UK Young Adult Extravanganza Magic

On Saturday, Waterstones Nottingham hosted the second UKYA Extravaganza Event.  About 30 authors of Young Adult fiction were there to talk about their work and answer questions from a keen audience!  I really love author events, and this was no exception.  There is something truly wonderful about listening to someone talking about a book (or books) they have written, because you discover that there is so much more to it than simply writing down a story.  Every book has part of the author inside it and it was a privilege to hear about it.

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I limited myself to buying two books (very restrained) and I decided at the beginning that I would listen to all the authors before I decided which two to buy.  It was a touch choice!  Listening to them all I came away thinking I would happily read any and all the books talked about.  But in the end I went for Land by Alex Campbell https://authorallsorts.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/book-birthday-interview-land-by-alex-campbell/ and The Beneath by Sue Ransom http://sueransom.com.  I chose Land as I loved the way Alex talked about her books (her second is Cloud 9) as answering big questions in her own life.   Sue first started writing for her daughter and premise of The Beneath intrigues me.  Both authors were delighted to sign my copies and they are now sitting on my bedside table itching to be read!

It was a great event, I really enjoyed myself and I hope it happens again next year! Thank you UKYAX for organising it.

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Great Writing #1: Character Sketch from The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

My last blog post about becoming a better reader got me thinking about great writing and how I’m appreciating it more and more.  Sometimes it just jumps up and hits me in the face when I’m reading and I have to stop and say ‘Wow.  Brilliant.’ and usually; ‘I wish I could write like that.’  Perhaps that’s just me…but I’ve started to l look out for some examples in the books I’m reading which I thought I would share here.

The first one is a wonderful character sketch I came across near the beginning of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  The character is called Professor Pesca – an Italian gentleman who left Italy for political reasons and has been teaching languages in London for several years.  Not a style of writing I have read for many years and it takes a bit of getting into but this was such a pleasure to read and made me smile.  Here’s why:

“Without being actually a dwarf – for he was perfectly well proportioned from head to foot – Pesca was, I think, the smallest human being I ever saw out of a show room.  Remarkable anywhere, by his personal appearance, he was still further distinguished among the rank and file of mankind by the harmless eccentricity of his character.  The ruling idea of his life appeared to be, that he was bound to show his gratitude to the country which had afforded him an asylum and a means of subsistence by doing his utmost to turn himself into an Englishman.  Not content with paying the nation in general the compliment of invariably carrying an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a white hat, the Professor further aspired to become an Englishman in his habits and amusements, as well as his personal appearance.  Finding us distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the little man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself impromptu to all our English sports and pastimes whenever he had the opportunity of joining them; firmly persuaded that he could adopt our national amusements of the field by an effort of will precisely as he had adopted our national galleries and our national white hat.  I had seen him risk his limbs blindly at a fox-hunt and in a cricket-field; and soon afterwards I saw him risk his life, just as blindly, in the sea at Brighton.”

A beautiful measure of a minor character in a few paragraphs.  It has got me thinking about the minor characters in my WIP and how I can convey them vividly but succinctly.  Food for thought I hope.  Next time, settings…

Becoming a better reader

I am naturally a galloping reader.  I rattle through books at top speed, eager to know what happens next, then (if the book is good) I’m gutted when I get to the last page.  I feel like I’ve lost a great friend.  

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach – it’s an indicator of how much I’m enjoying the book in question and the fact that it’s a good page-turner.  But I sometimes think some of my appreciation of the book is lost in the speed at which I devour the words.  

Since I’ve started writing the way I read has definately changed.  Before I read mainly for enjoyment (I’m talking about novels here) but now I also read to learn.  I think about the author’s style, genre, characters, language and anything else I can absorb along the way.  I still read quickly but I think I appreciate and reflect more as I go along and it means that not only do I know whether I’ve enjoyed the novel, I also have a clearer understanding why.

I’ve just finished The Fearless by Emma Pass which I enjoyed a lot.  A great adventure, which I gobbled up at the usual speed.  But I stopped and reflected several times along the way so when I read the final page I knew exactly why I enjoyed it: sound plot, straightforward language, strong characters, each with their own clear voice (the chapters are written in the first person from the point of view of one of the three main characters which is very effective) and vivid settings (I was in no doubt where the story was without any unnecessary long descriptions). 

I think my point is that I enjoy books more now that I’m becoming a better reader!  I would love to know what your reading style is and whether you are a galloper or a reflector when it comes to reading…..

Book Review: Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

So I’ve been off-radar for a couple of months….I”m going to blame that on the very early arrival of sprog #3 (all fine just little!) which kind of scuppered all attempts at writing and well, using my brain at all for the past 9 weeks.  It has also meant my reading has ground to a halt (sleep wins) but in the midst of it all a friend bought me this book to escape into while I was in hospital and I couldn’t put it down.

Noughts & Crosses is the story of Sephy and Callum.  It’s a love story – a dystopian Romeo and Juliet, set in a time where the superior black Crosses control society and lord over the inferior white Noughts.  Sephy is a Cross, Callum a Nought and the two don’t mix.

I’m not going to risk any spoilers by saying much about the story but I have to tell you what captivated me about this book.  The writing is lovely; sharp and real.  The characters though are what did it for me.  They jump out of the page and you can’t let them out of your sight until their story is finished.  The book deals head on with the issue of racism in a brave way and some of the scenes are very vivid.  In particular there is a scene where white Noughts are allowed to attend a school with black Crosses which comes to life in such a powerful way – it stayed with me long after I finished the book.

In the note at the beginning of the book, the author says; ‘Noughts & Crosses was quite simply a book I had to write, a story I had to tell.’ which sums it up really.  This is a wonderful book.  Really encourage you to pick it up if you haven’t already.  It’s a keeper.

Book Review: Half Wild by Sally Green

When this book arrived it felt like a real treat – I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since I finished its predecessor, Half Bad.  It’s the second in the Half Bad trilogy, which tells the story of Nathan Byrn – a half white, half black witch living in a world where (putting it mildly) the two do not get along.

In order to talk about Half Wild I need to say what Ioved about Half Bad (apologies if this turns into a review of both!).  I listened to an interview with Sally Green on Women’s Hour last year and felt drawn into the story as she spoke about it.  There are of course plenty of stories out there about witches and wizards and all things magical but this one sounded different.  And intriguing.  A genre I love, written by a former professional (in her case accountant, in my case lawyer).  I must read this book, thought I!

Half Bad is all about Nathan himself, how he becomes a fully fledged witch and deals with some pretty horrendous things along the way.  I think that it is so tempting, especially in this genre to throw your main character straight into the acton, not giving them a chance to process what is happening to and around them.  After all we are eager to get into the adventure as quickly as possible!  But Half Bad does both adventure and character so effectively.  Sally takes us straight into the action and intrigue (I was hooked instantly) but this is unmistakably Nathan’s journey and his way through it is wonderful to read.

Nathan is a great character, developed further throughout Half Wild; again an engaging balance between action and character.  I enjoyed the other characters too: Mercury, Celia, Van, Gabriel, Annalise and Marcus to name a few – not typically all good or all bad but instead all wonderfully flawed and rounded.  Even the ‘baddies’ have elements which you want to like about them and nothing is black or white (in the usual not the witch sense!) – this theme is clear through both books.

I’m not going to give away much about the plot of Half Wild but Nathan’s story continues – he discovers his powerful Gift, given to him by his father, Marcus (a powerful Black Witch with dubious violent tendencies) and he learns how to use and live with it.  He is determined to rescue the girl he is in love with and his relationships with the other key characters develop and deepen.  And the story of the increasingly dangerous conflict between White Witches and Black Witches continues.

Sally’s writing style is punchy and distinctive and suits the story and the voice of Nathan so well.  I liked the use of the second person point of view at the beginning of Half Bad, which returns briefly at the very end of Half Wild, setting it up beautifully for the story’s conclusion in book three, which is due to be out in March next year.  So you have plenty of time to read the first two before then!

PS I know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but these two are brilliant, as are the blurbs on the back 🙂

PPS There’s a great interview with the author here: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/mar/27/sally-green-interview-waterstones-half-bad-wild

Solving Plot Problems – the ‘Halfway Pause’

Seems ironic that I am writing about a pause in my writing when I’ve also had a pause with this blog!  Never mind.  I’m back with a few thoughts on pausing the actual writing part of novel writing.  By the writing part, I mean getting the words down as opposed to plotting, character notes, planning scenes etc.

I came across this idea in one of the first writing craft books I ever read, The Writer’s and Artist’s Guide to How to Write by Harry Bingham.  A great resource if you’ve never had a look at it, especially for a beginner.  In the context of solving plot problems, Harry talks about the one – third pause; essentially stopping about 20-30,000 words in and taking stock.  Asking yourself is this going well, or is it a struggle?  If it’s a struggle he recommends doing a chapter by chapter plan then going back to the overall plan for the book and looking at the characters and the plot, so you can re-think where you are heading.  Your plot needs to feel right.

I hit about 35,000 words (I’m aiming for 70,000 ish so about half way) then had a bit of a panic about my plot and characters.  The way the story was moving along felt right but I was worried that I had forgotten about key themes or characters.  It is so easy to get lost in the volume of words and forget where you are going!  So I stopped writing for a couple of days and did a few things to allay my fears…

  • Reviewed all my character notes and reminded myself who’s who and what they are like.  I asked myself – does this character feel real and alive – is their personality coming through the writing?;
  • Reviewed and organised all my notes on themes, groups of people, places, rules about the world I’m writing about etc.  Am I including the right information at the right time for the right reason?;
  • Looked again at my overall plot.  I have to confess this is still a little shady in places.  I have a rough idea of where the story is going but haven’t carved out much detail…hmmm. Perhaps I am more of a panser than I think.  At least I know how it ends.
  • Looked again at the backstory.   This is difficult as again I’m not entirely clear on the detail.  I know what happened and when but I need to focus on how and why.
  • Dug out all my bits and pieces of notes in various notebooks around the house where I write down ideas as they come to me.  I’d forgotten about a couple of them, so it was a good exercise to pull them all together.

This all coincided with a major laptop failure (thank goodness for backing up) so it was sort of forced upon me but it was certainly useful.  I have now started writing again (much more fun) with a clearer and more confident sense of where I’m going.  The only sacrifice has been a few hours of time and a couple of thousand words which weren’t going in the right direction so I’ve saved them for a rainy day.

Book Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

I bought this book as a result of reading an excellent interview with Pierce Brown on Goodreads (you can read it here http://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/993.Pierce_Brown). Red Rising is set on Mars. I have to confess the idea didn’t thrill me at first, but the book is in fact a clever new take on the YA dystopian novel (not an alien or spaceship in sight) and I enjoyed it a lot.

Plot

Sixteen year old Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste on Mars. They mine for helium-3 believing that this will transform the surface into a habitable place so that humans can escape a dying Earth.  But Darrow and the Reds have been sold a lie.  The surface of Mars has in fact been fit for habitation for years and they are slaves to the ruling class of Golds.

Darrow agrees to join the rebels and is transformed into a Gold so that he can infiltrate and bring them down.

Once transformed he is accepted into the Institute; a training school for the best young Golds.  Darrow discovered that this ‘school’ is in fact a barbaric testing arena. Students are split into houses and pitted against each other in an outdoor war game involving death, brutality, rape and battles. He makes enemies and allies and eventually wins the game, beating the ArchGovernor’s son. The ArchGovernor is so impressed that he asks Darrow to become a member of his household. Darrow accepts in spite of his hatred for the man and embraces his mission to bring down the Golds from the inside and free the people he has left behind beneath the surface.

Review

There are many things I liked about this book…

Characters

Darrow is a great protagonist.  He is very young but you have a clear understanding of the events that have shaped his character so far.  The other characters are memorable and varied with their own distinctive qualities. I’m looking forward to seeing how they all develop in the next two books!

World – Building

This is brilliant. The book is obviously set on another planet so the world – building needs to be detailed, vivid and rich, which it is.

Plot

The pacing is good – at some times fast and at others steady, but always moving the story along at a good rate. A lot happens, so the book seems longer than others of this genre and some parts could perhaps have been a little shorter without detracting from the story.

Writing

I liked the writing style. It is straightforward and clear but also the descriptions and use of language are great. You get a strong sense of where you are and what the characters are like from their thoughts, actions and appearances.

What I wasn’t as keen on…

The book contains a lot of vivid violence. This in itself didn’t worry me as for the most part it enhanced the story and the characters. What I didn’t like was the violence towards women and the rape. Did it further the story? I don’t think it did.

If you like YA fiction and especially if you are looking for something a bit different, then I would recommend that you give this book a go.  I really enjoyed my time immersed in Darrow’s world and I can’t wait to read the second instalment (Golden Son), which is supposed to be even better!

Book Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

I was excited about reading this book.  Lots of anticipation and great reviews, so it was next on my To Read list.

I loved the idea of a ‘novel within a novel’; two stories running alongside each other in alternating chapters.  The first story belongs to eighteen-year-old Darcy Patel, who writes a novel during National Novel Writing Month, lands a two-book publishing deal and moves to New York to pursue her career as a writer.

The second story also belongs to Darcy, but it is her novel, Afterworlds.  It is the story of Lizzie, the only survivor of an airport terrorist attack which results in her being able to ‘move over’ to the afterlife.  She meets a sexy death god called Yamaraj, falls in love with him and realises that she has powers to help the dead as their ghosts move to the other side.

There are lots of good things to say about this book.  Both stories are interesting and I enjoyed reading them in tandem.  Darcy’s novel sounds like it is her writing, rather that Westerfelt’s, which is very clever.  The writing and especially the dialogue feels natural, moving the stories along.  So I feel as though I should have enjoyed the book more than I did.

On reflection I think that there were a couple of things bothered me.  Both plots moved along and I enjoyed them, but I wasn’t fully engaged and desperate to find out what happened next.  I was intrigued about the two novel concept.  Each story was interesting to read in its own right but I was expecting them to interact with each other, which they didn’t very much.  The characters were interesting and developed throughout the book, but I didn’t find myself connecting with them.

I finished the book feeling disappointed as I was expecting to have loved this book.  I feel like I am missing something – If you’ve read Afterworlds I would love to know what you think.

Do The Work

I am a bit behind with a few things this week.  Blogging, NaNo novel (for new readers I am taking part in National Novel Writing Month and attempting to write 50,000 of a novel during November), laundry, general house sorting, to name a few.  I’m blaming half term, (wonderful) family visiting and then a trip to Disneyland Paris, so some lovely distractions!

On Monday I was finally back at my desk writing and I only managed a paltry 744 words that day.  Still, the important thing is that I wrote something.  Some words (however bad they are) are better than no words at all.

A couple of people have asked me, ‘So when do you write?  Do you have to pick a good time when you feel inspired?’  My answer to that has always been,  ‘Actually it’s mostly just about doing the work.’  The most important lesson I have learned this year is that I need to turn up.  So many things demand our time, some more important that others and most do need doing at some point.  But I’m learning that if there’s something I’m passionate about doing, then I need to prioritize it.  Make the time, not find the time.  I need to get on with it.

Of course, some inspiration is useful once in a while (!) but I’ve found that most of my important ideas about plot, characters etc strike me when I’m not actually sat down typing.  I have exciting notebooks full of scribbles all over the place, but the real work takes place here.  Fingers to keyboard.

There is a great pep talk by Kami Garcia on the NaNo website about this which you can look at here  http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/kami-garcia

Love the tough love!  So I better get on with it.  Do the work.

Book Review: We Were Liars by E Lockhart

I have been recommending this book to so many people so I thought it would be a good one for my first review. Also we did it for book club last week so I’ve been waiting to hear what everyone else thought as well!

We Were Liars is a story about the Sinclairs, a wealthy American family, who spend every summer on their Granddad’s private island.  The Sinclairs are ‘tall, merry, and rich’ and nothing is allowed to affect that facade. The Sinclair’s world is controlled by Harris Sinclair, whose four daughters compete for his affections and argue constantly about their entitlement to the family wealth.

The story is told by Cadence (or Cady), who we know from the beginning is ill in body and mind.  She relates the story from her fifteenth summer on the island to the seventeeth, all the time trying to remember what happened during ‘Summer Seventeen’ which made her so ill.  We go on Cady’s journey with her, trying to unravel the truth and eventually finding it.

The four ‘Liars’ from the title are the three eldest grandchildren, Cady, Mirren and Johnny and also Gat, who is not part of the family, but spends every summer with them.  Gat is different from the Sinclairs in the way he looks, thinks and behaves, so when Cady falls in love with him, it threatens to upset the structure of the world they all live in.

I think that the characters are all interesting and vivid. Most of the adults are unpleasant, often tragic and I rarely sympathised with any of them. The teenagers are selfish and products of their surroundings and upbringing but also likeable.  They are opinionated, passionate and dramatic, making statements which they believe in but do not fully understand.

I loved the writing.  It sounds a bit cliché, but whilst I was reading this book, I often paused on a page to re-read a paragraph or sentence with a smile on my face.  The way Lockhart expresses certain emotions or situations is just so brilliant and lovely to read!  Here’s what I mean:

‘It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout.’

I also really liked the way that she sets the scene. Rather than lengthy pages of description Lockhart often conjures up a picture of where the characters are in just a couple of sentences. 

The ending is shocking and profound.  A couple of girls in my book club had only just finished it and were still reeling.  It brought some to tears. There was some debate amongst us whether when the truth comes out it is plausible or not. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions but I am a believer. Enjoy.