Category Archives: Thoughts

Does It Count As a Tearjerker if the Book Punches You Until You Cry?

multilightsA Boston Magazine article describes an MIT Media Lab project that aims to enhance the regular reading experience via a wearable vest.

Sounds super cool already, right? 😉 Continue reading

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Filed under Adult Fiction, Publishing news, Thoughts, Writing

My Love/Hate Relationship With Red-Haired Heroines

redhair3My childhood was filled with books; therefore, it was filled with pages upon pages of red-haired heroines. From Anne of Green Gables to Aerin of The Hero and The Crown to Alanna of Tamora Pierce’s books, I voraciously read books about women who were different from the crowd. These weren’t swooning ladies looking for a rescue. They were misunderstood and often fiery. Like their hair.

And how I longed for red hair. Red hair would mark me as different, yet lovely. A beautiful force to be reckoned with. Red haired protagonists are teased about their hair, but everyone knows they’re actually beautiful and special.

I wish life were more like that. Kids would only be teased for qualities that are actually assets, and everyone would have beautiful red hair.  Continue reading

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Wanted: Better Cliches to Describe the Kindle

kindle paperwhiteCracking open a book is a familiar phrase that describes reading a text for the first time, but cracking open a Kindle (or iPad) is an alarming turn of events that will surely turn a good day into a bad day filled with customer-service phone calls.

Advancements in technology are great, but what happens when advancements in descriptive cliches don’t keep pace?

OK, so you know I’m just having fun with doomsday rhetorical questions, but in all seriousness, I find myself searching for non-robotic ways to describe reading an e-book. Can’t crack it open, can’t dog-ear it, can’t turn pages, can’t describe the pages as well-worn. You can sort-of judge an e-book by its cover, even though you don’t see the cover other than when buying it. Continue reading

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How To Come Up With Good Story Ideas

If there were a store that sold fresh, creative, one-of-a-kind story ideas, I have a feeling that writers would bash down the doors and clean out the inventory faster than a crowd of Black Friday shoppers.

I believe that good ideas are the currency of compelling writing. Too often, writers pour their hearts (and words) into has-been stories based on tired old ideas. Instructional books and critique partners can ratchet up the level of the prose, but there are few nuts-and-bolts techniques that guarantee the birth of a wonderful idea.

But creativity is essential. A good idea is like the engine of a gleaming new car. The paint and tail fins of your beauty might gleam, but without a unique concept revving up in the background and powering the prose, the story goes nowhere. Or, at least it doesn’t go to PublishedLand.

I can’t claim to be privy to any special technique (the champagne bottle awaiting my original idea is still on the shelf), but I’ve become more aware, lately, of why certain ideas are special. By examining creative ideas out there in the world, I hope to better discern whether my own ideas are worthy of my writing time, before I waste months figuring that out the hard way.

I’ve noticed that quite a few creative ideas combine seemingly disparate topics. The easiest example that comes to mind is the popular Jane Austen/zombie mash-up, aptly titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take one thing and twist it up with a totally unrelated thing, and you might just have a good idea.

The Hunger Games, a young adult dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, offer a less extreme version of this principle, in a thematic sense. The books are basically a mash-up of gladiator style fighting, reality TV, and revolution.

Short stories can also effectively pull a creative combo idea. Recently, I read the Hugo-nominated story Bridesicle, which concerns a cryogenically frozen young girl who finds herself awakened in the future. Sure, freezing someone and reviving them in the future has been done before, but the author delightfully combines that familiar concept with the idea of a dating service. So, you have a frozen young girl waking up in the future for a series of blind dates. If she’s chosen as a bride, she gets to be permanently revived. But if her suitor isn’t happy, she’s popped back into the freezer indefinitely. Bingo. Original idea.

There’s definitely more to creating ideas than random mash-ups, but I think it’s a good place to start in learning to recognize and understand creativity, and hopefully to nurture it too. I’ll share more thoughts on this later, but if you have a chance, definitely check out Bridesicle and appreciate a truly unique concept in action.

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Reasons why I’m reading a book series out of order (True Blood)

I have a confession to make. I’m reading the True Blood books by Charlaine Harris, and I’m doing it totally out of order. When I mention this to people, I get the impression that reading out of order is tantamount to that other sin of reading (which I’m also guilty of)–peeking ahead to read the ending.

I don’t read all series out of order. In fact, this is kind of a rare occurrence for me, but I have no regrets thus far. I watched True Blood seasons 1 and 2, so I figured I got the gist of the story from HBO, and no need to repeat it for the sake of saying I read the actual words.

In the library, I browsed through the True Blood paperbacks, reading the back of each book to see which one piqued my interest. I wasn’t totally committed to even trying the books, so I wanted to pick the most interesting one possible. My eyes lit up at the summary of Book #4, Dead to the World. It looked like Sookie and Eric would finally get it on this book! So I was sold. Or, er, borrowed.

Now, Book #4 wasn’t the best thing I ever read ever, but it was funny, entertaining, engaging, and I liked the characters and setting. Perfect for a summer beach book. It’s on to Book #3, Club Dead. From there, I’m not sure what to do. Go back and read Book#2 anyway, since I heard it’s somewhat different than the TV series? Or forge ahead through the series based on what interests me the most? I might go that route.

I’m not worried about the typical concerns of reading out of order, like not understanding the plot. It’s clear that most authors embed recaps, some better than others, for the forgetful or blatantly non-linear readers. I figure that this time, those annoying recaps telling me what happened in the previous book won’t be so annoying anymore (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).

I highly recommend tackling a series out of order if the following inclinations apply to you.

1. It’s a sequel or continuation of a popular movie/TV show and you dread the thought of backtracking. Don’t worry about bucking the numbers! No one is making you read in a particular order! It’s your free time, so pick up the story where it starts for you.

2. You have a feeling you might like a series, but the beginning sounds boring (for whatever reason). Why not pick up the book that does sound interesting? If the author recap isn’t good, there’s always Wikipedia.

3. It’s a long long series, and you can’t picture reading all of it. But you can picture reading Book #5…

4. You’re at the library/bookstore with a flight/beach trip/boring evening looming, and they don’t have the next book in the series in stock!!! NOO! But they do have some other books in the same series. Hmm….

If you’re still feeling guilty, consider that sometimes authors even write their books out of order. When I was a teenager, I read both The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, both EXCELLENT books. I read the Blue Sword first, and it happened to be published first too, in 1982. Later, I read the Hero and the Crown, the prequel to the Blue Sword, and was surprised to see it was published in 1985. (I didn’t read the books when they came out, so the dates were afterthoughts to me). There are times when authors write the story that moves them first, and I think it’s a good move for readers to follow their hearts too, even if it’s a zig-zaggy path.

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Study Says E-Books Take Longer to Read

CNN recently outlined an interesting study on the speed of reading e-books versus printed books. Sure, the study has a relatively small sample size of 24 and gives some disclaimers about differences in reading speed not being statistically significant, but the general idea strikes me as significant.

So here’s what the study says: compared to reading a conventional printed book, people using e-readers read at speeds between 6.2 and 10.5 percent slower on the iPad and Kindle.

I’m actually surprised that the iPad boasted the “faster” designation of 6.2 percent, as I expected the e-ink of the Kindle to put it ahead of the glowy iPad screen. However, the iPad seems to switch pages faster than the Kindle, and its page switch is less distracting, so maybe that’s the golden ticket.

Personally, I still can’t grapple with the idea of giving up printed books for their cooler, electronic brethren. I’ve only used the iPad and Kindle at the mall/friend’s houses, but I’ve had no urge to ditch print. Along with other reasons, I just think print is a richer, more immersive experience. Apparently it’s more efficient too.

Still, in the end, I’ll put my betting money on overall convenience winning out and e-books dominating the marketplace. No one really wants to lug heavy backpacks of textbooks or cart around hardcovers in their carry-on luggage, and the study reports that ratings for the overall experience of reading on devices versus print were extremely close. As for me–my personal, book-buying money will still go towards pulpy paper and dog-eared pages.

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The Challenges of Writing Memoir and Life: Are Forced Stories Good Stories?

I recently read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, a sort of meta-memoir about storytelling in our lives. The author goes through a period of self-reflection after writing the New York Times bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz and then meeting two Hollywood types who want to turn his story into a movie. Except that his life is too boring to be a movie, so they have to doctor up the plot.

Miller spends some time reflecting on what it means to have a boring life, and concludes that our lives are better lived when we engage in active stories, complete with conflict and pain and growth. To give Miller credit, he embraces his thesis wholeheartedly and goes from being a couch potato to hiking the Inca trail, dating a girl he likes, biking across the country, and starting a nonprofit mentoring program. I bet his Facebook friends are super jealous.

His experiences got me thinking about stories though. I agree with the overall idea that good stories are a better sign of life-well-lived than a TV screen. But, I don’t think all life experiences, even the seemingly adventurous ones, naturally organize themselves into stories of self-development. Sometimes, things are just plain fun. Or just plain unfair. Or just plain boring.

I went on an educational trip once that was just begging to be a story. We were even given journals to record our daily thoughts and answered reflection questions. Because of all the build-up, I felt like the trip was some great life lesson waiting to unfold, and I tried to wring out meaning every day in my journal entries. In the end, some interesting things happened, but assigning an overarching lesson to the whole thing was forced. It was a trip without a plot. It was fun at times and bad at other times, but it was mostly a vacation.

Writing memoirs must be difficult. I imagine that, once an author writes a fantastic memoir and sells oodles of books, they’re compelled to bring out the sequel. But, as I mentioned at the end of my post on Elizabeth Gilbert, how many truly life-changing and memoir-worthy experiences can one person really have?

Based on my experience reading memoirs, I think some of the better “sequels” are comprised of stuff that already happened before the original, bestselling memoir was written. That way, the author didn’t feel pressure the pressure to ohmygod do something interesting/adventurous/profound and crank out a new book by deadline.

I wonder if authors of memoir actually do feel pressured to seek more stories in their lives, and I wonder how that affects the quality of the stories. Sometimes, I think intentionally plunging into a story like Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, can work. At other times, a vacation is just a vacation. Everyone needs one.

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Good Brother, Bad Brother Stories

A few years ago I watched the anime Trigun, a story that centers around a man named Vash and his twin brother Knives. Unsurprisingly, one of the brothers was evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one…

I was laughing about this less-than-obvious name choice with a friend, when it occurred to me that the dearly departed TV show Lost involves a similar interpretation of brothers. One baby, Jacob, is born and wrapped in a nice white blanket. Then Jacob’s brother is born and wrapped in a foreshadowing black cloth. White-blanket baby becomes the illustrious protector of the island and black-blanket baby gets shafted with the role of Nemesis. Poor evil baby doesn’t even get a name.

Why do so many stories out there have a plot involving a good brother and an evil brother? Often these brothers are twins, but not always. In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, good little Ender becomes the Battle School hero and saves the world, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, his older brother Peter’s hobbies include torturing animals and Ender.

I haven’t conducted a thorough survey here by any means, but by just recalling my own media consumption experiences it seems like the good brother/evil brother trope is quite common. Other examples include The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks (good twin/evil twin), the Bible (Cain/Abel and Jacob/Esau), The Man in the Iron Mask (good twin/evil twin), The Dragonlance series (good twin/evil twin), and The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (good brother/bad brother, although there’s a cool twist to that). Oh, and let’s not forget Dexter (Season 1 SPOILER), where, um, I suppose both brothers are serial killers but Dexter is most certainly the good serial killer. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there that I’m forgetting.

So, again, what’s the deal with all these good/evil brother pairings? I’m wondering why I can’t think of any good sister/evil sister stories, twins or otherwise. Can you think of any? Luke and Leia in Star Wars are boy/girl twins, and both good, so maybe girls just cancel out the evilness of boys? Seriously though, the good brother/evil brother tale seems entrenched in our storytelling, ancient as the Bible.

I wonder if it’s a vestige of the pre-feminist revolution days when mostly everything was by men and about men. But that explanation seems too shallow, too easy. We’ve had decent stories in recent memories with strong female protagonists, and some in the past too, so why not a slew of good sister/bad sister stories to keep pace with the boys? Or even more boy/girl twin stories?

Perhaps our modern brother stories are echoes of legend, of an archetype. But still, why are brothers handy personifications of good and evil and not sisters? I understand why women in legend are often earth goddess mother types. I get why ancient cultures were kind of freaked out by twins in general. Is the brother cliche a result of men’s higher rates of murder in society? Is it because men are typically more physical than women, and physicality equals violence equals death equals evil?

From the stories I’ve named, the brother trope seems to appear more frequently in speculative fiction than in the literary variety. Of course, I enjoy reading/watching speculative type things and have probably read more of such stories as a result, so my experience is biased.

I’m curious if anyone else has thoughts on this. Why are we drawn to brothers, and not sisters, who personify good and evil?

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Common Werewolf Names, From Shiver to Twilight to True Blood

In the past year, I’ve read/watched more vampire/werewolf stories than ever before. And I’ve noticed that the werewolf stories share something common beyond the whole sloughing off your human skin thing. When I read Shiver it hit me for certain: werewolves are often named Sam.

From my own limited experience (I can’t pretend to have read THAT many werewolf books), I know there’s a Sam in the Twilight pack of wolves. That suspiciously shaggy looking guy who owns the bar in True Blood was named Sam, and, sure enough, he shapeshifted into a dog. (For my scientific purposes here, shapeshifting into a dog still counts.) Shiver’s main character is the endearingly poetic werewolf Sam. So that makes three werewolf Sams. Coincidence?

I hit up the Google for some explanation, and I found an interview with Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater where she acknowledges the problem. Apparently her publishers noticed the werewolf Sam in Twilight too, and asked her to change the Shiver main character’s name. But she liked the name Sam, and other names just didn’t fit. Then she had a bright idea. Instead of arguing that the Twilight name overlap was a fluke, she made a list of ALL the werewolves named Sam in literature, making a case that the werewolf Sam thing is so common that one more Sam in Shiver doesn’t matter. So apparently there are more Sams out there that I haven’t discovered. Sam is like the John or Michael of werewolves–no one can accuse you of copying.

No promises if you name your werewolf Colton or Skyler.

Anyway, Stiefvater’s editors bought her argument, and werewolf Sam remained in Shiver. I agree with Stiefvater’s decision to defend the name. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously brainwashed to view all Sams as shaggy, vulnerable, and prone to shapeshifting, but the name works, especially for the main character in Shiver.

Oddly enough, a few days after reading Shiver, I spotted this story in Fantasy magazine. No werewolf Sam, but… wait for it… there’s a Grace in the story! Grace being the human girl love interest in Shiver. The trend continues.

EDIT: I am all surprised and thrilled that Maggie Stiefvater, the author of Shiver, saw this post and tweeted it! Thanks to everyone who stopped by via her page, and thank you Maggie for the shout-out.

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Malcolm Gladwell, Challenger, and the Oil Rig Blow up

I need to half-take-back part of my assessment of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw. I said I liked the book overall, which is still true, but that the chapter explaining the Challenger disaster bored me.

Okay, so, lately that chapter seems way relevant. I picked up the book again after the news of the oil rig catastrophe along the Gulf Coast headlined last week.

In the article, called “Blow Up,” Malcolm Gladwell basically explains why extensive investigations into such disasters usually prove futile (I managed to unearth a link to the original New Yorker article if you want to check it out). Challenger and the Three-Mile-Island nuclear disaster were both caused by a series of smaller, normal accidents. Three Mile Island had a normal blockage problem in the plant’s filter. Then the backup cooling system failed. Then a gauge that should have alerted operators about the backup failure failed. And at this point there was almost a meltdown.

Back to May 2010–apparently the oil rig had several backup systems that failed too, resulting in another unexpected and unprecedented disaster. I’m not sure where I stand on nuclear power, offshore drilling, and space exploration, but Gladwell’s observations articulated something I’ve always noticed: the ritual of disaster investigation. The need to find something or someone to blame in order to prevent it from happening again.

I only wish Gladwell had suggested a way to solve the problem. Instead, he points out that more inexplicable disasters await us in the future, since safety investigations don’t do squat, really. We investigate and discover the equivalent of how to prevent lightening from striking in the same place again–but how often does lightening strike in the same place twice?

So, should humanity get rid of oil rigs and space shuttles and nuclear power? Is the answer to arrive at some sort of balance? If so, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?

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