The Great Reviewomise-Part I

Back in June, I told you about the Great Readomise, mine and my husband’s agreement to read a list of books the other compiled. I decided it’s only fair that I keep you updated as to how this little experiment is going. We’ve both finished our first books, so now I present you with the Great Reviewomise.

Sarah’s Review-THE FOUNTAINHEAD, Ayn Rand.

I’d planned on tackling ATLAS SHRUGGED first, but I forgot one of the cats decided to assert his territory a few years back and our copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED was a casualty of his ensuing golden shower spree. THE FOUNTAINHEAD made it through unscathed, though, so I went for it.

Basically, it’s about an architect who wants to do his own thing instead of following the crowd. I can get down with that. I’m not much of a go-with-the-crowd kind of gal, myself. The story follows the architect, Howard Roark, as the world essentially tries to destroy him. There are other architects who are jokes and not at all talented who get all the praise while Roark’s genius creations are put down by the public. I say public, I really mean this one socialist d-bag who doesn’t want anyone to succeed at anything. He thinks individualism and unique thought and capitalism are the devil and tries to quench them at every turn in every person who exhibits any of these characteristics. Like I said, total d-bag. I spent the whole book hoping he died a painful, horrible death. He writes for a newspaper and is an articulate speaker, and the public is a giant herd of sheep, so they just go along with whatever he says.

Everything goes sour for Roark for pretty much the entire book. Out of 694 pages, good things happen in maybe ten, and I think that’s being generous. I literally flung the book across the room about half-way through. I never do that. I don’t write in margins or dog-ear corners. I revere books. I threw this one.

Rand gets you to love Roark and root for him, and then terrorizes him for 684 pages. I get giving your characters obstacles and making everything seem hopeless, I really do. I rock at putting my characters through trials. At least, I thought I did. I’ve got nothing on Ayn Rand. I spent the majority of the book just sad–hoping Roark would prevail, but knowing he wouldn’t. She had me afraid for him up until the very last sentence. Literally. I’m pretty sure George R.R. Martin when to the Ayn Rand School of How to Torture Characters.

I didn’t hate the book. I really didn’t. In fact, I think I would’ve liked it a great deal if it had been about 400 pages shorter. I skimmed most of Rand’s long, meandering dialogue and her paragraphs upon paragraphs of political diatribe. I will say, the book was well-written, parts were interesting, and I really got behind Roark and found myself invested in the character. That’s why it upset me so much when he kept failing, and why I got so angry at the end. Also, *spoiler alert* (as if you’re going to even remember it by the time you read almost 700 pages), the bad guy doesn’t even lose in the end. Not really. He definitely doesn’t get what he deserves, which is really frustrating as a reader, but I guess more realistic than if he’d gotten splattered across the pavement like I’d hoped. If there were an abridged version, I’d probably really like it.

Hubby kept telling me I should have started with ATLAS SHRUGGED first, that I would’ve liked it better. I guess we’ll see. I’m not sure what I’ll pick next, but I think I need an Ayn Rand break for a little bit. Overall, I give THE FOUNTAINHEAD 3 out of 5 stars.

I’ll pass the reins over to Hubby. (This is his first blog post ever, by the way).

Hubby’s Review- A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Betty Smith

Hi, I’m Phillip, aka Hubby.  My first book for the great Readomise was a “Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  I have to say, overall I quite enjoyed the book; it does help that the main character, Francie, often reminded me of Sarah.  The book being loosely based on Smith’s life made it have a more real feeling to me.

The book follows Frances Nolan as she grows up in a very poor part of Brooklyn.  We pick her up around 8-years-old, though flash backs to her earlier years are sprinkled through. She grows up very poor and often not eating for a couple of days at a time, but through it all she is never embittered towards the world.  Smith does a great job of developing Fancie’s understanding of the world in a way that seems natural and mature, but fitting for her age throughout the story.

Francie lives with her brother Neely, 1 year her junior, her father Johnny, and her mother Katie, in a very small, and in the winter barely heated, apartment.  Her mother cleans houses while her father, Johnny, tries to work as a singing waiter.  Johnny has a problem with drinking and can’t keep steady work.  He is a dreamer of grand ideas, yet he can’t focus on the current situation, and therefore his dreams remain only that, dreams.  Even for these significant faults, he strives to be upbeat and truly loves his family.  Francie thinks the world of her father, yet she also sees his faults with minimal rosiness applied to her glasses. She sees the trouble his inability to work causes, yet this never seems to taint her opinion of him.

(Spoiler Alert) Johnny dies about 2/3s of the way through, and after this for a little while things look really bleak, Katie’s sisters try to help, but the whole family struggles.  Yet they pull though and allow Fancie and Neely to finish grade school.  At this point, Francie and Neely must work to makes ends meet.  Though only 14, Francie excels in the jobs she takes on, and soon begins earning more money than anyone in Nolan family history.  Though she really wants to attend college, she works to keep the family fed and to allow Neely to go to high school.  Ultimately, Katie remarries someone very well off which allows Francie to finally go to college.

Francie is a quiet and somewhat lonely girl, who keeps to herself, yet seems to see the world with an optimism well beyond her circumstances.  I believe this is the reason I enjoyed the book so much, other then the constant reminders of Sarah in Francie.  I found her resolve to better her situation, without allowing her current situation to be a barrier to that, refreshing.

If there is one thing I took away from this book it is what I learned from watching Francie’s father, Johnny.  He shows that love and outlook are the things that color life and they can make a minimal canvas look wonderful.  However, he also shows that without the ability to do, there ends up being so little canvas that even most beautiful painting can’t be finished.


Give Hubby a hand, will you? I don’t know about you, but I thought his review was beautiful. Of course, I’m a little biased, but I’m pretty impressed, so go Hubby!!

We’ll be starting our next books soon, so stay tuned for Part II in the coming months.

Beta Relationships

Beta Readers. They are such an important part of a writer’s toolbox. Another writer who reads your work, gives you an honest opinion, makes your writing better, and does it for free? Sign me up! I’ve talked about the importance of a good beta reader here, but what exactly does it look like when you have/are a beta reader? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating and scary, so I want to give some of my experiences and some tips about beta reading.

As I mentioned in the post I linked, I’ve met pretty much all my betas through Absolute Write. I’ve formed relationships with other writers through the forums, writing contests, and Twitter. I know their writing and reading styles, and I trust their opinions. Some of these relationships have organically flowed into sharing work, and now they’re my initial go-to people when I need another set of eyes. These writers are more than just betas, though, they’re friends, and as wonderful as they are, sometimes I need untainted eyes on my manuscript. By that, I mean people who aren’t worried about hurting my feelings, which can happen with friends, as well as people who don’t know anything about my story–people who can look at it completely fresh.

That’s when I turn to the Beta Readers thread on AW. There are other great sites, like Agent Query Connect; AW is just the place I, personally, spend the most time. I post my query, what I’m looking for in a beta reader, that I’m willing to repay the favor and swap work, and the genres I like to read. (Here’s a hint: people are more willing to read your work if you’re willing to take the time on theirs). Willing readers respond either in-thread or through private message. They’ll describe their manuscript and if I think we’ll be a good fit, I’ll suggest we work together. If not, I’ll thank them for their interest, and move on.

There’s an important key here that I don’t want you to miss. I don’t beta with writers in genres I don’t typically read, and I don’t use betas who don’t typically read my genre. Don’t think I’m being mean, or snobbish or anything. It takes a lot of time, from both parties, to beta, so it’s super important to get a reader who is familiar with the genre you write. Different genres have different tropes and cliches, different types of plot and pacing, and readers expect different things. For example, I don’t read much epic fantasy, so I wouldn’t know the first thing about critiquing it. I wouldn’t know if a particular plot device is overused or cliche, or if the pace should move faster or slower. I wouldn’t benefit that writer by reading their manuscript, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs, you dig?

Okay, so I’ve found a willing beta, we read each others’ genres, and we like each others’ story concepts, what now? We exchange email addresses and agree to swap the first two or three chapters–that’s enough to get a feel for the other person’s story and their critiquing style. Beta reading is a relationship, regardless of how brief it may be. You’re going to be with this person through thousands of words, the relationship will work better if your critique styles mesh. If you write sparse descriptions, you’re not going to benefit from a beta who constantly comments that descriptions should be more detailed. Personally, the type of critique I look for depends on where I am in my process. After my first draft, I’m usually looking for overall thoughts: Does the plot work? Are there any holes? Are the characters consistent? By the third, I want that baby to shine, so I need more nit-picky critiques: Are there glaring typos I’ve missed? Are there continuity issues that got messed up between drafts? When I’m reading for someone, I want to make sure I’m giving the level of critique they need, as well as receiving the sort of critique I need. If either of you aren’t getting what you need, you should find a different beta.

As I’m writing this I keep thinking, “man, this sounds kind of selfish.” Here’s the thing: it is selfish, but that’s okay. I have a really hard time putting myself first, so this has been a tough lesson to learn. My tendency when I first started beta reading was to dig in and stay there throughout the whole manuscript, regardless of writing caliber, trying to make it shine as much as possible. “We’re helping each other,” I would think. But then a couple things would happen. I’d either get my ms back from my reader, and it wouldn’t have near the level of critique I gave, or I’d send them their ms back and they’d be angry with how in-depth I went. The more serious I got about writing, and the more I beta read, the more I realized that I didn’t have time to spend weeks going line by line through someone else’s manuscript, and write my own stuff too. I was more invested in their writing than my own, and that’s not a place you want to be. It’s one thing for writers to help each other, but it has to be balanced. Like with any relationship, if one person is putting in an unbalanced amount of time and effort, it’s not good for either of you. (I also learned that not only can I not “fix”* everything, but I shouldn’t try, just like they shouldn’t try to “fix” mine. Instead of re-wording another writer’s work, it’s better to leave a comment of “hey, this sentence feels off, what if you tried something like ‘blah blah blah?'” and let them put it in their own words). You and your beta need to be on the same page when it comes to your critique style. If you’re not, sometimes the best thing you can do, for both of you, is to let them know the relationship isn’t working and move on.

If everything gels for those first few chapters, the beta and I will swap full manuscripts. How it goes from here depends on the reader. Some people I’ve worked with like to critique a few chapters, then email them and read a few more. Others prefer to read the entire thing at once and send it back when they’re done. Be sure to ask how they like to work. Sending your entire manuscript to a stranger is scary. Knowing when to expect it back in your inbox can make the process a bit easier. You also want to be sure and tell them how you like to critique; just because they like to send a few chapters at a time doesn’t mean you have to. Make sure they know that, though.

You read, you critique, and you send it back. You receive their comments back, and hopefully, their critique is helpful and you make your manuscript better. As I mentioned before, one beta reader and I worked so well together, we decided to keep it up and became critique partners. Most of my betas, though, have simply gone about their lives. We had a moment, we helped each other, we’ll be thrilled if the manuscript lands an agent or a publishing deal, and that’s the extent of it. But what happens if it’s not all rainbows and kittens? You liked those first couple chapters, you liked their critique of yours, but you get in and the plot falls apart, or there are so many grammar issues you get a headache. What happens if you realize you hate their story? Or, less dramatically, it’s just not ready to be beta’ed?

Well, that’s kind of tricky. I think it’s important to be honest here. I had a beta who got a few chapters in before emailing me that it wasn’t working for her. We discussed the problems a bit and I ended up cutting a major plot-line. That manuscript later landed me an amazing agent. If I hadn’t cut that plot, who knows what would’ve happened? On the other hand, I read for a writer once who just fell off the planet. This was one of those earlier manuscripts where I knew the writing needed a lot of work, but tried to stick in there. One day, I sent back a couple chapters and never heard from her again. I wish she’d talked to me about it, though, because I’m not sure what she didn’t like about my critique. Was she looking for something different? Was the relationship just not working for her? I guess I’ll never know. It can be really, really difficult to tell someone a relationship isn’t working, but it’s better to be honest and end it than to stretch it out and not give the manuscript your best. Again, that doesn’t benefit either of you.

If you think you’re ready to dive into the beta pool, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure your manuscript is polished. If it’s riddled with glaring grammatical errors and typos, it’s going to be really hard to read, and you’re going to have difficulty finding a good beta who will stick in there.

2. If your manuscript is not polished and you’re just looking for feedback on your writing, or if you’re unsure if a single chapter works, the you’re not ready for a beta. There are several places on the writing forums to share your work and get feedback from other writers on a chapter or two. Use those to work through the snags and look for a beta when you’re done. (If you’re concerned about a plot point, writing the query is also a great way to see if the plot itself works. You can write the query at any time, before, during, or after you finish the manuscript, and post it in a forum for critique. I’ve cut entire plots based on query feedback).

CAVEAT: If you’re partially through a manuscript, and are afraid you’re going off the rails, or just feel like you need another pair of eyes before you get any deeper, it’s okay to enlist a beta, BUT make sure what you do have written is polished, and be up front about the manuscript’s status. Tell the beta it’s not finished, and I recommend that you still be willing to read their full manuscript.

3. Don’t be afraid of someone stealing your story. I had this concern when I started, and I still get asked by family and friends, “You’re giving your book to stranger? What if they steal it and get it published?” For starters, everything you write on your computer is time stamped, so it’s pretty easy to prove you wrote something and when. Second of all, if you found your beta in a forum, there is a history of the posts and proof that you sent them the manuscript. Third, they’re trusting you with their work too, so this is a two-way street. The vast majority of writers are honest people who don’t want to plagiarize. They want their own work published as badly as you want yours.

I’ve met a lot of great writers by beta reading. I’ve read so many amazing stories, and my writing has improved immensely both by enlisting a knowledgeable reader and by critiquing someone else’s work. Sending your hard work to a stranger to dissect can be frightening, and thick skin is a definite plus, but it’s so worth it.

What are your beta reading experiences? Where do you find your readers? For some more thoughts on beta reading, I recommend this great post at The Daily Dahlia on The Basics of Writing Relationships, Part II: Beta-ing. Dahlia has some other great posts on the subject too. In fact, go ahead and read this one while you’re at it.

*I’m in no way holding myself up as an expert writer or anything. What I mean by trying to “fix” the writing is that when I started beta’ing, I’d spend forever on a problem sentence, figuring out just the right way to reword it for the other writer, which is exactly the wrong approach. A few small wording changes are one thing, completely scratching what they’ve done and re-doing it is another. Looking back, I feel like this newbie mistake makes me sound arrogant, but really I was just misinterpreting the beta relationship–I thought that’s what “fresh eyes” meant, looking at the problem areas from a new perspective and taking care of it. Really, it means highlighting those areas and letting the writer figure out how to fix them. Make sense?

Confession Time

I have a deep dark secret. Promise you won’t judge me.

Okay, don’t judge me too harshly, at least.  ‘Cause to be honest, I kind of judge myself.


*deep breath* I’m not a member of my public library.

I know. I know.

I love the library. I do. It’s just not something I’ve gotten around to doing. I’ve only lived in my current city for…um…three years.

I know.

I’m a writer, who is not a member of the library. In my defense, I joined the library in my previous city, and I was a member of my hometown library for as long as I can remember growing up. I just never did it when I moved. Actually, this past Monday was the first time I’ve even been to the library here.

It’s really pretty, and fairly good sized. Although it seems like there are more seating and study areas and local exhibits than books. I tried to join Monday while I was there, but I didn’t have my license on me. Hubby did. My engineer husband is now a member of the library and I, the writer, am not.

But, here’s really why:

I’ve mentioned this before, but my family was pretty poor when I was growing up. I mean, my parents always made sure we had enough food, and they sacrificed a lot and worked really hard to make sure I got a good education and had a roof over my head. We didn’t have money for many extras, though. One of my favorite luxuries was books. It was a luxury, though.

Most of my books came from the library. I could spend hours there. Narrowing down my choices to the two or three books I was allowed to get was the most agonizing decision ever. I haven’t stepped foot in my hometown library in at least ten years, but I remember everything about it. At least, how it was when I was a kid. The big rug in the kid’s section, the carpeted cubbies along the back wall where you could crawl inside and curl up to read, the computer area (I could never figure out why people played computer game when there were so many books!). I remember how mature I felt when I started getting books from the adult section, and how boring the Heritage Room was. I have a newspaper clipping with a picture of me and my parents unpacking boxes for a book fair the library was having. I think I was in the fifth grade. The library was one of my most favorite places in the world.

But the books were temporary. Each one had to go back when I finished. It always made me so sad to return a book. Even if that sadness was quickly replaced by the joy of a new treasure.

Owning a book, though. Actually owning one. Wow. There was nothing like it. (Okay, honestly, the giant refrigerator box my parents let me keep was pretty awesome, but it eventually got kind of busted and had to go in the trash. Bonus, I could read in there). But not even their permanence was guaranteed. We had this great used book shop in town (actually, it was the only book store I remember going to until I got older, and even then the closest big store was a Books-a-Million forty minutes away). It was basically a maze of old shelves and tattered covers and amazing musty book smells, and was right up there with the library in terms of great locations of my childhood. Maybe even a little higher. Because I could keep these books. Well, some of them.

These books cost money. Granted, they were less expensive than buying one brand new (which was virtually unheard of and usually only happened at that fantastic wonder of wonders called the Book Fair at school. Holy crap I loved the Book Fair SO. Much.), but still, like I said, a luxury. So, like the library, most of the time if I wanted new book, I had to trade in an old one. I only kept my absolute favorites. The ones I would re-read over and over. (We also had a small collection of the books my mother taught to her classes, but those were mostly boring to a kid. Like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Bleh).

What does this have to do with not joining the library? I’m glad you asked!

Itsy bitsy me promised myself that one day, one amazing day, I wouldn’t have to give books back. I would keep them, forever. In my own library. And it would be glorious! Alphabetically arranged by category, then by author last name, with my own card catalog system, and rich wood and deep, comfy chairs, and great lighting. Oh, and cats, I could always have cats in my library. Sitting in my lap in said comfy chairs.

As I grew up, each book I kept became a trophy. On Christmas and Easter and my birthday and Book Fair days I would get brand new books to go with the myriad of used ones. It broke my heart to leave them all behind when I moved away for college. Then it drove me crazy when I went home and found them in my brother’s room! (Dirty little thief). I worked in the law library in law school, partially because it was an easy way to get paid and study, but also because I was surrounded by my people–books. Then I got married, and some of my books moved in with me and my husband.

Then. Then. We moved to our current town and we bought a house. A house in which I made certain had a spare room for a library. I kid you not, on my list of house requirements was “library room.” And allllll my books finally came home with me. Even the ones my brother had thugged. The ones that fit on shelves were organized alphabetically by category, then by author last name, and I set up a card catalog to track who I loaned books to and when. Hubby is supposed to build me more shelves because I’m out of room, and I’m still working on the deep wood and thick chairs, but it will get there one day.

All these years, I have been carefully accumulating. Buying books when I had extra money. Some girls buy shoes and purses. I buy books. And I can keep them. And it is glorious. The dream of little girl me has come true. I have a library, and my books never have to leave.

Which means, I’ve had no reason to use the public library here. I worked hard in college and law school and can finally afford to buy the books I want to read and support the authors I want to support. However, I realize how important the library was for me as a kid, and how important it is for other kids who can’t afford books, and it’s high time I support my local library.

So, dear reader, I am going back to the library. This time I’m taking my license, and I’m going to get a card, and I’m going to wash this dark shadow off. Maybe, when the budget allows, Hubby and I will become Friends of the Library and support it by more than just our patronage.

Do you use the library? If not, what do you do with books after you read them? Pass them along? Or are you like me, slowly trying to accumulate a library to rival Belle’s?

The Great Readomise

My husband and I are both readers. I don’t think I could’ve married someone who didn’t understand my love of books.


We don’t always read the same things. I love mystery, suspense, horror, light sci-fi, light fantasy, contemporary, classics, literary…okay this list could go on and on.

Hubby is hard to keep up with. His tastes change all the time. Nonfiction has always been pretty consistent, but the topics vary. He went through a business book phase, a biography phase, a theology phase, a math book phase, I forget what dorky book he read last. He likes higher fantasy and more literary fiction than me, LES MISERABLES, DON QUIXOTE, ATLAS SHRUGGED.

There’s some cross-over, but mostly we keep our books separate. We’re constantly trying to get the other to read the books we love, though. It seldom works. I got him to read A WRINKLE IN TIME, I read LES MIS. But usually, we fail.

Until today.

226 years ago, our forefathers entered the Great Compromise to bring the Continental Congress together in agreement, and they ended up forming the branches of our government. Hubby and I came up with the Great Readomise to bring our books together. Not as dramatic, or important, but maybe it will bridge the gap of literary taste and tear down the walls that have divided our books for so long. (You can’t ever say I don’t have a flair for the dramatic, haha).

So here’s the deal: We each picked ten books we want the other to read. Both of us have a long lists of books we want to read, so we’ve agreed to alter between our books and the others’ picks. We have to read at least 50 pages, and then can veto. The other person then has the chance to replace the vetoed book with another. They don’t have to be read in order, as long as they’re all given a chance.

The only problem is I could have listed books all day and he only came up with five. So I stopped at six (I’d already drawn from a balance of genres and categories and couldn’t figure which one to cut, so my sixth stays in case he vetoes one).

What are the books? I’m glad you asked.

Hubby’s List:


Atlas Shrugged


Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy


The Fountainhead


The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)


No Compromise

My List:

GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl


The Graveyard Book


The Fault in Our Stars


And Then There Were None


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

LISEY’S STORY, Stephen King

Lisey's Story

I’ll update and let you know how this project goes. I already foresee some vetoes, but I promise to keep an open mind and give them all a fair chance. At least for the first 50 pages. ; )

The Name Game

I have two younger siblings. When my parents were picking out their names, they looked at our family tree, they considered names they just liked, and the they took note of the popular names at the time so they could stay away from them. My brother’s name comes directly from a distant relative. Outside of my family, I’d never heard it before. The second he’s born though, boom! there were all these other kids named Cole popping up (although he’s the only Coleman I know–he just goes by Cole). Same thing with my sister. Madison and Sydney were all the rage when she was born. Then my parents named her Emily and suddenly there were Emilys all over the place.

I’ve noticed this trend in literature too. In my current WIP, I originally named one of my characters Warner, thinking it was a name I liked but hadn’t heard much. Then I found out there are several books out, like “Shatter Me” by Taherah Mafi, with a Warner. So I switched the name to Warren. Not long after the switch, I got a new story from a critique partner with a Warren. I then realized I’d named my character’s best friend Jessa, and my CP’s character’s best friend in an earlier story was Tessa. I’d already changed my character’s name because it didn’t feel right, but I think it didn’t feel right because it wasn’t my name.

It got me thinking, where do we derive our names? There’s a good chance my CP’s Tessa subconsciously spawned Jessa in my head. Possibly the same for her and Warren. But I never read the books with Warner. Like my parents, I thought I’d come up with an original name.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of tweets from agents regarding names; asking for new and different names. Not wacky names, but they’ve seen a ton of Cassie and Bree and Ally. I noticed this myself during the Writer’s Voice contest. Trust me, when you read 200 queries in a row you start to notice the similarities, especially with character names. Where are they coming from though? Homages to friends? Names the writer just likes? Other literature or blog posts and what-not seeping into the subconscious?

Some of mine come to me already formed. With my last ms, I was trying to go to sleep and the characters appeared in my head, already named. Most of my characters require more thought, though. I make a mental note when I come across a name I like and store it away for later. Then, when I’m writing, I think about what name best fits the character’s personality. I usually research the name meanings and try to make the meaning fit the character. The hardest part is steering clear of people I know. Maybe I shouldn’t worry, but I don’t want someone seeing the name and thinking I got the character from them, especially if it’s a villain. (Caveat: of course I’m inspired by people I know, but no one person is ever entirely a character. I would hate it if I named a character Hannah and pointed out all her flaws and problems and my real friend Hannah thought it was all her, you know?) I kind of did this in my first ms. It was a fantasy story, so I took the names of family and altered them. Of course then I started feeling bad for not including everyone; then I worried about how those people would think they were being portrayed. From then on I’ve just steered clear, although the MC in my current WIP is derived from a sweet old lady I went to church with growing up–I just liked the name, though, and it was something I hadn’t seen before (although I fully expect it to start cropping up now, haha!).

I don’t want kids, so instead of dreaming of what I would name my children one day, I dream of what to name my characters. Coming up with names in stories is easier for me than naming things in real life. My husband and I pondered for days on what to name our pets. I got a new car last night and struggled with a suitable name (she’s a white Honda CR-V). Previous vehicles were Ol’ Smokey (1992 Pontiac Sunbird that burned oil like a freight train), The Gray Ghost (1989 Jeep Cherokee that was four or five different colors gray), and The Who Ride (1996 Nissan Sentra with pimp tints–it came that way, not my doing). I couldn’t figure out what to call the new one though. Eventually, I let go and pretended I was writing it in a story and bam! I had her name. Pearl. Hubby added Minnie to it since she’s a small SUV, so she’s now Minnie Pearl. (Side note, I had a cat named Minnie when I was a kid. My dad helped me come up with her name. I thought Minnie was ironic because she was a cat named after a mouse, which was part of Daddy’s thinking as well, but we had different concepts for the middle name. I wanted Mae, after my best friend; he wanted Paws. I thought he was saying she had little paws because he was a kitten, and I thought it was stupid because she was going to grow. So I held my ground and she became Minnie Mae. Only when I got older did I put Daddy’s names together and get what he was going for. Minnie Paws…if you haven’t gotten it, say it out loud, ha!).

Where do you get your character names? Are they derivative from something else you’ve read? Inspired by friends/family? Or do they have a deeper meaning?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle??

We all know the phrase.  It’s been drilled into our heads since the early 90s.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  Certainly you know the green arrow logo (these are my loving stylings in Microsoft paint):

Especially this time of year, with Earth Day looming and everyone getting in the “let’s save the planet!!” frame of mind for a month.  (Coincidentally, raise your hand if you remember Captain Planet.  Raise it again if you’re now singing the theme song.  Keep it up if, as a kid, you felt sorry for the kid who got stuck with “Heart” when you were pretending at recess).  I’ll admit, I don’t recycle.  Go ahead, throw the aluminum cans you’ve been hoarding.  Even though I’ve been beaten over the head with reduce, reuse, recycle since childhood, I never think about putting it into practice.

Maybe, however, that’s a good thing.  It seems like people have incorporated this into more areas of their lives than not throwing away newspapers and plastic bottles.  I’ve posted before questioning whether there were any original ideas left, but Michael Bourret at Dystel Goderich and editor Molly O’Neil raised a good point today.

They’ve been having a blog discussion on middle grade fiction (while focused on MG, their points are incredibly useful in all areas of writing).  Today, Molly brought up the subject of the viral internet and creativity.  She called it an “echo chamber” and it got me thinking: have we incorporated reduce, reuse, recycle into writing?  Sure, the internet can be a great tool to get your synapses firing and the creative juices flowing, but with trending topics on Twitter and viral videos on YouTube, and with the writing community being as small as it is, are we creating new ideas or recycling old ones based on what’s current?

Molly says “I’m not convinced that the viral internet is an environment that breeds personal creativity—for a few it might, but for others, it might actually stunt creativity.”  I tend to agree.  I know I have drawn inspiration from blog posts I’ve read and discussions in the writing world I was a part of at the time.  Heck, I did it with this post.  But where is the line between drawing inspiration and recycling the same old ideas?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to put a new twist on old ideas, or to write something “ripped from the headlines”.  The problem I see is when you find yourself in a rut of only discussing the same ten topics or being inspired by the same recycled ideas.  For example, I frequent the Young Adult section of the AW forum since I write mostly YA.  While I absolutely love being a part of this forum and learn so much from the people there, lately, I’ve noticed the same topics being discussed over and over.  “Is Dystopia dead?”  “What’s the next big thing?”  “What do you think of Dystopias?” “Why I don’t like the Hunger Games” “Love Interest Pet Peeves” “Teen boys becoming more romantic?” “Ditching romance in YA?”  These are all current topics being discussed.  I’ve taken part in most of the discussions, so I’m not knocking it or anything.  I don’t want anyone to misinterpret what I’m saying.  Do you see a pattern though?  The same basic topics are being recycled.

Molly and Michael implore writers to dig deeper.  Go beyond the trending topics and viral videos and memes and explore the depths of the internet (I don’t mean porn, get your mind out of the gutter), and other venues, for inspiration.  Oh, and in honor of Earth Day, go eat a dirt cup on Sunday (the 22nd), or plant a tree, or go see Disney’s “Chimpanzee” or something.  (I might add that I am totally in love with the Disney Nature movies.  Every Earth Day when they come out I am in the theaters, usually crying because they all have sad parts, but they’re so dadgum cute!  So far “African Cats” has been the best!).

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel inspired or stymied by internet trends?

Back in Black

And I’m back!  After the doctor fixed two meniscus tears and performed a lateral release of my knee cap, I’m finally off the couch and on the road to recovery!  Okay, so maybe I’m only off the couch long enough to sit with my leg propped up at work, only to return to the couch in the evenings, but at least it’s a change of scenery. I’ve got a leg brace for five weeks, which won’t be fun, but hopefully after it’s all said and done I’ll be better than ever!

Thanks for the book recommendations and the well wishes.  Unfortunately, my pain meds kept me too high to concentrate on reading over the week.  However, I did rediscover the joys of old school Super Mario (we downloaded it to the Wii) and I discovered there isn’t much on tv during the day except for marathons of House Hunters, et al on HGTV.   Coincidentally, I could tell you how much a house will run you in pretty much every part of the country now.

I’m super stoked to be coherent again and I’m ready to resume writing.  I’ve recently resumed edits on the first book I wrote.  By resumed edits, I mean I realized the whole thing was crap and I’m rewriting pretty much the whole thing.

I added a new feature to my blog.  Yes, I bit the bullet and got a twitter.  You can see recent tweets over there on the right.  See it…down…no up a little…there!  Follow me! (Yes, I cringed a little while writing every word of this paragraph).

Chocolate Explosions and Stephen King vs Disney

I’ve been writing stories literally since I learned to write.  I’m also a bit of a pack rat.  Just a tinge.  Okay, so maybe I’ve kept almost everything I’ve ever written as well as every test and paper since the seventh grade.  Don’t judge.  They come in handy.  Sometimes.  Anyway, I recently found a stack of my stories from childhood.  When I was four, I wrote about my baby “bother” and how I loved him even though he drove me crazy (much like my real brother when he was born five years later), but most of my stories were a bit morbid for a kid.  I found one about it raining chocolate (This was before the “Chocolate Rain” viral video days; it was before we even had internet).  It sounds like a sweet story (pun intended), but quickly turns south.  I run outside with a bowl and drink up the chocolate, but I eat so much I explode and die.  That’s it.  The end.  Boom goes the Sarahmite.

I don’t know why.  I had a happy childhood and all, my writing just gravitated toward the macabre.  It only got worse when I started reading Stephen King, who is the king of dark twisted tales (yeah, that one was intentional too; as my brother would say, butter me cause I’m on a roll!).  I let my grandmother, we call her Karma, read my stories, and she pointed out that I don’t really have any happy endings, which caught me off guard.  When I’m reading, I love happy endings.  Or so I thought.  But looking back, she’s right.  Not only do I not read stories with happy endings, I end my stories weird, or bittersweet, never Pollyanna kittens and rainbows everything is all good happily ever after.  I guess because real life is usually weird or bittersweet and not a Disney movie, and I like for my stories to feel more real.  They aren’t bad endings, except for the chocolate rain Sarah-splosion (but really, isn’t there a lesson there?).  My characters are always happy(ish).  Their conflicts are resolved, they’re turning a new page, starting a new chapter, moving on to something else.  That something else might not always be shiny and bouncy as we would think of it, but it’s fresh and new for them and happier than they were before.

I’ve got a short story I’m about to enter into a contest.  It’s actually the first chapter of a book I started and stopped after the second chapter, so perfect short story fodder.  I posted the chapter here not long after I started this blog.  The way I’ve adjusted it, the main character decides to end all his cancer treatments and enjoy what’s left of his life.  Karma told me despite how the story ends, she holds out hope he’ll continue treatment and have surgery and the cancer will go away, puppies and rainbows and all that.  I can see how my ending may seem sad, especially for her because the character’s illness is based on my dad’s.  But my character felt good with his choice, so isn’t that a happy ending?

After talking with her, I started thinking about my endings.  I have all these stories in my head.  Almost every day I come up with a new idea, and usually a first chapter.  There’s a whole folder on my USB drive called “story ideas” that’s full of queries, synopses, and first chapters of shiny new ideas. While the details of my stories change as I write and get to know the characters, I always know how they end, and it hit me today that none of them has a Disney ending.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an optimist, and I guess this reflected in my writing, but is that a bad thing?  What do you think, dear reader?  Do you like happy endings, or do you like something that feels real?  I’m not going to change my writing style because that’s just how I write.  It’s me and apparently always has been, death by chocolate and all.  I’m curious, though, what most people look for.

Personally, when I’m reading, I like for loose ends to be tied up, and I like to know the character is content.  Look at most the books on my “Books You Really Must Read” list; they pretty much all have this type of ending.  I don’t like stories that leave me crying and depressed and force me to watch something happy before I go to sleep (like “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer.  Good night that was a sad book!  It was good, but so sad!  I made the mistake of reading it while my husband was traveling for work and had to stay up half the night watching “Golden Girls” re-runs to stop crying), but I don’t like stories that are unrealistically happy ever after either (like “Breaking Dawn” by Stephanie Meyer.  I mean, come on, everything ended up too perfect in the end.  I get some people’s need for escapism in endings like that, but it’s just not my cup of tea).  I prefer Stephen King’s endings.  Everything isn’t perfect, and isn’t always good, but it’s always finished, and usually weird, and maybe bittersweet.  Read “Lisey’s Story” for a fantastic ending.  For me, King beats Disney every time.  Another great example, if you’re not into King, is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  You want to talk about a great ending?  It’s real and raw and happy but poignant.  Overall, an excellent book, but the ending especially left me satisfied when I closed the cover, yet wanting more, and to me, that’s the marker of a great ending.

Randomness #1

I had a great childhood.  Not that it was all kittens and rainbows all of the time or anything, but I was a pretty lucky kid.  I had two sets of grandparents who were amazing and parents who loved me.  We didn’t have that much money, but we got by.  I think that’s one of the reasons I still have such a great imagination.  Who needs expensive toys when the two trees in your grandmother’s front yard can morph into a forest full of trolls and wolves?  What’s the point in the latest and greatest game system when a defunct learning game your mom picked up a yard sale can become a master computer that lets you take over the world (or Penny’s book from “Inspector Gadget”)?

Even more lucky for me is that I got to spend some of the best years of my life in a place that was like a greenhouse for the imagination.  From the age of nine until I moved away to college, my parents rented a house outside the city limits (what some may call the country).  Fifteen or twenty minutes from town, it was like the best of both worlds.  Close enough to the city, but quiet and large.  Our neighbors, the Macs (the McFarlands but we called them the Macs) were our landlords, and were like a third set of grandparents to me.  The Macs owned at least fifty or sixy acres (perhaps more, I don’t know exactly where their property stretched to) on which sat our house and theirs, each on a large lot, as well as a greenhouse, a cabin, and an old barn.  Behind it all was a small garden of strawberries, green beans, butterbeans, tomatoes, corn, and okra, a flower garden, a bamboo grove, muscadine vines, and then the woods.  Mr. Mac and I were great friends and I had full reign of the property with only two rules.  1. I couldn’t go in the woods by myself.  2.  I had to be within shouting distance.  If my parents yelled, I better come running.

Oh the games I played!  I’d hop on my bike and tear off across the field to the cabin where I’d pretend I was on the lam for stealing secrets with my master computer.  The back barn held an old 1920s car with suicide doors, I don’t know the make or model or anything, but I’d jump on the rails and transform into a gangster.  In the loft was a wealth of old magazines and treasures.  When I got tired of playing there, I’d take off to my “secret place”, a small copse that wasn’t technically part of the woods.  I’d take an armload of books (or the magazines) and relax, feasting on the wild blackberries that grew around it or figs from the tree behind the house (only the ones down low.  I came face to face with a Rough Green Snake while climbing that tree one day and was done with the higher branches!).

When I wasn’t playing, I was working.  I cut the grass for both houses, first with a push mower, then eventually with Mr. Mac’s John Deere tractor.  I loved that tractor.  I started out riding on it with Mr. Mac.  When I’d see him plowing a field or bush-hogging something, I’d run out and he’d slow down enough for me to hop on top of the wheel well.  He’d show me how the tractor worked and explain why he was doing what he did.  Eventually he let me drive and before long I was doing the plowing and mowing for him.  He gave me my own stretch of earth in front of the muscadine vines to plant my own garden (too small for the tractor, I plowed it with a small gas powered hand plow.  That thing was the dickens to keep straight!).  I’d stay out working in the dirt until the sun faded behind the bamboo, then I’d pick whatever veggies were ready to go and spend the evening shucking corn or shelling peas on the back porch.

I helped him lay a brick patio, I watered the plants in the greenhouse, blew the leaves off their driveway, raked and trimmed the yard, and was rewarded with fresh lemonade and the occasional use of Mr. Mac’s hat while I worked (an absolutely fantastic hat! It had a built in battery operated fan in the front).  After work, there was always plenty of time for play.  It was like something out of a book, a fact I knew well since I was an avid reader, and appreciated greatly.  I’d pretend I was Huck Finn rafting down the river (the short cinderblock wall that separated our house from the Macs) or Caddie Woodlawn taming the wild frontier (the field beside the house).

Lately I’ve been wondering how/if my childhood would have been different if I’d had all of the technology kids today have.  Would I have been able to go in the woods alone?  Sure there were snakes and ticks and hunters, but I would have been just a call away.  Would I still have had to be in shouting distance?  Would I have even wanted to be outside playing as much?  Kids these days don’t seem to appreciate the simple joys of riding a bike and pretending anymore.  Of course that could just be my jaded view of things.  My sister is thirteen (I’m currently 28, yeah I know, big gap), around the age I got to drive the tractor by myself, and she seems to care more about texting her friends than pretending outside and playing games on her iPod rather than reading a book.  I’d like to say that I would have been the same kid, even with the technology, but who really wants to admit they’d have succumbed to it too?  Truth is, I don’t know what would have been different, but I’m glad I had the childhood I did.  It made me a hard worker, taught me to love the outdoors, fostered my imagination, and fed me with things I grew myself.  If I ever have kids (I’d love to adopt some day), I hope I can get them to put down the technology and open their eyes to the world around them.  I hope I can give them a childhood they will look back on as fondly as I do mine.

Idealistic or Imaginative?

I’ve heard that I’m too idealistic.  I get something in my head, some perfect image, and that’s the way I want things to be.  For example, one of my favorite movies of all time is “Roman Holiday”, so naturally when I visited Rome I wanted to meet a gorgeous American journalist and see all of the sights from a small scooter and end up dancing on a barge at midnight.  Of course I didn’t really expect this to happen, but what’s wrong with my romanticized version?  (I did hit all of the “Roman Holiday” sights except for the Mouth of Truth.  One day I shall return!).  In Paris, I wanted to stroll down the Champs de Elysee with a fresh croissant.  (I actually did that one, however, I did not get to accomplish my other goal and visit Jim Morrison’s grave).  In Dublin, I imagined dancing a jig in a traditional pub to Irish folk music until the wee hours of the mornin’ (I did that too).  I would love to visit St. Petersburg and take the train (I have no desire to jump in front of it), and walk through the rain in London (preferably while singing something from “My Fair Lady”).  If (when) I visit Scotland, I will not leave without a trip to the Highlands to look for Nessie (eight-year old me would never speak to me again if I didn’t).

These aren’t unrealistic goals, right?  Until I visit these places, what I know of them comes from the books and movies that I love.  Literature especially gets ingrained in my head. I guess because I have to supply the imagery for myself, which makes me want to visit the real places and see how they match up.  Sometimes, the picture in my head is dead on, like in the Irish pub.  Other times, I’m way off.  I remember reading about Dublin Castle and imagined a large stone structure with turrets and a drawbridge.  In reality, my husband and I walked past it several times before we realized the large house/museum looking area was the “castle”.  We did find one wall/turret that resembled the castle from my imagination and took all of our pictures there.  Then we took a train to Malahide Castle, which was much more suitable, complete with an iron barred portico and sprawling gardens.

There are some places so wrapped in my imagination with the imagery from books and movies that I don’t know how I would untangle them.  So what of it if I build up something in my imagination and then set off to make it happen?  My dreams aren’t so big, they’re simple things like munching a flaky pastry in Paris.  I always like to get a feel for local life and culture on my travels as well, can’t I balance the two?  I found this article on the Top 10 Literary Cities (so far I’ve only been to #2 and #4) that tells you the places to go in these literary wonderlands to fulfill your bookish desires. Places like writers museums and reading rooms.  (Take my advice and steer clear of Bram Stoker’s Dracula Experience in Dublin, though.  It wasn’t the cool, scary, haunting time I thought it would be.  It’s an arcade and “haunted funhouse” on the outskirts, i.e. a shady area, of Dublin.  It sucked, pun unintended, and wasn’t at all scary.  I dare say that Bram Stoker would send his blood-sucking monster to drain all those responsible for the travesty.)

For me, part of my idealism comes from wanting to step into the writers’ shoes.  I want to feel what they felt when they wrote something.  The smells, the click of my heels on the cobblestone streets, the sounds, the light drizzle of rain in my hair.  It brings me a step closer to the worlds I love so much.  Idealistic?  Maybe.  Imaginative?  Very.  And I’m okay with both.