Tag Archives: Writing

Reader’s Block

It’s impossible to get a degree in creative writing without hearing the phrase “writer’s block” approximately 10 bajillion times. After constant discussion of it, I’ve come to the conclusion that writer’s block is kind of like Santa Claus – he sneaks into your house in the middle of the night, distracts you with shiny new playthings, and you run out of cookies a lot faster when he’s around. Most of all , the older I get, the less I believe in his existence. Nevertheless, he’s in so many stories and ringing bells on so many street corners, it’s hard to escape the idea of him. He might as well be real.

See? Lying in wait, always watching for any moments of weakness. Photo from here.

This post is not about writer’s block or Christmas (or my weakness for creating increasingly labored metaphors). It’s about a phenomenon I personally have never heard discussed, but have experienced several times. It’s like Santa Claus’ evil twin, the one who secretly goes around punishing those on the Naughty List and suppressing all the elf uprisings. Every now and then, I find myself locked in a fierce battle with him: reader’s block.

I first encountered him when I was eight and several chapters into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There was a creepy disembodied voice only Harry could hear and students were being attacked every which way. Simply put, I was so scared for Harry, Ron, and Hermione* that I couldn’t read on for several weeks. My father had been reading the book at the same rate and I eventually had to let him read ahead of me, a tremendous blow to my childhood pride.

Fast forward twelve years and The Book Thief, once I finally started it, nearly drove me to a complete reader’s block relapse. I generally read a lot like I eat – not necessarily fast, but singlemindedly. While I usually finish a book like The Book Thief in a sitting or two, it took me a month. The book was set in Germany during World War II, centered around a family who harbors a Jewish acquaintance in their basement. I could only read it in bits and pieces, a sense of familiar dread growing as I couldn’t help getting more and more emotionally attached to the characters.


Trailer for The Book Thief‘s upcoming movie!

Why do I bring it up now? Because almost a month after the release of Battle Magic, a new book by one of my favorite authors of all time, I’m only halfway in. I haven’t touched it in weeks… I’m never “in the right mood.” Battle Magic is a novel set in between already-released books in Tamora Pierce’s Circle universe. From reading the The Will of the Empress, I know that this story is about the time that Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy – characters I know and love – get caught in the middle of a war. I know the experiences they have in Battle Magic are enough to give them all nightmares and PTSD.** As much as I love Pierce’s writing, it’s hard for me to know that these characters, who I think about like I do my own friends, are about to go through something so horrible.

It makes me wonder what it’s like for a writer to do something like that to her characters. You have to, or else there’s no story. You have to know them, and you have to make them suffer. You may not always have to kill your darlings, but you always have to at least torture them a little. I’ve never gotten to that point in my own fiction writing. With short stories, I feel like I always catch my characters before they hit rock bottom. I write a lot more poetry, usually, a different beast entirely. And with creative nonfiction, well, it’s writing down the things that have already happened. Though there’s still that same impulse to try and protect my characters.

Which books have you gotten stuck on? Any advice you have for getting yourself to move past it?

*Which I then read as “Hermy-own,” which my entire family persisted on until Goblet of Fire set us straight. I also read Neville as “Neh-veal,” a pronunciation I’ve never heard of anyone else ever using.

**Not spoilers, by the way. This emerges very early on in The Will of the Empress, and doesn’t give anything away about the earlier books in the series.

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“A Corner of White,” by Jaclyn Moriarty

Last post I mentioned my intention to tackle Jaclyn Moriarty’s recently released (well, recently released in the U.S.) novel, A Corner of White. I actually finished it up the day after writing that. While I wish I could make my books last, I usually gulp them down in one or two sittings. I’d categorize myself as member of species Biblio devourus rather than Biblio savorus. Can you tell I just finished a term paper on evolution and biological classification?

Australian cover for A Corner of White

Back to A Corner of White. The story utilizes two braided strands. One takes place in modern day Cambridge, England. It mainly follows Madeleine Tully, a fourteen-year-old girl who has trouble adjusting to life after she and her mother run away from their luxurious life with Madeleine’s father. Madeleine’s mother took only a sewing machine with her when she left, leaving her struggling to make ends meet through mending clothes. As the novel is narrated in omniscient third-person, this strand of the narrative also includes some scenes between the two other students with whom Madeleine is homeschooled, Jack and Belle. Through Jack’s perspective, Madeleine is initially characterized as mysterious and ethereal, causing readers to wonder if she might be connected to the magical world of the other narrative.

This magical world of the second narrative strand is called “the Kingdom of Cello.” It does have many similarities to our world – televisions and trains and high school physics. However, it also has some notable differences. While Cello does have much of the same technology, they still rely heavily on fax machines. The organized sport of choice, deftball, revolves around some sort of supercharged, skyrocketing root vegetable. The biggest difference, however, is the Colors in their world. Rather than simply a visual phenomenon, they’re natural disasters:  Violent Purples, fatal Yellows, waves of Red that send everything haywire. The protagonist of this strand of the novel is fifteen-year-old Elliot Baranski. He’s nearly single-minded in his determination to rescue his father, Abel. Elliot believes his dad has been abducted by Purples (although most of the town believes  Mischa, the fetching high school science teacher who disappeared simultaneously, to be a far more likely cause of Abel’s disappearance).

U.S. Cover for A Corner of White

It wasn’t until probably a third of the way through this 400-page novel that I felt myself becoming fully engaged. I always have trouble switching between narrative strands. As soon as I found myself beginning to understand Madeleine, I was yanked back to Elliot, and vice versa. The story really took off for me once Madeleine and Elliot started communicating – writing letters to each other via a Crack between Cello and the World. In Madeleine’s world, the Crack is located in a parking meter. This leads her to believe that her penpal is some fantasy-enthusiast who takes role-playing a little too seriously. Through Elliot’s letters to Madeleine, Moriarty is able to explain some of the idiosyncrasies of Cello to readers. I also greatly enjoyed Madeleine’s letters to Elliot. In them, she critiques Elliot’s description of his life and kingdom as though it’s entirely made-up, the humor being that of course it is completely made up, but to the readers, not the characters. Through events in both worlds, Madeleine and Elliot come to rely upon each other.

I would give this book a solid four stars. I thought it did a great job setting up the worlds, plot, and characters for the next book in the trilogy. I also thought it did a great job showing character growth. Both Madeleine and Elliot start the novel as somewhat unsympathetic characters, but gradually become more aware of themselves and others. Although A Corner of White got off to a slow start due to two very disparate narrative strands, it eventually picked up the pace and became a compelling read in a world I can’t wait to revisit.

Which book cover do you like best, the U.S. or the Australian? Let me know in comments!

Jaclyn Moriarty’s Website
A Corner of White on GoodReads

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Sunsets and Sidewalk Chalk

I had my blog post for today all planned out. I discovered earlier this week that one of my favorite authors had a new book released in the U.S. a few weeks ago. Jaclyn Moriarty – another Australian YA author – started a new trilogy with the book A Corner of White. It’s a braided novel which switches between two worlds – Cambridge, England and the Kingdom of Cello – and promises to deliver Moriarty’s signature whimsical style. I bought it for my Kindle last night, and planned to finish it up today and write up a review.

But this afternoon, a shocking thing happened: I didn’t feel like reading. It’s one thing for me to not feel like reading when I have no good books up my sleeve. It’s another thing entirely when I have a thus-far enjoyable book by an author I know to be excellent. I blame the weather. It was gorgeous out today, warm and breezy. I saw people playing Frisbee and catch, heard them playing volleyball (the volleyball crowd was very loud) and I just couldn’t do it. Also, although I intend to keep this blog running, this is my last required post for my creative non-fiction class. I wanted to do something different from a usual review.

So I broke out the sidewalk chalk I got in my Easter basket this year. I took it outside with my camera. I doodled and wrote, looked at the lake, and mostly thought. I thought about how on Earth I was supposed to connect sidewalk chalk to reading. I mainly was reminded of something writer/dancer/papercutting artist Kimi Eisele said when she came to one of my classes as a guest lecturer last semester. She talked about the importance of having some kind of second genre or medium for “play.”

At the time, I mostly thought of it in regard to myself as a writer. Writing, for all that it’s a wonderful form of creative expression, can be and often is hard work. It seems like maybe I should start thinking of that in terms of reading, too. Reading is an activity that’s always come easily to me, and that I’ve always loved. But since starting this blog and taking several creative writing workshop classes, it’s sometimes hard to read with my writer mind off. I pay more attention to the choice of verb tense and the consistency of characters’ voices. Not to say I don’t still get completely immersed in what I’m reading, but there’s always questions the back of my mind – “What would I write about this?” or “Does that point-of-view shift contribute anything to the story?”

So I guess at the end of the day, writing and reading, as much as I love them, can also be pretty taxing. So I decided to expand my creative horizons a little, step out of my comfort zone. Despite my compulsive doodling habits, I’m no artist. But I do enjoy drawing things from time to time, and there’s something so alluring about sidewalk chalk. Maybe it’s that instead of writing at a computer or doodling in a notebook, whatever you do is immediately out there in the world, instantly available for others’ scrutiny. While I was drawing out there today, I was half-embarrassed, almost ashamed to be caught in the act of creating in public, especially something that wasn’t “good.”

I kept at it though, until my hands (and camera bag) were covered in chalk and the little pieces of gravel seemed permanently embedded in my knees. I came out with a few new poem ideas, remembered a few books I’d forgotten about, and got a chance to see one more Oswego sunset. I raced over to the banks of the lake to snap a few shots of the sun, as it slid right out of the sky. Once it starts going down, it goes down fast. I enjoyed my afternoon of play and some of the ideas it gave me for new writing and reading projects.

One of the books I thought about while I out there I’ve browsed but haven’t gotten a chance to “use” yet. It’s called Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts, and includes provides and activities from classic childhood books. It includes recipes for “Tempting Turkish Delight” and “Brucie Bogtrotter’s Heroic Chocolate Cake” and directions for making a “liberally garlanded hat,” as Anne Shirley does in Anne of Green Gables. It’s half practical, half humorous. It’s a good reminder that aside from being fun companions while you read them, books are also a fun place to look for inspiration for something to do when you don’t feel like curling up with them.

A Corner of White
Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts

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YA Questionnaire

Some of you may know I am currently working on a thesis about how the Internet affects the YA reading experience. As much of my opinion has been informed by my own experiences as a young adult reader, I am genuinely interested in others’ experiences as YA readers in the Internet Age. In order to learn more about other YA readers, I’ve created a questionnaire with related questions. I would really appreciate it if anyone could either fill out the survey and e-mail it to me at heretherebedragons00@gmail.com or share the questionnaire with others who might be interested. I will be taking responses until April 30th. I posted it on my blog as it seemed too long for tumblr and most of the survey sites have ten-question limits.

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This questionnaire is specifically seeking to understand the activities of Young Adult (YA) literature. Please only take this survey if you read YA literature, and answer all questions as they relate to YA literature.

Age?

Gender (optional)?

How did you learn about this survey?

How and where were you introduced to YA literature?

How old were you when you started reading YA literature?

What are your favorite features of YA literature?

What are your least favorite features of YA literature?

Rank these subgenres in order of preference. Write “0” for a subgenre you rarely read. (Realistic fiction, fantasy, science-fiction, dystopian, paranormal, non-fiction, other)

Who is your favorite YA author and why?

Have you ever interacted with a YA author in any way, either in person or through the Internet? Please describe any and all such experiences.

How do you usually stay informed about YA authors’ activities and/or writing?

What is your favorite work of YA literature why?

What do you do after you finish a work of YA literature?

Are you involved in any YA literature-centric communities or discussions online (i.e. GoodReads, tumblr, etc.) If so, describe your involvement and experience in these communities.

Are you involved in any YA literature-centric communities or discussions outside of the Internet? If so, describe your involvement and experience in these communities.

Do you read, write, and/or review fanfiction based on YA literature? If so, describe your experience with fanfiction. If so, what kind of fanfiction do you usually read or write (Canon, Alternate Universe, Alternate POV, etc.)?

How do you learn about new young adult literature?

Where do you gain most of your YA literature recommendations?

Please share any additional comments about why and how you engage with YA literature.

I am considering creating a website where I can share some of the responses I have received. Please let me know if you do not wish me to publicly share any or all of your answers outside of my thesis.

Again, please e-mail the completed questionnaire to me at heretherebedragons00@gmail.com .

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MarkReads (and reads, and reads, and reads)

Only four posts in, and the time has come already – blogception. This post will be a blog about a blog, specifically MarkReads.net. I discovered MarkReads the fall before last, during my time in Istanbul. While some days I loved wandering through the city in its perpetual autumn drizzle, sometimes it was just as satisfying to spend the day curled up in my dorm with a cup of apple tea and my laptop. I’d been trying to decide between the two Harry Potter conventions happening in the summer of 2012, Ascendio and LeakyCon. I saw Mark Oshiro of MarkReads listed as a special guest for Ascendio. Interest piqued, I innocently clicked the link to his website. I then proceeded to work my way through the entirety of his “Mark Reads Harry Potter” posts in only a few days

He’s even edited and compiled his posts into e-books, available at markdoesstuff.com

MarkReads provides some of the most in-depth book reviews I’ve ever come across. Mark Oshiro does chapter-by-chapter reviews of popular books and series. His whole enterprise started in 2009, when he undertook someone’s challenge for him to read and review the entire Twilight series (which he ended up hating). He later took on the Harry Potter series, writing reviews for each and every chapter of all seven Harry Potter books (which he ended up loving). I cannot even begin to fathom writing that many blog posts. Although he doesn’t review exclusively Young Adult books, many of the books he has reviewed in the past have been YA – Looking for Alaska, The Book Thief, His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games. For those of you less interested in reading, he also has sister sites called MarkWatches and MarkPlays, where he does similar-style reviews for television shows and video games.

On the surface, reading a review for every chapter of a book or series of books might not sound that enticing. This is where Oshiro’s writing comes into play. His writing tends to be full of humor, honesty, and enthusiasm. He sometimes includes details from his own life to explain why he connects especially strongly to a certain scene or chapter in a book. His posts contain unconcealed glee for well-developed characters and expertly executed plot twists. It’s not the kind of book review that gets printed in the New York Times but maybe it should be.

One of the best parts of MarkReads is that Oshiro knows little or nothing about each book he reads, which keeps the element of surprise almost completely intact for him. This leads to much ironic humor, as sometimes he’ll make joking speculations about future events in the story that turn out to be completely correct, or he’ll be totally off base with his predictions. If you’ve read the books Oshiro’s reviewing, reading his posts is the same kind of fun found in soap operas or books with third-person omniscient narrators; you know the endings, the character motives, the future betrayals, while he gets to be the hapless character, bumbling blindly through the book.

I suppose I should reveal my own secret bias. Right now, he’s reviewing all of Tamora Pierce’s books. He’s finished the first quartet (The Song of the Lioness) and is halfway through the second (The Immortals), and has already become a Tamora Pierce fan of my own magnitude. I sometimes think that the key to my heart is Tamora Pierce; every person I’ve ever met who enjoys her books turns out to be someone awesome (my former roommate, a friend from Germany, my little sister, etc). So nothing makes me happier than watching someone else fall in love with her work.

I’ll just wrap up by mentioning that Mark Oshiro is going on tour soon. For those of you who are also in the Central New York area, he is having an event in Syracuse on March 27th. At 6:30 p.m., he’ll be giving a talk at Le Moyne College called “Mark Reads & So Do You: Literacy Development Through Online Communities.” In his own words, it’ll be about “how Mark Reads started, why [he’s] so interested in promoting literacy and being a bookworm online, and how educators in the future need to consider things like online communities, identity politics, and the power of being a nerd when teaching English and literature.” I’d really encourage any local English and Creative Writing majors to attend; it’ll be a chance to get some insight from an extremely successful blogger, and any talk he gives is bound to be a lot of fun.

MarkReads
Facebook Page for Syracuse MarkReads Event

Edit: His reviews do tend to contain a lot of spoilers, so my advice is to either only read reviews for books you’ve already read, or read along with him. Much thanks to Carol for suggesting I add this disclaimer.

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Mr. Pudgins

I’m sure everyone has those burning questions keeping them awake at night. The things about themselves that they just don’t understand, no matter how many rainy days they spend mulling them over. Secrets that, when revealed, turn animated conversation to shocked silence. But I think the time has come for me to confess my most shameful secret: I don’t like Mary Poppins.

“What?” I hear you gasp. “Not like Mary Poppins? Everybody likes Mary Poppins!”

I don’t dislike it, per se, but the most I’ve ever been able to conjure up for the movie is a bland indifference. And while perhaps not my most haunting question, I have spent a substantial amount of time wondering why this is. Mary Poppins seems like something I should like. Whimsical, magical nanny? Check. Ordinary life becoming infused with magical events? Check. Dancing penguins? Check. Only recently did I solve the mysterious case of Mary Poppins and the Missing Affection. The answer is actually quite simple; my heart was already stolen by another magical babysitter.

Ruth Christoffer Carlsen’s Mr. Pudgins is one of those childhood books I grew up on. Even as an adult, I remember it with that magical aura reserved for childhood favorites. It recalls those fuzzy early years, my sisters and I curled up on my parents’ waterbed, listening as Mom would read aloud a chapter before bed. She was an expert at doing Voices, using a high-pitched squeal for one character, a lisp for another, capturing the gruff-but-pleasant cadence of Mr. Pudgins himself. It was almost always only one chapter, no matter the amount of begging or pleading glances we employed.

It’s not just my childhood memories that endear the book to me, though. The stories themselves are engaging. The  book revolves around three children: John, Jane, and Petey. Unlike the Banks of Mary Poppins, their parents are rather affectionate.  However, like all parents, their mother and father need to go out every now and then. That’s when their babysitter, an older-but-not-elderly man, comes over and the stories truly take off.

Each chapter contains a new adventure, a feature employed by many of my other childhood favorites.* Some of their adventures include a flying bathtub;  playing with the “mirror children” (the children’s reflections who escape from the mirror); encounters with a dodo bird; and my personal favorite, when all the faucets start running different kinds of pop instead of water. While each new development delights the children at first, each chapter has some dramatic tension as the children struggle to put everything back to normal before their parents return.

I think perhaps that was my main problem with Mary Poppins; while there is plenty of conflict in the Banks children’s reality – namely with their parents – their magical adventures with Mary act as escapist reprieves rather than character-building conflicts. It is the adults in the story that change, more than the children themselves, whereas in Mr. Pudgins, all of the magical adventures are infused with problems for John, Jane, and Petey to overcome.

I highly recommend Mr. Pudgins to everyone. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out its thirty-three reviews on Amazon, all five-stars; or its 4.51 GoodReads rating. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. This may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Pudgins’ pipe-smoking serves as the catalyst for all of the magical events in the book. The story was first published in 1951, long before the dangers of smoking were widely-known. Maybe they are reluctant to reprint lest they are accused of encouraging pipe-smoking in children? Just speculating why such a wonderful book is no longer widely available. At any rate, although the book is out of print, there are several used copies available on Amazon** for decent prices.

Have a passionate defense of Mary Poppins? Or favorite childhood books or reading memories? Feel free to share in the comments.

*Similar childhood favorites  include Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking.
**I swear I am not trying to plug Amazon so much. If you know any other sites where Mr. Pudgins might be affordable and available, please let me know.

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