Plus, It Gets You Out of the House!

Here’s a cool thing to do: go to author readings. Your public library or your local bookstore might have them, and they’re usually free. It’s heartening for the author, even if you don’t buy their book; it boosts the library’s attendance statistics, if it’s at a library; and you get to be read to like a kid and entertained. And, if you’re a writer who’s aiming at publication, you can snag yourself some interesting and useful information.

(Also, for writers scoping out these events, it’s fun to feel like you’re undercover. Taking notes is a lot cooler when you’re “gathering intel” than when you’re “attending math class”.)

Two days ago, I went to just such an author talk, and I learned all kinds of things! The author, Ralph Hardy, has written a novel that retells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ dog, Argos.

cover of the book Argos

(FYI: I had never met this author, and have no connection to him, except that I think he’s a member of the same SCBWI chapter I am. This post isn’t some kind of sneaky advertising, just my observations.)

The audience was almost half kids under fourteen (at my estimate), which is the book’s target audience. (And, incidentally, will be the target audience for MY dog-centric middle-grade book, so I was especially interested to see how this reading would go.) Then there was the author, a person sitting at a table with copies of the book for sale, and a library staff member to help run the program.

First off, I took notes on how the reading was organized. Here they are, along with some conclusions I drew:

  • It started at 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. If your target audience is mostly kids, make sure they’ll be out of school when you do your reading!
  • The author started by introducing himself and his book. He quizzed the kids about Greek mythology (they were GOOD, presumably courtesy of Rick Riordan). He then gave a quick, lively summary of the Trojan War. Know your audience, and know how much background to give them about the book.
  • Next up, Mr. Hardy briefly introduced, then read, two short chapters (the first one and a later one). His introduction included general setup facts for the novel, such as “All the animals can talk to each other, but not to humans.” When reading, he would pause to engage the kids in the audience (“Who knows what a ‘stag’ is?”). Consider not reading for too long. Pick short sections with dramatic endings.
  • He showed us a blown-up version of the cover and talked about getting an international call from the illustrator, who asked, “What does the dog look like?” His answer: “Big, and black, and wolfish, with a white shield on his chest.” He was enthusiastic about the cover. (I would be, too!) Visuals are great. So is enthusiasm!
  • He mentioned that the book can potentially tie in with The Odyssey, which kids in North Carolina are required to read in ninth grade. Again, know your target audience.
  • All of this had taken about twenty minutes. He spent the rest of the event – maybe another twenty-five minutes – doing Q&A.

The kids were engaged and interested, if slightly squirmy, which is to be expected for kids that age who just got out of school. But they were very keen on the Q&A. This afforded me another useful learning opportunity: what are some of the questions that middle-school-aged kids might ask an author?

Well, here are the questions they asked. (Unless otherwise noted, these were all asked by kids.)

  1. How long did it take you to write it?
  2. Why did you want to write the book?
  3. Was Argos really a dog in The Odyssey?
  4. Are you going to make a sequel?
  5. What is your writing schedule like? (Asked by an adult – not me!)
  6. What are your other books [that he had mentioned] about? (Also asked by an adult.)
  7. What was your favorite book as a kid?
  8. Do you prefer Greek or Roman mythology?
  9. Have you ever made a comic? (He had mentioned in response to Question 7, that he loved comics.)
  10. [Clarification question about one of the other books he had mentioned]
  11. Do you have any desire to write for adults? (Asked by an adult.)
  12. Have you written books under any other name?

1, 2, 4, and 7 are variations on questions that I’ve heard authors say they get asked all the time. But it was neat to hear some of the author-specific questions, like 3 and 8.

The audience seemed quite interested in concrete details about publishing. Then again, Mr. Hardy had some pretty interesting ones to share (“There were three rounds of edits. The last one was one sentence: ‘Put it in present tense.'”). They also liked fun personal stories, like how the author did a reading at his hometown library, and his ninety-five-year-old kindergarten teacher attended.

A couple of things that interested me perhaps more than the non-writers in the audience:

  • The book is 83,000 words. It’s always been acceptable for fantasy to go longer than other genres, but I still feel like the accepted length for MG has gone up in recent years. Thanks, J.K. Rowling!
  • He writes every weekday morning, aiming for between 500 and 1500 words per day.
  • He regrets publishing an earlier book under the name R.K. Hardy. He did it because people advised him that it was wise to obscure your gender to avoid alienating certain readers. Now, though, he sees it as a mistake because people who search his name don’t find all of his books.

See? Just a few of the fascinating things you can learn at an author talk. If you’ve been to any good ones, I’d love to hear about it!

What I’ve Been Reading in 2015

Well, I have finished buying a ton of books as holiday gifts for friends and family – can I just say thanks to my pals who are having kids for giving me an excuse to buy Mo Willems books?

it's a tiger
And also this piece of silly cuteness.

In other news, I finished my diversity reading list for 2015. Huzzah! I posted the list in a previous entry, with some descriptions of the books, so I won’t rehash it too much now. I’ll just note a few of my favorites.

girl from the well
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
Creepy and creative ghost story with a fascinating mythological background. Plus, I love that the narrator is the ghost – and that she manages to be sympathetic, righteous, and scary like whoah.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
This beautiful book made me care so hard about its protagonist! I have been recommending it like a broken record.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Topical, important, and highly readable. You start reading to find out what really happened on the day that a white man shot a black teen boy dead; you keep reading to find out where the boy’s family and community will go from here.

100 sideways miles
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
I hadn’t read any Andrew Smith, and I’ll have to pick up some more. Weird, wacky, clever, and surprisingly good-hearted. Since the protagonist has epilepsy but the author doesn’t, I went looking for reviews by readers with epilepsy. I was happy to find this one at Disability in Kidlit, which offers a mostly-positive reaction to the portrayal of the condition. Nice!

And what the heck, here are some diverse books I read and loved in 2015 that weren’t on my to-read list:

the shadow hero
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
A fascinating reboot of the first Chinese-American superhero. Great plot with doses of hilarious humor (and some tearjerker stuff, too). Some of the original comics are reproduced at the end of the book.

fake id
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Smart, well-paced thriller about a teen in the Witness Protection Program. He’s trying to stay out of trouble at his new school, but he has to know whether his best friend there really committed suicide or was murdered.

Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
I listened to audiobooks of both of these and loved them. Historical fiction with action, drama, and characters you can really root for.

el deafo
El Deafo by CeCe Bell
Incredible graphic novel by a deaf woman about her childhood. Funny, yet informative.

the rest of us just
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
The big, impossible stuff happens to some people. They fall in love with vampires; they get powers; they save the world. The other people, they’re just trying to make the best of their far-more-ordinary existences, even when that supernatural stuff spills over and messes up their plans. After all, they just live here.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
This graphic novel is THE FUNNEST, y’all.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
I saw Kwame Alexander speak at the Virginia Children’s Book Festival this year (which was, by the way, phenomenal). He’s an awesome poet, and that comes through big time in this book. The excitement of the basketball games comes through well, too, and I’m not even a sports person.

carry on
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Did you read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell? If yes, then read Carry On. If no, then still read Carry On, but possibly read Fangirl first. Though if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you like the idea of a novel that’s basically a clever twist on Harry/Draco fanfic, then by all means dive directly into Carry On with no passing of Go or collecting of two hundred dollars.

What did you read and love this year?

Shame Vanquished!

You may recall me deciding, back in January, that this year I would read a bunch of the books I was embarrassed not to have read already. I made a list of fifteen “shame unreads” to cross off this year. Most are classic or new-but-wildly-popular YA or middle-grade books. I posted an update in May, at which point I had read six of the books.

Well, as of this afternoon, I have finished the list! Nic: 15, Shame: 0! Huzzah!

First, let’s see what I thought of Books 7 through 15.

matchedMatched by Ally Condie
Reaction: A little unimpressed, honestly. I’m glad I read it, because the trilogy is super-popular with teens, but I found the world and characters a bit bland.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Just hadn’t gotten around to it.

sabrielpbSabriel by Garth Nix
Reaction: YES. THIS. Why had I not read this already? This book was lyrical, exciting, well-thought-out, even funny.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I have no idea. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations? I’d heard a lot of good stuff, and I’m already a fan of Garth Nix.

the giver The Giver by Lois Lowry
Reaction: Impressed. I’ve heard people insinuate that Matched ripped off The Giver, and I can see that angle, though Matched is different in that it focuses on romance. The Giver has spare, strong writing and an interesting concept. Not a big fan of the ending, though.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I saw it as a “school assignment” book. I’d never been assigned it, but knew lots of people who had. Also, I feared Newbery Award books as having dead dogs and no dragons.

ender's game Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Reaction: I see why so many people are into this book. It’s fascinating and exciting. I believe the twist had been spoiled for me at some point, but honestly, I’m not actually sure to what extent I’d been spoiled versus to what extent I was just able to guess the twist. It didn’t surprise me much. Still, cool book.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Mostly superficial reasons – it’s an older book, and most of the covers are terrible. Plus, I’m not usually a sci-fi person. And I’m totally skeeved by what I’ve heard about Card’s views on homosexuality. But the book is important enough to enough people that I felt I ought to read it.

hugo cabret The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Reaction: Beautiful, touching book. I like the historical tie-in. I also like that the copy I read was a beautiful object in itself – not just illustrated, but printed on heavy paper and giving every impression of quality.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Just hadn’t gotten around to it.

When_you_reach_me When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Reaction: Whoooah, trippy! I like a time-travel story that’s well-planned. Plus, the quirky story and poignant character development makes for good reading all on its own.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Again, just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Daughter-of-Smoke-and-Bone-Book-Cover Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Reaction: Beautifully written. I like the characters, the world, and the plotting. It’s a quadruple-threat!
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I thought it might be just another paranormal romance, a genre in which I’ve had poor luck finding books I like, though I do keep trying.

ruins of gorlan The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
Reaction: Underwhelmed. I found the writing uninspired, the plot cliché, and the glaring near-absence of female characters unnerving. Had to force myself to finish it.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Honestly, based on its plot description and its massive following, I’d been nervous I would really like it, and would then find myself caught up in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, which is at least twelve books long, not counting spin-offs.

The_Knife_of_Never_Letting_Go_by_Patrick_Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Reaction: WOW. This blew me away. It should be called The Book of Never Letting Go, because I couldn’t put it down. The thing’s close to five hundred pages long, but I zoomed through it. Touching, scary, smart, sad, action-packed . . . this book is amazing.
I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I’d heard it was intense. Which is a phenomenally accurate description. I’d also heard about one sad thing that happens. It happened, and it was sad. But the book was still fantastic.

Whew! Finished reading those just in time, didn’t I?

My favorites: Sabriel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Knife of Never Letting Go. All of these have me psyched to come back for more. I’ll definitely be continuing with these three series.

I’m not sure whether I’ll do a similar list next year. After all, I’ve now read many of the books I’d been embarrassed not to have read (*coughEnder’sGamecoughTheGivercough*). I’m thinking that maybe next year I’ll do a Diversity Read. Of course, I want to be reading diverse books every year, but maybe making a big point out of it one year would help me cement the habit. What do you think?

Update on an Old Post

My writers’ group, a little local chapter of SCBWI, met today. Per usual, we had some good fun and batted around a few pieces of writing like kitty cats, only more concerned with character development and commas.

When we were talking about scene versus summary (the old “showing versus telling” business), I remembered that I once wrote a blog post on the topic. I had looked through a bunch of books, mostly YA and MG, and analyzed how much showing versus telling each one did in its first fifty pages. (I analyzed one book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, all the way through, and found that the numbers were similar to the numbers in the first fifty pages, so I decided that would be representative enough.)

I mentioned this blog post, and there was some interest from the group, especially in the pie charts I had made to show the scene-vs-summary breakdown of each book. When I went back just now to look at the post, though, I see that I have for some reason not included said pie charts! Happily, I still have all the work I did then, and I will post the pie charts now. Better late than never, right? And I do think they’re pretty neat.

First, a recap of how I defined the four categories that appear on the charts. From my earlier blog post:

“I’m dividing each book into four types of sections. I call them Scene, Scene* (“scene-star”), Summary, and Summary*. “Scene” means a section that takes place entirely in the moment – dialogue, a blow-by-blow description of action, even a character’s thoughts – basically, anything that isn’t summarized. “Summary,” conversely, is stuff that doesn’t tell you exactly what’s happening right now. I found the two most common uses to be description and to note time passing. “Scene*” is any section that, overall, is definitely in the moment, but includes a non-negligible element of summary – say, several sentences of description, or a introduction that describes time having passed. “Summary*” is any section mostly not grounded in the moment, but with a smattering of lines that are, often a brief exchange of dialogue. Generally speaking, “Scene” and “Summary” correspond to the “Show” and “Tell” of writing. Not every book has all four section types. Howl’s Moving Castle, for example, had no Scene* at all.”

Now, the pie charts!

First, because it’s the only one for which I looked at the whole book, let’s do Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

HP first 50 chart

HP chart

Next up: three books by my favorite author, Diana Wynne Jones. I analyzed Howl’s Moving Castle and Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel, Year of the Griffin.

HMC chart

Dark Lord chart

Year of chart

I also did the first two Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer.

Twilight chart

New Moon chart

Here’s the chart for a middle-grade fantasy I’d recently picked up, The Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass by Erica Kirov:

Magickeepers chart

For something a little different (but still fantasy, because yeah, okay, they kind of all are), Mort by Sir Terry Pratchett.

Mort chart

And finally, an adult (fantasy) book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

JS and MN chart

Yay pie charts! Hope you find these interesting. Any thoughts on the results?

Sad News

Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, just passed away at age seventy-one.

The Redwall series was a big deal to me as a kid and teenager. It was the first set of books I liked so much that I was willing to throw down my money (which was pretty scarce before I got old enough to babysit) for any one of them without having read it first. Even now, I own most of the series, my copies in various states of well-loved scruffiness.

Most of my copies are the paperbacks – small, fat books, quite distinctive to my eye. I can still pick out a Redwall book from a distance. Which is not to say that they’re interchangeable to me. Far from it.

Among the fuzzy-edged paperbacks on my shelf of Redwall books stands my copy of Mossflower, the first book I ever bought in hardcover. I was extremely proud of it. A hardcover book cost a lot of weeks of allowance!

Then there’s Mattimeo, a favorite of mine, which I was always bringing to school, only to hit one of those points where I had to stuff it into my backpack to continue reading at home because I knew I was coming up on one of the parts where I always cried.

Once I did get old enough to babysit, Pearls of Lutra was, for some reason, my go-to book for when I’d be staying past a kid’s bedtime and needed something to do until the parents came home. I also made myself a t-shirt quoting the poem at the beginning of the book. And I wore it. In public.

With Salamandastron, I formed a connection between the book and, of all things, Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs cereal. I don’t normally snack on cereal, reserving it for breakfast, but I would eat these sugar bombs in the middle of the afternoon while reading Salamandastron. (I have one particularly golden memory of sitting at our kitchen table at maybe 2:00, a time when ordinarily I’d have no reason to be sitting at the kitchen table, and eating Peanut Butter Puffs while reading Salamandastron, taking a pause to think that wow, life was good.) After awhile, either of the two would make me crave the other. Even now, a glimpse of that badger on the cover takes me back to the taste of a sucrosey excuse for a cereal that I haven’t had in at least ten years.

My parents used Redwall books to bribe me to break my hair-twirling habit. (Didn’t stick long-term, but I made it work long enough to get the books.)

I learned new words from the Redwall series. “Stygian” was one I was proud of. Also “desultory.” And in eighth grade, when my Latin I teacher told our class jokingly that we were getting so good that soon we’d “know the Latin for right and left!”, I surprised both of us by guessing the words based on a reference a Redwall book. (And that’s not even getting into everything I learned about siege warfare.)

I loaned my copies out to friends in high school, got my brother and his friends reading them, and gasped over a friend’s sister’s copy that was *fans self* signed by the author.

In the winter of 2008-2009, living in England with friends, I hit up the library for the newest Redwall books – the only two I didn’t have – and read them.

Which is all just to say that, you know, books make a difference to people.

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Jacques. You’ll be missed.

Break It Down

So, I just read The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire. Besides the fact that I am wildly in love with this trilogy, literally missed a meal one day while reading them because I forgot to eat, and would pretty much trade Suzanne Collins a kidney to get the last book, Mockingjay, before August because I MUST KNOW* . . . yes, besides all that, I discovered an odd little commonality. Thus, a riddle:

Repeat After Self: First. Draft.

. . . is what I keep having to tell myself as I press on through the last fifth or sixth or so of The Dogwatchers. It’s wildly exciting to be so close to the end, but there are definitely things over which I pause, torn, before saying, “FIRST DRAFT!” and continuing to write.

One thing I’ve run into was well-put by literary agent Rachelle Gardner in her blog entry on foreshadowing versus “telegraphing.” When you, the author, already know that something unexpected is going to happen, it’s hard sometimes not to let that knowledge slip in. Indeed, while Ms. Gardner says that authors often do this in the name of foreshadowing, “telegraphing” – basically, giving overly-obvious hints as to something that’s going to happen, particularly if that thing is supposed to be a twist – can be far more insidious.

At one point in The Dogwatchers, I caught myself giving characters an explicit contingency plan for a situation that really had no reason to occur to them: “If A doesn’t work, we’ll do B.” They should have just planned on A, a solid-seeming course, been totally surprised when it failed, and come up with B afterward. This way, readers will be as surprised as the characters are when Plan A doesn’t work, rather than having the idea that it might fail already planted in their heads. Indeed, as I first wrote it, readers might assume that Plan A will fail, or else why would the story detail Plan B?

This is basically the same problem as that in Ms. Gardner’s example. Avoid having your characters consider the possibility that something will happen when that something is supposed to be even remotely surprising. This can be difficult, since you certainly don’t want your characters to fail to think of an obvious possibility, but then, of course, the problem is that your twist is obvious, and you’ll want to address that. I think some writers are tempted to include arguments against the likelihood of the twist, as in Ms. Gardner’s example: a character says, “What if X is the case?” and another character responds, “No way, for these reasons!” All this does is make readers aware of the possibility of X. They may even spot the loophole in the characters’ reasoning against X, which will make them suspect that X will, in fact, happen.


On a totally different note, I have to once again rave a little (the good kind of raving) about a book that I picked up for research, Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Highly readable and sometimes humorous, it contains well-organized and information-packed chapters on various aspects of Victorian England, including money, the peerage, fashion, marriage, orphans, fox hunting . . . the list goes on. It explains the historical basics of each subject, then gives interesting tidbits, like which card games were trendy and which ones played mostly by stuffy old people *coughwhistcough*, and includes examples from Victorian fiction. There’s also a fantastic glossary of Victorian terms.

The book’s stated intent is to serve as a reference for people who are reading Victorian novels and can’t understand the money talk or want to know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor (like Eugene and Mortimer in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend), but it’s also an amazing tool for worldbuilders insomuch as it presents a society with rules strange and different from our own, then explains the details and processes by which all of these things functioned. Especially valuable if you or someone you know writes steampunk. And after all, the holidays are coming up . . .

Just Another Book on the Wall

Grade school is relevant to me just now because we at the library are taking down our Summer Reading display. (Which is on the wall. And it’s books for schools. So there’s a Pink Floyd reference. See? NO, I AM DEFINITELY NOT REACHING.) These are the books either assigned or recommended by several of the local public schools. We get special funding to buy between one and six copies of each one, and they occupy a special shelf all summer. I’ve worked with the Summer Reading books for the past three years, but this year seems to have brought a larger selection.

A few of these books have been required reading here since my own middle/high school days. Specifically, I remember reading Edith Wharton’s Mythology, Robert Lacey’s The Year 1000, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The main difference between these lists and mine is that the shelf we have now holds mostly recommended, rather than required, books. I don’t remember any recommended reading at all.

If you ask me, having the schools recommend additional books is a great idea. Many great books for kids and teens can’t realistically be made into required reading – they’re controversial (His Dark Materials is on the list), too difficult for some kids in the class, or don’t fit well with course material. Naturally, kids who are already readers will find books, but there’s no harm in teachers pointing out some good ones.

I also hope that seeing the books on that list – and that shelf – tells parents that these books have a lot to offer their kids. This is especially important because the recommended books include Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Avi’s Poppy and Perloo the Bold, Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, and about half the works of Beverly Cleary. While many parents love to see their kids reading, period, a few unfortunate parents are seriously judgmental about what their children read, especially when science fiction and fantasy. Maybe, with a teacher’s recommendation, these parents won’t take issue when their kids pick up a book with a mouse riding a motorcycle on the cover.

Perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of the recommended reading, though, is its potential to win kids’ trust in their teachers’ judgment. While I liked a lot of my teachers, they were, as a group, the people who forced me to read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury AND As I Lay Dying. My apologies to anyone who liked any of those books. I hated them all desperately. True, teachers also assigned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, all of which I liked, but these were still not the kinds of books I would have read on my own. It would have helped me relate to my teachers to know that they approved of books like Artmis Fowl – to hear them even acknowledge, let alone recommend, books of the kind that you read just because you like them rather than because they are classics, like them or not.

Tangent time! If you glance at the first three books in my "hated desperately" list above, you might not guess what I remembered most about all of them: the violent death of an animal. Yes, even The Grapes of Wrath. Teachers think I’m learning about the Great Depression, but you know what I’m seeing? Their dog is smeared all over the highway! We’re reading about intestines! Smeared on the highway! And the protagonist of Black Boy – who is, I think, supposed to be sympathetic – actually hangs a kitten. Let me say that again: Protagonist. Hangs. A. Kitten. I don’t remember anything else about that book, except saying to a classmate at the time, "I hope the AUTHOR is dead!" Funnily enough, the other day I ran into another girl my age who also read the book for school, and it’s the only scene she remembers, too. It isn’t a pivotal scene plot-wise, as opposed to the dogs’ death in Where the Red Fern Grows, but it’s all either of us took home from the book. I’m pretty sure Black Boy was supposed to have other elements to it. Too bad. Maybe teachers should consider kids’ priorities and emotional responses before they decide which books to assign.

Also: In third grade, after reading Where the Red Fern Grows, we watched the movie in class. When the dogs died, I cried, and a boy (whose name I still remember, but who shall here remain anonymous) laughed at me. Something else for teachers to think about.

Basically, when I was a kid, it seemed like my teachers and I thought that reading was meant to provide two totally different, if sometimes overlapping, things: education versus enjoyment. The recommended reading list shows kids that teachers really believe in both.

Random bonus links:

1. A great intro to fanfiction as a concept. Because yes, some people – like my parents – do not know what it is. This article is heavily pro-fanfiction, but it also does a pretty good job just explaining what it is and why it appeals to some people.

2. Silly profile of a standard Regency romance hero. Her next entry describes the typical leading lady. I don’t read the genre, but was still entertained.

In Which I Am a Writing Nerd

. . . who’da thunk?

Before I get into my Nerdy Writing Project, I have to mention that the James River Writers’ Writing Show last night was great. The theme was “Where the Wild Things Are: The Irrational World of Children’s Literature,” and the panel featured three children’s book authors and a librarian who sits on the 2009 Caldecott committee. Happily for me, at least two of those authors write in middle-grade and young-adult, one of them in fantasy. Also, I bought a book: The Eternal Hourglass, which is Book One of a new series by Erica Kirov, one of the speakers. When I was checking the panelists out online, I saw the book (sadly, I can’t now find the site where I originally saw it, which made it look even more awesome). I thought it looked really neat. Then, at the Writing Show, I saw the actual book and was kind of stunned by how, um, gorgeous it is. I feel sheepish about being swayed by the literal book’s cover, but what the heck. I’d already thought it was cool, and the JRW events are served by a small local bookseller, so I feel good about buying there and spending more than I would on, say, Amazon.

Right! On to my Nerdy and Threatening-to-be-Endless Project: Scene Analysis. I got the idea from a Writer’s Digest article that suggested going through books you like and noting how scenes of tension are often interspersed with catch-your-breath scenes that move the plot in ways that are perhaps less intense. While that was the inspiration for my project, I admit I’ve gone quite a bit further. Objective observations have always appealed to me, and I was curious as to whether splitting books into different kinds of scenes would yield results (say, for the sake of argument, in pie-chart form) that supported my subjective thoughts on various books, particularly in terms of pacing.

So I made an Excel spreadsheet. Well, actually, I’ve made five so far. I decided that the first fifty pages was enough of a book to analyze – a conclusion supported by the similarity, in the one book I analyzed all the way through, between the overall results and the first-fifty-pages results. Each book has its own chart, and each chart records the following for every scene:

Section Type. I’m dividing each book into four types of sections. I call them Scene, Scene* (“scene-star”), Summary, and Summary*. “Scene” means a section that takes place entirely in the moment – dialogue, a blow-by-blow description of action, even a character’s thoughts – basically, anything that isn’t summarized. “Summary,” conversely, is stuff that doesn’t tell you exactly what’s happening right now. I found the two most common uses to be description and to note time passing. “Scene*” is any section that, overall, is definitely in the moment, but includes a non-negligible element of summary – say, several sentences of description, or a introduction that describes time having passed. “Summary*” is any section mostly not grounded in the moment, but with a smattering of lines that are, often a brief exchange of dialogue. Generally speaking, “Scene” and “Summary” correspond to the “Show” and “Tell” of writing. Not every book has all four section types. Howl’s Moving Castle, for example, had no Scene* at all.

Length. Length in pages, in increments of 0.5. Sometimes something that should have been a section would be only a paragraph or so; if it seemed to really merit sectionhood, I rounded up, and otherwise just incorporated it into one of the neighboring sections (accounting, in some situations, for those sections going from Scene to Scene* or Summary to Summary*). It’s not a perfect system, but it’s difficult to measure pages to increments of less than one half, and I think the Scene* and Summary* labels help maintain the overall sense of what kinds of sections we’re looking at.

Story Time. Length of story time represented by the section. Generally, these were Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, Years, or Explanation (the last used for sections of Summary that are all description, and take no time in the story).

Intro. Here I recorded the introductory sentence, or part of it, or occasionally more than one sentence; as much as seemed relevant. This took by far the most space on the charts, but I found it worthwhile for the interesting discoveries. I’ve had trouble integrating the passing of time into my stories, and many Summary sections do that, often in the first sentence or so. Check out a few of these from Summary bits of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“Nearly ten years had passed since . . .”

“On Saturday morning, things began to get out of hand.”

“Perhaps it was because he was now so busy, what with Quidditch practice three evenings a week on top of all his homework, but Harry could hardly believe it when he realized that he’d already been at Hogwarts two months.”

“Quirrell, however, must have been braver than they’d thought. In the weeks that followed, he seemed to be getting paler and thinner . . .”

“In years to come, Harry would never quite remember how he got through his exams when he half expected Voldemort to come bursting through the door at any moment. Yet the days crept by . . .”

(All copyrights, etc., of course, belonging to J. K. Rowling.)

Synopsis. A very brief description of what happens in the section.

Having done that, I made a small graph at the bottom of each worksheet totalling the number of pages written in each section type, then used that graph to make a pie chart displaying percentages.

The pie charts show some fascinating trends. “Scene” is the big winner in terms of volume, in part because dialogue sections are so long in pages, and I have no practical way of counting words or otherwise being more precise about length. Other than that, though, there is surprising variation. The five books I’ve analyzed so far are Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, and Terry Pratchett’s Mort. Keeping in mind that this process, while as objective as I could make it, is hardly perfect science, a few statistics are as follows:

Most Scene: Howl’s Moving Castle, 84%
Least Scene: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 52% (Twilight a relatively close second at 59%)
Most Summary: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 24%, more than double that of any other book
Least Summary: Howl’s Moving Castle, 2%
Most combined Scene and Scene*: Mort, 94%
Most combined Summary and Summary*: Twilight, 25%

Parts of this startled me. Terry Pratchett’s books seem to include endless detached description, valuable because of its humor, but long nonetheless. I was startled at how little Summary I found in Mort. On the other hand, it had more Scene* (24%) than any other book, indicating the presence of many short but non-negligible Summary pieces. Another interesting discovery: amount of Scene versus Summary – similar though it is to Showing versus Telling – has less bearing than I had theorized on how fast the pacing seems to be. Of course, none of the books I’ve analyzed so far threatens whiplash, pace-wise. I plan to soon add Artemis Fowl and Mister Monday, both much faster-paced, to the list and see what that does to my conclusions.

Also: Like many writers, I’ve heard time and again that one should “show” and not “tell.” Having looked at both in some detail now, I would say that there are definite benefits to both. It would be very difficult for J. K. Rowling to make a whole school year (not to mention ten years of growing) pass for Harry in one book without sentences like those above. If you’re not doing it often – say, if it were only the one ten-year jump – it’s fine to just leap ahead and make it apparent that the time has passed, but that can work less well with smaller time blocks and can be disorienting for readers.

I recommend this exercise to anyone who is interested in writing and has the time to spend on it. I wouldn’t do this to a book I was reading for the first time, but it’s less distracting than you might think, so I can enjoy a rereading while taking these notes. Alternately, if done without really reading the text (but on a book I know fairly well or have recently read), it’s very quick to analyze the first fifty pages. A worthwhile project to help one really grasp the differences between, and implications of, showing versus telling.

Which Contains an Atypical Recommendation

I’ve been spectacularly remiss in updating this journal, but lo! It is not forgotten. And I assure you that I’ve been much better at keeping up with my actual editing work and applications to graduate school. (I’ve now finished and submitted seven of those. Four more to go.)

It’s commonly – and quite rightly – said that writers should be readers. Indeed, writers are often readers simply because they enjoy reading, particularly in the genres in which they write. This is a positive thing for a number of reasons: Seeing what’s already been done (and avoiding what’s been done to death), understanding genre patterns and tropes, and noting what works and what doesn’t. Naturally, it’s a good thing to read the best works of one’s genre (and the Important Works). However, I have only recently begun to truly appreciate the advantage of occasionally reading a – what you might call a less-than-stellar example of the genre.

I don’t seek out bad books on purpose. In this case, I missed a train and found myself with half an hour to wait and a library right across the street. What was I to do? I had already searched this library for the books I knew I wanted to read, and those that I’d checked out were, sadly, back at the cottage. I found another likely-looking young adult fantasy book – rave reviews compared it to Harry Potter, and it had an interesting plot summary. I started reading it and then, because I don’t like not finishing books, checked it out.

The book is by no means awful, but has some clear weaknesses, chief among them being lack of tension. (Did I just say that in Professor Robbins’ voice?) Despite being very long and having one overarching plot – children attempt fantastic journey to find magical item to defeat villain, while minions of villain pursue them – it becomes episodic because the author seems afraid to put the children in a dangerous or even mildly frightening situation for more than half a chapter before a brand-new named character swoops in to save them. Indeed, though the writing itself does not seem intended for young children, the author seems determined not to scare the audience by allowing the protagonists to be scared, and constantly reassures the reader that the protagonists are confident and unafraid. I would like to say that this unfortunate practice is tantamount to murdering the tension, but “murdering” implies tension.

But note how recognizable the problems are! It’s good sometimes to have a clear example of what not to do, especially as this shows you exactly why you don’t want to do it. (“This is your reader. This is your reader when you have no tension. Any questions?”) The weaknesses of this work bring to mind the ways that other works avoid these problems – for example, the way one likes and sympathizes with characters who act in defiance of their fear instead of being illogically unafraid. The book also drew Becky and me into conversation about episodic novels and when they do and don’t work. The novel’s faults even made it easier for me to recognize its good points: The overarching plot is clear and classic, with the potential to be a strong one, and many of the characters are original and fun or have interesting basis in mythology.

Certainly I read – and recommend – good books over mediocre ones. I do try to read books popular in my genre even when I hear scathing reviews, because I know the authors must have done something right and would like to try to identify it. (Even if I can’t, they sometimes serve as good examples of the phenomenon described above.) I guess what I’d like to say here is that reading good work is important (and fun!), but if you want to write in a genre and you happen to pick up a book from that genre that’s not as good as you had hoped, it might be worthwhile to finish it – if that’s not too painful – and try to figure out what went wrong, what went right, and how it could have been better.

Of course, as a would-be professor, I suppose this could just be me. We’ll see.