What to Read: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares

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Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn


Summary

A whimsical girl looking for love, Lily leaves a notebook tucked among the shelves of her favorite bookstore; a notebook full of dares for anyone brave enough to accept them. Enter Dash. The pair begin trading anonymous challenges through the notebook, launching them into a comedic, whirlwind romance.

Overall Impressions

A perfect read for Christmas break. Set around Christmas, this funny and heartfelt novel is a part of my personal library. I’ve read it at least three times and it never fails to make me smile. The idea behind this story is beautiful. Beyond the plot, Lily’s enthusiasm is a lovely juxtaposition to Dash’s thoughtful cynicism, their voices clear and equally balanced between shifting viewpoints. I recommend Dash & Lily to anyone looking for a fun and relaxing read this holiday season.

Happy Reading!

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Part of That World

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Every book lover has had that “Little Mermaid” moment. That moment where we fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that we’d die happy if we could spend just ten minutes there. But what happens when we’re not just experiencing fictional worlds? What happens when we’re creating them? Creating a fictional world can be challenging, but not to fear fellow mermaids! Here are a few starting tips to leave readers wishing they were part of that world.

Defining Borders 

As discussed in an earlier post, setting is a powerful tool, so it’s important to use it to its full potential. When designing a fictional world, making borders is a great place to start.Building land-based borders can help define the edges of a character’s world. These edges can be limited to something as small as a single street, or as vast as a universe. There may be entire continents that make up your world, but the ones that really matter are the ones that effect characters.

There are other ways to define borders as well. Unless it’s a Doctor Who-ish world where anything can happen at any time, there are usually basic laws to how things work. Consider: What are the physical limitations of the story and characters? For example, in my novel some people like Rumpelstiltskin use magic, but they can’t go around doing whatever they want. There are lines that cannot be crossed, which adds drama by creating consequences for people who try to overstretch their limits.

Creating Cultures

Who lives in your world is a large part of its construction. What do these people value and how does it shape their world? Do they blow apart mountains to get to the other side because they value efficiency, or do they avoid the mountains because of folklore? Culture will determine how characters interact with their environment and each other. When considering creating fictional cultures, it can be difficult to find a place to start. Research can help. I often borrow aspects from already existing cultures and integrate pieces into my work to form something new.

Often culture sculpts character. Much of a character’s personality depends on the values she’s gained from her culture. In many cases, it is then her backstory, the specific events throughout her life, that decides whether a she accepts or rejects those cultural values as her own. Culture can then be used as a form of support or conflict for a character.

Happy Writing!

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What to Read: Ella Minnow Pea

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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn


Summary

Things are changing on the island of Nollop, where residents pride themselves on a culture of elite language. This valor was passed down to them by Nevin Nollop, inventor of the phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which contains all 26 letters of the alphabet. A statue containing the phrase was long ago erected in his honor. Now though, letters are falling from the statue, and the island’s council has taken it as a sign. They ban the use of each fallen letter. It is up to Ella and her co-conspirators to fight for their freedom of expression, but will they succeed before the last letters fall?

Overall Impressions 

I absolutely love the concept behind this story. Dunn illustrates the importance of self expression and the consequences of the deterioration of language with satirical accuracy. As each letter fell, I found myself wondering how heartbreaking it would actually be to lose the words I love and use daily. Yet I couldn’t help smiling at the subtle jabs displayed by Ella and her family as they struggled to cope. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the book’s particular style. Books written as personal letters aren’t usually my jam. Style aside, I enjoyed the message and found it incredibly thought provoking. Honest and original, I would recommend this YA book to all lovers of words and fiction.

Happy Reading!

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What to Read: Shadow and Bone

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo


Summary 

Thrown together by war, Alina Starkov and best friend Mal have grown from orphans to soldiers. When their regiment is shredded upon entering the Shadow Fold, Alina unleashes a power she’s suppressed since childhood in order to save her comrades and Mal. But this revelation tears her from the life she’s known, including Mal, to become a Grisha. Far from home and entangled in dark conspiracies, Alina’s magic may be the only thing capable of ending the war. She must decide who she is willing to trust, and what she is willing to sacrifice for her country.

Overall Impressions

This intriguing, chillingly beautiful story captured my attention from the start. The first in the Grisha series, I was struck by Bardugo’s stylistic noir and strong characters. Alina is a true heroine faced with a delightfully sophisticated villian. The Darkling stands out for his elegance and ruthlessness, so much so it was hard to decide whether I wanted Alina to kill him or marry him (read it, you’ll see what I mean). Bargudo has created a world real enough to step into, and who wouldn’t want to explore the enticingly dark yet enchanting world of the Grisha? Well written, suspenseful, and romantic, I adore this entire series. HIGHLY recommend to fantasy fans (and totally going on my Christmas list). Also by Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows

Happy Reading!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

HAPPY

It’s a day to be thankful for friends, family, and readers like you! Hope your holiday is fantastic.

With Love, The Girl

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What to Read: Sunlight and Shadow

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Sunlight and Shadow by Cameron Dokey


Summary

When Mina was born to feuding parents, a deal was struck. She would live with her mother, queen of the night, until after her sixteenth birthday. But her father breaks the pact, setting in motion a dangerous series of events. To bring back her daughter, the queen enlists the help of a young determined prince armed with his wits and a magic flute. So begins Dokey’s masterful retelling of “The Magic Flute”.

Overall Impressions

A light read for fairytale lovers, this book is my version of comfort food. It has everything: humor, romance, an age-old prophecy. Not to mention the charming characters who adventure across each page with wit and tenacity. What’s not to love? Told in true yet original fairytale fashion, I was immediately drawn into Mina’s competing worlds, and after reading it once I was happy to return time and time again (I think the count is somewhere around five?). Sunlight and Shadow speaks to a storyteller heart.

Happy Reading!

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Namely, This

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Congratulations! You have created a masterful, swoon-worthy, fully embodied character who is ready to take on whatever fresh hell you can throw at them (because let’s be honest, driving a character up a tree and seeing how they’ll get themselves down is more fun than it probably should be). But wait! This magnificent hero is, alas, nameless, and it’s hard to sing heroic ballads when you don’t have something to call them.

Sweetest Name I Ever Heard

When considering names, the two most important characters are, naturally, the protagonist and antagonist. If working with a large cast though, it’s also worth thinking big picture. How does a collection of names sound and interact together on the page?

As a reader, I can get confused when too many characters have names that sound similar. This happens when the majority of names start with the same letter, have the same vowel pattern, or are too lengthy. If too many names are too long, it tires out my brain and I start filling in the names with white-noise. Not good, right?

I’m not saying we as writers should use every letter of the alphabet, or that we can’t use long names. But I find it helpful to think about the overall feel of the story when choosing names. It helps me to keep readers in mind as I sculpt the characters I want them to love.

Authenticity 

A characters name should reflect the culture of the world they live in. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of research in the name of, well, names. This is so my characters more accurately reflect the time periods they live in. In terms of fantasy and sci-fi genres, this part can be a little trickier, but it comes down to a matter of authenticity.

Take the show Stranger Things. It takes place in a small town in the 1980s, and follows four middle school boys named Will, Mike, Dustin, & Luke. Fitting, right? It creates expectations for the boundaries of their world, the type of story being told. But then there’s Eleven. She completely shifts the tone of the story. Her name solidifies her as something “strange”, something out of place, and the audience holds onto that sense of uncertainty for the remainder of the story.

Essentially, character names can add to the tone of the work. They can also reinforce the culture and setting. It may seem a subtle detail, but it really can work wonders in terms of creating a more believable world in the context of fiction.

Does the Name Make the Character?

A character’s name rarely makes or breaks a story, unless it’s a piece that relies heavily on symbolism. (You want to talk symbolic names, read Catch-22. Also, it’s a fantastic book, so you should really just read it anyway.) Recently, I’ve been more mindful about what exactly I’m looking for when researching names. So far, it’s helped me get a much better grasp on not only the fictional culture I created, but on the nature of my characters themselves. The truth is, trying to name a character based on a cool, underlying meaning isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, Doug is just Doug.

As much as it broke my heart, I recently forced myself to change the names of some of my main characters. It’s not that I didn’t like the names. I wanted a cohesive world for my characters to live in, and one way to do that is through names. While I’m not rolling out Marley and Holden‘s new digs just yet, I will say that changing their names has added an additional layer of believability to the world I built for them.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What are some of your favorite characters’ names?

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What to Read: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


Summary

When 15 year old Christopher Boone discovers his neighbor’s dog has been murdered, he decides to investigate. However, the investigation leads him to a secret within his own family. This life-changing discovery leaves Christopher unsure of who to trust, and so he embarks on a quest to find someone he can. To do so, he will have to venture into unfamiliar territory, relying solely on himself for the first time.

Overall Impressions

Incredibly sincere, Haddon’s explores the story of one determined boy and his family as they navigate life, loss, and autism. Told from Christopher’s point of view, I found the book insightful to the paradox of how complicated life can be, and how simple. Haddon’s poignant style made the book a fast-paced yet meaningful read. Warning: This is not a “feel good” book. But is it an incredibly compelling story, and I would recommend it for fans of adult realistic fiction.

Happy Reading!

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The Beauty of Backstory

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If you’ve read my earlier post, Backstory Basics, then you know I’m a sucker for a good backstory. Welcome to part two. Backstory is a perfect way to reveal character, create suspense, and tie together events. But that begs the question, how much is too much backstory? How do you decide what’s important enough to put in the final product? Let’s discuss.

Strategize

When backstory is used is just as important as what information is revealed, so info-drop wisely. Too soon and it might lower emotional impact or kill the element of surprise. Too late in the game and it may feel irrelevant or confusing. A character’s past is what made them who the reader loves (or loves to hate), and that makes their history beautiful. Let readers settle into a character and get to know them as they are before taking time out for a flashback.

Also consider how to go about info-dropping. The use of dialogue is an easy and subtle way to hint at backstory, but if you plan on showing rather than telling, it’s important to look at the how. Will you seamlessly weave childhood memories into narration, or cut away from the action the second after the gun fires? (Two books I love that do an outstanding job of building momentum through backstory are Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.)

Over the last few months I have gotten back to writing my novel in-progress. I thought it was done and ready for the editing stages, but after two rounds of editing I realized it didn’t have quite the right emotional punch. My problem? Too little backstory, too late.

Don’t Be a Drama Queen

Be a queen bee. Be a dancing queen. DON’T be a drama queen (guilty as charged). Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of this when it comes to wrangling up a powerful backstory. Let me explain. When I say I love backstory, I usually mean the dark, heart-wrenching,  So That’s Why You’re a Douche Canoe  kind. Basically, I focus on villains, like my novel’s main man, Rumpelstiltskin. But not every piece of character history needs to be gritty and life-altering, and actually, it shouldn’t be.

To create a realistic character we as writers must look at them from every angle. So by all means, reveal the tragic past, but don’t forget to make them human. Unless your character is a straight up psychopath, there’s going to be something that makes them smile besides dastardly deeds. Even an antagonist has a fondest memory, a favorite joke, a personal quirk. Maybe the guy likes puns. Whatever it is, remember not all backstory has to be drama-filled. Small moments matter too.

Love it or Leave it

It’s the moment of truth. You have created THE ultimate character history, from his first steps to this exact moment. So, how much do you keep? What’s most important? I’m of the writerly persuasion who sometimes ends up with enough backstory to warrant a whole freaking prequel, but I don’t want to write a prequel, so instead I have to go panning for gold.

First look for the pieces you love most. If you’re not ecstatic about your work, then readers won’t be either. If the parts you love most are irrelevant, try to revise it in a way that includes the information your readers need. If all else fails, keep what you created and recycle it for another character, another story. We’re writers, after all. Artists and wordsmiths! There are always more stories to tell.

Question of the Week: What’s you’re favorite kind of backstory?

Happy Writing!

For more on backstory, check out this article by Writer’s Digest

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What to Read: The Lies of Locke Lamora

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The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch


Summary

You’ll never see him coming. If you do, he planned it that way. Enter Locke Lamora, the Thorn of Cammor and leader of The Gentlemen Bastards. A small operation, Locke and his crew execute intricate capers to steal from Cammor’s high class. But when a faceless man dubbed the Gray King appears in the city and begins murdering gang leaders, no one is safe, and for the first time Locke finds himself out foxed, caught up in a deadly game more complex than any con before.

Overall Impressions

The Gentlemen Bastards are everything you could want from a mischievous band of thieves. Lynch’s use of backstory reveals just enough at just the right moment, propelling the novel forward with page-turning anticipation. Enticed by a trail of delightful revelations, I found myself grinning along on more than one occasion. It’s a long book, but well worth the commitment. I recommend it for lovers of dark fantasy, complex characters, and clever writing.

Happy Reading!

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