Saturday, October 18, 2008

Better Late Than Never

Before I talk about my favorite books, I'll touch on last week's topic of first drafts. For me personally, I don't usually do multiple drafts. My first draft is my only draft and I'll explain why. I usually spend four to five hours per day writing and then spend the first few hours of the next morning editing what I wrote the previous day. For whatever the reason, my brain simply can't get going on anything new until the first part is EXACTLY how I want it. As you can very well imagine this process typically takes much longer than just writing out and completing a first draft, but it's the only way I can do things. For me, it's like having a clean house. If the house feels untidy then I feel uncomfortable all day. Straightening things up and tying up loose ends right away, enables me to know exactly where I want the story to go and gives me the ability to tackle the next stage of the story with a clear mind.

On to my favorite books. So for me, like the others girls, I have far too many favorite books to list, so I'll just mention the ones that had a significant impact on me. The first books that really grabbed my attention and made me wonder what it would be like to be a writer, were the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can still remember my mom taking me to the bookstore every time I finished another book in the series. I loved to pretend that I was Laura. Those books painted such vivid images in my little head that I could almost picture myself walking through the Big Woods to the one room schoolhouse with Laura and Mary. To this day I still proudly display all of my Little House on the Prairie books on my bookshelf, and even better than that is the fact that I now get to share those books with my own children.

When I was twelve-years-old my parents bought me the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I cherish that book. I think I have read that book a dozen or so times and have worn out the pages of my favorite plays and poems. My all time favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet. I love the story and although it took me a while to get used to the speech, it is a piece of writing I never get tired of reading. Another book that really struck a cord for me, was a book I read when I was 14-years-old. To this day I have no idea what the actual title of the book was and I wish that I could find it again, because it was such a profound book for me at such a young age. The book told the entire Arthurian legend from start to finish. It had beautiful illustrations that complimented the text, and the stories were so exciting and inspiring. I can't tell you how many times I pictured myself as the Lady of the Lake or Queen Guinevere.

Another one of my favorite books was a book called Christy by Catherine Marshall. It tells the story of a young woman who sets out to teach at a backwoods school in the Appalachian village of Cutter Gap, Tennessee, in 1912. I read that book in one day. I started it early one Saturday morning and finished by dinner the same day...I loved it that much! A more recent favorite of mine is a book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Long before I even knew what the book was about I wanted to buy it. The illustrations caught my attention and the fact that the text was printed on black paper also appealed to me. I bought the book and was so happy to find out that not only were the pictures great, but the story was too.

The truth is, there are so many wonderful books out there to read. I could go on and on about all the ones that have meant something to me, but I don't want to bore anyone. So here are a few more of my favorites that you might want to check out. Take care and happy reading!

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Metamorphosis by Ovid
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Friday, October 17, 2008

Books of my kidhood - "They're Grrrreat!"

When I was a kid, I'd read the back of a cereal box if there was nothing else available.
Which is why I tried to make sure that there was usually something else available (I found plot and characterization a little thin on the ground in Frosted Flakes -- sure, Tony the Tiger was an appealing enough hero at first, but his one-liner dialogue was quickly wearying).

(As a side note, I find it interesting that, while I am now writing for that particular niche known as Young Adult, I really wasn't aware of there even being such a thing when I was a kid. I did read books that were aimed at younger audiences - Walter Farley's Black Stallion books were a particular fave when I was very young, but it never occured to me to make any kind of distinction. If the story was good, I read it.)

Pretty early one, I discovered I had a strong penchant for historical fantasy. I was carting around my dad's battered paperback copy of James Clavell's Shogun - all 1210 pages of it - in grade 7 (all the kids in my French class wanted to read the naughty bits, as I recall). I fell madly in love with Pauline Gedge's first two novels, Child of the Morning (an imaginative telling of the life of Ancient Egypt's woman pharoah Hatshepsut) and The Eagle and the Raven (the story of the Roman invasion of Britain and the Boudiccan Rebellion) .

I spent hours in the library poring over books on Greek and Norse mythology.

I went through a period where I read a whole whack of Victoria Holt/ Jean Plaidy costume dramas.

My dad and brother and I traded adventure novels like baseball cards or halloween candy.

I devoured Anne McCafferey's Pern novels.

I began collecting comics and experienced some of my most memorable reading moments lost in the panels of those pages (and don't dare tell me that comics can't possibly constitute a worthy form of literature with frequently deep, rich, resonating themes - ever read Watchmen? Or the X-men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills? Powerful stuff.)

In junior high I started memorizing passages from Romeo and Juliet, and then other Shakespeare plays, just 'cause I loved the way those words felt spinning around in my brain. And we all know where that stuff led me...

And then, one time on a road trip down to Montana, I found a paperback copy of a book called Firelord, by Parke Godwin and it sent me hurtling down the road of Arthurian literature (from whence I have never really returned), leading from Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave series to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon to T.H. Whyte's Once and Future King, to Malory's Mort d'Arthur, to Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry (which led to me reading all of his other stuff, of course), to Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series, and on and on...

I loooooved being carried away by other times, other places, other worlds. I adored the epic stories, the sweeping romances, the heightened realities. I still do. I am, at heart, most at home in the sections of the bookstore labelled SF/F or Historical Fiction.

That's not to say that I don't read quieter stuff or contemporary stories or stuff that isn't catagorized as 'genre', but that is the stuff that drew me as a kid. Those books beat the heck outta reading the Wheeties box again.

Those books are GRRRRRREAT!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Read Therefore I Am

I’ve always been a big reader. As a child I inhaled books, read every series imaginable (and every non-series, too). My first loves were mysteries and horror: Nancy Drew books, RL Stine, Stephen King, and The Westing Game. This was in elementary school.

When I was 12, I read Gone With the Wind and cried when I finished it because I was sure I would never read anything else that would captivate me quite as much (I would, of course). I also adored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Flowers for Algernon, and many others that I sadly can’t remember the titles of now.

By the time I got to high school, I’d read so much, that dialogue seemed to form naturally in my head and at the oddest moments. One of my favorite English assignments was when we were required to write a short sequel to The Scarlet Letter (not on my favorites list!). But it was one of the first times I thought about the interplay between reading and writing.

In college I majored in English, and I was required to read a lot of books. Admittedly, very few became my favorites, though some did. I had to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood my first semester, and the book both terrified and mesmerized me. As a senior, I read The Great Gatsby again. I’d read it in high school, and I hadn’t loved it, but this time around it became one of my favorites. I think it’s because one of my first writing professors always said that point of view is everything in writing. When I reread Gatsby this completely clicked for me.

Towards the end of college and into graduate school, books that became my favorites were books that taught me something about writing and fascinated me. These books tended to be literary and contemporary: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, my all-time favorite collection of short stories by my all-time favorite short story author; Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (my motivator for wanting to use multiple points of view), and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (a literary mystery with the most interesting narrator).

In the past few years, since I’ve been out of school, I’ve found myself drawn towards books with strong female protagonists, the kinds of protagonists that I also like to write. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is a book whose language, sadness, and beauty astonish me. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is my favorite book that I've read in the past year. It’s a nearly 400 page book, and I read it in one day. I became so emotionally invested the characters that I sobbed through the entire ending.

When I look back, I can remember reading each of these books, remember the point in my life when I read them, what I was feeling, and what the books made me feel. And that’s what I love about books, the way they are like living things, like an old friend that I can come back to again and again, simply by opening the cover and becoming absorbed.

I guess, really, that’s how a book becomes my favorite, by being ultimately absorbable, a place where the characters are so real, the language so captivating, that while reading, my mind falls into this fictional world, if only for a few hours.

The only thing better than reading a book, in my opinion, is writing one. But for me, one thing doesn’t, and never has, existed without the other. My road to writing has been paved with books – the ones I’ve loved and the ones I haven’t. Ultimately, my favorites are the ones that have taught me and inspired me the most.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Friendship, The Kick-Ass Literary Kind

Growing up, my books were like best friends to me. A book-lover from an early age, by the time I hit my tumultuous teenage years, books were a constant, a source of comfort and a place where I often felt "understood." As a teenager, it was through the written page that I felt most connected. And as I sat down to write this post, I realized I can track a lot of my life through my favorite books during a certain time period.

My favorite books started out as pretty light series books--Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High with the occasional Christopher Pike or Caroline B. Cooney thrown in there for some thrills. As I mentioned in my first blog posting, my love for many of these books lead to seriously warped views on fashion. I mean, really. Skirts made out of sweatshirts? Hell to the no.
(By the way, anyone who was a fan of the above books must check out this blog: The Dairi Burger. Holy hell, it nearly brought me back to the days of stirrup pants and bike shorts under skirts.) This was when I started to think about how neat it would be to write these kind of books--and that it might be possible. I mean, how hard could it be, right? (Ah, the naivete of youth.)

Next up: high school. Where I read a book that still remains one of my favorites today: Beach Music by Pat Conroy. Lyrical, beautiful writing--the kind of writing that makes you FEEL. Whether it's sadness, joy or just simple shock at how he manages to craft a sentence. I felt both intimidated and inspired by his writing--which only made me want to become a writer even more.

Enter the college years, when I read a book called Watermelon by Marian Keyes. She made writing so...relatable. As I finished the book, I clutched it to my chest and thought, "I can DO this." That book reminded me that there's lots of different ways to write a book. It helped to bring me back to what I love most about writing.

Now, in my near-decade since college, there are two more books that I've added to my "Top Shelf" of the bookcase: Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country and Jen Lancaster's Bitter is the New Black. Very different books, although both are non-fiction. The biggest, best reason I can give for loving both of these books is the clear, engaging voice in each. Voices that draw you in from the beginning, make you laugh and allow you to accompany them on a journey, whether it be all the way to Australia or just to the unemployment office.

And now, as I enter the beginning stages of my writing career, I can't wait to read all of The Novel Girls books--I look forward to making long, lasting and best-friend-type relationships with your characters, too!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Too Many To Name

That was my original thought when I realized this week's topic was on our favorite books. I'm an avid reader, and there are many, many books that I've loved over the years. Narrowing them down to just a few is impossible. Seriously. I don't have a number one favorite book any more than I have a number one favorite author.

Not only that, but I'm always looking for new authors to add to my ever growing list of must read authors. So, rather than try to compile a ranked list of my favorite books, I'm just going to share some of my favorites...but trust me, this is no way a comprehensive list.

When I was younger, the first books that grabbed my attention were The Nancy Drew Mysteries. Likely, many girls can say the same. But I also loved The Hardy Boys Mysteries. And then I moved on to the Trixie Belden Mysteries. It's pretty obvious I loved my mysteries.

Other than that, though, I also remember reading The Hobbit and being completely swept away. Oh! And The Narnia series. Wow. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is still a favorite to this day. My Aunt Connie gifted me with a complete set of Narnia books for my birthday one year, and I still have that same set.

As the years went on, I found other books I loved. My first favorite author as a young adult was Danielle Steel. I loved so many of her books, but some of my favorites were those that mixed a bit of history into the story. I remember Zoya being a particular favorite. As was Wanderlust.

More years passed, and I found Nora Roberts. I can't really say which of her books I love the most, because seriously--I love them all. Though, I can say any of her trilogies that have a little bit of magic probably rank pretty high for me.

Other favorites of mine from the past few years include:

  • The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood Series by J.D. Ward
  • The In Death Series by J.D. Robb
  • The Dark Hunter Series by Sherrilyn Kenyon (Most especially Acheron)
  • The Dirk and Steele Series by Marjorie M. Liu

Are you seeing a pattern here? I love series books with a passion. I love when an author creates a world and lets me visit it time after time. I have to say that if an author hooks me with the first book in the series, I will come back for every single book that follows within that series. But that doesn't mean I only love series, some of my favorite non-series, single title books are:

  • Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
  • Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
  • The Perfect Husband by Lisa Gardner
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

And trust me, there are so many more I could mention here. But these are the titles/authors that came to mind first as I wrote this post. Also, my mood will often influence how well I love a book when I read it. I mean, sometimes I'm in the mood to laugh and/or fall in love. Other times, I'm in the mood to solve a mystery, or be a little bit scared as I'm reading. And then there are the times I want to be immersed in a fantasy land and read about elves or fairies or witches.

Aren't we lucky that we live in a world where whatever our mood, we can find the right type of book to match it? Books are an amazing way to fall into someone else's life for a little while and be carried away. With that in mind, I guess I have to say that my favorite books are the ones that allow me to forget about the laundry I need to fold, or the dinner I need to cook, or even the phone I should answer.

I'd love to hear about some of your favorite books. Even if you're like me and have way too many to list, what are the ones that come immediately to mind? The books that you remember year after year after year?