Monday, May 19, 2014

Spring Writing Bootcamp Check-In #12

My first week of Bootcamp went well. I made progress on my goals and completed one! Hooray!

I attended my first meeting with a new writing meetup group. Basically we meet in a lounge at a local university center, there's no shortage of schools around here. After talking and discussing what we're going to be working on that night, we write. Writing with other people, even though we weren't working together or talking, was awesome. I've always had a lot of success writing in public, the presence of other people keeps me focused. This was even better. I spent the hour and a half there revising. I'll definitely be back. The meetings are during the week which I really like as I have a hard time squeezing in writing time after work, catching up with the dog and making dinner. I might squeeze in an hour but, but most weeknights I end up reading on the couch, too tired to think about my own words or what to do with them. That leads me to another goal-

I've put a big dent in Outlander and I'm headed out of town today. I love traveling, particularly all the reading time I get while someone else is in charge of flying, driving, or conducting me to my destination.

Most importantly, since this is a writing bootcamp, I've made it through about a third of my revisions. Don't get too exuberant though, that's only a guesstimate. When I can spend hours on a paragraph, it's tough to judge how long edits will take. A third of what I know needs to be edited has been, but there's always the chance of unforeseen trouble. I would have liked to be further along at this point, but I feel good about where the story is so I'm not going to beat myself up.

May Goals

1. Finish revisions for my YA Retelling Update: About one-third of the way through revisions.
2. Read An Echo in the Bone (Outlander #7) before my library eBook expires on 5/24! Update: I'm on page 500.
3. Read Perks of Being a Wallflower before Book Club on 5/25.
4. Attend at least one Tuesday meeting of my local writer's group Completed on 5/13

Monday, May 12, 2014

My First Spring Writing Bootcamp Check-In

I'm a little late to the party, but I promise to make up for my tardiness with enthusiasm. The YA Buccaneers Spring Bootcamp started in March, and I've just joined with Team Rainier. I'm excited to have such an awesome group of writers holding me accountable for my writing goals.

May Goals

1. Finish revisions for my YA Retelling
2. Read An Echo in the Bone (Outlander #7) before my library eBook expires on 5/24!
3. Read Perks of Being a Wallflower before Book Club on 5/25
4. Attend at least one Tuesday meeting of my local writer's group

That might seem like a lot for just under three weeks especially when you consider the Outlander book is 1,100 pages! Fortunately, I'll be traveling for work and I'll have lots of reading time on the plane. The real crunch will be the revisions. Eek!

Book Report Monday: Monster by David Zeltserman

Author: Dave Zelsterman

Genre: Horror

Synopsis: Friedrich Hoffman, the so-called monster, recounts how he was falsely accused of killing his fiancee, tortured and executed for his 'crime', and awoke hideously deformed on the lab table of Victor Frankenstein. He embarks on a single-minded quest for vengeance; but at what cost to the remnants of his humanity? Intense and chillingly supernatural, Monster depicts nineteenth-century Europe in a blaze of depravity, from inside the mind of the man forever remembered as Frankenstein's creature, in an ingenious tribute to one of literature's greatest works. (from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: A retelling where the original villain is actually the hero, sounds like the Wicked version of Frankenstein. I couldn't pass that up.

My Review: First, let me say I didn't feel that this was scary-Stephen-King-book-in-the-freezer-horror. The character of Victor Frankenstein is creepy and sadistic but the way it was presented by the narrator, in matter-of-fact manner, softened the shock of Frankenstein's actions. Perhaps it was also that Frankenstein is simply a man and as a man is repulsive but I was not frightened of him. So don't be put off by the genre alone. It was a fast read and I enjoyed the story. As something of a Frankenstein nerd myself, I could tell and appreciate that Zelsterman did his research.

When Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, it was common practice for men of science to acquire the corpses of condemned criminals. This was preferred over dealing with resurrectionists, men who sold corpses that were at best stolen from their graves and at worst murdered for the profit. Sometimes there would be an autopsy performed before an audience, a horrible fate which was included in the sentencing as an added punishment. It makes perfect sense for Victor Frankenstein to have acquired the brain for his creation from a criminal. It's also possible that the brain would hold on to its former memories.

The story is a plausible alternate telling of Shelley's novel, it achieves this by claiming Victor Frankenstein's account was a lie. Though there is no explanation as to why he would make up such an elaborate tale on his deathbed in the frozen arctic sea. Zeltserman's character is nothing like Mary Shelley's, which was hard for me to accept. This may have been why I wasn't scared of him, I had a hard time believing he could be real.

Despite having been a man originally, Friedrich Hoffman (the monster) struggles with the same crisis of identity as the monster in Frankenstein. Was he made to be a monster or was the darkness instilled in him after? How can one find peace when craving vengeance? Can justice be achieved without losing his humanity? Will there ever be a place for him in the world? Friedrich is ostracized for what he is though he did not ask to be resurrected any more than the nameless creation in Frankenstein asked to be brought to life.

My Recommendation: Good for curling up with on a dark, stormy night. Obviously any Frankenstein fans should check it out.

For Next Time: Ash by Malindo Lo

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Books! Coming To a Television Near You

There's a conspiracy afoot! The entertainment industry is determined to make a TV watcher out of me. First they pull me in with Game of Thrones, forcing me to pay for HBO even though I watch it on my friend Sarah's "Dude TV" every week because it's more entertaining on a very large screen and with friends who also read the books. Then they send me Entertainment Weekly, eventually getting me hooked on Orphan Black.

Fun fact: The new Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones was on Orphan Black this week!

But apparently those shows weren't enough. Now they're making even more books I've read into TV shows and miniseries! C'mon you guys. I've got writing to do. It's not fair.

Spoiler: Jamie and Claire always end up looking like this.
The one that has me the most excited at present is Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon's series, coming to Starz this summer. I love everything about these books. Their length, history lessons, the many references to Jamie's hair color (No, it's not just red!). 

I'm about to begin the seventh book in the series. The eighth book comes out in June. Cue fangirl squee.

If like me you are not fluent in Gaelic or perhaps just appreciate a Scottish accent check out this video sent to me months ago by my friend Julie, who got me reading the books and in fact loaned me the first six. The video really helped with an important word which I mispronounced for five lengthy books.

I told you they were lengthy
With something like 10,000 pages in the Outlander series alone Gabaldon has given Starz more than enough material for the show (Dear Mr. Martin, please take note). That's not counting The Lord John spin off books or the novellas. I have no idea how many of them there are as I'm wary of spoilers and won't even add those on Goodreads yet.

It doesn't end there. While I'm incredibly suspicious about what my TV is trying to do to my writing time, I'm also thrilled to have more book adaptations on the way.

I saw on Lev Grossman's Twitter earlier this week that The Magicians will be coming to the SyFy Channel. The third book in the series, The Magician's Land, is coming out this August.

Just last month it was announced that HBO and the BBC will be co-producing a three part miniseries based on J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.

The Dovekeepers will be a four-hour miniseries on CBS sometime in 2015. I first heard about it from Alice Hoffman herself. Sorry I'm not sorry that I'm still bragging about that time I met one of my favorite writers.

Finally last Sunday waiting for Game of Thrones to start, I saw a commercial for The Leftovers series coming to HBO, which is based on the novel by Tom Perrotta. I've been meaning to read this since it was on The NY Times Best of 2011 list. I know it's currently 2014...I'm so behind. At least the show will force me to read it now.

I'm sure there are even more books coming to the small screen, but these are the ones that have reached me over the last few months. Perhaps a trend started after HBO's success with Game of Thrones? I'm just hoping the schedules of these shows are staggered or I'll be forced to invest in DVR. Who'd have guessed that being an avid reader would lead to such an uptick in my cable bill?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Writing Process Blog Chain

Thanks to the fabulous Michelle Tran who tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Chain last week. Be sure to check out what she has to say about her process on her blog, here.

1. What am I currently working on?

I just started editing my second draft of my YA retelling. It's a loose retelling and I hope to share more details later. It has elements of science fiction. I would classify it as light sci-fi as it's set in our present world. The first draft took almost 2 years, a long time compared to my other books. Partially this was due to the massive amount of research I had to do, part of the trouble with having a hyper intelligent main character. I also suffered from a rough bout of writer's block for a while and I couldn't be happier to have that behind me.

I also am working on a YA Fantasy about a girl struggling to accept and make sense of her own abilities while the magic community she lives in is rife with political drama and civil unrest. So far I have the complete outline and the first two chapters written, but it'll be on the back burner while I edit.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

There's no clearly defined villain or evil force at work. My characters do a fantastic job of ruining their lives without outside help. Likewise, there's not a hero. My main character is not a bad person, but I wouldn't say he's a great one when the story starts either.

Another thing that sets it apart is that my main character is a teenage boy. While that's not unheard of it is rare in YA. Many books with male MCs still focus on a female character, such as the Caster Chronicles which are told from Ethan's perspective but he shares the story with Lena. Maybe YA books with male MCs don't sell as well? Obviously, I'm hoping that's not the case.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I'm going to sound like a total hippie (because I kind of am) but I write what comes to me. I can't force plots or characters to reveal themselves, I've tried. I get an idea, I don't know where they come from. Usually it happens when I'm in that fragile place between sleeping and wakefulness. When an idea grabs me I try to make sense of it the best I can.

I've always been partial to fantasy and all kinds of speculative fiction, though I have written short stories that were contemporary Adult fiction. I read a lot of fantasy and I think my brain is tuned in to that genre. I like the examination of ordinary people forced into extraordinary situations which is common in fantasy novels. For better or worse, it forces the characters to evolve.

4. How does my writing process work?

  • Get idea-Thank the gods of inspiration for choosing me!
  • Type frantically in fear of losing idea
  • Outline the whole book-I've been getting better at this. 
  • Write the rough draft- Sometimes I know I'm writing crap. I need to do so to get through a slump or a difficult scene. I know this doesn't work for all writers but this is the best method I've find for me. 
  • Edit rough draft-This is when I smooth out the rough parts until I have a clean first draft.
  • Send the first draft to my Betas-My friend Ashley has been the first to read each of my completed books. Jess is a close second and helpful grammar guru.
  • Edit with Beta feedback into a polished second draft.
After that I decide if I think the book is worth working on or if it's time to give up. That might sound harsh or even like I'm calling it quits too soon, but the truth is I've written a lot of crap. I'm undoubtedly going to write a lot more crap in the future. It takes a long time to write something that you're proud of. And while editing can improve a book drastically, there is a point when it's clearly time to move on. For me it's usually around the second or third draft.

My first two books were great learning experiences and those characters will always be with me, but I wouldn't want them to be published because I wasn't proud of the stories or the writing. I knew I could do better and so I shelved them and moved on to my next project.

Currently, I still feel good about my YA retelling, but it's too soon to say anything. If I feel good after I'm done with this round of edits, I'll send it to be critiqued and keep editing from there. I've never queried agents, because none of my books have ever been ready, but I imagine after lots of editing it would be time to query. Of course, then there will be more editing. Basically, the editing doesn't end until the book is published or the writer surrenders.


I'm passing the chain along to fellow blogger extraordinaire Cindy R. Wilson, check out her blog and see what she says next Monday. Thanks for letting me tag you, Cindy!

Cindy R. Wilson grew up telling her siblings stories she invented every night before bed, and realized quickly she wanted to be a writer as an adult. As a mother of three girls, YA drama is a big part of her life. Writing for young adults gives her the opportunity to combine her passion for romance with elements that are more out of this world. Cindy resides in Colorado near the foothills, where the mountains and forests often inspire settings in her stories.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Report Monday: Out of the Easy

Title: Out of the Easy

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Genre: Young Adult

Synopsis: It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. 

She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny. (from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: My friend Liz handed it to me saying, "I think you would like this." She was right. Thanks Liz!

Favorite Lines: "I didn't ask for a light," Willie said.
"No, but you've tapped your cigarette fifty-four times and I thought you might like to smoke it."

My Review: I loved Josie right away. She's a no-nonsense girl who from a young age is exposed to the details of her mother's life as a prostitute. At seven she can make a martini and sass the madam at the brothel where her mother later works. Josie moves out on her own, living and working at a bookstore. As if I needed more of a reason to relate with her, she views college as a way to change her unpleasant situation.

Her mother is rarely seen in the story but her actions are widely felt. A realistic scenario for negligent parents. Josie seems to be bombarded by her mother's unseemly profession and bad decisions at every turn. In lieu of a traditional family Josie has Willie the brothel madam, Cokie the loyal chauffeur, and the father and son in charge of the bookstore, Patrick and Charlie Marlowe. Every member of her motley family recognizes Josie as an exceptional young woman and does what they can to help. But when her mother gets involved with a notoriously dangerous man there's nothing anyone can do to stop Josie's life from being turned upside down.

The writing is succinct and keeps the story moving along a quick yet unhurried pace. Sepetys provides just enough details about the French Quarter and life there in the 50's to intrigue and educate but not to weigh the story down with lengthy descriptions.

I've often read and enjoyed YA novels that while entertaining for me are setting poor examples for adolescent girls. Characters who take no initiative but wait for the male lead or villain to force her to react. There's nothing wrong with these characters or stories. I don't think teens are all so impressionable that they will mimic that behavior. However Out of the Easy is not one of those books. Josie is smart, independent, and determined to do something to improve her prospects. Of course being a 17-year old girl and desperate to get out of New Orleans she does make a fair amount of poor choices that had me cringing. Josie tells more lies than she can keep track of, withholds information from police and blackmails a wealthy man. None of which serve her any good or help her to reach her goal of attending college in New England.

I wish there were more books like this and have added Between Shades of Grey to my read list.

My Recommendation: Fans of YA

For Next Time: Monster by Dave Zeltserman

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Outlining and Plot Mapping

Historically, I've been more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to writing. This is quite the opposite of how I behave in every other aspect of my life. I love planning and in certain situations require a plan or else. Seriously, if you ever see a distressed woman in glasses rushing through the aisles at Whole Foods, picking things up and putting them back down that's me and I forgot to make a grocery list. 

Ideas for stories usually come to me in pieces. The initial idea sneaks in and leaves me with a premise, a scene, or a character. Once I start writing, I hope the rest of the story presents itself. Usually it does and I'll throw together a shaky outline then. If it doesn't, I'm left staring at my word document until I start to wonder if that flashing cursor could be some form of message like Morse Code. Only I don't know Morse Code and each flash seems to be of equal length. 

In an effort to avoid that I decided to put an outline together for my new story which I'm currently calling TEMPEST. My outline method was the basic Outline Format in Word. I kept it chronological, though I included quick summaries of back story where relevant. Right now it looks like each bullet point is a chapter but it's unlikely they'll stay that way. I know myself better than to think I'll stick exactly to what I have in mind. My characters take over and I generally let them lead the way. 

One thing I know will be an issue in this story is when to reveal information. Fortunately I stumbled upon an awesome blog post by Chersti Nieveen on how to do a basic outline. It explains how to make a plot map just like Jo Rowling uses. The chapters are listed vertically and the top row lists each plot in the story. This makes the plot development visual. Once everything is filled in, a quick glance can tell you if you've lost a plot along the way or have gone too long without mentioning it.

 I know she prefers pen and paper, but why so messy, Jo? Of course, I knew I'd be plot mapping Jo Rowling Style only neater and in Microsoft Excel, because I use Excel for everything. If your familiar with The Order of the Phoenix you'll note how even the best and most successful writers allow the story to change when the characters and plots demand it. 

Can't believe Umbridge's name was originally Elvira. Umbridge was the worst. Just thinking about her makes me grumpy, but as my friend Sarah always says when hoping someone gets their comeuppance, "The centaurs will come eventually." and they certainly came for Umbridge. Thank goodness for that.

Seeing the plots this way is particularly helpful for me since the amount of time I spend writing is not proportionate to the amount I've written. It may feel like forever since I've mentioned the subplot involving my character's best friend, but in reality it may have just been in the last chapter. There's also the possibility that you might forget to wrap up a subplot before you send your book to your first set of beta readers. That happened to me and I'm still filled with regret. If I had this plot map for my last story I could have avoided so much self shaming. Don't be like Monica, friends. Make a plot map.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Title: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Author: Alice Hoffman

Genre: Fiction-Historical

Synopsis: Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century. Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father's museum, alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle.

One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River. The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor's apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. (from Goodreads)

My Review: Hoffman is as reliable as always for me. I didn't know anything about the Triangle Factory Fire or about New York City in the early 1900's. The fact that most people haven't heard about the factory fire that killed 146 garment workers who could not escape the flames because the managers had locked them in was a driving force behind Hoffman's desire to tell this story. The fire served as a catalyst for unionization and garment worker's rights. In the novel lost soul and  photographer, Eddie, arrives at the scene of the conflagration in time to document most of the tragedy. Many of the victims, mostly young Jewish women, held hands and jumped from the windows to hasten their deaths.

Eddie is approached by the grieving father of one of the girls working at the factory who hasn't been seen since the fire but was not found among the dead. Investigating the missing girl leads him to Coralie, who lives in her father's museum of oddities which includes her. Coralie has a strangely sheltered life. She's seen and experienced the bizarre and unimaginable but she has seen little of life outside. The performers give the reader the same feeling as sideshow freaks from a circus or carnival. Yet we see them, not only costumed and in character but when they are engaged in everyday rituals. Many have deformities so severe they have no other option than to become an exhibit in the Museum of Extraordinary Things. For her own part, Coralie never considered that she had a choice. The two stories are set in a distinct juxtaposition but are intertwined by both the fate of the missing girl and the connection between Eddie and Coralie. In true Hoffman style, the young lovers are drawn intensely and irrevocably toward each other despite the cards stacked against them.

I loved the setting. One hundred years ago Manhattan was only partly developed, the rest of it was untouched wilderness. It was fascinating to picture swamps inhabited by no one but a crazy hermit and wolves where now there are endless streets filled with office buildings of dizzying heights.

My Recommendation: A must read for Hoffman fans. Also, anyone who enjoyed Night Circus should pick it up.

For Next Time: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Friday, April 4, 2014

My Writing Life: The In Between Times

While finishing my book I was busy. Not regular busy, I was crazy-nose-to-the-keyboard-busy, writing and revising every free minute I had. For weeks my eyes were twitching and I had the craziest dreams. I wasn't even reading as much as usual. Finally my draft was ready and I sent it to two betas. I decided I'd take a break from that story. The plan was not to look at it for six weeks (this is the Stephen King advice). Hopefully when I pick my book up again, it will be with fresh eyes that can see the forest and the trees and all the plot points that need tweaking.

Actual trees

So I relaxed into the in-between life finally done writing and not yet editing. I tried to soak up the sense of pride at completing something. Surprisingly that worked for a few days. I watched Orphan Black and gave my dog a haircut. I had a list of books to read, some as research for my book. Tragically, despite how I tried to occupy my time I was left with too much of it. Maybe I was too adjusted to the hectic writing schedule or simply cannot handle being an inbetweener.* My mind itched to open the word document to start revising. I remembered things I need to clarify and I'm pretty sure I forgot to tie up one kind of important subplot. My betas are going to kill me. There was no way I'd make it six weeks without writing, so I pulled out an ongoing list of story ideas. I wrote a few lines summarizing what I would do with each one until I felt that tug and knew I'd found my next project.

Initially I thought starting a new book while another one is still in progress would be confusing. I was afraid I'd lose interest in my completed story and when the six weeks were up I'd ignore revisions in favor of writing the new book. Writing generally being more pleasant than revising which requires harsh self assessment. I suppose that could still happen, but I'm crossing my fingers that it doesn't. Possibly the new book will keep me optimistic when it's time to switch to editing mode or when I'm reviewing notes from betas asking, whatever happened to that pivotal character who is missing from the end of the book? Seriously, so sorry about that.

Disclaimer: Inbetweener is not a word. The Inbetweeners was a British sitcom about teenage boys. I have never been British or a teenage boy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What I'm Loving Lately: Orphan Black

Several months ago I randomly began receiving regular issues of Entertainment Weekly. I have no idea how I was selected for this as I don't watch television much. Still all my bills are paperless and it's nice to get mail I guess. The magazine proved useful before the Oscars and when wrapping a birthday present for a friend who loves pretty much everything television.

Recently I got this copy:

Orphan Black? Hmm? Clones? What's this?

It's a show about clones, people! Maybe you don't know this but clones and genetic augmentation plots a course that leads right up my nerd alley.

Orphan Black is a Sci-Fi drama. I was all like, "You can stop convincing me. You had me at clones." The show is about a troubled orphan punk named Sarah who sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide at the train station. Unable to resist the pull of the coincidence or the purse left on the platform, Sarah goes to the woman's apartment and delves into the life of her possible twin. However, instead of a long lost family, Sarah discovers a host of clones from all over the world. Oh, and someone has begun killing them off.

The first season is available on Amazon Instant (sorry to Netflix only customers) and the new season starts April 19th. I've been binge watching season 1 and will actually have to upgrade my cable to get BBC America which isn't included in my super basic package. Yes, it's that serious.

I see what you did there Entertainment Weekly.

Well played.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Help

Title: The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. (from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: I've had this on my bookshelf for four years. I had heard mixed reviews and wasn't sure if I would like it, but I vowed to read books I had before buying too many more.

My Review: I was surprised by how much I liked The Help since I'd been avoiding it for so long. The story was interesting and accessible. Each of the narrators had a unique voice and struggle. While I wanted Skeeter to interview the maids, I was scared for all of them and understood why they were hesitant. Perhaps the scariest thing is that the novel is set in 1962 and one of Skeeter's friends is pushing for segregated bathrooms inside white homes that employ colored help. 1962 does not feel very long ago, but it should seem impossible that maids could have been forced to use a separate bathroom than their white employers in our recent history. Unfortunately, it's not unrealistic.

Aside from the obvious racial tensions in the story, The Help is about three women struggling with their identities and independence.

Skeeter begins waking up when she returns from college and finds a new maid has replaced the one who helped raise her. It's a profound loss and brings a new focus to the community and friends she's always known. Something is wrong with life in Jackson and Skeeter wonders why she's the only one who notices. Until she realizes she isn't the only one, though she may be the only white one to care about the relationship between whites and blacks.

Aibileen has spent her life raising white children who love her until they reach a particular age and start to treat her like the help. Her own son, died and left her questioning why she continues to work hard for people who will never be friends or family. Skeeter's return is the nudge Aibileen needs to take charge and try to make a difference. Along the way she realizes she has talents other than cleaning and child-rearing.

Minny has always kept a barricade between her and her employers, convinced that none of the white folks will ever be her friend. When she gets her new job, cooking and cleaning for a childless couple who don't even host parties, she finds herself bored. Eventually she grows curious about the woman who hired her and who, against all the odds, Minny cares about. Her employer however has bizarre habits that have Minny ready to quit no matter how much she needs the money.

Now I just need to watch the movie and compare.

My Recommendation: It's a bestseller for a reason, I think most readers will enjoy this. Of course, it's targeted toward women.

For Next Time: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

All About Balance

We hear a lot of advice on balance. It's supposed to be found everywhere in our lives from our diets to our checkbooks, but achieving it is rarely as easy as it sounds.

Once during a yoga class the woman next to me could not maintain tree pose. She'd have it for a second but then she'd tremble and stumble precariously until both feet were on the mat. After failing a few times, she huffed loudly and our yoga instructor addressed her with the zen attitude you'd expect. "Some days it's harder to find our balance than others. Try not to get frustrated. I know you can do this pose, but it might not work for your body today." 

I personally have experienced days where balancing poses seem impossible, though the day before I felt like I could have held them for hours. I think what my yoga instructor said applies not only to our physical body but to all aspects of one's self.

As a writer, mathematician, yogi, runner, homebody, lover of the outdoors, knitter, reader, dog mom, fan of silence, and music enthusiast finding a comfortable, steady equilibrium can be an intense act of juggling that frequently ends in bruises and tears.

Fortunately, my day job keeps my analytically minded needs met while writing and reading allow me an outlet for my creativity. Unfortunately, all of those activities keep my body stationary which drives me crazy. I need exercise or I'll wind up in my crankypants grumbling at the dog for doing things like wanting to be pet or panting loudly.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends that writers make a point of being active. He takes a regular 4 mile walk to clear his head and work through troublesome plot points. Walking is definitely a great thing for a writer. No matter how frustrated I am at the start of a walk, after half a mile or so I feel better and it's easier to figure things out. Like Stephen King I live in New England and despite my love for watching falling snow and curling up with a cup of hot cocoa I'm not walking 4 miles in the middle of a polar vortex.

Lucky for me, I love my yoga and that can be done in the warmth of my living room anytime. I try to practice every morning. That means I usually do it at least four days a week. Four days is generally enough to keep me satisfied and the crankypants safely tucked away.

No matter how much we plan and work on it, there will always be times when we feel off balance. The important thing to remember while we wobble through the day is that finding that balance isn't a final goal that will ever be complete. It's a constant work in progress.

What do you need to stay balanced?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Report Monday: A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

Author: Deborah Harkness

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell. (from Goodreads)

Why Did I Pick it Up?: When this first came out, I kept picking it up in bookstores and putting it down again. I don't know why I continuously do this flirtatious back and forth with some books. It's not as though the book will be different next time. More recently during a discussion of the Outlander series, someone suggested that I read A Discovery of Witches and so I added it to my list.

My Review: I couldn't believe I wanted so long to read this. It's exactly my kind of story. Set in present day Oxford, the three types of non-human creatures are all after Diana Bishop and the book she accidentally got her hands on. Vampires can walk in sunlight and blend with humans easily, daemons who are intuitive and generally a bit crazy, and witches who can work magic through spells. The three species are not fond of each other. In fact, there are rules about fraternizing between the groups. Diana, who considers herself to be a historian and not a witch at all, struggles with her place among the creatures who all want to know about the book. All she wants is to be left out of it, but her curiosity is piqued. Soon she too wonders how she got a hold of the book and why the creatures are so interested in an ancient book about alchemy.

After an encounter at the library, Diana befriends Matthew, a handsome scientist and vampire. He does his best to protect Diana while the number of creatures lingering in Oxford swells. And I did my best to root for them. C'mon they met in the library, that's like every other romantic dream I have.

I found Diana easy to relate with, maybe it was all the yoga she does. Her reason for shunning magic is based on her parents' deaths. They were murdered because of their abilities when Diana was seven. As much as I felt frustrated with her disregard for her witch identity, I understood. I just wouldn't be able to resist doing magic if I could.

A Discovery of Witches is in my opinion a tale of self discovery and self acceptance more so than it is about magic and vampires. I've already read the second book in the series and I'm impatiently awaiting the third, which will be published this summer.

This reminded me of Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My Recommendation: I'll repeat why it was recommended to me, fans of the Outlander series would like this, as would anyone looking for a book that contains vampires but not teenagers. 

For Next Time: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Friday, March 21, 2014

A New Season, An Anniversary, and a Bit of Wisdom

Happy Spring! I was prepared for an anticlimactic equinox since I'm so far north but yesterday and today have been warm and sunny in Massachusetts. I do love the snow-it was part of the reason I relocated to New England-but I cannot contain my excitement to shed the layers and feel less like the little brother in A Christmas Story every time I walk the dog.

I've missed being outside. Every chance I've had to be out on a warmer day, I've taken. Walking to the grocery store and hiking with friends have been great but when those days are followed by a week of single digit temperatures it's saddening to pull those layers back on. And not just because I can't put my arms down.

This weekend also marks my first full year in Massachusetts. (Insert comment about time flying here)
All my worldly possessions barely fit into the truck. P.S. Thanks Julie.

 It's been a great twelve months. I read a lot of books, ran three 5Ks and one 4 mile race, and had a year's worth of good times. Looking through the pictures on my phone though it looks like my dog slept a lot and I ate a massive amount of oatmeal. Seriously, why don't I ever take pictures of people?

Clearly, I find my dog and my breakfast to be respectively cute and delicious and therefore must document each of them as often as possible. My friends on snapchat can attest to this.

I'm sure many of them wonder if there's more to Monica's life than oats and a furry companion. Hopefully I never have to choose between the two.

Just kidding, I'd take my Cody any day, just look at that face, but I'd be sad at breakfast.

He does things like this all the time. Can you blame me for all the pics?

My grandmother use to say, you can't really know someone until you've known them through all four seasons. I thought this was not only to be taken literally since you will be familiar with a person after a year, but also because you need to know someone through their own seasons of emotional highs and lows. In a year, you're bound to experience bad news and tough times and we don't really know one another until we share the ups and the downs. Perhaps the same thing is true for places? If it is, then I suppose it's safe to say I'm here to stay.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Evening with Alice Hoffman

On February 25th Alice Hoffman made an appearance at Newtonville Books, conveniently accessible to me via the subway. It's important to note that in June of 2009, I headed to Long Island to attend one of her signings for The Story Sisters. I had never been to Long Island and had printed directions from MapQuest. Turned out that was a mistake. I was in traffic for hours. I was in the Lincoln Tunnel forever. The directions estimated 2.5 hours and even though I had taken the day off from work and left at 3pm for a 7pm signing, I didn't arrive until 8:30. The signing was over and Alice Hoffman was gone. I bought one of the signed copies and left. Since then I've read more of her novels and my admiration has at least doubled. You can imagine how determined I was to actually meet her this time.

I arrived with time to snag a seat in the center and purchase her latest book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Newtonville Books is a cool bookstore. I know all bookstores are cool, right? But check out their check out counter filled with books.

I could feel energy dancing through me, but I managed to stay still and not draw unwanted attention. Thanks yoga. The first thing she talked about was her life as a writer. As much as I love her books, I didn't know much about her personal life or how her writing career began. It's generally reassuring to hear wildly successful authors talk about writing. Their habits and methods are so similar to my own that it's a validation that I'm not on the completely wrong track, as I frequently fear I might be. She described her feelings when she starts a new project saying, "I can't write this. I don't know who that writer was that wrote all those other novels under my name but it can't have been me." While it's not exactly reassuring that writers never lose their doubt, it is a comfort that they write their way through it. If they can, maybe I can too. She talked about having writer's block and how she never expected to write a book like The Dovekeepers or The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She read from the book and answered questions.

The book I'm currently writing has involved a lot of research and I asked her how she approached her research for The Dovekeepers, which is set in Masada in 70. She said it was overwhelming at first, but eventually she realized that she only needed to know what her characters knew and so that helped her target her research area. As there isn't a lot of information about women's lives during that time, she found other ways to answer her questions. For example, nomadic tribes making bread in the desert today without any modern technology probably isn't all that different from making bread in the desert almost 2,000 years ago.

Finally, it was book signing time. I was getting my chance to speak to her privately. I had so many things I wanted to say and ask, didn't I? I must have lost most of them while waiting in line. The only ones I could remember seemed foolish. I managed to tell her that I loved all of her novels and she seemed flattered and a bit surprised, maybe because I was much younger than most of the people there. I thought afterwards I'd remember a million questions to ask her, but I didn't. Turns out the words she gives us in her books are enough for me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Report Monday: Gold by Chris Cleave

Title: Gold

Author: Chris Cleave

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: If your dreams pull you in one direction and your heart in another, which should you follow? This is the question that haunts Kate Meadows, a world champion athlete whose eight-year-old daughter Sophie is battling a recurrence of childhood leukemia just as Kate is about to compete for her last chance at an Olympic gold medal. For years, Kate has sacrificed everything for her family and watched her best friend and closest rival, Zoe Castle, conquer the world stage. Kate has never won gold and will have to go through Zoe - who has everything to lose - to get it. Now her child is facing a life-threatening illness, and the stakes are higher than ever. How can she do what is right for her daughter without abandoning all of her dreams?

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: I read Little Bee by Chris Cleave several years ago and immediately put him on my "Must Read Everything By These Authors" list.

My Review: Gold is a different kind of book than Cleave's prior Incendiary and Little Bee, both of which were shorter, first person narratives dealing with issues that are not only political but deeply heart wrenching. Gold focuses on Olympic athletes, not quite on the same level as terrorism, which is at the core of Incendiary. Still the writing is solid and the conflict is clear even if it's not a global hot topic.

After years of training and competing together Zoe and Kate have become friends in addition to being rivals. It's a tough place to be with no middle ground, particularly when only one of them can go to the Olympics. Meanwhile Zoe continues her downward spiral of self destruction and Kate juggles her career with her family life as her daughter has a recurrence of cancer. Sophie, the little girl struggling with leukemia, is obsessed with Star Wars and I enjoyed all the references.

Since the  main characters are elite cyclists preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I felt that I learned a lot about Olympic athletes and cycling especially. Don't be deterred if you're not interested in those topics. It was never forced or boring, rather the educational tidbits wove in and out of the story naturally. I appreciated that.

I read this before the Winter Olympics in Socchi and whenever I heard about athletes who shared coaches and training facilities competing against each other, I remembered Zoe and Kate.

My Recommendation: Do you know someone who keeps telling you to read Jodi Piccoult's latest Tearjerker? Give them this. Also anyone into cycling should check it out.

For Next Week: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Friday, March 14, 2014

Finally Friday and I Took a Trip to New York

Don't you love these shoes?

I had a client meeting in New York City this week and couldn't resist getting new shoes from ModCloth to mark the occasion.

I rode the train from Boston, and as we made our way south I saw lakes, beaches, and less and less snow. Trains have always been productive places for me. I can write, work and read without worrying about anything else that needs to get done. Other passengers act like blinders to distractions and keep me focused. This trip was no exception, though I couldn't write the whole time. I had to review notes and prepare for my meeting.

I love traveling, but traveling as a vegan can be a challenge. Traveling as a whole foods, organic, health nut, vegan can be impossible. Usually, I pack a lot of food with me, but New York City is full of options and I had a list of places near my hotel that I wanted try. First, after getting off the train I stopped at Terri. They have ready-made salads, wraps, baked goods and juices without additives. I grabbed their Lady in Red juice for breakfast the next day. The ingredients are beets, pineapple, carrots, and oranges. Nothing else. I took that and my Kale Superfood Salad back to my hotel.


When I got there, I was instantly confused.

The lobby is ultra modern and I couldn't locate the front desk. People were all over, just hanging out. Carrying drinks from the bar. Everything is grey, white and black. I now have a better understanding of Katniss's experience when she goes to the Capitol for the first time.

Front Desk

Far more like a night club than a hotel, but I found my way after a few minutes of wandering around. Of course once I found it, it seemed obvious. You know, sometimes when you enter a new setting nothing makes sense at first? I'm sure it's not me who experiences that disorientation but I still felt like a bumpkin for not figuring it out.

Between the frustration of locating the front desk and walking through the city with my bags, I was more than ready for dinner. The salad and juice were both delicious. Terri has a wide selection of vegan baked goods. I even saw a vegan, gluten-free cupcake, but I had packed my last chocolate chip cookie from a homemade batch and didn't try any of their desserts.

The meeting went well, I won't bore you with the details. Afterwards, everyone left for the airport. I was the only one from my company taking the train and was free to walk around the city and enjoy the warm day. It was 65 degrees and sunny. New York is more crowded than Boston, but the real difference to me isn't noticeable until I look up. Boston has few skyscrapers, and the tallest one is only 60 stories. In New York that's nothing. Looking up has an overwhelming dizzying effect. It's astounding to me when I think about what we're capable of creating. Even with the weirdos in Times Square dressed up like superheros and speaking to me in Spanish, I kind of didn't want to leave the crowds or sunshine and I definitely wanted to stay for the 65 degrees!

Until my feet started to object to all my walking in cute shoes, then I was ready to head home. I grabbed dinner at The Loving Hut for the train ride. I had been looking forward to it, but was disappointed. It was tofu, rice and vegetables in their chile pasilla sauce. Pretty standard vegan take out, but the tofu was uncooked and hadn't been marinated. I would expect that from a conventional restaurant offering one or two vegan options, but not from a vegan restaurant in Manhattan.

The journey home was dedicated to writing since my brain would melt if I tried to work more. All around it was a productive trip, but it did make my week feel longer than usual so I'm especially happy it's Friday and it's Pi Day!

Don't forget to enjoy some pie to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fact Facing, Overcoming Doubt, and the Truth about Writer's Block

Writers are a sensitive bunch and some days I feel like I'm the most sensitive one. Not that I'm always doubting myself. It comes in bursts of moroseness. The confidence and pride also comes and those are the best times. Those are the times when I tie up my manuscript in a pretty word document and send it off to family and friends. There's still fear that they won't like it, but I know none of my nearest and dearest would be mean even if they thought it was dreadful.

That's how I felt when I sent my YA Fantasy to a few friends and two of my sisters (also considered friends). I was prepared for lukewarm reactions though I hoped they'd enjoy it. What I wasn't prepared for was for some of them to not read it at all. I sent it to nine people and four of them didn't read it. The worst part was, two of the ones who didn't read it were my sisters. Years ago, someone had told me not to send my sisters copies because they wouldn't read it. I had more faith in my sisters than that, of course they'd read it! They're my sisters. It's been almost two years since I sent them that manuscript and neither one of them has read it.

I've asked them why. They both say they want to. They intend to read it soon. They're going to start it tonight. They want to read it with their kids. There's no end to the promises but there's been no clue as to why they won't read it. 

At first, I didn't think much about it. Four of my friends enjoyed it and some even provided comments. I was busy working on another story. After a year though, it got to me. The doubt crept in and planted itself firmly in the part of myself I call on to write. Every time I sat down to work, I questioned my actions. "Why should I write books even my own sisters won't read?" Even my own sisters won't read. Even my own sisters won't read. The words formed an anti-mantra that would not stop until I closed my laptop and lost myself in a cup full of tea and a book full of another writer's words. A writer who's siblings undoubtedly read what they wrote.

I still wrote but less and less. The words came haltingly and I had no confidence or faith in them. I pitied my story that it fell into my hands rather than into the hands of someone who could tell it. People asked about my writing (though my sisters never did) and I just shook my head and said, "It's slow going." Slow was generous. All my time "working" was spent tweaking sentences I'd already written or refreshing my Facebook news feed. My book was progressing at the speed of sloth.

I felt ashamed, stupid, and a little angry. During the summer I tried to force a timeline to finish a first draft of my stagnant book, but I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. Far from bringing me joy, I was miserable at the thought of typing nonsense for no reason.

Everything is relative
In February, I visited my family in Florida. One night when just the two of us were driving back from Universal, my mother asked how my writing was going. I was honest. "It's not. I don't see the point of it," I said and explained how my confidence had been worn away. She was not pleased. I should mention that my mother has become an irritatingly agreeable person, so this was unexpected. "I thought you were stronger than that," she told me and she didn't stop there. My mom laid the truth out flat. If I wanted to write, I had to be tougher. Lots of people won't read my books and some people that do might passionately loathe them and post about it on the Internet. Yes, it hurts knowing that important people seem not to care about my writing, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't care about my writing anymore. As much as it sucked to hear it, I had to admit she had a point. 

A few days after, my friend Ashley, who did read my book, asked about the first book I ever wrote which had been shelved before anyone read it all the way through. A while ago, I had told her about the premise and now she wanted to read it. It was perfect timing. I gave that dusty, old manuscript a quick edit and sent it to her and my mom. The following day, I picked up the project I'd been ignoring and have been working on it every day. I stay up writing until I have no words left and my dog is grumbling for a walk. My thoughts drift to what the characters say if they were cramped into a crowded subway car with me on my way to work. I've received concerned looks from other passengers when I laugh out loud at their responses in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but don't feel crazy. I feel like I'm back.

With my mom enjoying a Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks

I believe now that it was a form of writer's block. I thought writer's block was not knowing what to write about, which sounds terrible enough, but not being able to write even with ideas pounding away inside of me was a different kind of horror. Block seems innocent compared to what I experienced. I had the Hoover Dam of writer's block. I wasn't depressed or miserable except for when I tried to write. I distracted myself with other hobbies and my friends, but I wasn't completely me during that time and I'm 100% me now. Only now I don't care if no one reads my book. I'm just happy to be writing and relieving the pressure that's been building up internally for so long.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Report Monday: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?:  If you don't know that I heart Neil Gaiman, well now you know.

Doesn't the cover remind you of Imaginary Girls

Favorite Line: "Books are safer than other people anyway."

I'm sure there were other gems but I only made note of that one.

My Review: Gaiman delivers another fantastic adventure. My only complaint is that it was so short. It wasn't too short though. The story was complete and I didn't need more, but I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Lettie and her mysterious past. Along with her mother and grandmother, Lettie Hempstock knows about the magical world and the creatures that sneak across the border separating it from our world. Lettie is far wiser and tougher than her physical appearance would lead people to believe. She protects the young protagonist who is pulled into the dark happenings when a dead man is found in his family's car. As a 7-year old boy, he looks up to Lettie who is older than he is and who has such a no-nonsense way of explaining the magical that can't help but be believed.

Childhood memories often seem surreal to us as adults. Partially do to the fact that we didn't fully understand what was happening at the time. However, time also has a way of erasing some events and highlighting others in our memories. I've confused realities of childhood with dreams I had as a child. What do you mean there was never a tornado at the playground?!

I've had arguments with my sisters over which one of us slammed their hand in the station wagon door or left a hot dog to burn on the stove. Each of us swearing we had done it as if time had fossilized the painful, embarrassing moment into a prized artifact we'd all like to claim. This book will leave you wondering what events you've excavated poorly or perhaps buried altogether.

My Recommendation: Perfect for any fantasy or magical realism fan. I personally think this would be a fabulous rainy day and pot of tea book.

For Next Time: Gold by Chris Cleave