Great 2011 Books to Gift

I have to admit that I haven’t read as much fiction this year as usual. It’s just been one of those stressful years where reading has unfortunately taken a back seat. But I started thinking about Christmas coming up and what I have read this year that I’d love to pass along for my family and friends to enjoy. Here are the new young adult novels published in 2011 that have wowed me.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

This book felt like the rich, authentic fishermen-island setting of Katherine Patterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, but with the tenacious spunk of Puck Connolly and the sagacious reticence of Sean Kendrick — two characters who instantly endeared themselves to me. I’d recommend this to everyone, both those who love Stiefvater’s other books and those who haven’t liked or haven’t read them. This is by far her best and it shines brilliantly.

If that doesn’t convince you, read this review at Angieville or the snippets of starred reviews on Stiefvater’s site. I’m not the only one who thinks this is one of the best books of the year.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor is one of my favorite authors because of her ability to create intricate, fully realized worlds and to describe them in sentences I savor. This novel does that again with not one but three complex interconnected worlds, complete with compelling mythologies and cultures, and the story takes gut-wrenching twists that made me gasp. My one and only complaint is that it ends on a cliffhanger, waiting for a sequel to wrap it up. Of the four books I’m listing in this post, this one is the only novel with mature content, so I’d recommend it for older teens and up. The story is so apocryphal and unique they’ll be spellbound.

The publishers have set up a gorgeous website with news of all the starred reviews and “best books of 2011” designations this novel has already received plus free previews of chapters, characters, etc.

Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

These are the kind of books that can be enjoyed by anyone, guy or girl, teen or adult. I handed the first to my 20-year-old brother and he declared he was instantly hooked. My 25-year-old sister read all three as fast as she could get her hands on the next. And her middle-school students are loving the series too. What makes these books so fun and interesting is the steam punk genre: an early 20th century world full of fabricated animals and steam-powered machines, which I posted about here.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Anyone who loves fairytale retellings needs to read this one! It’s like The Secret Garden meets, well, a nuanced version of the awesome storyboard humor of Heather Dixon. Heather’s sense of humor and background as a storyboard artist bring the twelve dancing princesses to life in the greatest ways. As I said in a blog post called “Showing Character” back in the spring, Heather never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sounds. The scenes tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well. I loved everything about it, especially it’s wide age appeal: eight-year-old girls would be enthralled as much as I was as an adult. It’s wonderful.

What 2011 books are at the top of your gift list? Or what older books are you still buying for book lovers in your life?

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Let It Grow, Prune It Later: Writing More than You Need

A few weeks ago I came across this tweet by my friend, neighbor and favorite author:

What? Shannon doesn’t keep every simile? She doesn’t craft them so carefully and perfectly that each and every one is a gem to sigh over?

I think that even though I know better, I’m often guilty of pretending that the way I read a book, from page one to the end, is the way the author wrote the book. After all, authors are so brilliant that the books just fall into their heads fully formed, right? An author whose use of language I admire must use language that beautifully all the time.

Ha ha.

Anyhow, I wanted to share her tweet today because I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week.

I’ve been rewriting “romantic” scenes in my manuscript, which I put in quotes because I really don’t want them to be the equivalent of romance-genre romantic scenes, just subtle teen romance where the angst and electricity is palpable between two characters, you know? And in earlier drafts, the emotion was lacking, so that’s what I’ve been revising for: adding more of the main character’s thoughts and emotions so that we can experience the fall into love with her.

The trouble is, my revisions aren’t so hot. They feel clunky and awkward and cliché. I have to keep reminding myself of the advice another writer friend gave me to “fearlessly write what she’d feel”; it’s amazing how much fear gets in the way.

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of awful writing — to the point that the fear paralyzes me.

So Shannon’s tweet has been comforting. Maybe I have to overwrite first, explore my character’s emotions in whatever similes and descriptions I can get my hands on, not being too choosy at first. And then later on I’ll get to experience the joy of pruning: taking big ol’ garden shears to my manuscript and lopping off wayward twigs and branches to expose the best ones, until the wild growth of my novel is shaped just the way I want — and will look like it was always meant to be that way.

How much do you let yourself write more than you need? How much do you cut as you go?

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Back in Time to Grab a Pencil

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~Billy Collins, from “Marginalia”

This morning I’m groaning, wishing I could twist back time and tweak small things. I would buy my own copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever instead of waiting a month on the library’s hold list. Not because I minded the month. I had other things to read in the mean time. But I wish I had had my own copy on this first read so that I could mark it with a pencil as I went.

Maggie Stiefvater is an author I want to be friends with, because she’s a writer I want to write like. Not in subject matter — werewolves are not my thing, nor is paranormal romance in general — but because of the way she puts words together.

There were sentences that I had to stop and reread. Not because they were confusing or out of place, but because I wanted to savor them — because she had phrased a simple thing in a way that made it profound.

Instead I lazed in an armchair turning pages, too absorbed in the book to get up and copy the sentences down. The story had me by the hand, pulling urgently, and I couldn’t let go.

If only I could have pressed a thin line under the words with a pencil, I’d be happier now.

Ridiculous, I know, to wish for time travel for such a silly thing. But on Wednesday I read “Marginalia” with my students; I rallied them to read with pen or pencil in hand in order to glean the most from every book and article they devour and make it their own. And here I didn’t listen to my own advice.

Small things make me happy, like knowing my absolute favorite parts of some of my absolute favorite books on my shelves are underlined, like Life of Pi or The King of Attolia or Gilead. I can thumb through them any time and savor those words again.

In fact, with Gilead, I read the first 30 pages of a library copy and then forced myself to stop and buy my own before reading any further. Thirty pages in, I knew I had to mark that book and keep it.

So today when Amazon reminded me that another of my favorite authors has a book releasing in September, I didn’t hesitate to preorder it. Laini Taylor’s books have all wowed me, most of all her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch. So I’ll be reading my own copy of her next book, pencil in hand.

And I might just have to buy Forever and read it a second time.

Have you ever marked a novel? What books or authors have wowed you enough that you might consider rereading them just to underline your favorite passages?

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[UPDATE 9/1/11: Maggie Stiefvater gives a great description of what you can learn from a single page of a novel here. I can totally relate to the part where she says the same page in her early days would have had nothing but dialogue. One of the things I’m always working on is adding the right blocking to a scene like that.]

Showing Character

A little over a year ago, I asked four of my author friends what it’s like to work with an editor. One of them responded by giving me a comic strip she’d drawn herself.

So awesome! I laughed hard when I got it, and I still laugh when I go back and read that post. Visiting her blog StoryMonster is the same kind of treat: a visual delight with plenty of good-natured humor. All of that combined with tweets from her editor at Greenwillow gushing about how amazing Heather’s debut is . . . well, I knew I had to preorder it and read it immediately once it finally came out at the end of March.

And I loved it.

Honestly. Her editor wasn’t exaggerating with the gushing. This novel is gorgeous.

Especially after the fuss I made in last week’s post, I figure I better tell you how and why.

First of all, the novel is based on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses.


Right there, anybody would stop and tell you that’s way too many characters to deal with. How is a reader supposed to keep track of them all? There’s a very real danger of several, most, or all of them falling flat. But in Entwined, they don’t.

To keep the ages straight, she uses the trick of having the girls’ names arranged A–L: Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Eve, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale, and Lily. Why are they alphabetical? Because the king loves order, so even the trick itself reveals character.

It doesn’t take long for each sister to feel rounded out beyond just their age. When gentlemen begin calling, we learn that Clover is the most beautiful by how they react to her, and we also learn that it’s not easy to tell who is the oldest just by looking at the girls. But Clover’s beauty is paired with bashful stuttering to round her out. Bramble is the outspoken rebel. Delphinium likes to pretend to faint. Goldenrod hides a little in the shadow of her twin Flora. Ivy is always eating. While the younger girls are featured less prominently, we always have a sense of them and the sense that each is unique.

Maybe thanks to her storyboarding background, Heather is fantastic at showing everything. She never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sound!


A tiny arrow, just the length of her hand with a little metal heart for the tip, had imbedded itself in the wall next to Azalea.


The candle went foof.

“Ack!” said Azalea. She smothered the fire in the folds of her skirt, leaving the odor of smoked fabric.

That gift for showing is one of the main ways she brings her characters to life. Lord Teddie is always bubbly and jovial, so when his face and voice suddenly become serious, you know how hurt he is. How much or how little Clover stutters reveals her feelings. Azalea digs her fingernails into her palms when she’s angry.

And best of all, their father is flawed and wonderful, too. They hate him for abandoning them after their mother dies, but Heather lets the reader see that he’s not mean, only in terrible pain from missing his wife.

Consider this scene:

“But it does help,” said Clover. She kept her eyes down, lashes brushing her cheeks, but she pulled the courage to step forward. “Mother would — would dance at night, too. In the ballroom — and — and you were there, and you danced the Entwine, and — you caught her, and she kissed you. On the nose.” Clover blushed deeply. “I think it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She said it with fewer pauses than usual, as though she had recited it a hundredfold. Azalea pulled her hand away from the slate, thinking of Mother and the Entwine, the tricky dance with the sash. If Mother had gotten caught, it was only because she had let the King catch her.

The king backed up, taut, against the rosebush ledge, the dry thorny branches pressing into his back. His face had become severe.

“It helps to remember,” said Clover.

“We will not speak of your mother,” said the King. His voice was even, but harder and colder than frozen steel. “You are finished with your lessons. Go to your room.”

The words lashed. Clover cowered, swallowed, then pushed her way out of the nook, clutching her boots and limping. They could hear her choked weeping echoing down the hall.

“Oh, Clover!” cried Flora. Hands linked, she and Goldenrod bounded after.

“Oh, look what you’ve done!” said Delphinium, crying angrily. She swept Lily into her arms and took off unevenly after them. Kale, Eve, Jessamine, Hollyhock, and Ivy ran out, followed by Bramble, who shot the King a flaring look as she left.

That’s just one example of why I think this book is gorgeous: the scenes that tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well (oh how I love that Bramble and her looks and scolds!).

I think knowing Heather makes the humor even better, too. So check out the comic she drew for me, check out her blog, check out Entwined, and enjoy every page!

Read any other fantastic examples of novels that delight your senses and show character?

Leave a comment!

Markus Zusak and the Genius of the Egg

There are only a few occasions in my life where I’ve said an immediate YES! without hesitation. Two that stand out: when Hubby asked me to marry him, and when my writer friend Chersti asked if I wanted a ticket to go hear Markus Zusak speak in Provo last Saturday.

My list of all-time favorite young adult authors fits on one hand. They are authors who don’t just write; they craft. They tackle new and challenging directions with each novel, refusing to limit themselves to one type of story. They take risks, they write for the sake of writing, for the sake of story. They are, in my mind, the gods of YA lit.

Markus Zusak is one of them.

And he lives in Australia, so that might also explain my lack of hesitation. This wasn’t an opportunity likely to come around again.

(Me gushing about just 101 of his words here, though in retrospect I didn’t gush nearly enough . . . and it’s also possible that someone on his publishing team wrote the cover blurb. But still.)

To hear him speak, I abandoned my six-month-old baby, my three-year-old, my six-year-old, my stressed-out-in-the-middle-of-tax-season (accountant) hubby, rearranged the previous commitment I had that night, drove forty-five minutes south, and spent an hour and a half driving home thanks to a freeway closure. (Not to mention the five hours I waited in the book signing line in between.) Worth it? Yep.

For one thing, hearing him speak was the perfect motivation to jump back into writing again. This week I’ve worked on my manuscript again for the first time in six months.

But for another, I loved the advice he gave. It went something like this:

1. Mine Your Life

He told us about his first book signing and how the smart bookseller brought a box of beer that made the event an instant success with the rugby team Zusak had talked into showing up as his audience. If you’ve read I Am the Messenger, maybe you remember how Father O’Reilly does the same thing to make the church service a success: he advertises and provides free beer.

I needed this tip. (Not providing free beer; the other tip.) So often I think that everything in my novels has to come out of thin air, out of my imagination, or else it’s cheating. But experience can be such a mentor that it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

2. Use Details So They’ll Believe You

Next he told us a long story about his older brother who tormented him all the time and who always packed his lunch — two hard-boiled eggs — in a red cooler. The brother loved to crack them on his head, and he did so Saturday after Saturday as they helped their dad paint houses. One time during the week, Markus left his toast unattended while using the bathroom, and his brother folded it in fourths and took a huge bite right out of the center. To get revenge, Markus waited until his brother set the red cooler with the hard-boiled eggs by the front door Saturday morning and then swapped them for raw eggs. (As he told the story, he made no secret about where this was going.)

After finishing the story (which I will in a minute), Zusak asked, “Why did it matter that my brother’s cooler was red? Why did I tell you that? I did it so you’ll believe me.”

Brilliant! I’ve heard other advice about details, like not pointing out the gun unless someone’s going to use it, but I like this better. He went on to explain that it’s like losing your coat: to reclaim it, the first thing someone wants you to do is describe it, and the more details you give — like color, fabric, brand name, and the folded paper you left in the pocket — the more they’ll believe it’s really your coat.

So one of the main things I’ve started working on this week is making my story more real through details. Google Earth has been a big help since I’m not in a position to travel my characters’ road trip myself right now, and I keep thinking of Stephen King’s tip in On Writing about adding that touch of “verisimilitude” to your story as well as the magic of setting that Katherine Paterson suggests is necessary. Now I’ll knit Zusak’s advice in with theirs and keep it in mind when I write.

3. Take the Unexpected Route

The whole time he was telling the egg story, as I said, he made no secret of where it was going: the older brother was going to crack a raw egg on his head. And in the Q&A afterward, one audience member pointed out that he does that in The Book Thief, too, giving away the ending way in advance. “Why?” she asked.

During the egg story, he had me hooked despite the obvious conclusion. The real secret is that since he’d given away the prank, I was waiting for a different twist.

It’s genius! Like giving your audience a red herring. As he built up toward the expected climax of the story, an interesting thing happened. He got cold feet, wasn’t sure about going through with the prank, and confessed it to his dad. What did the dad do? Laughed and said, “That’s brilliant!” And when Zusak got to the part where the brother actually cracks the egg, it’s the dad’s laughter that again steals the scene. As an audience, those are the parts where we laughed — maybe because you expect the dad to be gruff or sympathetic rather than laughing out loud.

With The Book Thief, Zusak talked about how when he began writing from Death’s point of view, it was awful at first because Death was everything you’d expect him to be. The story didn’t actually become alive until he took Death’s character in an unexpected direction: making him haunted by humans.

I’ve had similar experiences with unlocking my characters only once I broke free of stereotypes, but I love this advice on every level. As a reader, I want the unexpected reaction from a character, but also unexpected events, settings, dialogue, etc. I’m so excited to look for more places to utilize this in my manuscript.

4. Tell Your Story Over and Over to Get It Right

He claimed he’d told the egg story over 500 times, and that the story evolved with each telling to become the masterpiece it is now with the emphasis on the dad’s reaction, etc. He said he rewrote the first 80 pages of The Book Thief probably between 150 and 200 times. Stories get better the more you tell them.

I think this is absolutely what makes him so masterful. This is what it means to craft. You don’t settle for the way the story came out the first time, or the second, or the third. You keep trying. You write it over and over and perfect it.

So that’s what I’m working on now. I jumped back into revisions this week by first opening my synopsis and revising that yet again (easily my 20th time), using it to figure out what story I’m trying to tell. Now I’m back in the draft, scrawling notes on every page about how to tell it better next time.

Thank goodness I said YES! to Chersti’s ticket offer. Sometimes hearing an author speak — especially a brilliant one like Zusak — is exactly what a budding writer like me needs.

What about you? Heard any amazing authors speak? Been to any great events lately? What advice have you gleaned from other geniuses recently?

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Satisfying Endings: Leaping Past “This” or “That” to Find “The Other”

This week I had an insight about storytelling and life (isn’t it amazing how often those go together?) that has been a long time coming, and I wonder if it’s as true for other  people as it is for me.

I come from a stubborn gene pool, so that might have something to do with it.

“It” being the fact that I’ve always resisted either/or choices.

My preschooler does it all the time, too. “Do you want one or two?” I’ll ask him. “Three,” he’ll reply.

When I was in high school and we were reading/watching Inherit the Wind junior year, the teacher wanted to hold a debate between Creationism and Darwinism. I stubbornly created my own third team: those who believe evolution is part of God’s plan of creation.

It wasn’t until Hubby and I watched a documentary this week about a round-the-world race that I started to realize maybe there’s more to this either/or dilemma than stubbornness — and that it might be the key ingredient for a good story.

The documentary, called Deep Water, focused on an Englishman in the ’60s who decided he wanted to enter the race to be the first man to sail around the world without stopping . . . even though he had no real experience. He was sort of a bookish type (to which I can relate!) and had read enough about it that he felt confident he could do it. So he found an investor and jumped into a contract where the other man would finance a boat, etc, so long as Crowhurst (the bookish would-be adventurer and father of four) did not drop out of the race. If he did, the investor would claim everything and Crowhurst’s family would go bankrupt.

Where the either/or came into play was once the race began. His boat sprung a leak, requiring him to bail out the water by hand, and there was no way he could sail the treacherous southern oceans in a leaky boat. Suddenly he faced almost certain suicide if he kept going or financial ruin if he went back.

Not such a great pair of choices, huh?

*    *    *

Another example came in my email box via my “Daily Insights” subscription back in January. It asked you to suppose that you were driving along and spotted three people waiting for a bus: an old friend who once saved your life, an old woman in desperate need of a hospital, and the perfect partner for whom you’d waited all your life (apparently you are omniscient in this scenario and can see into the future; we’re just gonna go with it, I guess ;)).

The dilemma? You only have one seat in your car. Who gets it?

Awesome, right? I couldn't resist throwing this in!

Starting to see the pattern? Good stories require tension, and tension often comes from battling between contradictory and equally unappealing options. It’s that whole lesser-of-two-evils thing. Um, who really wants to pick either “evil”?

I gave the email scenario to my intermediate writing students to puzzle over, and they said that obviously the old woman was the “right” choice because it’s the only humane choice. If she needs a hospital, you can’t leave her waiting for a bus. And the old friend would understand, right?

But what about your perfect partner? I don’t mean to sound callous toward the old lady, but can you really jeopardize a lifetime of happiness? (Being married to my best friend, I can testify that finding “the right one” makes all the difference!) What if you never see that person again?

So again, it’s a choice where no matter which one you opt for, the consequences aren’t so hot.

The trick to it is to hold out for another choice, or create one yourself.

My preschooler comes up with his own number of how many (of whatever) he’ll accept. I insisted on having my own third debate team in high school.

As for Crowhurst, he decided to stay put off the coast of Brazil and slip back into the race once everyone else had rounded the tip of South America and headed back north toward England. (Yes, a bit deceptive, but when your life’s at stake? Anyhow, this post isn’t about honesty, so we’ll save that debate for another time.)

And with the daily insight, the email suggested that you have your old friend drive the old woman to the hospital while you stay and wait for the bus with your perfect partner.

Once we see The Other choice, it becomes almost obvious, right? “How could I have missed that?” Right?

*    *    *

Well, I argue that it’s the same thing with great stories and the very best of endings. I think a great story keeps you on the edge of your seat because all the available options are horrid! You don’t want the main character to end up dead/dismembered/unhappily-married/financially-destitute/estranged-from-her-family/orphaned/any-other-number-of-awful-consequences; but you can’t possibly see how she can avoid it! Oh, the glorious tension! Oh how your heart races! Oh the angst and the drama and the perfect recipe for a good story!

. . . With the catch that the author must wow us at the end. Somehow, the author has to stubbornly reject the given choices — not choose This OR That — and have the main character create The Other choice: one so perfect that we shut the book with a happy sigh thinking, “Of course! Brilliant! That was the way it was meant to work out!”

One example that comes to mind is Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely that I blogged about a year or so ago, raving about the excellent job she did in finding a compromise between the seeming contradictions of two love interests and career versus love. The ending of that book was fantastic because it wasn’t one of the obvious choices.

Now it’s just a matter of coming up with the right one for my own manuscript. It gets closer every draft, but I think that once I hit on the perfect solution, it’ll be obvious. I just have to keep stubbornly holding out, confident that eventually I will think up a best option.

What do you think? Have you come across this in your own life? What stories have you heard/read/watched/lived through that exemplify the principle of rejecting either/or?

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