May 28, 2015


It's almost time for the first Bay Area Book Festival, June 6 and 7 in Berkeley, and I can't wait! The organizers have put together an amazing schedule of talks and panels featuring an incredible set of authors, and there will be art, exhibitors, and food stalls to wander through. The festival is free and open to everyone, but to reserve seats for the indoor events and avoid waiting in line, you can purchase individual session tickets for a couple of dollars each. I have tickets for a bunch of Saturday events, and I'll report back on my festival experience.

I'm also excited about heading into the home stretch of this revision! As of today, I've completed all the chapters that I expect to be tricky. Yes, sure, two chapters ago I also declared I was through all the tough parts, but now I'm totally confident that the rest will be smooth sailing. And no matter how the process of tackling the remaining chapters goes, I will be done with this draft soon, and I'm thrilled.

What happens after this revision, you ask? Well, I'll send out the improved, shortened manuscript for another try, and then I'll work hard at distracting myself with other writing. Planning on the future novel has slowed the past couple of weeks due to putting more time into revision, but before that I was making steady progress on an initial detailed outline, and I'm somewhat close to the end of that as well.

Summertime means travel on the horizon for me, and I'm looking forward to enjoying that with at least one major writing project accomplished and some steps toward whatever comes next.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hillary Kelly argues that publishers should bring back the serialized novel: "When we can freely turn to the next chapter in our novels, we can quash any suspense with the flip of a page. Slicing a novel into bits and slowly doling it out to the reading public takes control of that tension away from the reader, allowing it to ferment and blossom." (Thanks, The Millions!)

May 22, 2015

Early Book Reviews

During the investigation of my childhood writing, we've learned that in fourth and fifth grade, I especially enjoyed writing stories with mysterious and spooky elements. None of these efforts contain much in the way of actual mystery, but hey, mysteries are hard. Even after writing seriously for years, I still don't have any idea how to go about constructing a true mystery story.

As you might expect, this focus in my early writing was a result of the books I read. When asked in fifth grade to compose a brief essay about my hero, I turned in an enthusiastic tribute to John Bellairs, a writer of gothic mysteries for kids who I remember best for THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. While my hero worship didn't extend to spelling his name right, it's clear that his novels influenced my writing:

My hero is author John Belairs. He writes wonderful mysteries that keep me in suspense. His stories are mostly about kids my age. Mr. Belairs writes about magical things like magic rings and curses and stuff like that. His books always have some evil creature who is trying to harm the good people. Mr. Belairs has written seven books that I know about. I have read four and found each one fantastic. The books are the kind that you just absolutely have to find out what happens next. So if you asked me to rate John Belairs on a scale of one to ten, my answer would be, "Eleven!"

My fifth grade folder includes assignments on several mystery and suspense books I admired, and I took a pleasant trip down memory lane recalling the work of some excellent writers. I also found myself rather impressed by the reviewing competence of my young self. These book reviews (okay, fine, book reports) aren't bad for a ten-year-old.

On THE LONG SECRET by Louise Fitzhugh, a sequel to HARRIET THE SPY:

Someone is leaving mysterious notes. Mousy Beth Ellen is being dragged all over by her friend Harriet to find out who. Harriet "The Spy" Welsh is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She'll rip apart the little town of Water Mill if that's what it takes. On the other hand, Beth Ellen has her own problem. She lives with her grandmother, but now Beth Ellen's mother is coming home. Beth Ellen doesn't like her mother, or her mother's boyfriend Wallace. Not that her mother particuarlly [sic] likes Beth Ellen. Getting back to the notes, Harriet now has a list of suspects who might be the note leaver. Is it the Preacher? Is it Jessie Mae Jenkins? Whom do you think is leaving the notes?

Sure, the final question seems a misguided attempt to "leave the reader in suspense", as instructed in the accompanying worksheet (and I believe the "whom" is both courtesy of my teacher and incorrect). But that's a pretty good summary of the plot and conflicts, and as the worksheet says, "It's not easy to tell the story of a long book in just a few sentences."


Is the epidemic that's going around really the flu? Alex Darlington, his best friend Mike Tolliver, and his neighbor Mrs. Potter think that the "flu" might be caused by vampires! Now Alex's sister Peggy is sick, and Alex is almost under the power of Radu, a peculiar character that he meets every day at the library. Why does Alex go to the library? To work on his report: a report on vampires! Garlic, crosses, stakes, grain. Vampires, bats, coffins, evil. Who will win?

Once you've begun reading Prisoner of Vampires by Nancy Garden, you won't be able to stop. Or at least that's how I felt about this spooky, suspenseful book. Ms. Garden forms life-like characters (except the vampires, who are not alive but merely undead), particularly when the grown-ups didn't believe Alex and Mike's vampire theory. This book is written well, it is highly descriptive and frightening. I enjoyed the fact that even though this book discussed vampire movies and books such as "Dracula", it wasn't essential to know these stories. And of course, the best part of this story was: it was fun to read.

There are some darn fine review elements in there, if I do say so myself. Plus, the format of a paragraph of summary followed by a paragraph of reaction is the same one I often employ today. Good job, Past Me!

Incidentally, Nancy Garden is better known for ANNIE ON MY MIND, a novel about two girls who fall in love that was groundbreaking when it was published in 1982. I think Garden once visited my high school's Gay-Straight Alliance to talk about the book, but I might be confused about that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Fiction University, Janice Hardy offers tips to Make the Most of Accidental Foreshadowing: "What almost happens is another potential area to explore for later use. Look at any close calls your protagonist has in the novel. Could they foreshadow another close call? You've already teased readers with it once, so if it happens again, they'll be all the more concerned that this time it'll be real."

May 14, 2015

April Reading Recap

Before May gets completely away from me, here's a look back at what I read in April:

THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: WRITERS ON RACE IN THE LIFE OF THE MIND is an anthology of essays edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. I read Rankine's excellent prose poetry collection CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC and posted about it in January. When I heard Rankine discuss this newer book on an episode of Bookworm (there's also a separate interview about CITIZEN), I was intrigued.

I'm always interested in the topics tackled in THE RACIAL IMAGINARY: how writers address fraught subjects, how to engage in discussions about race, how to write well about and across racial differences. In these essays, writers (mostly poets) reveal how race impacts (or doesn't) their work and their careers. The wide range of viewpoints and approaches make this a great anthology to read, study, and contemplate. The book itself is beautifully designed and includes artwork selected for its relevance to the topics under discussion.

The pieces in this collection are all thoughtful and unflinching. Many of the essayists discuss how difficult these subjects are to write about, or even to consider, and many reveal personal moments of shame or hurt. This book doesn't set out to be a how-to guide for writers (if you're looking for that, I recommend WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward as a good starting point), but I found it helpful in thinking about my own writing. I recommend it to any writer or reader.

→ In THE WILD SHORE by Kim Stanley Robinson, Henry is a teenager living in a small fishing community on the southern California coast. At least, Onofre is part of a place once called California, but that name has been fairly meaningless for sixty years, since a large-scale disaster decimated the population and isolated the small groups of survivors. Henry is fascinated by the stories of his teacher Tom, still spry at over 100 years old, though he's never quite sure whether to believe the tales. When strangers arrive from San Diego, Henry and Tom have the chance to learn more about what happened to the old America and what's going on in the wider world. It's information that may change their whole way of life.

I was excited when I realized Kim Stanley Robinson had written a novel in my beloved post-apocalyptic genre, since I was blown away by his Mars trilogy. THE WILD SHORE was his first published novel, and it turns out to be a rather less accomplished work. While many aspects of the book are interesting and entertaining (there's an especially exciting action sequence near the middle), the story meanders, and a lot of things are set up that didn't really go anywhere.

This is the first book of the Three Californias trilogy, which speculates on three different possible futures, so the other installments feature entirely separate stories and characters. I do plan to read the rest, and I'll be curious to see how they compare and whether this book works better as a part of the whole.

THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Fatima Bhutto: It's the morning of the first day of Eid in Mir Ali, a town in the volatile semi-autonomous region of Pakistan near the Afghan border. The novel follows three brothers as they each rush off to important tasks and meetings before the start of noon prayers. Aman Erum has recently come home from studying in the United States, and he's struggling to adjust to life back in a place he never wanted to return to. Sikander is distracted from his work as a doctor by his troubled wife, who barges in on the funerals of strangers. Hayat, unbeknownst to his brothers, is involved in the underground rebel movement.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It offers a fascinating glimpse into a region I knew nothing about. The characters, family dynamics, and secrets Bhutto sets up are well-developed and rich with possibilities. The plot that unfolds is tense, with carefully placed revelations and buildup. Strong writing makes each scene gripping, and I was always absorbed and eager to find out what would happen next.

However: The political situation of Mir Ali is underexplained within the book, particularly early on when it would be most useful, and I had to do some outside research to orient myself. This is a surprising choice, since most readers won't be aware of the background and may pick up the book precisely because it portrays an unfamiliar locale. Even more confusing is the novel's abrupt ending. I don't expect stories to resolve with every thread neatly tied up, but so many pieces of the three plotlines were left unconnected that I felt like the book was missing its final quarter.

There is much in this novel to recommend, but it fell short of what it might have delivered.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mental Floss presents Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional: "It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded."