Some Inspiration

I’m doing something a little different. I haven’t had the time to write (even one of my short 500-word flash fictions), but I thought I’d take some time share some of the stories that have most inspired me–the stories that I got completely lost within and that made me think, “Wow, I want to be able to do what this author has done.”

My Top 10 Favorite Books

(10) Atonement by Ian McEwan

(9) Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

(8) The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky

(7) Looking for Alaska by John Green

(6) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

(5) Recursion by Blake Crouch

(4) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

(3) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

(2) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

(1) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

What are your favorite books? I’d love to hear them!

Wanderlust: Living in a Book

I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or just the usual blah-ness of March, but I’m getting anxious for travel. So I thought I’d share some travel memories with these kind of mini-reviews of vacation spots.

I don’t know what else I can say about Universal Studio’s Wizarding World that hasn’t already been said. If you grew up with Harry Potter, you will feel like you’ve leapt right into the books. When I was going through different vacation pictures for this “Wanderlust” series, though, I couldn’t resist including them. I mean… there’s a fire-breathing dragon! Where else can you see a fire-breathing dragon?!?

But this post got me wondering…. What other books would be fun to walk through? To experience beyond the pages and imagination, but with real-life sight, and taste, and smell? My first thoughts went to other series…. The Hunger Games? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Percy Jackson?

But then I started wondering about other books. Being a nerd at heart, I wondered what it would be like to walk the streets of Gotham or Metropolis. Or Marvel’s New York.

I’m sure some theme park somewhere has done that… and if they haven’t… please feel free to take my idea! I want to walk down the street and see Spider-Man swinging above me! Or wander through the Bat Cave and take my picture beside the T-Rex! (For those non-comic nerds, yes, Batman has a T-Rex. And yes, it is awesome.)

And then I started to think outside of fandoms. I’m not much of Jane Austen reader, but I have friends who would love to stroll through her books. Or maybe to wander through the streets of Shakespeare’s time. Ooh… or visit Dracula’s castle! Or Dr. Frankenstein’s lab!

The point I’m making is this: Why isn’t there a literary theme park? (I mean, obviously money and copyrights, but besides that boring stuff….) Could you imagine a place where you could visit so many different genres and live through your favorite stories, both old and new?

I don’t think I’d ever leave.

And I know quite a few bookworms who would agree.

In short, to quote the meme: Take my money!

So let’s say such a theme park could exist. What “lands” would you want to be included? What sort of rides or attractions would you line up to experience?

Tell me in the comments! Let’s make Literature Land together!

Sometimes the Monsters Win

1) The Shining by Stephen King

From Goodreads.com

Why this book?

Alright… it would have been really, REALLY easy to for this entire countdown to be nothing but Stephen King books. In all honesty, I don’t read a ton of horror, but when I do, it tends to be from Mr. King. So when I sat down to write this list, I decided I had to pick only one book of his to be the absolute scariest. I asked myself, “Which one really lingered the most long after I’d closed the book?” The answer was an easy one: The Shining. The scariest question it asks: How much of the horror is from the ghosts? And how much is from Jack Torrance going slowly insane? You’re left wondering: How many of our nightmares come from, not outside, unknowable forces–but from within ourselves?

Scary Quote

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”


Sources:

Book cover and quote from Goodreads.com. The Shining written by Stephen King.

The Fragility of Time

2) The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

From Goodreads.com

Why this book?

Similar to Coraline, this book’s premise is very much “Be careful what you wish for.” However, it goes further by not only examining the divergence between what we think we want and what we actually, but also by reminding all of us of the fragility of time. In short: Do you want something truly scary? How about a reminder of how brief our lives truly are?

Scary Quote

“Perhaps the House had heard Harvey wishing for a full moon, because when he and Wendell traipsed upstairs and looked out the landing window, there–hanging between the bare branches of the trees–was a moon as wide and as white as a dead man’s smile.”


Sources:

Book cover and quote from Goodreads.com. The Thief of Always written by Clive Barker.

Careful What You Wish For

3) Coraline by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads.com

Why this book?

Did you ever wonder what Alice in Wonderland would have been like if it was written by Edgar Allan Poe? No? Well, in case you’re curious… that’s basically Coraline. The theme is a classic one: Be careful what you wish for. After all, unlike most fairy tales, this story’s door to another world comes with a harrowing price. (And a pretty high creep factor!)

Scary Quote

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.
“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”
“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.
“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”


Sources:

Book cover and quote from Goodreads.com. Coraline written by Neil Gaiman.

Who’s Telling the Story?

Which sentence grabs your attention the most?

(1) I wasn’t sure which way would lead me home; I just knew that I had to keep walking, putting distance between myself and… them.

(2) He wasn’t sure which way would lead him home; he just knew that he had to keep walking, putting distance between himself and… them.

(3) You weren’t sure which way would lead you home; you just new that you had to keep walking, putting distance between yourself and… them.

Obviously, the only thing I changed was the PoV (point of view)–aka, who’s telling the story. The sensation while reading them, though, is different for each one.

The first example is more personal. You might not know who the narrator is yet–but you know that they are telling the story directly to you. The added intimacy makes it more engaging.

In the second example, you–the reader–are separated from the main character. There’s an added aura of mystery–since you’re left asking who “he” is, as well as “them.” The second example is like reading an account, such as a newspaper article. In contrast, the first is like being whispered a tale around a campfire.

The third example is something that is hardly ever seen in literature. (And it’s a real shame, because I feel like this kind of style would be really cool to play with.) Here, there is no separating you from the story–here, the writer is literally making you a character. This type of engagement adds to the suspense.

These are the three types of PoV: First, second, and third-person. Most stories are written in either first or second, for obvious reasons. Second-person can be limiting as, unlike third-person, you don’t have the advantage of being an observer from time to time, and, unlike first-person, you as the author can’t be privy to the character’s every thought.

So, unless you’re playing with some experimental fiction (which can be a lot of fun to read and write), chances are you’re going with first or third-person.

So… what difference does it make?

Well, for starters, first-person tends to be the most natural. Whenever we tell stories to family and friends, that’s how we tell them: “I was on my way to the store when….” If you’re wanting your story to have a more one-on-one feel, then this is a good way to go. In addition, first-person can also be an effective choice if you’re really wanting to get inside your main character’s head–focus on their thoughts and psyche.

On the flip-side, third person can also have its advantages. Maybe you want the reader to be separated from the main character. You can see more and experience more if you’re not stuck in just one person’s head. That said, there are different levels of third-person.

In third-person omniscient, the narrator (read: the author) knows everything. You tell what everyone is thinking and feeling. You can even express your own opinions. (This works particularly well with satire.)

In third-person limited omniscient, the narrator tends to stick with one character. He doesn’t jump around too often (though he may from time to time). His role is more that of an observer.

In third-person limited, the narrator is more neutral. He’s not diving into everyone’s heads. Instead, he is just relating the story as it happens.

All of these have their own advantages and disadvantages: How closely do you want your reader to know your characters? What tone are you looking to achieve?

Sometimes, the PoV comes naturally. You have a story in your head and you just go for it. Other times… it doesn’t. My biggest tip I can give is this: If you’re writing a story and it doesn’t seem to be working, try switching PoVs. You’d be surprised the difference it can make. (I once had a 100-page draft that wasn’t “feeling right.” I ended up trashing it and rewriting the entire story in first-person. After that, it just flowed.)

So… do you have a preferred PoV? Have you ever had to ditch a 100-page manuscript? Share your writing stories in the comments!

2020’s Best Vicarious Living

Raise your hand if you’ve been doing some vicarious living during the pandemic.

Which means: Have you been doing a lot of reading? And I mean A LOT.

That’s been me. I may be stuck at home, but at least, with a good book, I don’t have to feel like I’m at home. I’m flying over Metropolis with Superman. Or I’m chasing down FTAs with Stephanie Plum. Or I’m living alongside robots in Isaac Asimov’s vision of the future. (My reading list has been a little all over the place.)

Today, I thought it would be fun to make a list of the top ten books I’ve read during the pandemic. If you’re looking for a new read, give one of these a try and let me know what you think. I’m always up for a good book conversation!

My Top 10 Books of the Pandemic

(10) Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna

As much as I enjoy writing and reading poetry, I kind of forget about it. I picked up this book mostly because I wanted something a little bit different. I found the poems to be incredibly relatable and oddly beautiful in their bluntness. Some were funny, some were sad, but they were all undeniably honest. The illustrations were strange in a way that fit perfectly with the tone of the poems. I found out later that the author is a YouTuber. While I don’t know much about her on that platform, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed her poetry.

(9) Highfire by Eoin Colfer

A bizarre book about a vodka-drinking dragon in a Louisiana swamp who gets himself into some trouble with a good-hearted ne’er-do-well and a crooked cop. The one downside to this book is there is a lot of mature language. It sets the tone for the story and characters, but if you’re someone who doesn’t really curse (like me), it’s a lot. Beyond that, though, it’s a unique and at times funny and heartwarming fantasy story that, once you get to a certain point, is a real-page turner.

(8) How to Become a Federal Criminal by Mike Chase

I don’t typically read nonfiction but this book had me laughing out loud. Mike Chase’s sarcastic wit pairs perfectly with these strange laws that, yes, all really exist. Funny and educational, this is a really solid read for fans of history, law, or the just-plain-weird.

(7) The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Oddly appropriate for a pandemic, this book is written in a nonfiction style. (I didn’t know much about it going in, except that I like Michael Crichton; while reading it, I was actually worried that we’d cataloged it incorrectly–the writing is that convincing. Or maybe I’m just gullible….) Still, it’s engaging and exciting, partly because it feels so real. The story might be fiction, but if something like this ever would happen, you have no doubt, while reading it, that this is exactly how events would play out.

(6) Harleen by Stjepan Sejic

A dark and deeply psychological story diving into who Harleen Quinzel was before she became Harley Quinn. The writer takes his time to build both her own doubts alongside her infatuation with the Joker. The end result is a chilling read with absolutely stunning artwork. NOTE: This is not a book meant for kids. Mature content.

(5) Batman: White Knight by Sean Gordon Murphy

Another book not meant for kids. A critical look at the Batman character that also examines human nature alongside socioeconomic issues. The core plot? The Joker is cured. While still not a saint, this sane Joker strives for a better Gotham… and this better Gotham seemingly doesn’t need Batman. I’d only planned to read an issue of this book when I sat down to start it; I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

(4) Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

A read this book in one day. The sequel to Every Heart a Doorway, this is also a prequel explaining the “door” that characters Jack and Jill found. It’s dark and mysterious, but told like a fairy tale. The end result is a book you can’t put down. If you’re looking for something creepy, but still magical, this is a great choice.

(3) The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows series, by multiple authors

I adored this series: Taking place in a universe where Mary Jane and Peter Parker get married and have a daughter with spider-powers, this series is full of family themes: heartwarming, relatable, and engaging–but also with plenty of humor. Peter Parker is the king of dad jokes–because of course he is. The series technically starts with a Secret Wars tie-in. The only negative of this series: There’s only five books with these characters! (And that’s including the tie-in… though they do also appear briefly in the arc Spider-geddon.)

(2) Dark Nights Metal story arc, by multiple authors, but primarily Scott Snyder

A bizarre journey that felt like a fusion of heavy metal concert and comic book action. It’s as fun as it is terrifying; as empowering is as it unsettling. It’s a rush from beginning to end, with plenty of “oh yeah!” moments featuring your favorite DC characters. Both an in-depth look at Batman’s psyche while also a “worst nightmare” of the Justice League, this is a story that will have you eagerly turning the pages and begging for more.

For the full story, you actually need to read four books: Dark Days: The Road to Metal, Dark Nights Metal, Dark Nights Metal: Dark Knights Rising, and Dark Nights Metal: The Resistance. For the best experience, you also have to read the issues contained in these four volumes in a certain order–which means bouncing from one book to the next. (Welcome to the world of comics. *insert maniacal laugh*) For the best reading order, check out the comicbookherlad.com. This is a fantastic resource and an excellent website for any comic fan.)

(1) The Wayward Pines series, by Blake Crouch

I wrote about this series in a previous blog, but I can’t stress this enough: Blake Crouch is an amazing author. His unerring grasp of human nature alongside larger-than-life sci-fi plots makes his stories un-put-down-able. This particular series finds Secret Service agent Ethan Burke in a strange town that he seemingly can’t escape: A massive electric fence surrounds the perimeter. But is it keeping the people in… or keeping something else out? This is a series you just have to experience for yourself!

What books have you read during the pandemic? Found any new favorites? Tell me about them in the comments!


Book covers from Goodreads.com.

The Good News and Bad News About Reading Like a Professor

Not long ago, I came across a book entitled How to Read Literature Like a Professor. As someone who minored in English (and only didn’t major because I was told again and again that I wouldn’t be able to find a job otherwise), I can definitely see the allure of such an idea. What voracious reader wouldn’t want to get every possible detail out of classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984?

Well, as someone who learned how to do just that, let me tell you: There’s good news and bad news.

The Good News

You’ll gain a much deeper understanding of every book that you read. You won’t just read about favorite characters in an exciting plot: You’ll understand every nuance; you’ll consider things like development, allusions, themes, and symbols. A book won’t just be a story–it will be an experience.

The Bad News

You can’t turn it off. Seriously. Think back to when you were a kid at Easter: Did your parents ever hide an egg full of treats a little too well? And even after mom and dad said, “Oh well,” did you keep searching because, of course, that chocolate was going to be yours! That’s exactly what it’s like: Once you know there is more hidden within every book, you can’t stop looking for it. Your brain is constantly on the hunt for and analyzing the aforementioned development, allusions, etc.

So… do you want to read like a professor? Maybe. Because there is some more good news to follow the bad news: While you might not be able to turn off your inner professor, it is possible to find books that are so engaging they temporarily knock him out. In short: If you find a REALLY good book, you can be a critical thinker while still having fun with a story you can’t put down.

Here are a few books that did that for me:

(1) Across the Universe by Beth Revis

From Goodreads.com

The first in a sci-fi series that had just as much mystery and romance as it did space travel and speculative science. With a stunning grasp on human nature, this book was a page-turner at a time when I couldn’t stop reading like I was in class.

(2) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

From Goodreads.com

This book was a hot topic when it came out–and with good reason! While this isn’t normally my style of book (I tend to lean more towards sci-fi or adventure), I devoured this book. I remember staying up late and literally laughing out loud at… a certain part. (I won’t say more because… spoilers.)

(3) Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

From Goodreads.com

Unique, heartfelt, engaging…. I’d never read a book quite like this one. It chronicles the adventures of one boy’s imaginary friend and how that friend helps him out of a dangerous situation. I don’t want to say too much, but I can guarantee this: You’ll be captivated from beginning to tend.

How about you? What books have gotten you out of reading slumps? Share in the comments!

Perfection Doesn’t Exist (But That Doesn’t Mean Writers Won’t Try)

If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve experienced one of these scenarios at least once:

(1) The blank screen taunting you. The idea in your head is bursting to come to life, but there’s just one problem…. How do you start the story? You type, then delete. That sounded cliche. Type again; delete again. That was just plain boring. More typing; more deleting. Ugh… that was just corny!

(2) The story is written. It’s been a wild ride. You feel relieved to be nearl at the end of the journey, but also a bit sorrowful and empty. You’ve spent months with these characters you created, in this world you created, on this adventure you created… and now it’s over. Or at least, it will be… if you can just figure out the perfect way to end the story!

Chances are, you’ve actually experienced both. Probably multiple times. Because writing is as much an excursion inward as it is outward, it’s easy to get bogged down in doubt. You can remind yourself over and over again that there’s no such thing as perfect writing… but that doesn’t mean your inner editor doesn’t keep whispering, “It can be better… it can be better… it can be better.”

So, here are the questions: What is ultimately more difficult? Finding the “perfect” beginning or the “perfect” ending? What matters most? Hooking your reader immediately? Or leaving them astounded?

The answer is that both are difficult, both are important. As a reader, you’ve undoubtedly encountered a book that drew you in right from sentence numero uno. Or you’ve experienced that magical elation of an ending that gives you chills.

So, as writers, how do we accomplish such a task?

Chances are, with quite a bit of frustration. Most stories have an idea, and then need written. Every once in a while, a great sentence will come to a writer first and they’ll construct the story around it. (That’s actually the case with a manuscript I’m currently editing.)

But let’s say you got the idea first. How do you dive into the story? Here are few pointers:

(1) Try some freewriting.

Just go for it. Bind and gag your inner editor in a far corner of your brain. Just write whatever comes to mind about your story. Set a timer. For five minutes straight, just let your creativity be in charge. Afterward, read over what you wrote. You might just find the seeds of a “perfect” opening.

(2) Get to know your characters.

If you haven’t already, you might find that developing your characters provides some insight that you hadn’t considered. Maybe a character is particularly snarky, and while brainstorming, you come up with a clever quote that would be just perfect for the opening.

(3) Consider different ways other books typically start.

Many books start with a quote. Or in the middle of an action sequence. Or with a characters’ thoughts. Or even with the description of an unusual setting. Do any of these work for your story? Remember, what you choose should be something that makes your book seem unique. If your book takes places in the far future, then maybe describing the protagonist’s home will grab your reader’s attention. The same is probably not true if the story takes place nowadays and stars an average teenager.

Alright, you’ve found your beginning. And you’ve been writing for weeks. Your first draft is nearly done and now it’s time to finish it. But… how? Try one of these:

(1) Step away and remember the point of it all.

You’ve spent a lot of time in the world you created. Depending the on the type of story, you’ve probably penned some sweeping romances or nail-biting battle scenes. Hopefully, you’ve been entertained while writing it–because if you have, the odds are good that your readers will be, too. But when you first sat down, you had a reason to write. Maybe you had an opinion you wanted to express. An observation about the world. Or, heck, maybe you just wanted to be an entertaining escape. Whatever the reason, reminding yourself of that will help steer you towards the best way to end your book.

(2) Ambiguity: Yay or Nay?

Ask yourself exactly how much you want the reader to know. Some stories are more satisfying when left open. Was the monster real, or was it all in their heads? Other times, the reader wants to feel rewarded for the effort they put into the story: So that’s who the killer was! Know what kind of book yours is and then write accordingly.

(3) Switch Your Role

Take a break from your story and then come back and read it–not as its writer, but as a reader. The closer you get to the end, you’ll probably start to feel how you’re hoping it ends. Do you want to be a nice writer and give your audience what they want? Or would you rather be a little diabolical–give them a twist, or maybe even a sad ending?

Of course, these are just a few ideas. How do you find your beginnings and endings? Any magic methods that work for you? Tell me about them in the comments!

Tell Me a Little About Yourself

“Okay… tell me a little about yourself.”

“Um… how am I supposed to do that?”

“Hmm…. good question.”

How does a writer get to know their character? It’s a bit like interviewing someone with amnesia. You have some context, but they know nothing about themselves, so you have to try and fill in the blanks with them.

And yes, with them–because, inevitably, characters will seem to take on a life of their own. I remember coming across an interview one time where J.K. Rowling once said that S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) was Hermione’s thing. She never intended for the character to be so passionate about elfish rights, but it ended up being a pretty decent plot point, even contributing to her and Ron finally kissing. (*insert awww*)

A character taking a bit more control (read: an idea that a writer has growing more than they intended) is actually a sign of a fleshed-out, complex character. If, the more you write them, the more they grow–sometimes even in ways you don’t imagine–that means you’re doing something right.

But you have to start somewhere. Like I said before: You’ll usually begin with some sort of context. For example, if you’re writing an action/suspense novel, chances are your character will be a bit of a tough customer. Or if you’re writing a coming-of-age story, your character might be a bit awkward and needing to grow into some confidence.

The next step, for me, is to establish some basics: Age, appearance, body type, etc. Again, like the interview example, you start with what you can see, what’s on the surface.

After that, it gets really fun. You start asking questions. First, more superficial stuff: What does your bedroom look like? What’s in your purse/wallet right now?

And from there, as you start to have more material to work with (as your interviewee starts to “remember”). You can now dive into deeper questions: What is your greatest fear? Who do you admire? What do you wish you could change about yourself?

Eventually, you start to have more than just answers. You start to form the actual memories that make this character who they are. For instance, maybe their greatest fear is water. Why? Did they almost drown once? Did someone they care about drown? What was that day like? What emotions did they experience? What emotions are they still experiencing?

Eventually, you have a rough outline of an entire life and you know what makes your character tick.

Now just do that with all the other major characters in your book, and you’re ready to start writing.

Yeah… it can be a lot of work.

Of course… that’s not the only way to develop a character. I’ve found it’s the most useful for me, but every writer (and every story) is different. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just start writing. You may begin a draft writing a character in a certain way, but as the story goes on, realize he or she is coming across too weak, unrealistic, unlikable, etc. So maybe you trash that draft (which always hurts; I once trashed a draft that was 100 pages). And so you start writing again, learning from your past mistakes, and making the character (and your story) more engaging.

I’ve done that before, too: Just dove right in and let the story just unfold and the characters interact naturally. However, I’ve found that when I do that, I tend to end up with unfinished manuscripts.

Of course, you can combine the two techniques: “Interview” a little, but leave some personality open for creative spontaneity.

Interviewing and free-styling, though, are only two techniques. I’ve heard that some writers actually start out by drawing their characters, getting to know them from the outside in as they bring them to life on paper. Others will spend some time actually trying to think and act like their character. Maybe they’ll clean the house or go run errands, all while trying to stay in that character’s mindset. Others will even use actors and actresses as a springboard to imagining their character. “He’s kind of a combination of Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Reynolds…”

There’s no right or wrong way to discover who your character really is. And, like I’ve said before, every writer and every story is different. What works when you’re writing a sci-fi series, might not work for an angsty YA novel. Or what worked when you were writing in college might not “click” when you’re an adult with a full-time job. We change, our stories change, so our methods must also change.

What method works best for you when you’re writing a story? Is there a new method you’ve tried recently that really worked for you? Tell me more in the comments!