Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What I've Been Reading Lately

I find the list of books I've read so far this year to be kind of an amusing hodge-podge, so I thought I'd share.

woman reading
Photo by Craig Sunter

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
I'll just be honest. This book was first published in 1873, and it dealt with a lot of other countries' customs and peoples. I was very pleasantly surprised that this book was not incredibly racist from a modern viewpoint. It's an interesting book. There's lots of action, and you get to see a the world as Verne saw it in the late 1800s. How Verne describes other races isn't necessarily how we'd describe them today, but I really didn't feel he was automatically thinking to himself, "We're better than them." In fact, the main love interest of Phileas Fogg (the ridiculously unflappable rich, English man who makes a bet at his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days) is an Indian woman. She is an Indian woman who was rescued from being sacrificed on her husband's funeral pyre, so Verne doesn't shy away from condemning some cultures' (pretty horrific) practices, but at no point do any of the characters think that a white man and an Indian woman should not be married. Keep in mind that interracial marriages were illegal in some U.S. states until 1967 (ahem, the South). So I got to take a tour of the world in the 1870s, and I got that tour from a very entertaining French man who, honestly, impressed me. 
Note: lots of means of travel were used in this story (even an elephant) but nobody ever travelled by balloon. Even though there was a hot air balloon on the cover of my book!
train travel
Photo by Gerry Balding

The Selection series by Kiera Cass
This is actually a trilogy, but I read all three, and the third book was my favorite, so I'm just going to wrap them all into one. This series has one of those premises that you can just tell teenage girls are going to love. The idea is that a future (dystopian) society, which seems to have taken over the current United States, selects its future princess by setting its prince up in a The Bachelor-type reality show. A girl is selected from each of the country's regions to compete to become the Princess. There's as caste system in the country, which seems a little weird but at least is an interested concept, and the books get a bit catty in the middle (especially book 2) but the third book deals with a lot of the politics and issues of the world, and was my favorite. They were a fun read.
princess painting
Photo by Pietro Izzo

James Herriot's Cat Stories by James Herriot, Illustrations by Lesley Holmes
For those who don't know, James Herriot was the pen name of a real, live vet in the U.K. in the 1940s through 1970s. He tells stories from his time as a vet, taking place in the Yorkshire countryside. It was an interesting time when cats weren't necessarily accepted as cosseted pets. I actually read this intending to have one of my characters read it, but that was for my abandoned project. I will say that Herriot has a real flare for making you smile.
cat on a stoop
Photo by Chau kar Man

Scarlet: The Lunar Chronicles, Book 2 by Marissa Meyer
I'm enjoying this series. I'm not one of those people who has to read a book the second it comes out, especially when I know the last book in the series isn't out yet. Meyer has created a really interesting twist on some classic fairytales. This one is based on Little Red Riding Hood, only the wolf is (sort of) a good guy, and the main character, Scarlet, meets up with cyborg-in-hiding Cinder from the last book. Then they're all on the run in a talking spaceship. Fun times!
Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana, Fairest
This is the painting I did of the evil Queen Levana from the Lunar Chronicles.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
A sort of Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day. I feel a little weird comparing a book to two movies, but that's the best description I've got. This book has been one of those Must Read YA books, so I figured I'd try it out. Oliver manages to take a truly unlikable main character and slowly make her likable. More importantly, she doesn't lose you along the way. Without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that the person I felt the most for at the very end was the love interest.
Fallen leaf
I wasn't really sure what image to use for this book, so I went with a fallen leaf.
Photo by Ryan

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
This book comes highly recommended to the Middle Grade crowd. I keep hearing comparisons to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it reminded me more of The Westing Game. Both were great books. In this book, Kyle Keeley manages to win a spot as one of the twelve twelve-year-olds to get to stay overnight in Mr. Lemoncello's brand new, high tech library. What they don't know yet is that their overnight lock-in will turn into a competitive game with a valuable prize. I personally loved that this book was set in a wacky library with all sorts of cool, book-related events.
cool library
Photo by Jon Westra

Behind the Scenes by Dahlia Adler
A fun, quick book. I mostly read it because I follow Dahlia's blog, but every now and again all I want is something nice and easy. It's about an ordinary girl falling for a movie star (both are teens). Sometimes the girl annoyed me, but, hey, she's going through some stuff, so I'll give her a pass, and it entertained me for one snowy weekend day. 
movie maker sculpture
Photo by Joe Penniston
(Honestly, I picked this photo mostly just because I liked it.)

There were probably a few other books (I've been doing a lot of reading since I'm in the in-between phase in writing), but these are the ones I came up with today.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Teenage Years Are A B#$%*

handsome cat
A very handsome cat.
Photo by Trish Hartmann

I had decided on my next writing project. I plotted and wrote out 15 (hand-written) pages of an outline for a contemporary YA. It's about a boy and his cat. The boy's having a bit of a traumatic senior year because he didn't get into the only college he applied to and now his cat isn't doing so well. There's a bit of a love angle with an old friend, but it's not a conflicted one. The story was meant to include a caper in which the boy and his friends attempt to sneak the cat into the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see a painting by the cat's favorite artist. (You do weird things for the people/pets that you love - including deciding that your cat has a favorite artist.)

Degas ballerina statue, Philadelphia Museum of Art
I took this myself! I love Degas' artwork.
This is the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I love the characters. I like the plot and its development. I wanted to write this book, but every time I sat down to write I just could not get the words out. And I think it was because writing from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old was just kind of painful.

I was putting myself in this poor boy's shoes, and, quite frankly, my teenage years are not ones that I particularly want to re-live. And I think THAT is why I was having so many problems actually sitting down to write.

locker room, gym class
Photo by Kate Ter Haar

My teenage years were by far my most awkward. Some of the reasons for that were:
  • Hormones.
  • First kisses are messy & nobody knows if they're doing it right.
  • Popularity is always a Thing, but it felt so much more Thing-like during these years.Playing off that popularity Thing, I never had the right clothes, and the right clothes seemed so important at this time in life.
  • Not knowing who I wanted to be yet.
  • A lot of self-condemnation (you know, for saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong thing, etc.)
  • I was not always terribly socially aware, but I was pretty good at realizing I'd done/said the wrong thing some time after the fact. But almost never in time to actually avoid the awkward situation.
  • Rebellion against parents that felt so important back then but feels a bit silly now.

I'm sure I could name a few more, but that list is quite enough to make me start cringing, so I think I'll stop there.

The Teenage Years were an interesting and important time. I made some of my closest friends during that time (including my husband). But, my gosh, am I glad they are over.

I love this story, and I have the feeling I'll be coming back to it at some point in time, but right now I'm making absolutely no headway, and I think it's time to get back to the slightly less awkward years so that I don't drive myself crazy with my lack of writing.

Besides, I already have a few ideas about how to re-vamp and re-write an old MG Fantasy that I loved. ...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Joss Whedon Gets Stuff Done

daffodils, castle
Photo by Dave Morris

This week I worked on my query (yes, more). I revised my novel based on some reader feedback. I researched agents, looking for the best way to appeal to them via query (I've already made a list of agents I want to query and in what order). And I worked on a pretty painting. It's of daffodils, and its sort of van Gogh inspired. When it's finished I intend to share. However, it is not yet done.

None of the above makes a terribly interesting blog post, so I skimmed over my saved drafts and found this link to an article about Joss Whedon's creative process. If you do not wish to read it, I shall summarize it below. (With bullet points!)

Victorious Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon from Ken Conley

Joss Whedon does a ton of stuff at once. Firefly was written during a break from Buffy. He made a Much Ado About Nothing movie with his friends while in post-production with The Avengers.

I don't think everyone can work that way. I'm not sure I can. But here is:

How To Be Crazy Productive, According to Joss Whedon

  • After deciding what you need to work on, work on what you want to work on (aka whatever's fun from your To Do List).
    • (Note: "it’s so easy to just get nothing done". I enjoyed this quote.)
    • He doesn't write chronologically.
    • When you piece the fun stuff together, you'll have something you already love. And when you're at that not-fun stage, you're almost done!
  • Be specific. Decide on a certain element you're going to work on so, you know, you actually do the work.
  • He rewards himself - for pretty much everything. Usually with chocolate. "I mean I’m terrible. I don’t put that on the list because that’s not advice. That’s something I’m seeking help for. It’s a vice and it’s different than advice."
  • Read. Write. "Fill the tanks." Another quote says it better than I can. "Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show."
  • For him, hanging out with friends is better if you're making something. No wonder he churns out so much stuff!
    • He turned a gathering of friends into a Shakespeare production.
    • "I was never a games night guy, but at some point social interaction starts to freak me out. So when there’s a point, it’s easier for me to see the people I love and hang out and try to have fun."
  • Embrace tough love. He wants people who will push him in his life. People who will say, "Stop talking about it. Do it." (That last isn't a quote. It's my summary.)
I'm pretty sure the article sums up nicely with the Nike slogan: "Just do it." Which is not exactly an option for all of us, but I still had fun reading about it.

colorful Chinese dragon
Photo by miheco

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Queries: The Writer's Gateway

I swear, I spent so much time writing and re-writing my query letter this weekend that I had no idea what it said any more. I could read all of the words, but I no longer had any idea whether they formed coherent thoughts.

dragon shadow

For those of you who don't know, a query letter is the approximately 200 words that an agent reads (or, more likely, skims over) that help them decide whether or not to give your book a shot. Agents frequently get hundreds of query letters a week, so the letter really has to stand out to make the agent think to him or herself, "I want to know what happens next!"

Another thing about query letters: They're completely subjective. One agent will love a letter that just doesn't do it for another agent. But, if you're querying the right kind of agent (aka one who represents the genre and age group of the novel you've written) you're at least headed in the right direction.

dragon in the desert
Photo by Trey Ratcliff

I submitted my latest query letter to the Evil Editor's blog, and he critiqued it. Evil Editor is rather known for his sarcastic humor when critiquing. (As one might expect. He's not Angelic Editor after all). It didn't seem like he had a whole lot of negative to say about the query itself. More about the entire concept of the book, so I've taken that to mean that I didn't represent the book well. Or, you know, he falls into the category of agent for which my query "just doesn't do it. Because, quite frankly, I've already written, re-written, and revised the crap out of this book, and I'm not taking it back to the drawing board!

I wrote about five different versions of my query letter this weekend, trying to take into account the things Mr. E. Editor said, and, because I don't have much else to show for my weekend, and I am firmly committed to this whole weekly blog post thing, I'm going to share the latest version. Here it is (with a cool, fire-breathing photo first):

fire breathing dragon vehicle
Photo by Trey Ratcliff
In an alternate 1950s, dragons rule the skies and their master, the Dragonlord, rules the Americas. Uncle Joe is the Dragonlord’s trusted lieutenant; he eliminates any threat to the Dragonlord's power. Thirteen-year-old Cat Pearce is stunned when Uncle Joe announces her father is a traitor on national television. With his mesmerizing eyes, cut from the skulls of young dragons, Uncle Joe can look through his television cameras and transfix his audience into believing anything he says.
Sure, her dad liked to play around with the science that’s the Dragonlord’s domain, but Cat didn’t think it was that big of a deal. When Cat pulls her father’s lifeless body from the flaming wreckage of her home, she understands just how far Uncle Joe has taken his power-hungry purge. And his television station is right in Cat’s hometown. Of course, it’s surrounded by dragons, and Uncle Joe can compel obedience, but Cat’s pretty sure she can figure out some way around all that. She’s already discovered one of the dragons has a weakness for peanut butter cookies, so there's her way in. No matter how long it takes, Cat will get her revenge on Uncle Joe.
DRAGON BAIT is an upper MG Fantasy complete at 62,000 words. As per your guidelines, I have included [whatever the agent’s guidelines say] below. Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Favorite Books: The Honorable Mentions

These books weren't originally on my list of all time fav's but as I scanned my shelves, they called out to me (saying, "Sarah, did you forget about me? Don't you love me any more?"). I have very needy books.

As I'd mentioned in my last post, these are pretty much all picture books (except one). I just . . . I couldn't leave them out.

This is me "reading" Sabriel - the number one book from my last post about my 5 Fav Books.
This is actually me pretending to read while I take a selfie.

In no particular order, here are my Honorable Mentions:

  • Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede This is the story of a princess (Cimorene of Lindwall) who does not want to marry a handsome, brainless prince. She'd much rather live with dragons and learn to cook chocolate mousse. I think I got this book through the Scholastic Book Club. You know, those odd circulars that let Scholastic sell awesome books through our public school system? Maybe they don't do that any more. I'm not sure. But when Mom finally let me pick out a book, it sure was exciting.

  • The Very Little Girl by Phyllis Krasilovsky This was the first book I remember loving. I'm not actually certain why I loved this book above all other books when I was very small. Perhaps because I was a very little girl. Kids love books where they see themselves in the pages. And I loved watching the little girl grow. Oh, and Pat the Bunny. I loved that one too. It's my tactile nature. But it doesn't stand up to the test of time quite as well as the Little Girl. I shall include a picture from inside the book below, so you can see just how beautiful the Little Girl illustrations are.

Here I am, looking suspiciously over the top of my awesome book.

I love the minimalist colors and drawings in this book.
It's so pretty. And you can see it was well-loved too.

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson This story is about a boy who can just draw himself whatever he wants. That would be so cool! Below you can see Harold drawing himself a boat and then climbing right in. He also draws himself some pies to eat. I loved this book so much when I was little.

  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak This one's a no brainer. In my twenties, I had to ask for this book for a few different holidays before I was finally given it. Now it is mine, all mine.

  • Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban Really, any of the Frances books would do. Frances and I have a lot in common. Namely, we like to make up ridiculous little songs about our day-to-day lives. I believe that in the below book, Frances ponders why anyone would want to eat anything other than bread and jam in her very own catchy little song. And then, later, she sings a sad little song about how she's rather sick of bread and jam. It tugs at the heart-strings.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Five Favorite Books (Plus a few more)

I had no idea what to write this week, and my self-imposed Wednesday morning deadline was closing in fast, so I was inspired to raid my shelves for a Top Five list.

my books
This is my stack of books, pre-photo shoot.

Here I am, looking like a crazed idiot with my books:
me and my favorite books

Fair or not, I did notice that I read every single one of these books before I was out of high school (and some pre-elementary school). Sorry, new and wonderful books, apparently I'm a sucker for nostalgia. And kids' books. I don't read my picture books very much, but I've still got a shelf full, and I will NEVER give them up! (No matter how overstuffed our shelves get or how seldom I read them. I will defend them to the death!)

I'd just like to note that I really didn't intend for this blog post to turn into a photo shoot with my books, but somehow that's exactly what happened. (Which also turned a "quick" post into one that took a little longer than anticipated.) So. Here they are:

My Five Favorite Books

1. Sabriel by Garth Nix I've already mentioned this book a few different times. So I won't belabor the point. This book is awesome. The end.
Sabriel by Garth Nix

2. Eloise by Kay Thompson, Pictures by Hilary Knight (And, honestly, without the pictures, you just would not have the funny, spunky, and maybe just a little bit bratty Eloise that I know and love.)
Eloise books, Kay Thompson, Hilary Knight

3. The Horse And His Boy by C.S. Lewis Perhaps it's not the most famous of the Narnia series, but I do believe it's the only one that takes place entirely in Narnia's world. I loved the back and forth between the two main characters (Shasta and Aravis) and the Talking Horses (Mostly Bree, although whatshername was nice too - she was The Voice of Reason. No wonder I don't remember her name). For a quite a few years running, I read this book once a year.
The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Oops. Looks like I don't have this one on my shelves. I've got Emma and a well-loved Sense and Sensibility but no P&P. To be fair, I believe the last time I read it, I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg. (A great big shout-out to the wonderful people at Project Gutenburg. Thank you!)

5. One Morning in Maine and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey I loved the life out of these books. The top one is an old library reject (like quite a few other books of mine) because my dad was a librarian, and I wasn't about to turn my nose up at a book just because it wasn't fit for library circulation any more. I love these illustrations. They're gorgeous. And it probably helped that Sal looked a little bit like me at that age, so I saw myself in the book's pages.
One Morning in Maine, Robert McCloskey

Robert McCloskey, Sal

I fully intended to include a small section on my "Honorable Mentions" - the other books that I picked up as I was searching for my original Fav Five. But that's going to have to wait until next week. Sorry, people, but it's my bedtime. You can guess what I'll be reading tonight.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Painting My Own Magic Card

In this post, I mentioned that my husband had me playing Magic: The Gathering (the dorkiest card game known to man).

Well, apparently, re-painting the cards to make them look cool is a thing. (These cards are known as "Alters" because you have altered the card from its original state - this game has all kinds of its own lingo).

I wanted to show off my repainted Abzan Guide:

Magic Abzan Guide on lion

Note that the guide lady is now riding a lion. That is way cooler than the original creature she was riding that didn't have a head:

Magic Abzan Guide

I noted the lack of head and decided we needed to resolve this issue. Animals without heads are really quite sad.

And if I want to stretch the writing theme of this blog, I will say that Magic: The Gathering has a ton of really complex story lines. After the first few sets apparently they ("they" being the company Wizards of the Coast) started putting out books that correspond to the stories. These people do some serious world building.

Also, my lion reminds me of Aslan, and it doesn't get much cooler than that.

My husband painted an Abzan Guide too, which I figured I'd share. I sketched out the lion for him, but he painted it. I actually kind of like his colors better than mine. They're more vibrant:

Magic Abzan Guide Alter

His lion reminds me of the Cowardly Lion (perhaps he's a bit of an Eeyore too). Definitely got that sad old man look.