“The Cage” by Megan Shepherd

When Cora wakes up in an usual landscape with a group of teenagers – none of whom she’s ever met before – she is determined to solve the mystery. However, what she finds out she could’ve never anticipated. The teenagers are kept as test subjects in a human zoo. As for their captors… well… they aren’t exactly human.

This book has a lot going on and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most well-thought out sci fi YA novels I have ever read. There’s some pretty “Lord of the Flies” dynamics going on between the teens in captivity. Although everyone’s on the same page at first and wants to escape, various factions and alliances develop over time. I also really enjoyed the dialogues about ethics and purpose. What is the essence of humanity? How can you convince another being about your apparent intelligence and what rights you deserve if they are convinced otherwise?

Although the science in this book was somewhat fantastical at times, it was grounded in some pretty stable discussions about experimental conditions where the teens tried to figure out exactly what was going on. And the characters had substance. Cora has a pretty intriguing back story that isn’t divulged right away and is linked without her knowledge to one of the boys in “the cage.” She isn’t just some flat action hero advocating for justice.

The back of this book really advertises Cora’s romance with her captor and although this is a factor, this book really achieves so much more. I found the teenage interactions to be much more interesting than the so-called romance. This isn’t “Twilight” with an alien folks. This is a physiological discussion of exploiting living creatures as resources. Although there is a fair discussion about what makes humans tick, there is a clear parallel with how humans treat other living creatures on our own planet as well.

The one complaint I’d have is about the ending. Since this is the first book in a series, obviously not everything will be resolved. However, I would’ve liked something to be tied up, instead of being left with a collection of loose ends. Although I must admit, I’m happy to read the rest of the series to see what happens next.

“Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

Scarlett has always longed to attend Caraval, a far away week-long magical performance that occurs once a year. However, she and her sister live on a far away isle with a controlling and abusive father and Caraval remains an impossibility. Until the impossible finally happens.

The sisters receive an invitation in the mail. They manage to escape their home and travel to the island with the help of a sailor. However, as soon as they reach the show, Scarlett’s sister vanishes. It soon becomes to Scarlett that her sister’s disappearance is this year’s theme for the show. This performance gives the audience a choice: they either watch or participate in the show. For Scarlett the choice is obvious. She has to participate to help her sister.

It isn’t easy.

Scarlett has to find her sister in the chaos and magic of Caraval. She has to decide who to trust and what is fabrication and what is real. She has to question what she desires out of life and how to achieve it.

This book had many strengths, the strongest perhaps being Scarlett’s character development. The Scarlett at the beginning is drastically different than the Scarlett at the end of the novel. Her decisions during the plot change her at a pretty fundamental level and it was fascinating to watch her grow.

However, undoubtedly fantasy fans will be drawn to the world-building in “Caraval,” which is also excellent. Think about the unpredictable and wondrous atmosphere of a theme park and then add in a healthy dose of magic and mystery and then raise the stakes with the threat of losing someone you love. The descriptions in “Caraval” accost the senses with sound, with colour, with vibrancy. It’s a world that is both dangerous and intriguing.

Even though “Caraval” has a cast of relatively few characters, the interactions between the characters are well done. Scarlett’s love interest will satisfy the need for romance. And Scarlett’s bond with her sister, even though her sister remains missing for much of the book, is complex and real.

“Caraval” is a fun read with lots of cliff hangers. You won’t regret it.

 

How to Come Up With An Idea For A Novel

Coming up with an idea for a novel seems a binary notion: either you have an idea of what to write about or you don’t. Once at a party, someone repeatedly asked me how my ideas for my novel popped into my head. Describing how an idea came to me felt like describing how to catch a falling star, abstract and impossible.

However, at some point if we want to write a novel, we need to have an idea to work with and we want to make sure it is a good one. So how do we capture these pesky ideas to begin with?

1) Think about what you like. You are going to have to work on your novel for a long time to finish it, so you want to make sure that your topic is something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, it’s going to be even harder to maintain stamina to cross that finish line.

Try writing a list in a notebook of topics that you like the most. What you like can include your hobbies, your interests, your areas of expertise, and any issues that you feel passionate about. Do you skate? Do you play soccer? Are you crazy about dogs? Do you enjoy obscure indie bands? Do you feel strongly about the environment, or small businesses, or rights of minorities, or workplace opportunities, or gay marriage, or accountability in the justice system, or reducing the stigma about mental illness? Some stuff may be deep, some not so much.

Certain interests can belong to your characters, others to the theme of your novel. For instance, if you really like break dancing, you could write a novel where a break dancing competition plays a key role. On the other hand, if you don’t want to write an entire novel about break dancing, a character could break dance as one of their activities.

Of course, your characters and your novel won’t be a complete clone of your life. For those interests that you don’t know much about, you will have to do research. The point is to write about something that you are passionate about, so that you also are inclined to do this research as well.

2) Think about what you like to read the most. Since I like to read YA novels, I’m writing a YA novel. Don’t settle to write a crime novel if you love reading romances. If you really like both genres, then make a decision between the two.

When you are reading (because you are reading, right?), you should pay attention to things that really work in books and things that really don’t. Do you like fast-paced action sequences? Swoon-worthy romances? Mysteries? Humour? What about your last favourite read made you like it the way you did? What aspects from that book can you use to inspire your own writing?

3) Look to other art forms that aren’t just books. Many writers find music deeply inspiring. It doesn’t have to be super highbrow either. Since I write about teenagers, I find that boy bands suit me perfectly well. Gets me in the zone. Some writers make playlists to match their entire novel and although I’m not that into it, I can see how that could help.

Also, visual arts can be very inspiring as well. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series takes direct inspiration from paintings and compares the setting to different artists’ styles. This works with her main character whose mother was an artist. So try engaging with other art to create more art.

4) Think about what you want your novel to say. No matter what genre you work with, there is some underlying message to a novel. What do you want your reader to think about once it is over? How do you want the reader to feel when reading your novel? Even within escapism, there is a general feeling about a book. Should the reader be sitting on the edge of their chair the entire time? Should the reader feel more empathy towards a certain issue or event? Should the reader feel a certain connection with the work, and if so, what?

Of course, your reader may respond differently than how you anticipate, because that’s art. But the point is to envision how you want people to be affected and from there find the tale you want to tell.

5) Keep a notebook. Often inspiration comes when you are distracted. Sometimes you will be out in the world, going for a walk, on the bus, at work, whatever and it will hit you. You will have a great idea. Write it down before you forget so you can use it later.

Often, the best ideas come to me minutes before I fall asleep right before dreaming. I have to wrench myself awake, switch on a light and jot them down in a notebook by my bedside. When I start my writing routine in the morning, I’m very glad I did this indeed.

6) Don’t romanticise ideas. All good ideas have been repeated in art many times over. The originality in your novel may not come from the idea itself, but from how you use the idea.

Think of all the novels about love. Either the couple ends up together or never can be together. Only two options exist really, yet so much different art is out there about this topic. Or the basic but satisfying plot of hero beats villain. It’s not just that the hero beats the villain, but who the hero and villain are, as well as how the hero manages to save the day. The details colour the worn-out plot into something new.

You will put your own unique spin on your idea, so sit in a chair and think until it comes to you. Don’t worry. Eventually it will.

“Carnival of Souls” by Melissa Marr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa Marr’s books are twisted, violent, and unpredictable. After “Wicked Lovely,” I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for “Carnival of Souls” and after reading it, I must conclude indeed I wasn’t indeed. A new world of daimons and witches completely swept me off my feet.

The beauty of Marr’s style is she is able to build worlds that have unusual magic and social norms. It’s actually the social norms that govern her fantasy worlds more than the magic. The norms affect what relationships the characters are able to have versus what relationships they desire. The caste system of the daimons impacts friendships, romances, and alliances in unexpected ways.

Many people are forced to work together and usually the relationship isn’t entirely positive. Someone usually is working the system to their own benefit, and the reader is left wondering how the character’s choices will impact the plot. A Hunger-Games-like battle to the death in the daimon world certainly raises the stakes.

Of course, Marr grounds her fantasy world with a link to the human world as well. One of the characters is a human girl who’s been adopted by a witch father and is aware of witch customs. Her true identity has been hidden from her, and she spends most of the book trying to work it out. However, she is also important to the daimon world as well. Her witch father has taught her to fear daimons and she has to decide which world she belongs to.

Although the girl in the human world should’ve been the most relatable, I found her the most frustrating. She assumes a passive role through most of the plot and although this isn’t entirely her fault, her obedience does turn her into a weak character. I look forward to seeing how she grows during the rest of the series.

 

 

“Gilded Cage” by Vic James

“Guided Cage” is a fantasy book with an intriguing structure. I’m still thinking a lot about it even after turning the final page.

The story follows two families in an alternative Britain. One is a family of commoners without magical ability. The other is a family of magically skilled aristocracy. When the common family is forced to serve their ten year sentence of labour in the household of magically skilled aristocracy, their worlds overlap. And when one of the common children is separated and forced to work in a brutal labour camp, he has to decide whether to fight or accept the system.

The two families with their differences are fascinating. Especially since the story is told from multiple points of view. And when I say multiple points of view I mean multiple. Each chapter is told in third person limited, but which person you get to follow through the story is not obvious and switches a lot. Be prepared for intense cliffhangers where you have to wait many chapters to return to the character’s viewpoint you desire! However, Vic James pulls this off well and I found the different viewpoints added to the story.

This is a highly plot driven novel between the settings of the aristocratic estate and the labour camp. In some sense the overall plot is more focused on how the two groups – the magical elite and the commoners – interact, instead of character-character interactions. However, the macro doesn’t entirely overtake the micro.

There are strong and complex character-character interactions as well. The elite character Gavar with his creepy hold over the commoner child Daisy in addition to a rather tense and unpleasant relationship with his financé comes to mind. This character has a lot going on. Silyen is equally as strange with his creepy magical powers and unclear alliances. However, I found the girl in the labour camp Renie to be more unbelievable. Also the romance in the book (between who I shall not say) wasn’t very swoon-worthy.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. I wish the ending wasn’t as open as it was, but since this is a trilogy I look forward to reading the rest of the series and learning more about the characters.

On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Rest.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.

 

5 Gorgeous Children’s and YA Novels Written Solely in Verse

Yes, novels for middle grade and YA audiences written solely in verse! Forget the horrors of long epic poetry, these novels are easy to read with language that flows simply and beautifully in a unique narration style. Each poem contributes to the overall plot, although often they are suited for stand-alone works as well. This trend in kid lit is small, but catching.

1) “Audacious” by Gabrielle Prendergast

Raphaelle is a strong willed girl with a Catholic background. She falls in love with Samir, a Muslim boy. Can their romance overcome their different cultural backgrounds? When Raphael’s art project challenges how society society views women, it comes with some unexpected consequences for Raphael and the people around her. This novel deals with some pretty mature topics and is more for the YA crowd.

 

 

 

 

2) “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai

A semi-autobiographical work about a family of Vietnamese refugees and their trip to the US and their subsequent adjustment to the new culture. This book is suitable for younger readers and the writing is beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

3) “Red Butterfly” by A.L. Sonnichsen

A book about a orphaned girl with a disability living in China and her illegal American mother who adopts her without proper documentation. This is a story of a girl between cultures who is neither Chinese nor American and is forced to live in hiding. It is also a story about discovering the true meaning of family.

 

 

 

 

4) “Blue Birds” by Caroline Starr Rose

This is the story of two girls who meet in 1587. One girl is from England and has settled in the new world in Virginia. The other girl is from the Roanoke tribe. Even though the two girls don’t share a common language, they become close friends. However, tensions between the native people and settlers become high and their friendship is threatened.

 

 

 

 

5) “Capricious” by Gabrielle Prendergast


Raphaelle is back. This time she’s trying to navigate having two boyfriends among some unusual family dynamics. Definitely YA.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This August I had the pleasure to hear Angie Thomas speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Her novel, “The Hate U Give” has been first on the New York Times best sellers list for 29 weeks in a row (last time I checked) and is the most outstanding YA novel for 2017. In fact, this novel has the makings of a classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became mandatory reading for high school English class.

When Starr’s childhood friend Khalil is shot by the police after a party, Starr watches her friend die before her eyes. The novel follows Starr and her family in the weeks after the incident and explores whether the officer who murdered Khalil is held responsible for his crime and whether true justice is served.

This novel provides a voice for black Americans and describes their experiences of racism. It has been called the book about the “black lives matter” movement. Before I read this book, I didn’t really understand this movement. I didn’t doubt that police brutality was a thing for a second. However, I didn’t really understand how corruption in the police force effected disadvantaged individuals and communities to the extent I do now.

“The Hate U Give” is eye opening. It is a difficult uncomfortable read, because it deals with painful topics that exist all too well in today’s world. It is a book that promotes empathy and change.

During Angie Thomas’s keynote speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival, she discussed how art can promote change – perhaps even by changing the world. She talked about the teenage audience and how writing books for them can influence how young people think and influence how they’ll vote further down the road. In this sense, YA books are so, so important for promoting cultural change.

After hearing Angie’s speech, I realised that as a YA writer, I had a responsibility to my audience to represent the difficulties of the world fairly and accurately, but also to suggest how it might improve. I also appreciated how Angie didn’t put down YA fiction in escapist genres. She agreed that escapism was important and that there were parallels between escapist worlds with our own.

If you haven’t read “The Hate U Give” I suggest you strongly consider it. It is well written and raises relevant issues to today’s society. It definitely provokes the reader to think well and hard about these issues as well.

10 Ways to Make Your Writing Routine Actually Stick

  1. Schedule your time. You’ve probably heard it before, but it helps to make a schedule of everything you do everyday for a week. After the week, you can see where you have space to write and what you can move around to make space to write. When doing this, consider when you prefer to write. Are you a morning or evening person? I find I am much more productive in the morning! This being said, you can learn to write at any time of the day. So, make a schedule and stick to it.
  2. Have a convenient and comfortable location to work. Some people work better at home. Some people work better out of the house. I’m one of those people who works well in my room at my desk. Frankly, I don’t have the budget for cafés and my local library is a fair trek. Make sure that you have a place to write that is your own where you won’t be interrupted.
  3. Inform the people who you live with about your writing time. It is important to do this so that your time is respected and they are aware that you are working and aren’t available. My husband and I have a rule with each other. When one of us closes our door, it means we are working  and are not to be bothered. Since we both work from home, this is necessary! Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done!
  4. Protect your time. If you’ve decided that your writing time is in the afternoons and friends keep calling you to hang out during the afternoon and you keep cancelling on your writing time… Well! either you should reschedule your friends or your writing. Treat your writing time with respect, otherwise no one else will.
  5. Avoid distractions. Disconnect the WiFi. Unplug. Don’t be checking Facebook, email or twitter every five seconds, otherwise bam! You’ve just scheduled yourself a time to tweet everyday. Have a separate time to surf the net.
  6. Record your progress. Make Nanowrimo everyday! You can record your word count at the end of each session in a spread sheet to keep you motivated. However, this might not work well during editing. Then the delete key sometimes feels like the only key, so your word count might grow slowly. When editing it’s helpful to keep a time log of your sessions instead.
  7. Tell people about your project. Broadcast it among your friends. This serves as a huge motivator for me, since I know the next time I speak to my friends they will ask me how my writing is going. If I’m not keeping my writing routine, then I can’t give a positive answer.
  8. Set goals for yourself. Weekly goals, monthly goals, big deadlines, small deadlines. Make lots of goals, see if you meet them, and reevaluate. This way you can monitor your progress.
  9. Reward yourself after you meet these goals. Get yourself something you really want and is a little frivolous. I’ve heard of one writer who got herself a pair of fancy shoes. I tend to buy music albums. That way I can listen to them as I write some more!
  10. Have a ritual. Some writers like to make a cup of tea, or listen to a certain song to create the right head space, or light a candle. I have a very bare bones ritual, where I start my laptop, look out the window, and prepare my mind to write. Do whatever works for you.

5 Things I Learned about Writing from Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle Series”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I read “The Raven Boys” I’d been in a terrible writing slump, where I was working away at my draft in a dull monotony. I’d forgotten why I liked reading. I’d forgotten why I liked writing. And then, when I read the first page of the novel I was hooked on the entire series. Stiefvater is a master of her craft and you can learn so much about what makes a novel work by reading it.

1) The opening lines are brilliant. Stiefvater chooses to start each book with a prologue, and although there is plenty of conflicting information out there of whether to prologue or not, this choice works so well for her novels. The prologues set the mood for the novels and serve as seductive promises of the intrigue to follow.

Take the first sentence of “The Raven Boys.”
Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

BAM. The reader needs to know more. How can someone tell Blue with certainty that she will kill her true love? And why so frequently? And will this even happen? If so, how? And more importantly, who IS her true love anyway? Does she have a true love yet?

The rest of the prologue expands this theme and by the end, the reader is committed to reading the rest of the book. The entire series answers the questions raised by the very first sentence of the book.

The first sentence of the second book in the series, “Dream Thieves” is equally as brilliant.
A secret is a strange thing.

Simple, but effective. In this prologue, Stiefvater breaks into an essay of the different kinds of secrets and how they apply to one of her characters. It. Is. Amazing. The theme of secrets immediately brings intrigue to the novel and promises that the reader will understand her characters like no one else will.

Which leads me to the next point.

2) The books are incredibly character driven. Forget about flat sucky characters that drift around aimlessly and only jump to the plot because the author tells them to. Stiefvater’s characters have so much depth they seem like real people. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Blue have their own hopes and fears, secrets, families, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Although Noah isn’t as well developed, that’s for other reasons.

In each of the books, the personal motives of each of these four characters are made perfectly clear. Each of them is different. Each of them drives the plot in their own way. And the way they interact together is magical. So much yes.

By the end of the series, I felt a physical ache inside that I would be leaving the characters behind forever. It felt like losing old friends. Fortunately, Stiefvater’s writing a new book about Ronan so I won’t have to say goodbye just yet!

3) The brand of magic is distinct, unusual and kind of quirky. The magic doesn’t fall into typical YA fantasy clichés and is refreshing. Obscurely Old Welsh Kings in the Virginia Hills and Lee Lines are awesome. The novel revolves around Glendower’s burial, a king whose refreshingly not Arthur of the famous legend. There’s an arcane historical element, which I loved and the Latin never gets old.

However, the medieval historical magic doesn’t make this a dry read. In fact, Stiefvater balances this unusual topic with aspects the YA readership loves. Namely one girl hanging out with four hot private school boys in cool cars exploring the countryside. What high school girl doesn’t want to do that? If there’s some weird magic going on, why that’s just a bonus.

Basically, the reader doesn’t have to like history to like this book. The history just sort of slips in.

4) Stiefvater has a clear, concise way of writing. Nothing rambles. Every sentence has a purpose and leads to the next one. The descriptions usually highlight character or the setting and use the perfect words to do so.

I learned so much just by checking out how she starts each of her chapters. There are three main ways she does this:

a) A opening sentence telling you the character and the setting where the action will take place for the scene.
e.g.: Gansey woke in the night to find the moon full on his face and his phone ringing (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 9).
Clearly, the character is Gansey.
The setting is at night and the reader probably can assume that he’s in his room at Monmouth since he just woke up.

b) A topic sentence that reveals an aspect about the character or setting we’re going to follow for the chapter, almost like the start of an essay.
e.g.: Mornings at 300 Fox Way were fearful, jumbled things (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 3).
This is a topic sentence about setting.
Or
e.g.: Blue wouldn’t really describe herself as a waitress (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 6).
This is a topic sentence about character.

c) Or she starts the chapter with Dialogue, often asking a question.
e.g: “Mom, why is Neeve here?” Blue asked (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 13).

The first two ways demonstrate how to start a scene without ambiguity. It’s helpful to be precise and tell us who, what, where, and why as quickly as possible. Ways b and c also promote intrigue for the reader. These three ways to start a chapter work well.

5) Authentic dialogue. Each character has a way of speaking that’s uniquely their own and showcases their personality. I’ve read before that for good dialogue, the tags aren’t entirely necessary. You should be able to tell without tags that there are different people conversing. Stiefvater’s dialogue definitely meets this goal.

Also, the dialogue is humourous. This in turn, makes the characters more likeable even if they are difficult people.