Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plenty of New Friends

When I sat down to do the year-end review of my reading for the past couple of years, it's been a little disheartening that there were so few books that I felt good about. This year is completely different. I look at the list and nearly everything on it is something I am happy to have encountered this year. There are a number of new characters I'm glad to welcome to the chaotic cocktail party that is my mind.

With no further introduction, here's the year's wrap-up!

Best discovery: There were several books I really liked this year, but the one that I feel was really the most fortunate "discovery" was A Drowned Maiden's Tale by Laura Amy Schlitz. It's a book I borrowed from my daughter, who had checked it out of the school library, and it turned out to be great fun to read, as well as a rather deep study of what a person will do to "earn" the love of others.

Saddest Disappointment: I had always heard good things about Patricia Wrede's writing. My daughter loves her Enchanted Forest Chronicles (which I've not read). But I found her retelling of Snow White and Rose Red to be quite tedious, just to be blunt. Maybe trying to build around a story that already exists is not as conducive to good storytelling as starting from scratch is.

Favorite Classic: I read four books this year that are "classics": The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (winner of the Newbery Medal in 1962). Of the four, The Bronze Bow would probably be my favorite. I actively disliked Wuthering Heights; I can't count how many times I said aloud as I read it, "This book is full of despicable people! I don't like any of them." As far as I'm concerned, Heathcliff and his whole crew can sit in the corner of the mental cocktail party and pout.

Favorite Love Story: Hmmm. This is interesting, because I read several stories with a love story as part of the plot, including two romance novels (Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke and Starry Montana Sky by Debra Holland), but none of the love stories caught me up and swept me away. I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan, but that's pretty depressing as a love story. It will sound self-serving, I suppose, but my favorite love story this year was my own novel, His Promise True. Hey, they always say, "Write what you love to read," so I did.

Favorite Historical Fiction: This is going to be a hard category this year, because I read several really good historical novels this year, including An Enduring Union by Nancy Dane and In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap. But my two favorites (yes, I can't decide between them) were Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott and Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher. Both books were about a period of history I didn't know much about, and both had characters who faced pretty challenging circumstances. Just very satisfying.

Favorite Re-Read:  The Great Gatsby, I suppose. Definitely not Wuthering Heights!

Once is Enough (Books I probably won't ever read again): I read a self-published biography by a friend of a friend, and while I'm glad I read it, I know I'll never read it again. I also know I won't read Graceling by Kristin Cashore again, because I was so annoyed by the narrow definition of "success" in terms of "girl power." Oh, and Wuthering Heights would fit in this category, too. (OK, now I'm just being a jerk, ha ha!) (But I'm serious....)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So: In some ways, I ended the reading year on a down note, because the last two books I read fit into this category. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was just too preachy and too much of a stretch of suspended disbelief for me. And I was similarly disappointed by Or Give Me Death by Ann Rinaldi. Rinaldi has written a whole slew of historical novels, and I was sort of counting on being able to work my way through them when I couldn't find new historical fiction. Unfortunately, I thought Or Give Me Death was just a mess. (Sorry that sounds so harsh!) And it was messy in important ways (in my opinion), not just that I didn't like the way the story went. I really doubt I will be looking up any more of Rinaldi's books, sadly.

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good: That's really not a good way to categorize the next book, but I left the title because people have such low expectations of self-published novels. One of my friends, Mary Schaffer, self-published three novels this year, and so far I've read only the first, Chance Encounter. People are often really disparaging about self-published books, and some I've read really are pretty bad. But others, like Schaffer's book, get unfairly lumped in with the ones that are just slapped together and thrown on Amazon as a more-or-less first draft. Schaffer's book had memorable characters and a good mystery plot that kept me guessing until the end. One of my goals for the next year is to read her other books, which continue on with the same characters and setting (I believe).

I would also place Soul Work: Confessions of a Part-Time Monk by Randy Harris in this category. A friend from church gave me a copy of this book, and I'll confess, I'm not much of a fan of "spiritual" non-fiction. I read it just because I knew the friend would ask if I had. What I found was that it was NOT stuffy, as I had expected it to be; I actually found some ideas that made me look at and think about prayer in a completely different way. This book will probably go on my "read this once a year" list.

I'm choosing not to include the categories of Greatest Reading Accomplishment and Biggest Reading Failure this year, because it was just a good, steady year of reading. I did go through a slump during the spring semester, but that's balanced by a voracious period of reading that began the year. One thing I did notice in looking back over the blog entries for this year: I didn't write much about what I read. I'd like to change that for the coming year. Which leads to....

Plans for Reading in the New Year: I have several books on bookshelves that I'd like to read to find out if I want to keep them or take them to the used bookstore to open space in the house. Some of these are non-fiction, which is always a slow read for me. I also have several novels on my Kindle that I should work through. First, though, I have to finish an "edit read" of a novel manuscript my daughter wrote. Yes, she's only 15 and she's written a novel - I'm proud of her (although I'm giving many, many notes of what she might want to fix, haha).

Plans for Writing in the New Year: As mentioned earlier, I want to be more faithful in blogging about books on this site. I also am within a couple of scenes of finishing the manuscript for my second novel, so I'll need to start an entirely new project. That is both exhilarating and frightening. The characters in the first two novels have been my focus for nine years; letting them go and becoming in love with new characters will probably be a challenge. But it's one I look forward to!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Addiction Is Born

It's going to sound ridiculous, I guess, but in the last couple of weeks I've become obsessed with the Avett Brothers. I'm serious - obsessed. I woke up in the morning with one of their songs on my mind, and throughout the day I would find myself longing to hear their music. I "rewarded" myself for finishing grading some set of papers by allowing myself to watch one of their performance videos on YouTube. Seriously, it's ridiculous.

My son is the one who introduced me to the band last summer while we were on our trip to California. He had a couple of playlists that we used as a compromise when he got sick of the songs that my husband and I had on the car's stereo. I liked them ok, but I never really paid much attention until I started grading papers for the end of this semester. I've found that having music playing low in the background helps me focus and be more productive. In the past, I've used Pandora's Film Scores radio as the standard, but honestly, one can only listen to the music from Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight Rises so many times over the course of a couple of days. So I plugged in the Avett Brothers as an alternative. And now I'm addicted.

Part of the reason, I think, is because some of their songs hit exactly the mood I'm in for writing the last portion of my second novel, and in fact, voice some of the themes I've been trying to pull together in the book. Like this one, which is an eerily accurate summary of the first half of the book.

I also have reasons that don't have anything to do with my writing. One of my friends posted this link on Facebook, which is a pretty damning critique of the road country music is taking these days. Those songs come off looking mighty shallow when compared to this one:

Finally, in one of my "grading reward" sessions, I found this little gem, which I thought was going to be a cover of a good old gospel song. It is that, and much more.

Seriously, how can you not love the guy after watching that video? Fortunately for me, my son gave me two of the Avett Brothers' albums for Christmas, so I can now listen wherever I go instead of having to be tied to YouTube. You win the gift-giving contest this year, Roger!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Speaker for the ... Writer?

Once upon a time, several years ago, I had a student in speech class who was a HUGE fan of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. He spoke so highly of it that I recommended it to my husband, who read it and also liked it. Since sci-fi is not really my genre, I never read it until recently, when the movie was coming out. (Because, you know, it's always better to read the book before seeing the movie.)

Well, after reading the book, I've decided I'm going to save my money and just wait for the movie to come out on pay-per-view. When I said that to my husband, he said, "Well, science fiction's not your kind of book anyway," like that explained everything. Actually, it's more than that. I can enjoy just about any kind of story that is well-written. My problem with Ender's Game is that I think Card tried too hard to make a "statement," and the story suffered as a result.

If you're not familiar with the story, the premise is that Ender Wiggin is a six-year-old boy who is sent for training as a warrior in the battle against humans' dreaded enemy, the buggers, which seem to be a highly-advanced race of ants (or maybe bees). Ender was monitored closely throughout his early childhood and was selected for training partly because of his intelligence, but mostly because of his ability to deal with his psychopath of an older brother, Peter. The officials who run the Battle School are convinced Ender is humanity's last best chance against the buggers, so they accelerate his training. I actually mostly liked this part of the story; there was something rather Harry Potterish about this story that preceded Harry Potter by about a decade. Ender quickly masters the skills needed for battle and rises to display innovative leadership. That part was fun. The concept of having a gifted young hero who is being trained to save the world makes for a good story.

As the story wore on, though, I began to feel my suspension of disbelief was having to strain a little too hard to keep me in the story. I didn't have any trouble accepting that Ender was super intelligent and able to reason and/or intuit solutions to the ever-more-difficult and often unfair situations in his training. What began to bother me rather quickly was Ender's level of emotional maturity. By the climax of the story, Ender is only 12 years old, yet his emotional responses seem more like those of a 40-something. Card wanted us to believe Ender was predisposed to genius because of his heredity. I'll grant heredity could explain his intelligence. But maturity? A person's not born with that. One can't inherit maturity. Emotional maturity comes through experience, and while Card might argue all Ender's experiences at Battle School served as the crucible for maturity, I couldn't buy it. Especially not when Ender's life experiences were generally negative (he was often bullied, and the school officials purposely isolated him from his peers and even actively tried to set them against him). It's been a long time since I studied any psychology, but I seem to remember that rejection and disconfirmation are more often associated with low self-esteem and social impotence than with the kind of strong leadership Ender displayed.

But even that I might have been able to forgive, if I hadn't started to get the feeling Ender was being used as much by his author as he was by the school officials. There was definitely a subtext of "it's wrong to manipulate the innocent, even if for noble purposes" that Card seemed to want to make sure came through the story.  Even the big climax of the story seemed to me to have less impact than it should have because Card wanted so badly to make sure that we got the message of how wrong what happened was, using Ender as a tool to show us the toll that winning at all costs can take. In the last chapter, the sermonizing through the story was so blatant I had to force myself to finish reading the book.

I'm not saying a story shouldn't have a heavy message. I love it when a story has deep things to think about for days after I've finished the book. But that message shouldn't ever take precedence over the story. The story must come first. After all, I'm reading a novel, not an essay on ethics. And I know from other things I've read that it is possible to do both - create characters who "live" and who also bring to life ethical principles, without hammering the reader over the head with them.

When I finished the book last night, I told my husband how much I didn't like the last chapter, and he said, "You won't want to read any of the other books about Ender, then, because they are mostly like that last chapter." Thanks for the heads up!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Confessions of a New Author

Tell me I'm not alone on this. Not long after my son (my first child) was born, there came a day when I was just simply overwhelmed by the realization that my life had changed forever. It wasn't that I was depressed about that; I was certainly happy with him, but there was a part of me that was a little shell-shocked by the change.

It's been nearly three weeks since His Promise True hit the world, and while the impact is not as momentous as the birth of my son, there has still been a bit of a learning curve for this "being a published author" thing. So, in true writer fashion, my natural inclination is to try to process everything by writing it down. Here are a few observations from these first weeks.

1) I didn't realize how much business was involved. That sounds really naive, and yeah, I was really naive. I mean, I knew publishing is a business, but I didn't understand what that meant, things like applying to be recognized as a business by the state so I can pay sales tax, or getting one of those little readers that attach to a cell phone so people can use credit cards to pay for the books. Thank goodness for Nancy Dane, who is shepherding me through the maze. Honestly, at one point, I was so overwhelmed by the "business" end that I was asking myself, "If you knew then what you know now, would you still publish the book?" (Of course the answer is "Of course".......)

2) People don't seem to care whether the book is self-published; they treat me like a "real" author. The thing that has most freaked me out about this whole experience so far is that people want me to sign their books. I'm not really very good at that yet -- I mean, I can write my name (ha!), but I'm having a real struggle coming up with something clever/appropriate to put with my name. There are a couple of inscriptions I've put so far that I would just as soon were written in disappearing ink!

3) Social media is an awesome way to get a message out. I've not been really aggressive in pitching the book. My approach has, for the most part, been to post a few notices on Facebook. But what amazes me is seeing a comment posted by some friend of one of my friends, someone I don't even know, who is talking about the book. Networking is the name of the game, and social media makes it so much easier.

4) The scariest thing is the Great Silence. Several people on Facebook have sent me messages or comments that say something like, "I'm halfway through, and I love it!" (which is wonderful to hear). Then I don't hear anything else, which makes me nervous that the second half failed to uphold the love. The reasonable side of me points out that people just get busy and move on to something else, and that I shouldn't read anything in to the silence. Still, as one friend (who has also self-published a book) said, "I don't think people realize how much a writer needs feedback." It makes me appreciate even more the little fan letter that came in the mail one day, which said, "John David comes across as a fine man, but since money is so scarce, I wish he wouldn't waste it on drinking." And I'm grateful to the lady at church who catches me after services and tells me the specific part she's reading right now and what it makes her think of from her own life. This experience has made me determined to write a review or leave some kind of comment for everything I read from now on.

5) Having one "Book Baby" has made me eager to make another. I'd been in something of a slump with my writing for quite a long time. But the energy generated by the process of getting this first book out and by knowing people are reading it has brought me out of that slump. This week I started writing new sections of the second book, and it's been coming to me rather naturally. I can see the end of the first draft (though I'm still not entirely sure how it will end). I guess putting that line at the back of His Promise True that the follow-up story was "Coming in 2014" was a great motivator! I always did seem to work better with a deadline--part of my journalism training, I guess.

Anyway, I've learned a lot in the past three weeks, and there have been some genuinely thrilling life moments, like finding out one of my favorite authors was reading the book (I still squeal internally when I think about that!) and seeing the book on the shelf of the local Hastings store (the picture with this post, which has kind of a funny story). 

This will probably be the last post about the book on this blog. I've set up a separate blog for my publishing business at www.emzpineypublishing.com if you'd like to read more about the historical background for the book, as well as book-related news. My plan is to try to maintain both blogs; wish me luck!