Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Giveaway - What's the weirdest part of your reality?

Thanks to reality shows like "Sister Wives" and "19 Kids & Counting" I have decided to stop writing satire. Completely. I'm serious. You can't make this up!

It's also why I'm so impressed with Libba Bray's new book Beauty Queens. It's a sometimes ironic, sometimes witty take on beauty pageants. The best part of this book is the dialogue. It's as sharp as a tack. Bray also wrote in a few characters from our overhyped reality like Larry King and Sarah Palin, leading me to wonder if our news services and political discourse would be more relatable if they used Vaseline on their teeth and taped up their boobs. I'm talking to you, Larry.

Care to take a try at it? Tell me what the strangest part of reality is for you (by June 5) in the comments below and you might win a copy of A Touch Mortal by Leah Clifford. In this book the main character commits suicide. She expects a calm end but her spirit ends up in a place between life and death. I know it's implausible, but is it really harder to believe than this?

Monday, May 23, 2011

BEA or Bust!

I’m about to leave to pick up my pass for Book Expo America, the four-day conference on the publishing industry that is held each year at the Jacob Javitts Convention Center in New York. I’ve been looking forward to BEA since I registered in January because it allows me to talk to writers, network with publishing professionals and get some free books.

I’m hoping to get advanced reading copies (ARCs) of a few books, some of which I want to read really badly. The only trade off with ARCs, though, is the question of anticipation. Is it better to get a book you really want to read earlier and devour it right away? Or is it better to have the anticipation of reading it stretch ahead for another few weeks or months?

I finally decided that anticipation is nice but so is having an ARC of a book like Crossed, the second installment of Ally Condie’s dystopian trilogy, or Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland. I liked its predecessor, Austenland, so much that I finished it and went right back to the beginning and read it again. I’m hoping to scoop up ARCs of both of those books!

Here’s the checklist of what I’m taking to the Javitts Center:

  • Comfortable shoes
  • Backpack (more evenly distributes the weight of any books that might come home with me)
  • Map of the exhibition hall and corresponding list of where and when to get ARCs of books that I covet.
  • Snacks and water bottle. All of that walking around burns a lot of energy.
  • Fully charged cell phone and laptop.

Hopefully I’ll see some of you there. And watch this space. This time next week, I’ll be giving away some ARCs to you!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Best

The best - a simple pair of words - is, in my opinion, the most overhyped sentiment in American English. My favorite example of this is William Hung, the American Idol contestant whose rendition of "She Bangs" was so horrendous that people across the U.S. laughed out loud at it. Hung obviously barely practiced and didn't seek any help but still said he was happy because he did his best. His best was so underwhelming that this may seem like a joke. But he was serious. So were a lot of people who admired him for that. If you listened carefully, that night, you could hear muses from across the stratosphere saying, "That's it. I'm done."

Fortunately, the muses were still alive and kicking for Louisa May Alcott when she wrote Little Women. One of the reasons that I love the book is that doing your best is realistically portrayed a long-term action, not a single event. The characters each strove, nearly every day, to improve their work and themselves. The March sisters didn't dwell on their relative poverty. They took their jobs very seriously and talked about ways to enjoy the things they had. They also tried to do the best at their hobbies with the hope that they'd be the next great actresses, writes, artists and musicians.

The three characters with the most distinct talents are Jo, with her writing, Amy, with her drawing and Laurie, with his music. Jo, Amy and Laurie all want to be the best at their respective discipline and they work hard to improve. As they get older, a split emerges: it becomes apparent that Jo's talent for writing is unique while Amy and Laurie are seen as gifted but more ordinary in their talents. But not being the best doesn't mean that either Amy or Laurie stops practicing their drawing and music, respectively: they are still trying to improve their art, even to the last page of the books.

Monday, May 9, 2011

My Pageant

I’m looking forward to Libba Bray’s upcoming Beauty Queens. I liked her other books a lot and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does with the premise. And, I was in a pageant once. I can still see the teenage me spinning around on stage to Pretty Woman, our pageant’s opening number, and then going through the motions of all of the swimsuit competition, talent competition, the personal statement and the evening gown competition. I rocked the personal statement.

I was probably not an ideal candidate for a beauty pageant. I’ve always been bookish, better at writing than singing and dancing. I signed up for the pageant not because I thought I had any chance of winning but because I knew that it would be something that would take me completely out of my comfort zone and force me to consider things like the miracles that can be done with hot rollers.

I had about three months to prepare for the pageant, during which I learned things like how to turn quickly, with a little bounce in my step, and flick my hair at the same time. I’m not making light of these things. It was hard work. There were the moments of ridiculousness during which I felt like I had entered an absurdist world. But the other girls in the pageant were kind and supportive, there were no pageant moms like you see in Toddlers & Tiaras and the women who were organizing the pageant really wanted to put on a good event. There were parts of it that were almost brisk and business like.

Despite the good parts, one pageant was enough for me. At the end of the evening, I stood on stage in a black evening gown with some tasteful rhinestones studded around the neck (I had very tasteful outfits) and held a rose with the other girls as the judges announced the winners. I was genuinely happy for Crystal, the girl who won the pageant, and for Dana, who won the talent competition with a pretty intense tap dance routine. I got a trophy for participation and, like my college writing professor said, a boatload of experiences that I never thought I’d have that I have a feeling will be fodder for a plotline someday.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading Beauty Queens.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Scenes and Settings and Real Life Irony

I sometimes have a hard time with a very basic part of writing a scene: describing who is there and what they are doing. This is especially ironic. I’m a journalist in my day job. I make a living writing the who, what, where, when and why in each one of my stories in a lively and concise manner.

Why is it harder for me to put what journalists call the five Ws together into my book? I think it’s partly because where a chapter in my book should start and what the focal point should be isn’t a clear as the focal point of a news story. Also, while spare prose and brevity is generally a good thing for a journalist, there is such a thing as being too concise. I’m definitely guilty of that. Finally, I worry that the simplest ways of saying where characters are and what they were doing can sound boring and hackneyed. The writers who can set up a scene in a unique, engaging way deserve a lot of credit – I think it’s harder to write a good opening paragraph to a chapter than to write a good ending.

There are a number of YA writers who have the technical and creative skills to do a really good job of this. A few standouts that I’ve read have been Gayle Forman in If I Stay and its sequel, Where She Went. Forman is also excellent at physically moving a character from one place to another. Megan Whalen Turner, another one of my favorite authors, does a fantastic job of this in her Queen’s Thief series. And Mary McCarthy, author of The Group, sets scenes in two ways that I really admire: she manages to make you feel like you’re part of the gossipy group of young women that she’s writing about and also completely sticks to the voice of the narrator.

Are there any writing exercises that anyone has ever done to make this easier? Let me know in the comments section below!