You HAVE to Read This One!

I’ll tell you a secret… There is not an author in the world who can make a living selling books. Authors make a living by having other people sell their books. So you need to get into a position where you’re good enough, you know your craft well enough, you tell good enough stories with enough interest in them, that people will not only read it and go, “That’s pretty good, I’ll read another one,” but they grab their friend and go, “Holy crap, you’ve got to read this book. It’s amazing.” That’s what’s going to get you a living as a writer. —Brandon Sanderson, Writing Excuses podcast, S11.E11

This holiday season, I got more than a few text and emails from people asking for book recommendations for various loved ones of all age groups and I was more than happy to oblige. I love gushing about books I loved, love the puzzle of pairing someone with a new story well-fitted to their tastes, love giving books as gifts! A few of my favorites this year that I think everyone should consider sitting down and reading:

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THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS by Anna-Marie McLemore

YA. Contemporary Romeo and Juliet, with mermaid-nomad performers vs. tree-hopping acrobats. Dark family secrets and grudges and magical realism and so many pretty pretty sentences. Read this in one sitting–which never happens–and I cried. And cuddled the book. I might actually reread this one–which also never happens.

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OPEN ROAD SUMMER by Emery Lord

YA. Summer. Taylor-Swift-esque music sensation BFF roadtrip. Swoony.

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CONSTABLE & TOOP by Gareth P. Jones

MG. Ghosts. England. Absolutely charming heroes and villains.

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HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager

MG. Summer vacation. Stuck on a desert ranch with her family (including a bratty older sister and a grandpa suffering from dementia she just met). Family folklore. Magical realism at it’s absolute finest. Yes, I cried.

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SIX OF CROWS and CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo

YA. Duology. Fantasy. Magic. A dirty slum of a city. A heist. A crew of thieves and witches and soldiers and tight-rope walkers. Absolutely some of the best writing I’ve ever experienced.

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A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

Adult! Book #2 in an amazing fantasy series. Pirates and London pubs and royal Olympic-like games of magical talents.

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A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE by Brittany Cavallaro

YA. (Charlotte) Holmes, meet (Jamie) Watson. In boarding school. In New England. All the spit and fire and sass you love from Sherlock dialogue.

 

 

 

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April/May’s Too-Few Reviews

For a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 3,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,330

Date Published: February 2014

Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books

How I Discovered this Book: Read the first book and found out it was a series when exploring on Goodreads. (As they say, backlist sells front list!)

Thoughts: Just as adorable as the first book, full of voice and humor, the tale of a child detective agency in a rural southern small town, with the added bonus mystery of a haunted historic inn with a real true ghost. If you haven’t read Three Times Lucky, get on it, then read this. If you have read Three Times Lucky, what are you waiting for??

Book: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,883

Date Published: December 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Young to Publishing Little Big Mouth promotion sent me an ARC.

Thoughts: A mash-up retelling of The Seven Swans (Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, take your pick) and Sleeping Beauty–though way more original material than retelling–this was an epic fairytale adventure story. Tension, emotional rollercoaster, one of the best romantic subplots I’ve enjoyed in a while, fairy-trained princess warrior on a mission to save her brother from soul-sucking ogres…need I say more?

Book: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,440

Date Published: March 2015

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: I feel like this book was ALL that Twitter was talking about for weeks before it published. I grabbed a copy as soon as I could get my hands on it–the hype was high.

Thoughts: Masterful. I read in an interview that this was intended to be a retelling of Persephone, but it’s so subtle, so original, so NEW that I didn’t catch on to the hint of a retelling without having it pointed out to me. Set in contemporary farming/small town Bone Gap, Illinois, there’s something odd, magical, and sinister going on. Told from four different perspectives–two brothers and two kick-ass ladies who save themselves from dire situations over and over again–I don’t know how to express how completely wonderful and perfect this story and these characters are. There’s a magical horse. And so many different forms of love. Honey-dipped s’mores (this sounds like an awesome idea, I must try it). And creepy creepy corn fields that dance and whisper in the night. I honestly haven’t loved a book as much as this since Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I know they’re set in totally different places–imaginary British island vs. land-locked midwest–but they FEEL like they’re in the same universe. That might not make sense, but read it and you’ll understand.

Book: The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,522

Date Published: September 2012

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

How I Discovered this Book: First introduced through the Cabinet of Curiosities, which Bachmann contributed short stories to. I enjoyed his stories in particular so much that I picked up a copy of his full-length work.

Thoughts: Poetic and amazing world building. It had me totally believing that fairies really did live in Edwardian England (perhaps they did!). Evil political schemes and half-fairy children being hunted down by a mysterious force combined to make a charming and page-turning adventure.

Book: Hexed by Michelle Krys

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,389

Date Published: June 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Stumbled across this title on a blog post somewhere. Upon looking up the description on Goodreads, I was intrigued enough to get my hands on a copy.

Thoughts: A fun, snarky, spoofy story about a cheerleader who finds out she’s a witch with a family history of protecting a very important spell book. She experiences more death threats than I could count (okay, I can count that high, I just choose not to, hence, why I do not follow basketball) made by nasty enemy magicians hell-bent on killing the entire witch population while also trying to deal with her social life shredding to pieces. If you want a book with magic that has you biting your nails until the end, this be it!

Binge-Worthy Stories

Like a bear, I tend to hibernate in the winter. I curl up inside under blanks and in many layers of clothes. I pull the dog up onto the couch with me to increase the snuggling and warmth factor and allow myself to binge on a lot of things I wouldn’t normally allow when the weather is nicer and I have less excuses for being an inside hermit. So while I say I hate winter–I do, I’m totally a summer kind of person–I’ve also made the best of it. It’s the only time I really allow myself to watch TV without personal judgment. Hours spent in front of the TV, paging through blogs, reading obscure articles, reading for hours on end while I let the dishes pile up? TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR IN WINTER. Totally permissible choices for winter leisure activities.

Summer is for outside and for travel and for doing things and seeing things besides book pages (though book pages while laying out by the pool or beach is also totally acceptable!)

So I read a lot in the winter. But I also consume stories in other ways, usually in a binging sort of way. Netflix and podcasts and series totally accommodate that craving. Also, there is the associated binging sort of consumption of fresh-from-the-oven brownies and chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate and homemade soup (to balance it out).

Despite a big ‘ol snow storm on the first day of spring, we’re finally starting to get some nice-ish weather here in New Jersey. It’s time to pack away the Netflix and other things (though podcasts are all-seasons friendly! Won’t be giving those up!). Winter was pretty much a montage of the following:

First Draft Podcast with Sarah Enni. Interviews with awesome YA authors, many of them debuts, as they discuss their childhood, how they came to fall in love with writing, and their writing process. Love!

Broadchurch, Season 1. I’ll admit it. I watched all of this in one bleary-eyed evening on Netflix. I HAD TO KNOW WHO ‘DUN IT! It was fantastic. I am told that this was also Americanized, with the same main actor David Tennant, in the show Gracepoint, but…who in their right mind would prefer to watch the same story played out in an American setting when it could be set on the English coast with all the people speaking in ENGLISH ACCENTS? I question these sorts of life choices other people make. I really do.

Serial Podcast. I was probably the last person in the world who listened to this–you all already listened to this too, didn’t you?–so I didn’t understand why everyone was talking about it all the time at work. By the time I finally listened to it–barely pausing for breaks, listening to it while I walked the dog, drove to work, took my lunch hour, did the dishes–nobody wanted to talk about it with me anymore… I have complicated personal feelings on the American judicial system for reasons and this podast really made me critically think.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 1. I was also late to the game on this one. Funny, fluffy, different. Binged it in a week on Netflix.

Parks and Rec, All the Seasons. I watched all the seasons this winter, except the final one that just came out. I know. YEARS late to this fangirl party. But OMG. This show got me. And–many can attest to this–I rarely think anything is funny. I often watch comedy show standup and shows like The Office, totally open to laughing, but instead, while generally enjoying it, usually only cracking a few smiles total. But I cried happy tears so many times watching this show! Among other things, it had the best representation of best (girl) friends I’ve ever seen in a television show.

Agent Carter, Season 1. I have already spoken about this before on the blog, but this was SO GOOD it begs repeating. As a general rule, I love Marvel movies and Agent Carter was like an eight-hour long, kick-ass Marvel movie finally staring a smart lady AND IT WAS IN 1940s PERIOD NEW YORK CITY. It gave me superheros and supervillians and historical fiction and amazing costumes/shoes in one tidy package. Perfect.

March’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Kursed by Lindsay Smith

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 3

Date Published: March 3, 2015

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

How I Discovered this Book: I initially discovered the author Lindsay Smith through the lovely podcast series, First Draft (if you haven’t started listening to this and you are a writer and lover of YA/MG…start with Lindsay’s interview here). As a result, I started following Lindsay on Twitter. She tweeted that the prequel to her YA book/series Sekret was on sale for only $1.99 and I preordered it on the spot! I had been curious about her writing and this seemed as a good a place to start as any!

Thoughts: WWII Russia. Plus scientists. Plus PSYCHICS. Using mind powers to bend enemies to their will and have Nazis expose their research secrets and proceed with general bad-assery, I picked up this book soon after I finished binge-watching the Marvel/Captain America TV spin-off, Agent Carter, which was so perfectly spies meets superheroes meets awesome 1950s outfits and heels. I could TOTALLY imagine this little novella taking place in the exact same universe/time period as Agent Carter, but half a world away. What else could you ask for?! This taste definitely got me interested in picking up the first full book in the series.

Book: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,830

Date Published: September 30, 2014

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

How I Discovered this Book: Similar to Lindsay Smith above, I discovered this author and book through the podcast First Draft. If you’re interested in Robin’s interview that got me hooked on picking up her book, try here.

Thoughts: Segregation-era Virginia, telling the story of the first black students who attend the previously all-white–and still very much wants to be that way–prestigious local high school. The scenes in this story were so interesting because though I studied segregation in a variety of history classes in my academic career and have experienced a lot of museum exhibits on the topic, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of the experience, the horrors big and small, from the perspective of children and young adults. Add to that complex situation the fact that one of the black and one of the white students start developing feelings for each other…and they’re both young women. Perfect book to pick up if the We Need Diverse Books campaign has you itching for something different.

How the Writing is Going

A thing that I’ve heard many writers say many times before is that every book you write teaches you something. I like that idea. It’s a concept that’s always appealed to me. For a long time, though, I was having trouble figuring out what, exactly, each of my failed manuscripts was trying to teach me. There was a lesson there, somewhere–there had to be!–but I just couldn’t find it.

Now that I can look back on a sequence of several shelved manuscripts, tucked away in the dark corners of various flash drives hidden in dark desk drawers, I’ve realized that they were mostly just teaching me the same thing: You’re not ready, not yet. I’d write this pile of words that had a few glimmers–some good writing, a few characters I became particularly fond of, a place definitely worth setting a story in–and I’d look at it once I had typed “The End” and just know with this heart-sinking feeling that this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a story–just a few random events with the same cast of characters strung together in chronological order–and I wasn’t capable of making it into something book-shaped. I would think on it for months and wouldn’t be able to think of a single idea that would salvage this not-book-shaped thing I had worked on for months, maybe a year. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t there yet. So I’d start again.

With each passing failed manuscript, it was getting harder and harder to admit that I still wasn’t ready, this still wasn’t the book that was worth showing to beta readers, would get me an agent, would make it on bookshelves. It was particularly hard for me to admit that fact with the last manuscript, the one I spent all of 2013 writing. My writing was definitely getting better. There were some fleshed out scenes I could see so vividly, certain snatches of dialogue (and let me tell you, dialogue for me is HARD!) that would catch me on a reread. It sounded, a little, like a book. And the characters were the most real human creations I had ever been able to make with my own words. I wanted this book to work. I needed it to work. So, for the first time ever, I went back into a manuscript and tried to revise it–not petty line edits and sentence restructuring, not just adding flowering words here and there–real revision, moving around events and adding things and changing motivations. I spent months trying to revise that could-maybe-be-book-shaped thing and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I hadn’t enjoyed drafting the book–I’m just not the type of writer who enjoys drafting–but I had assumed all those years that I would really like revising, once I finally got to experience it. It was the polishing point of the process, where all the good ideas came together. It was the part I had loved the most about giant academic papers in college, taking that raw material I had dumped on the page and making every single word right, making them the right words in the right places in the right order. Shouldn’t some stage of the writing be fun, if I’m a writer?

But revising this manuscript was no more fun than drafting it had been. If anything, it was worse. The plot just wasn’t working and it felt like the characters were glaring out of their world at me. If you could just figure out this revising thing, if you could just do this thing right, you could do us justice, they seemed to be saying. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t that I was broken–it wasn’t that I was completely incompetent at revising–it was that the story was broken. And it was also partly because I wasn’t the same person who had written that first draft. I still cared about the characters, but I didn’t care about the plot, about what the book was about, anymore. I wasn’t as excited about answering the questions I had been so eager to find answers to the year before. I had, for all intents and purposes, outgrown the story. So I shelved it.

It was hard, shelving that book. There are parts of it that I believe might be the best stuff I’ve ever written. And at that point, one year ago this month, I had been trying to write a book for a long time. I’m one of those people who wrote books in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Has always dreamed of being a writer. I fell in love with children’s literature and never really left it. I’ve been devouring it, studying voice and trends and watching the young adult branch of publishing grow and boom. I’ve been reading about literary agents and publishers through my favorite author’s blogs for nearly ten years now–since I was a little public school baby writer–all with one goal in mind: sharing a quality book worth reading with readers. How wasn’t I there, yet? Why were other people, who had just randomly woken up one day last year and decided they wanted to write a young adult book get it done right on their first try? How was it possible that this most recent not-book-shaped thing was still telling me You’re not ready?

Every time I try out a new idea, type up the words “Chapter 1,” for the first time, I try something different. It’d always be young adult, but it’d be a different genre: young adult fantasy, young adult dystopian, young adult historical, trying to find the right fit. I’d try different tenses, pants vs. plot, and different formats, like a book told completely in journal entries. When I set down to write the new book of 2014, it was really different for me. Third person. Middle grade. Male protagonist. I had never done any of those things before.

The drafting, as always, was hard. I kind of hate drafting, I’ve realized. It’s painful for me. I want things to be good–I derive a lot of pride and joy from good sentences, good writing, great characters, from writing I enjoy reading after I’ve written it–and first drafts are just by nature mediocre at best, nothing to ever brag about. And somewhere in the middle of every story I always get completely lost, whether I have an outline or not, and the quality deteriorates even further from there as I write in circles, just throwing words at the page trying to see what sticks. Stuck somewhere in the middle of my story, for a lot of weeks this summer, I didn’t write at all.

I was feeling more confident about this book, though, towards the end of 2014. I felt like I had a better handle on all the things–story, characters, dialogue, scene structure, tension, and that ever-elusive creature “voice”–than I had ever had in the past. I would read over passages and knew that, at the very least, I was definitely becoming a better writer, I was definitely better than I had been a few years before and that was a relief. At least I was getting somewhere.

When I reread the full draft last month, the whispering was a little different than it’s been before. The whispering was, this could work. It doesn’t work yet. But it could.

As I said before, I dislike drafting. I certainly can’t make myself do it every day, as so many people claim “real” writers do. It’s too draining and if I force myself to do it every day, I end up tossing the words usually anyway, and I end up hating writing, avoiding it, even more than I already want to do during the dreaded drafting stage. During the 2013 manuscript, I finally understood that writing every day just wasn’t something I could do while also balancing everything else–exercise, friends, family, reading, full-time job. And I forgave myself for that.

So that’s why how I’ve been reacting to revising this book has surprised me so much.

I’m 22,000 words in now and I’m not slowing down. I put myself on an idealistic 5,000 words a week schedule…and I’m actually a little bit ahead, which I’m pleased about for now. But the way that I stay on schedule means I have to dedicate a decent chunk of hours to consistently revising every week. I originally gave myself the goal of three times a week, totally reasonable. The thing that’s really been surprising me, though, is that three times isn’t enough…not hours-wise, but emotionally. I WANT to revise this story every day, all the time. I’m driving somewhere and I’m thinking about tackling the next scene, diving back into my little fictional neighborhood. I’ve started carrying around a dozen or so pages in progress in my purse all the time (I print out the first draft and pretty much rewrite every sentence by hand and then revise even further when I type it up that night) and edit a half an hour here or there, in-between doctor’s appointments, on lunch breaks. There’s a momentum building with this story as I nail down each chapter that I’ve never experienced before. I feel like there’s a little train, like the miniature one that circles around Christmas villages, in my head, plugging away to the tune This could be it, this might be it, it’s finally sort of working, I think this is working.

This is what revising looks like. Lot's of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

This is what revising looks like. Lot’s of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

So that’s where I am, in case you were wondering. 22,000 words into a 65,000 revision/rewrite, with the plan to finish the second draft by April 1st (no joke) and get it out to some beta readers. Barring any really awful, unanticipatedly drastic feedback, I think that should take about two months. So…the plan is to seriously start querying in June, then I guess.

Fingers crossed this manuscript keeps liking me and I keep liking it and my beta readers like it after that…

Who Won? 2014 Edition: Audiobooks vs. eBooks vs. “Real” Books

As I do every year around this time (reflect back to 2013 stats and 2012 stats, respectively, if you so chose) I examine not just what I read, but how I read it.

In 2012, of the 64 books I had read in the calendar year, 28 were physical books, 22 were eBooks, and 14 were audiobooks. Rounding up those percentages, that’s 44% physical paper books, 34% eBooks, and 22% audiobooks.

In 2013, I read significantly more, clocking in at 98 total books read. Of these, 46 were audiobooks, 29 were eBooks, and 23 were physical books. That’s 47% audiobooks, 30% eBooks, and 23% physical books.

This year, in 2014, I read 73 books total for pleasure (I’m not counting manuscripts that I copyedited). Of that, 42 were audiobooks, 19 were physical books, and 12 were eBooks. That’s 51% audiobooks, 23% physical books, and 14% eBooks.

I’m a little surprised, honestly. Not that I read a greater percentage of audiobooks this year than anything else (I noticed that throughout the year), but the sheer number of audiobooks. Forty-two!! At each clocking in at, let’s say, an average of 10 hours each, that’s at least 420 hours spent LISTENING to audiobooks this year! That’s a solid 17.5 days of my life–this year alone–spent simply listening to audiobooks (to be fair, I usually listen to audiobooks while doing other things; folding laundry, walking the dog, driving somewhere). Admittedly, I listened to more audiobooks the year before, but I guess I had never done the math before.

Otherwise, the physical book spike, in percentages at least, makes sense to me. Once I started at HarperCollins this year, I started having access to a ton of great print books to read, more access than I’ve had in previous years.

I’m pretty happy with the amount of reading I did this year. I read a lot of interesting books I really enjoyed. I read a lot more middle grade than I’ve read in recent years, which helped keep me in the mood for my WIP. In 2015, I want to keep up about the same pace, perhaps increasing the number of under-reviewed books I choose to read, the smaller, less-well-heard-of books. Mostly, this year, though, I want to enjoy reading but also put down the books long enough to have enough time to write my own books and finally get them onto somebody else’s to-read list.

Too Few Book Reviews: November/December

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Book: Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 998

Date Published: September 2013

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: Earlier in the fall, I attended the Women Who Write conference in northern New Jersey. The guest speaker was Chris Grabenstein, author of Escape from Mr. Limoncello’s Library, and coauthor with James Patterson on several other children’s books, including I, Funny. I enjoyed Chris Grabenstein’s talks (one on avoiding writer’s block and the  other on plotting) a lot and wanted to see how he plotted his books. So I checked out everything available in my local library’s audiobook archives. First I, Funny, then I moved onto this one.

Thoughts: This is an everything but the kitchen sink sort of book–there are pirates, storms, kidnappings, treasure hunting, history, siblings–with lots of adventure and cooky situations. I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I were actually a young kid, which is fine, that’s the intended audience! It read a lot like a sitcom TV episode–fast paced, full of typical comedic situations, entertaining, but just about as memorable; the plot and characters made a fleeting impression on me. I’d more highly recommend these co-author’s other book I, Funny, which has a strong and unique voice, and is one of the better middle grade books I’ve read in a while.

Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 910

Date Published: July 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: Sifting through the local library audiobook archives again, I surprised myself by finding a book by Cornelia Funke–in fact, an entire series–that I had never read or even heard of before! Imagine my delight! From Inkheart to The Thief Lord, she was one of my absolute favorite author’s as a kid.

Thoughts: Cute, funny, young middle grade with messy ghosts and old ladies with lots of personality and all of Cornelia Funke’s classic imagination. As a kid, I wanted to live in the world as Cornelia Funke imagined it. It’s nice to know that, as an adult, that feeling hasn’t really changed. Her stories are still just as magical now for me as they were then.

Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invisible Lightning Ghost! By Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 487

Date Published: October 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: See explanation above.

Thoughts: Book #2 in the series, just as cute and charming as the first.