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.