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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shocking News: Reading Necessary for Writing

by Shayla Poling

I work for a library. It should thus come as no surprise that I condone reading books. Read books. Read library books. Science1 has proven that it's good for your brain.

I know, I know. It's hard to find the time to read. Books are so long! There are so many words! How are you to read all of those words when life keeps going on around you?

Have you SEEN how many words are in these things?
Who has time for that? I'll just watch all 40 hours of the TV show.
To save time, you know.

What you may not know is that books can fit into your schedule as snugly as they fit in your bookshelf. There are secret intervals scattered throughout your day during which you could replace "doing nothing" with "reading a book." For example, you might read a book while on the toilet. You might read a book while in the bath. You can read a book while waiting for water to boil. You can read a book while waiting for your cake to bake. You can read a book during commercial breaks.

Et cetera, et cetera.

You can do all of this and more through the art of multitasking. Now, there are times when multitasking is a bad thing. Writing is often one of those times. Reading, however, is not. It turns out that there are a lot of things you do throughout the day that are basically mindless. Your body goes through the motions while your brain floats far away, imagining a world where subservient machines wash your dishes for you.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN WE ALREADY HAVE THOSE?

These times are perfect for reading. Obviously more mobile activities might pose a problem, but sedentary moments are ideal for getting your read on.

Walking while reading is an art.
Once mastered, you may be able to perform extraordinary feats
with a dreamy far off look
and your nose stuck in a book.

But Shayla, you may be exclaiming, further ignoring the futility of talking to your computer monitor (who I doubt is named Shayla), what does reading have to do with writing?

Are you really asking that? Like, for real? You know what books are made of, right?

Paper!

I mean, yes, they're made of paper, but that's not the answer I was going for. Books, you see, are made up of paragraphs, which are made up of sentences, which are made up of two primary things: words and grammar.

When you read a book, you learn not only what words are, but how words are used. You learn how to build sentences, how to use your words in a way that both conveys meaning and pleases the brain. You may even learn some new words!

With careful observation, books can improve your grammar as well. Track the wild comma as it stalks throughout your books. Quake before the semi-colon; he is the most misunderstood of grammatical beasts. Learn that ellipses are best used sparingly, and certainly not as end marks for every single piece of
dialogue . . . Same thing for exclamation points! Never use multiple exclamation points!! Ever!!! Not even to put four exclamation points worth of emphasis on your sentence!!!!

Reading books also provides a healthy understanding of when to break the rules of grammar and word-usage over your knee. Rules are, as they cliché, made to be broken. Feel free to use the odd adverb. Don't shy away from the occasional sentence fragment. If it makes your writing flow better, do it.

You've got to feel the flow.

As a last point, I feel I have to mention that you don't need to limit your reading to books in the genre(s) you plan on writing. You can learn something from all kinds of writing, even bad writing. Learning what doesn't work can be just as useful as learning what does. For example, a bad book might teach you how not to craft awful similes.

This "simile" brought to you by an incredibly popular, best-selling YA novel.

Maybe this doesn't need to be said. After all, if you want to write, you probably like to read. However, if you're anything like me, you may have fallen out of the habit for one reason or another. This is my attempt to reach out to those who've had this problem and let them know that no matter how busy your life is, you can still find time to read. Even if it's only for a few minutes a day. You'd be surprised how quickly the page count adds up.

1 "Science," in this case, being used to mean "mildly informed guessing based mostly on past experiences."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Weekly Book Review: Harry Potter (Full Series)

Harry Potter and the Blankety Blank by J.K. Rowling
Genre: Fantasy
Released: 1997-2007

To make up for missing last week's Weekly Book Review, I present you with mini-reviews for every single Harry Potter book. These reviews are arranged in order of preference, from my favorite at the top to my least-loved at the bottom. I should clarify, before we begin, that while I have many complaints about those books near the bottom of this list, I still loved reading each and every one of them. The series as a whole gets an A+ from me, and only His Dark Materials comes close to the sheer number of rereads I've done over the years. Harry Potter lies close to my heart. I criticize it out of love.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Released: September 14, 2008
Genre: Sci-Fi / Young Adult

Summary:

The nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America, is a country that consists of a wealthy Capitol region surrounded by 12 poorer districts. Early in its history, a rebellion led by a 13th district against the Capitol resulted in its destruction and the creation of an annual televised event known as the Hunger Games. In punishment, and as a reminder of the power and grace of the Capitol, each district must yield one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 through a lottery system to participate in the games. The 'tributes' are chosen during the annual Reaping and are forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory.

When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12's female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart Peeta, are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives. , she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

Review:

It's easy to see why The Hunger Games became such a phenomenon. Mixing an interesting idea with decent world-building and a whole lot of tension, The Hunger Games is a gripping read that pulls its audience in with a disturbing premise and keeps them hooked through swiftly escalating action. Its prose serves more to propel the reader through the plot than compel further reading through its own merits. The Hunger Games is a thing of short, clipped sentences and light description, favoring action over moments of thought or observation. Whether that's good or bad is up to your tastes. For me, the prose wasn't bothersome, but it certainly wouldn't have been enough of a draw to keep me reading without Collins' tight plotting.

The Hunger Games sets itself apart from many YA dystopias in that it presents a somewhat believable setting. We have a clear catalyst for the division of the districts and a historical explanation for the Hunger Games themselves. There are a few details that don't quite gel with reality, but I'd wager only the most demanding readers will find fault with novel's presentation of the world until after they've blown through it.

My biggest quibble with The Hunger Games and all of its sequels (especially its sequels) is that it falls into the common YA trap of saddling its heroine with a love triangle made up of two dudes who are both unappealing in their own special ways. Gale doesn't quite breach jerk territory until the next book, but he's also such a non-character in The Hunger Games that it's likely his inner jerkitude was simply biding its time. Peeta, on the other hand, is omnipresent. He somehow manages to be both the unwelcomely (and unnecessarily) protective boyfriend (despite Katniss' disinterest in the relationship except as it relates to their survival) and the damsel in distress at the same time. His presence is annoying, often dragging the excitement down as Katniss must break away from the action and her own developing plans to babysit him. His meagre personality isn't a good match for Katniss', and his strange obsession with her borders on creepy more often than it should.

The romance is, however, responsible for some of the best tactical moments in The Hunger Games, and for that, it can be partially excused. I can only wish Katniss were attached to a more interesting boy.

Like Tom Hiddleston.

Among dystopian YA, The Hunger Games is one of the best. There's a reason it let loose such a trend. Fans of dystopian YA, as well as YA in general, should give it a read, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

You should also read:

Divergent

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Silver Screen Selections: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy
Studio: Marvel Studios
Director: James Gunn
Released: August 1, 2014
Genre: Superhero / Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi

Summary:

After stealing a mysterious orb, American pilot/outlaw hero Peter Quill is hunted down and thrown into an inter-galactic prison. In order to secure his freedom, Quill reluctantly joins forces with alien bandits Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot to form an alliance of misfits known as the Guardians of the Galaxy, and with the all-powerful villain Ronan hunting the orb, the fate of the universe is in their hands.

[from Google.]

Dear movie-makers,

Take a good, hard look at Guardians of the Galaxy. This movie is proof that films can still take risks and succeed beyond all expectations if their quality is up to snuff. Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a new property, but it is a relative unknown in Marvel's expansive library. It also stars a sentient tree and a talking raccoon. Not exactly mainstream material. Marvel took a huge leap of faith when it greenlit this project, banking on the goodwill it has earned with a fantastic line-up of heroes and the fun, funny, and irreverent movies they star in. It's paying off with upwards of $1 billion in ticket sales as of this post, written only a week and a half after the movie's debut.

As the second Marvel-produced superhero team-up movie (X-Men and Fantastic Four don't count, as both were produced by Fox), Guardians of the Galaxy is certain to draw comparisons to The Avengers. Of the two, it is, I think, the better movie. More focused and more thoughtful, with a cohesive and affectionate, if dysfunctional, cadre of heroes, Guardians of the Galaxy does the team-up movie justice by setting up its characters' relationships with real moments of camaraderie and friendship. The Avengers seemed merely an alliance of convenience in comparison. The only thing The Avengers has over Guardians of the Galaxy is Tom Hiddleston, who would, had the world any justice, play at least one character in every movie. Not just Marvel movies, either. Every movie.

Tom Hiddleston's face shall henceforth feature in all Lit Writ posts.

All of the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy have their moments. There isn't a weak link in the roster, and I'm certain that each will cultivate a thriving fanbase. That they managed to give a tree and a genetically modified raccoon so much pathos is astounding. Vin Diesel should be commended for finding so many ways to say "I am Groot."

There is precedent, however.

Despite the occasional bout of predictability, every joke strikes home. Guardians is practically a thesis on the value of timing in comedy. The cast delivers each line with wit and charm, and a snappy, clever script gives each the opportunity to shine.

For those seeking a space opera with the chops to take on Star Wars, look no further. Guardians is just as cheesy as Lucasfilm's sprawling epic, but it more readily embraces its cheesiness, joyously subverting even its most serious moments with reminders that this particular brand of sci-fi, with its inexplicable space magic (the infinity stones) and oddly human aliens (see Gamora, Drax, Nebula, the Nova Corp . . .), is supposed to be fun.

Pictured: Aliens.

See Guardians of the Galaxy while it's still in theatres if you can. If not, it's well worth the eventual rent.

Monday, August 11, 2014

You Are Not in Control

and neither is Shayla Poling

So you've got this plot in mind. A full-grown plot, mind you, not just a fetal idea, half-formed and unable to survive outside the bounds of your nurturing brain.

Don't get attached. There are those who want to see your plot completely and totally derailed. They'll stop at nothing to dismantle everything you've built over days or weeks of planning and prewriting. These people? Your characters.

"But my characters aren't real!" you may be shouting at your monitor, completely disregarding the futility of this act. "They can't control me! I control them! I AM THEIR GOD!"

No, my friend, no you are not.

Also, maybe stop yelling at your electronics. It's weird.

Writing is an act of evolution, not intelligent design. Plot evolves as you write it, growing limbs in places you didn't expect and stepping across the boundaries of genre just as the first footed creatures waddled out of the sea.

Pokemon has taught us that evolution can be a little extreme.
Good characters evolve from simple caricatures into complex, multicellular beings. They think. They breathe. They choose. You can poke and prod them into place, force them at pen-point to do what you need them to, but unless what you need them to do aligns perfectly with what they would do, the action will seem as forced as it is. As a reader, you may have noticed some of the more pervasive examples of this: characters losing half of their brain cells for just long enough to make the stupid decision necessary to push the plot forward, characters going against their own previously established characterization, the plot dropping coincidence upon coincidence onto its character's heads in order to force them onward. In the hands of a competent writer, these moments can be catalysts for a character's evolution. In the hands of an incompetent writer, they are at best a digression and at worst a u-turn in a character's arc.

http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/The_Crossroads_of_Destiny
AZULA ALWAYS LIES, ZUKO. WE COVERED THIS.

Fueling your plot with stupid leaves a pretty hefty signature, enough to pollute your reader's enjoyment—and belief in your world and the events taking place within it—permanently. Don't make your readers roll their eyes.

Like a mother bird, an author must sometimes shove its fledgling cast members from the nest and hope they flap themselves on course. Their path may be a little circuitous, but if you've crafted characters who fit your story and, more importantly, your world, they'll make their way to a conclusion. Eventually. After many unexpected—but nonetheless important—detours.

Respect your characters. Let them make mistakes, but don't force mistakes upon them. Back up characterization with scenes that will let your characters display their strengths and weaknesses. Provide the setting, provide the conflict, then let them improvise. It might not work out, but that's what editing is for.

Editing is also for ruining your life and damaging your self-confidence, but we'll cover that in a separate post.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Weekly Book Review: Landline

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Released: July 8th
Genre: Romance

Summary:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it's been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply—but that almost seems besides the point now.

Maybe that was always besides the point.

Two days before they're supposed to visit Neal's family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can't go. She's a TV writer, and something's come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her—Neal is always a little upset with Georgie—but she doesn't expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she's finally done it. If she's ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It's not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she's been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she's supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

[From Rainbow Rowell's official website.]

Review:

Landline is of a different genre and for a different audience than Rowell's normal fare. While all of her books could accurately be dubbed "romance," her most popular novels, Fangirl and Eleanor & Park (both of which have been reviewed on this very blog), are young adult romance, while Landline is a romance of the chick-lit variety. I am not a chick-lit person. Keep that in mind as you read this review.

Like all of Rowell's books, Landline is stocked with funny, snappy dialogue and appropriately quirky characters. Not all of the characters are particularly well-drawn, but Neal, the true subject of the novel despite Georgie's "main character" status, is both complex and interesting. Georgie is a goal-oriented woman with ambitions and all the worries that come with such. Unfortunately, her goals never seem quite as important to her as we're told they are, as this book is less about Georgie and more about Neal, Neal, Neal.

In fact, Landline could use more "showing" when it comes to certain aspects of all of our main characters. We're told that Seth and Georgie are funny people, talented enough to earn their own TV show, but we're never shown any of their hilarity. We're just to take the book's assertion that it is so at face value. Neither ever does anything particularly funny. They hardly even crack a joke. Neal, an artist, has a better excuse for his talent's lack of detail, but aside from a cute scene with a cartoon Georgie, his art is just as formless as his wife's funny.

The present-day timeline is a cycle that rarely deviates from itself. Georgie wakes up, goes to work, struggles to stay focused, leaves, goes to her mother's house, exchanges some witty dialogue with her family, tries to call present-Neal to no avail, and finally calls past-Neal by way of an inexplicable phone-shaped temporal distortion. You could skip over everything but the phone calls without missing anything of importance. It gets tiring, and these sections are almost solely responsible for my excessively slow journey through this book.

Luckily, the frequent temporal interludes bear the brunt of the action. These are far more akin to the brilliance of Rowell's other works: moving and demonstrative of relationships grounded in something like reality. They come in two flavors: pure flashback and time-bending conversations between a middle-aged Georgie and twenty-something Neal. Both have their strengths, and both are good enough to make me wish Rowell had done away with the magical telephone conceit entirely and written a more traditional but more focused college-age romance more akin to Fangirl.

The overall effect of the landline's time-bending power is fairly predictable. I doubt the conclusion will shock anyone, but neither will it disappoint. This is, overall, a very safe novel that chooses to use its sci-fi element for emotional rather than speculative effect. Don't come here looking for any serious contemplation on the nature of time travel.

If chick-lit is your thing, give Landline a go. Despite the book's faults, it is a well-written exploration of romance through a sheer time-travel gauze.

As Landline is the first chick-lit book I've ever read (seriously), I've got no basis by which to recommend another read. Anyone who's got an idea, feel free to leave it in the comments!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Released: January 10, 2012
Genre: Young Adult / Romance

Summary:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

[From John Green's official website.]

Review:

If you've read anything about The Fault in Our Stars, you probably know that it's an emotional read. I'm here to confirm this. This book made me cry in full view of every patron of a bustling Wendy's. I tried to stop it, but the floodgates, once opened, would not be closed. To be fair, I knew what I was getting into when I picked up the book. It's a cancer book. Stories about cancer, for a variety of personal reasons, make me cry. I should've taken measures not to be caught reading the sad parts of the book in a public place, but I didn't. So there I was, oversalting my french fries with tears.

This is a novel rife with moments of beauty and genuine emotion. Amid that emotion, however, are a few dissonant notes that disrupt the experience, however slightly. Though its fans may clamor otherwise, The Fault in Our Stars is not a perfect book.

Hazel and Augustus are a charming pair, full of Whedonesque quips and adorable quirks. For this very reason, they ring a little false. Teenagers in general don't speak in platitudes and clever, quotable witticisms. I've been a teenager. It wasn't all that long ago. I'd have liked to converse like Hazel and Augustus do. I'd still like to. Unfortunately, coming up with that kind of material in time to keep up with a conversation isn't as easy as our star-crossed duo make it seem. It can be fun to read, but it risks disturbing the reader's immersion.

Luckily, Hazel's narration doesn't suffer the same problems as her spoken dialogue. Writing, unlike speech, can afford both time and thought. The writer can pause over a single sentence for hours without disturbing the flow of the work as a whole. If it sounds premeditated, that's fine, because it is.

This is another one of those books where the parents aren't absent, dead, or uncaring, so it gets extra points just for that. Though none of the parents impact the plot in any significant way, their quietly supportive presence adds an extra dose of pathos to the teens' afflictions.

The Fault in Our Stars has been heralded as one of the best YA novels of the past few years, and it very well may be. It does not, however, rank amongst my personal favorites. I read it quickly, I enjoyed it, and I can see why it's inspired such fervor amongst the YA crowd, but perfect it is not. Still, it is a strong novel from a writer whose popularity is largely deserved. YA fans should definitely check it out.

You should also read:

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Looking for Alaska