Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Reading List for 2011

Instead of a New Year's resolution, I'm making a New Year's Reading List.  I'm much more likely to accomplish it!  My phenomenally supportive family gave me a big chunk of bookstore gift certificates for Christmas, and I can't wait to get back to San Francisco and splurge on books.  Here's a partial list of what I plan on adding to my bookshelves in 2011:

  1. Secrets of the Demon by Diana Rowland.  This one doesn't come out until January 4, but I can't wait.  Ms. Rowland's Demon series is one of my top three urban fantasy favorites.  Her books have a strong sense of place, and her heroine Kara is tough without being prickly.  Love! 
  2. Tempest's Legacy by Nicole Peeler.  This is another favorite series of mine.  It's smart and sexy and doesn't take itself too seriously.  Fantastic.
  3. Black Wings by Christina Henry.  I read an excerpt a few weeks ago, and I was hooked. 
  4. Dark Oracle by Alayna Williams.  I'm a big fan of Laura Bickle's Anya Kalinczyk series, so I thought I'd check out her Oracle series, written under her Alayna Williams pseudonym.  Plus, I like science fiction, and this novel seems to have a science fictiony flavor to it.
  5. Room by Emma Donoghue.  Enough people (my mother, my agent, every top ten list I've run across) have now recommended this book that I think I'd be crazy not to read it. 
  6. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I've never read it.  I don't know why.
  7. Faithful Place by Tana French.  Tana French writes beautifully:  she combines gorgeous language with gripping narrative, and that's a talent I admire.  I'm really looking forward to this one.
  8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  I think it's time I jump on the bandwagon.  Or am I supposed to jumping off of it now?  I haven't been keeping track.  Regardless, I'd like to form an opinion for myself.
Any suggestions to help me use up the rest of my gift card haul?  I'm particularly looking for a good, non-formulaic mystery.  I haven't read widely in the mystery genre myself, and I could use some guidance.  What are you looking forward to reading in 2011?  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three One-Liners to Write By

If I’m ever lucky enough to have an office, these three quotes will go on the wall.

1)  “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.”
            -William Zinsser, On Writing Well

On Writing Well is a guide to writing non-fiction, but I think this statement applies to any kind of writing.  It's part of a story Zinsser tells in the first chapter, in which he and another writer, for whom writing is more of a hobby than a vocation, are speaking to a group of students.  One student asks what they do when their writing isn’t going well.  The other writer says he simply stops and returns to his work another day, when things are easier.  Zinsser replies that that’s a good way to go broke.

I’m not saying breaks aren’t important, but I find Zinsser's outlook remarkably freeing.  If you’re a writer, you write, even when it’s a struggle. 

2)  “Don’t spend it all at once.”
            Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s the quick summary:  Will Shakespeare is writing Romeo and Juliet.  Viola is a young noblewoman who wants to act.  She dresses up as a man (Thomas) and gets the part of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play.  Of course, Will finds out, and they fall in love, but before he knows who his bright young actor is, we get the following scene:  The actors are reading through the first act of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo (played by Thomas, played by Viola, played by Gwenyth Paltrow) is mooning over Rosalind.  She does a bit too good a job of it, and Will (played by Joseph Fiennes) steps in and says “Don’t spend it all at once…. Do you catch my meaning?”  She doesn’t.  He explains: “You’re speaking abut a baggage we never even meet…What will you do in Act Two, when he meets the love of his life?” 

I think this is the best advice I’ve ever heard about tension.  It doesn’t matter how high the drama is at the beginning; if it doesn’t escalate as the story progresses, the ride is going to be boring.  I’m all for high-impact opening incidents, but the stakes--emotional, sexual, physical, whatever—still have to go generally upward as the plot progresses.

3)  “If you’re lost in the woods, let the horse find the way home.”
            -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is part writing advice book, part memoir, and this sentence crops up in a chapter about intuition.  I like it because I had a horse as a kid (don’t hate me—we lived in the country), and it’s true: the horse always knows the way back to the barn.  In fact, the horse will try to show you the way back to the barn even when you’re trying to go farther down the trail. 

Sometimes the best way out of a plot hole isn’t something my rational mind can figure out.  When the words aren’t flowing, when I’m tempted to force my characters to go places they don’t want to go for the sake of the plot, I remind myself to let my intuition guide me. 

What’s your favorite inspirational one-liner?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Should you cut that scene? A Revision Quiz.

In celebration of finishing my latest round of editing, today I’m talking about the sometimes brutal process of revising a “finished” book.  For me, this is very different from revising-as-you-go or revising the first (or second) draft.  Once I’ve taken something through a polishing phase, I’m more attached to the words, and it’s harder for me to see what does and doesn’t deserve to live. 

Fortunately, there are two well-known and often-quoted questions I think most writers use to decide if a scene should stay in a book: Does it advance the plot?  Does it reveal something about a character?  The answer had better be yes to at least one of those questions.  Of course, if you’re like me, it isn’t always easy to know the answers, particularly to the character question.  I mean, of course this scene reveals something about my character!  Doesn’t everything?

Yeah.  We all know that’s not true.

So.  When I run into a problematic scene, I have a handful of more directed questions I ask myself, and here they are in handy quiz form!  Put your favorite problem-chapter to the test and see if it gets to keep breathing.
  1. Who has new information at the end of the scene? (Chose all that apply.)
    • The reader
      • +5 points (This should pretty much always be true.)
    • The main character
      • +5 points
    • A side character
      • +3 points
      • Does the side character have an impact on the plot?  If not:
        • -3 points.  And I have another problem.
  2. What's happening?
    • People are talking.
      • +1 point
      • Are they saying anything important?
        • Yes: +2 points
        • No: -5 points
    • People are running*/fighting/kissing/searching/etc
      • +5 points
  3. How are things different at the end of the scene?
    • They aren't
      • -5 points
    • The characters are one step closer to figuring something out: who killed the butler, why there’s an adorable puppy on the front porch, whether or not they’re in love, etc etc etc.
      • +5 points
    • Someone's entire worldview has shifted.  (Example: When Harry hears the prophecy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
      • +10 points
  4. Is it beautiful?
    • I had to read it twice before I figured out what I was trying to say.
      • -5 points
    • I mean, it's not hideous...
      • 0 points
    • You know, it's actually pretty good!
      • +3 points
    • It's the most beautiful thing I've ever written.
      • -10 points.  Yes, that’s right, negative points.  Here’s the thing about beautiful sentences:  It’s like going on a date with some guy who looks like Ian Somerholder.  He might be the most sensitive and interesting conversationalist since Charles Bingley**, or he  might spend an entire hour at the restaurant texting other women, and then not even offer to share his umbrella when we walk to the cab in the rain.  But I’m not going to notice, or even care, because I’m going to be staring at him like a dog at bacon.  Beware of beautiful sentences.
How did your scene score?  Can you keep it?  Anything less than ten points makes me nervous, but every book is different.  I think one or two scenes with "low scores" can stay as long as they're still doing something important, like world-building, but it's still better to weave that sort of thing into the action.  Happy Editing!

*And not just for their health.
**Darcy was a shitty date.