of them I didn’t see coming.

Swendson does a good job creating morally grey situations where the truth is stretched with good intentions and characters who seemed likeable display their dark sides. In all, “Rebel Mechanics” is a fun read.

“The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place” by Julie Berry

I have to start this post by saying I usually don’t like works that joke about death. “The Loved One” by Evelyn Waugh made me cringe instead of giggle, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” made me worry about corpses in my own basement instead of shriek with delight at Teddy’s constant yells of “charge!” However, maybe I’m loosening up with increasing age and maturity or simply Julie Berry’s clever dialogue, because I definitely chuckled more than once while reading “The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.”

When the headmistress of Prickwillow Place drops dead at Sunday dinner, her pupils devise a clever plan. The girls bury their headmistress in the vegetable patch – covering her with manure of course – and begin their lives as free women. However, their tiny Victorian community refuses to leave them alone. They are visited by the village busy-body, the doctor, and several romantic interests. Although the girls dress unfortunate Stout Alice up to pose as their late headmistress, the upcoming Strawberry Social puts strain on their disguise. And when they realize their headmistress died from poisoning, they are forced to consider that murder may be among them as well…

The dialogue and plot were funny and clever, and although some of the ruses weren’t entirely unexpected, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. British humour at its finest, “The Scandalous Sisterhood” recalls old black and white movies and comical plays with a modern message for women. Simply delightful!

Thoughts On How To Edit Your Writing

As always with the creative process, there is no right or wrong way to go about editing. However, I’m sharing my thoughts on editing in hopes that they can help someone else. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s great too! Just polish your work to the best of your ability.

When I first starting writing as a kid, I thought that you whipped out a good first draft and then edited for spelling and then ta-da! You were finished. Although this might work for some school assignments, this is NOT how you edit a novel.

Of course, spelling and grammar are important. But when you finish the first draft of your novel, you probably won’t edit those at all for a long, long time. It’s more important to flesh out your characters and plot first and make them the best that you can. This is probably the hardest part about editing your own work: finding your story, staying true to it, and ensuring that it reads like a real book. It doesn’t make sense to waste time with the spelling and grammar if you’re going to rearrange and rewrite entire sections, perhaps even the entire novel.

I’m currently working on the fifth draft of my novel. Over the long process of this project, I’ve deleted entire characters, introduced new characters, and shifted the plot around adding more beef and tightening the themes. When I compare my current draft to the first draft, they barely resemble each other. Sure, the kernel of idea that lead to the novel is there in all drafts, but in very different guises. Of course if I’d planned my novel before jumping into the first draft this might not have been case. However, part of my writing style comes from spontaneity. Sometimes in order to write your novel right, you have to write it wrong first.

When I edited these drafts, I had to ask myself hard questions and rip open the guts of my story. I had to figure out what about the story really mattered. What was the essence of the story? When my reader read my story what did I want them to feel, how did I want them to respond? Readers are always free to feel differently, but it is worthwhile to consider your hypothetical audience and how you hope they’ll feel.

Some writers moan about “killing their darlings.” Each time I had to redo hours of work to rewrite a scene, delete a sequence of chapters, or think out a plot point that didn’t quite work, I didn’t feel devastated. Instead, I was happy that I was strengthening my novel. Once I uncovered weaknesses, they didn’t seem very “darling” to me anymore.

In terms of plot, if you feel that something is lagging or boring, it probably is. I’ve heard it said that each scene should have at least three purposes. So in one scene you could have something that advances the main plot, something cool about the setting, and some key characterization or relationship development for example. Any scene where your characters are doing nothing: brushing their teeth, staring at the wall, doing daily routine type things – combine it with something else or delete it!

It’s common to add these types of scenes, because you want to know everything about your character and show that they have a life like everyone else. However, art doesn’t mimic daily life precisely. Arts accentuates certain aspects to make a plot. Art flourishes on a bit of drama. It’s okay for your story not to read a hundred percent like real life. You want your novel to be exciting, to make your reader gasp in surprise, and to seem somewhat heightened all around.

The story structure of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion is in itself artificial. It’s your job as a writer to seduce your reader along for the ride. It helps to think about what you like in the books you read. How do you like these books to make you feel? What keeps you turning the pages? Now, I’m not advocating copying other writer’s plots. However, I am advocating copying the feeling you have when you read them through your own writing. How do you do this? It’s up to you.

“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“Boy 23” by Jim Carrington

“Boy 23” is a strange dystopian sci fi thriller. The boy in question, Jesper has only known the four walls of My Place, a comfortable room with his pet squawk and a screen where he interacts with The Voice. He has never met another human being. He has never left My Place. This is the extent of Jesper’s experience.

Until one night, Jesper’s abducted and abandoned in a forest and forced to run for his life. The Voice claims that he’ll meet him somewhere far, far away. But can Jesper trust The Voice? Why was he kept in My Place? Who can he trust?

This book is a quick read. There’s a lot of interesting information about the setting and Jesper’s adaptation to the real world. There’s other points of view in the novel, however none of them were as strong as Jesper’s. I liked the science behind the story, as well as the unusual setting. However, I didn’t understand how all of the character’s viewpoints came together in the end.

 

How To Prepare For Nanowrimo

For those of you ready to plunge into Nanowrimo this year, I’ve provided some links to articles that will help you write your novel. Since churning out 50,000 words in a month is not for the faint of heart, it’s great to have some tips to add to your tool kit.

First, how to start? Starting a novel is one of the most daunting prospects of writing a novel itself. Not only does the page look especially blank at this stage, you can’t build from the last sentences from your last chapter. Instead, you have to create something from absolutely nothing and convince the reader that your story is one worth sticking around for. This is no small task.

However, don’t panic. You’re just writing a first draft. There’s no need to overthink things too much. You will come back and edit the beginning, perhaps more than any other part of your novel. Try writing something. It can always change later.

Here are some great articles on how to start your novel, in case you’re stuck on how to begin:

1) Writer’s Digest’s How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips

2) The Write Practice’s Three Ways to Start A Novel

3) Kim Graff’s Struggling Start: Problems and Solutions for Your First Chapter

3) Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter

All of these posts provide suggestions on how to make a strong start to your novel. Some provide common problems with beginnings and suggest solutions.

“But wait a minute!” You might think. “First chapters! I don’t even know my story yet! This isn’t helpful at all!”

Well, this depends on your writing style. When you write are you a pantser or a plotter? That is do you write anything you want without planning by the seat of your pants, or do you plan everything out to the last letter? I prefer to pants my novel, since often through writing I get my best ideas. However, I’ve had to learn to plan out my plot somewhat otherwise I end up writing myself up the ying-yang and let me tell you it doesn’t end pretty. Now I do a pantsing-plotting hybrid that serves me well.

How you plan (or don’t plan) a novel is very much a personal choice. However, brainstorming and planning can help you learn about your novel better so that you are prepared once November begins to make your word count goals.

Here are some articles to help plan a novel:

1) Chuck Wendig’s highly comprehensive 25 Ways To Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story

2) Dan Well’s 7-Point Plot Structure

3) Although I’ve never used this method personally, I’ve heard from others that they enjoy using the snowflake method.

4) Stuck for ideas? Check out my post on how to come up with an idea for a novel.

And last but not least, an article after my own pantsing heart that argues against planning:

1) NY Book Editors say Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t!

In the end, don’t get stuck in technicalities. Nanowrimo is for a quick first draft, editing comes later. Write frequently, write about what you care about, and write because you love writing and you’ll have written an awesome first draft. I guarantee it.

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

This book had an epic fantasy feel where the world building is intense and distinctly different. Tea is a girl whose magical powers differ from the norms. Instead of being able to harness the elements to do her bidding, she can raise the dead. She discovers her powers when she raises her older brother from his grave. Despite the centre of this book being rather grisly – my husband took one look at the title and went “are you reading that isn’t it scary?” – this book is really pretty tame compared to what’s on the YA shelves these days. Even though death is present, Tea’s brother gets to come back as a shadow from his early demise.

Then, Tea is forced to move away from her family for her training under an older bone witch, where she learns how to become an Asha. Asha are some sort of witch and geisha hybrid and although how the women entertain the men besides clean music and dancing is never divulged, I began to wonder “Are they prostitutes?” Again, this wasn’t revealed and the book is very clean, but due to the gendered nature of the work I was unsure.

This book moves slowly and the description is dense and detailed. Usually this would be con for me, however I enjoyed living in this strange world for a few days. I inhale books, so it was nice to encounter one that took me more than a night to read. Since there are two narratives at once – an older, stranger, more sinister Tea and a younger, apprentice Tea it was interesting to wonder when the two narratives will converge. I found it hard to keep track of all the various kingdoms and cultures, however something about the book just works.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a heartglass, where people wear their hearts on a necklace with their emotions for all to see. Perhaps it was the world of the ashas and Tea starting her apprenticeship as a servant which reminded me of a newfangled “Spirited Away.” Perhaps it was the creepy nature of Tea’s powers which could bring skeletons to life from the earth. Perhaps it was the suggestion of romance with a prince. I’m a huge sucker for romances with princes.

Anyway, “The Bone Witch” is a highly original fantasy. I look forward to seeing how the series will conclude.