Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: LUCKY IN LOVE by Kasie West

It’s no secret I love Kasie West’s books. They’ve consistently been among my favorite reads in previous years. I haven’t really thought about my list for 2017 yet (although I should start!), but there’s a good chance this latest book will be included. LUCKY IN LOVE is a complete delight. Without any further ado, here’s the cover and description.

Lucky in Love by Kasie WestMaddie’s not impulsive. She’s all about hard work and planning ahead. But one night, on a whim, she buys a lottery ticket. And then, to her astonishment—

She wins!

In a flash, Maddie’s life is unrecognizable. No more stressing about college scholarships. Suddenly, she’s talking about renting a yacht. And being in the spotlight at school is fun…until rumors start flying, and random people ask her for loans. Now Maddie isn’t sure who she can trust.

Except for Seth Nguyen, her funny, charming coworker at the local zoo. Seth doesn’t seem aware of Maddie’s big news. And, for some reason, she doesn’t want to tell him. But what will happen if he learns her secret?

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The dialogue – I love the interaction between Maddie and Seth. It’s so adorable I had to re-read it sometimes. Here’s an example.

Seth put his arms out to either side. “Hold the phone, Maddie.”

“Hold the phone? Did you really just say that?”

“I did, and I’m owning it.”

“You can have it. It’s up for grabs from where it was left in nineteen seventy.”

“People have used it more recently than nineteen seventy.”

“I’d like recorded proof of that.”

2. The premise – I mean, what would you do if you won the lottery? I really liked how Kasie West handled it. There’s a range of reactions from those around Maddie, from those who who are clearly just after her money to those who seem unphased by her improved financial situation. I thought it was all very realistic.

3. Maddie’s family – I thought the portrayal of Maddie’s family was also quite authentic. I’m biting my tongue here because there’s something I really want to say about how the lottery affects the family, but I’ll just let you all read it, and I’m sure it will be obvious to you.

4. Maddie’s facts – I love how Maddie collects facts. It’s such a cute trait that singles her out. Maybe it also has to do with me liking interesting facts …

5. Maddie’s growth – I liked how Maddie figured herself out in the course of the story. She started out very influenced by everyone around her and had to discover who she was and what she wanted.

So, basically, another fantastic Kasie West novel. Go grab it!

Character, Writing

What I Learned Re-Reading the First Manuscript I Queried

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m not really referring to the first manuscript I ever queried. Because that one was ten years ago, and it was this crazy adult time-travel Christian romance that I didn’t even let anyone read before I queried it (I know! Rookie move!). I had no idea what I was doing, and so I don’t consider that for real. What I’m talking about here is one you can see here on my blog–THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES.

I wrote this book like seven (or eight?) years ago now, and I started querying it on July 11, 2011. So when you see those milestone posts on my blog about how many years I’ve been querying, it’s this manuscript that started it all. The reason I’m re-reading it is because I’ve decided to self-publish a copy as a Christmas gift for my nine-year-old. I mean, it’s officially shelved for any real publishing purposes, but my son will love it.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned about my growth as a writer while reading this old manuscript. Overall, I still thought the story was fun, and I got a lot of things right, but the issues I spotted are issues many new writers encounter, even with the help of critique partners and beta readers. For most writers, it just takes time to learn the craft and trust your gut enough do what’s right for your manuscript (you’ll understand what I mean by that second part when you get to point number four). And for the lucky few who get published on that first manuscript, I salute you!

1. I hardly used any interiority.

There are action beats and dialogue tags, but if I really wanted to whip this manuscript into shape, I’d add a lot more thought from my main character. There’s some interiority (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, check out Mary Kole’s post here), but I wanted so much more emotion and explanation from him.

2. So many questions!

When my main character does have interiority, he’s constantly asking questions. It’s okay to use questions sometimes, but in general it’s better to rephrase them into statements. They’re stronger and more active.

3. The story is so plot-focused there’s not much depth to the characters.

This goes along with the first point but also applies to the supporting characters. I gave each of the characters one or two things. The main character has an anger management problem. His sister is brainy. His best friend is bubbly and supportive. But other than that? There’s not much. I could’ve done so much more with it.

4. The early chapters are rushed.

I did some minor edits to the manuscript as I read through it–nothing major, just cleaning it up as I went. When I got to chapter six, I felt like the story had skipped way ahead. And I know why. I was new to working with readers for this manuscript, and the critique I received was to ruthlessly cut five chapters.

So, here’s the thing about that critique. I was new to critiques, and it sounded like good advice. In all actuality, the sentiment behind it–that I was starting in the wrong place and my pacing in the early chapters was too slow–was valid. However, in retrospect, just all-out cutting those chapters was not the right thing to do. As a more experienced writer, I’ve learned how to accept a critique, examine what the actual problem is, and find the right solution for my manuscript. Sometimes it’s exactly what the other writer has suggested, but often it’s an entirely different solution that I come up with–because I know my manuscript better than anyone. But as a new writer I didn’t understand that, and this manuscript suffered as a result. It wasn’t that other writer’s fault. She spotted the problem. I just didn’t apply the critique correctly.

My point with this is not to ignore critiques, just to incorporate them in a way that’s right for your manuscript. Because when it comes to pacing and story structure, you need to ensure your story makes sense and the reader feels grounded. As for my son? I’m sure he’ll just go with it :).

5. There’s too much summarizing.

There are a lot of passages where I summarize what happens instead of actively showing it, and that takes away from the experience. It still gets the point across, but I know it can be so much better. I think this is another area where as a more experienced writer I can tell the difference between when I should tell vs. when I should show.

6. Who’s talking??

This manuscript features three kids on an adventure, and in an effort to avoid too many saids, I apparently just deleted a bunch of dialogue tags. But as I was reading through, there were several times I wondered which character was supposed to be talking. If there are more than two characters, you need something, whether it’s a dialogue tag, an action beat, or an internal thought to signify who’s speaking. Even when I did have beats or tags, they were often after the dialogue when they should have been before. I did a lot of shifting for those. There’s not a set formula for this, but it does need to be clear who’s talking. I just try to find a good balance of tags, beats, and thoughts in a conversation.

Could I go back and fix these issues if I really wanted to? Sure. But as fun as it was to go back and read this manuscript, I don’t have any passion for it anymore, and that’s a necessary ingredient to whip a project into shape. So for now, I will just anticipate the joy on my son’s face when he opens his present.

Have you ever gone back and read your first project? If so, what did you learn about how your writing has improved?

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: LOVE & GELATO by Jenna Evans Welch

dsc06233Happy New Year! I’m a few weeks late, but I have excellent excuses–er, reasons. I was across the country for the first week of the year, doing things like attending my first Defense Against the Dark Arts class. (And, no, I’m not too old for Hogwarts.) Then I spent two weeks furiously revising so I could send my manuscript off to readers. Now that the MS is out of my hands, I can relax, and the timing is perfect, because last week I read a delightful YA book that I have to share with you. (Side note: on the adult side, if you’re a Meg Cabot fan, I also highly recommend THE BOY IS BACK. Could not stop laughing as I read that one–in a single evening!) But back to the YA … it’s another of my Scholastic Warehouse Sale purchases, LOVE & GELATO by Jenna Evans Welch. I’d been hearing a lot about this book, and from the first few lines, I was sucked in. Here’s the description.

img_3322Lina is spending the summer in Tuscany, but she isn’t in the mood for Italy’s famous sunshine and fairy-tale landscape. She’s only there because it was her mother’s dying wish that she get to know her father. But what kind of father isn’t around for sixteen years? All Lina wants to do is get back home.

But then she is given a journal that her mom had kept when she lived in Italy. Suddenly Lina’s uncovering a magical world of secret romances, art, and hidden bakeries. A world that inspires Lina, along with the ever-so-charming Ren, to follow in her mother’s footsteps and unearth a secret that has been kept for far too long. It’s a secret that will change everything she knew about her mother, her father—and even herself.

People come to Italy for love and gelato, someone tells her, but sometimes they discover much more.

Here are the five things I loved most about the book.

1. The romance – It’s right there in the title: LOVE. So obviously the romance has to be amazing, and it is. What I like about it is how there’s really more than one romance going on in this story–Lina’s and her mom’s. And actually, there’s an interesting parallel, but I won’t spoil it.

2. The journal – I both loved and hated Lina’s mom’s journal. I hated it because she took SO LONG to read the entries. Obviously if she’d read the thing all at once the story would have been over and she’d have had no mystery to solve, but it drove me crazy. At the same time, I believed her reticence to read her mother’s words and her drive to try and discover what had happened in her mother’s past on her own. Thus the love/hate relationship with the journal.

3. Howard – Lina comes to Italy expecting to hate Howard for not being involved in her life, but he’s nothing like she imagined. I loved watching their relationship develop and how it showed the growth of a family.

4. The dialogue – I’m a sucker for snappy dialogue, and this book has it in spades. It’s great between all of the characters, but here’s a snippet between Lina and Ren. They’ve just met, and after a conversation about how Lina always wins at games, Ren challenges her to a race to his house to meet his mom.

He stopped in front of a set of curlicue gates and I help him push them open with a loud creak.

“You weren’t kidding. Your house is close to the cemetery,” I said.

“I know. I always thought it was weird that I live so close to a cemetery. And then I met someone who lives in a cemetery.”

“I couldn’t let you beat me. It’s my competitive nature.”

5. The setting – There’s the fact that this book is set in Italy, which of course makes me want to go there, but it’s made even more interesting by plopping Lina into a cemetery–much too soon after the death of her mother. See, Howard’s the caretaker for the Florence American Cemetery, a memorial for World War II veterans. As a result, instead of drawing Lina in with its gorgeousness like you’d expect, it’s a source of conflict. It’s very well done.

Maybe I would have mentioned the gelato as one of my favorite things if I could’ve tasted it, but I did find the flavor Lina was dying over in the book at my local grocery store. I’m sure it will be a pale substitute to what I’d get in Italy, but I’m still anxious to try it.

Have you read LOVE & GELATO? What did you think?

Character, Reading, Review, Uncategorized, Young Adult

YA Review: MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

img_0929
Me at the Tower of London in 2007. It’s a very dark place!

All you have to do is read the dedication to know this book is going to be awesome:

For everyone who knows there was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio on that door.

And for England. We’re really sorry for what we’re about to do to your history.

Well, I’m not! Because then I wouldn’t have read this awesome revisionist history of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England. Admittedly, before I read MY LADY JANE, I had only a passing memory that Lady Jane Grey existed (although I have been to the Tower of London, so I’d heard her story at some point). I’ve now thoroughly refreshed my memory after reading this delightful story. But I guess I should share the description for those of you who haven’t heard about it yet.

My Lady Jane by The Lady JaniesThe comical, fantastical, romantical, (not) entirely true story of Lady Jane Grey. In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane is about to become the Queen of England.

 

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The way the authors revised history – The actual story of Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days, is quite tragic. She was a victim of a power struggle and really didn’t have a chance. What’s interesting to me is how the authors took the central historical issue –religion–and turned it into a magical conflict. Because why shouldn’t Catholics and Protestants become Verities and Edians (animal shape shifters)? Obviously it’s not such a straightforward swap, but essentially that’s how they revised the history, and it’s completely brilliant!

2. The prologue – Yes, I love the prologue! Because it sets the stage for the story so perfectly. You know how the description above compares this story to The Princess Bride? It’s such a great comparison because the authors speak to the reader. From the very beginning, the reader is encouraged not to take it too seriously, and yet, even though you expect things can’t end well for the characters based on the actual history, you’re hoping they’re going to fix it.

3. The dialogue – I particularly love the banter between Jane and Gifford, but the dialogue throughout the book is excellent. Here’s an example from shortly after Jane has discovered her new husband Gifford is an Edian who transforms into a horse every day.

“No horse jokes,” he said.

“My lord, I apologize for the horse joke. If you put down the book–unharmed!–I will give you a carrot.”

He brandished the book at her. “Was that a horse joke?”

“Neigh.”

“Was that a horse joke?”

I almost gave humor it’s own separate point, but since you can see it in this point about the dialogue …

4. Edward – In the history books Edward dies young, leaves his crown to Jane (who becomes the tragic heroine and now gets a book named after her), one sister (Bloody Mary) takes over, and then his other sister (Elizabeth) becomes one of the best-known monarchs in British history. I like this version of Edward, a dying teenager who cares about his best friend, Jane, and has never known anything other than being a coddled king but would like to experience life if he could only get around his death sentence. I was rooting for him to escape the machinations of the court, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you whether he does :).

5. The romance – I was cautious about the romance considering the setup. Things did not look promising for our characters, but in the end I was very pleased with how the romance played out in this book. And that’s all I’ll say so as to avoid spoiling it.

Definitely pick up MY LADY JANE. And since I loved this book so much, I obviously need to read the other books these authors have written. Any recommendations on where to start?

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: NOT IN THE SCRIPT by Amy Finnegan

I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve picked up in Bloomsbury’s If Only series, so I’m not surprised to add NOT IN THE SCRIPT by Amy Finnegan to that list. It doesn’t hurt that I have a soft spot for anything to do with movies. (Yes, like many authors, I not-so-secretly hope that one day I’ll write a book that gets optioned for film. Any kind of movie will do. I’d even take neighborhood kids acting it out :).) But back to that review …

Not in the Script by Amy FinneganMillions of people witnessed Emma Taylor’s first kiss—a kiss that needed twelve takes and four camera angles to get right. After spending nearly all of her teen years performing on cue, Emma wonders if any part of her life is real anymore . . . particularly her relationships.

Jake Elliott’s face is on magazine ads around the world, but his lucrative modeling deals were a poor substitute for what he had to leave behind. Now acting is offering Jake everything he wants: close proximity to home; an opportunity to finally start school; and plenty of time with the smart and irresistible Emma Taylor . . . if she would just give him a chance.

When Jake takes Emma behind the scenes of his real life, she begins to see how genuine he is, but on-set relationships always end badly. Don’t they? Toss in Hollywood’s most notorious heartthrob and a resident diva who may or may not be as evil as she seems, and the production of Coyote Hills heats up in unexpected—and romantic—ways.

Here are the five things I liked most.

1. The dialogue – The interchanges between Jake and Emma are so snappy and fun. Here’s a great example from early on in Emma’s POV. Emma has just explained that she took a picture of his bio to send to her best friend, who collects pictures of his modeling adds.

“Where does she keep the ads?” Jake asks. “In some kind of scrapbook?”

“No, nothing that formal.” I can’t tell if Jake truly wants to know, or if he’s a little creeped out. But I hadn’t meant to make Rachel look stupid. “They’re just taped to her wall. Like, you know, posters.”

Jake stays quiet, his eyes locked on me. “Darn,” he finally says. “If a full collection of my work could be found in a single book, I’d love to get my hands on it. And burn it.”

[narrative]

“Didn’t we just discuss your character, Justin, wanting to burn stuff?” I ask.

He nods. “Especially the cowboy ads. I’d torch every one of them.”

“No, not those!” I beg. “Your boots were so cool!”

Jake is laughing now too. “The boots weren’t the problem.”

“Was it the hat?” He knows where I’m going with this–low-rider leather chaps, hello!–and he’s shaking his head, looking a little desperate.

“That’s a great place to stop,” he says. “Right there.”

I guess it is :). You’ll have to read the book for more.

2. The romance – Oh, how I loved the tension of this romance. The author really made the reader wait for it, and it was great to read it from both characters’ POVs, to get their interpretations of the same situations and shake your head but completely understand why they would see it that way. So well done!

3. The supporting characters – Brett and Kimmi and Rachel and Jake’s friends back home–every single character had depth and relevance to the story. And in a couple of cases, I wasn’t quite sure whether I should be rooting for the character or not. Maybe that was the point :).

4. The fame/real life balance – I enjoyed reading this subplot and seeing Emma navigate how fame had affected both her closest friendship and her relationship with her mom. It was an important part of her growth in the story.

5. The parents – Jake’s mom was fantastic, particularly as she was dealing with a challenge I’ll let you read about yourself, and I also really loved Emma’s dad. Her mom was a character who grew along with Emma in the story, although she wasn’t a POV character so the reader sees that through Emma. All in all, strong parents.

Have you read NOT IN THE SCRIPT? If so, what did you like about it?

Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: SEABORNE: THE LOST PRINCE by Matt Myklusch

Several years ago I won a contest for a signed copy of Matt Myklusch’s first book, THE ACCIDENTAL HERO, and I became an instant fan. I loved all three of the Jack Blank books and passed that enjoyment on to my husband. I look forward to sharing them with my kids soon. (You can read my review of the final book in the series here, but be warned of spoilers.) My seven-year-old was already eyeing the cover of Mr. Myklusch’s latest, SEABORNE: THE LOST PRINCE, with interest. Check it out.

Seaborne: The Lost Prince by Matt MykluschWhen 13-year old Dean Seaborne runs afoul of the Pirate King, he is given one last chance to redeem himself before he gets thrown to the sharks. His orders are to find and steal the treasure of Zenhala, a mysterious island where gold grows on trees. Dean infiltrates the island posing as its legendary lost prince, but the longer he stays in Zenhala, the more he questions his mission—and himself.

Forced to undergo intense and fantastical trials to prove his royal lineage, Dean can’t help but wonder if he really is the lost prince he’s pretending to be. With sea serpents, assassins, and danger on all sides, he might not live long enough to find out.

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The humor – I tried to find a good passage to demonstrate the humor, but it’s not really one-liners or even paragraphs at a time that make the humor in this book. Sure, those happen, but it’s more about the situations Dean finds himself in.

2. The adventure – Sea serpents! Kites that skim across the ocean! Kayaking and soaring over waterfalls! Pirates! I mean, this story is all about adventure.

3. The dialogue – The dialogue is clever throughout, but I especially liked the interchange between Dean and one of his seconds in the trials because of how it could be interpreted multiple ways.

Dean nodded. “Fair enough. I hope you’ll make it easier than your brother did.”

“The regent told my father you had only good things to say about Junter’s service.”

“I was being polite.”

Jin grimaced. “No need for that. Junter’s performance yesterday was an embarrassment. He disappointed my father and brought shame to my family. Rest assured, I will not fail as he did.”

“Good man,” Dean said. He studied Jin, trying to get a read on him. He was more talkative than his brother and said all the right things, but what he left unsaid rattled Dean. He wouldn’t fail in what?

Exactly! This conversation is one of many where the choice of words is key.

4. The twists – Is Dean the lost prince? Who wants him to be? Who doesn’t? There are so many rabbit trails in this book, but I’m not surprised. That’s one of the things I loved about the Jack Blank series as well–always a twist on the horizon! I’m sure there will be more in the rest of the series.

5. The stakes – Just when you think you understand what’s at stake for Dean, things step up a notch–but not necessarily in a life-or-death way. Yes, he has to face life-threatening trials, but the stakes end up hitting him even harder than his life as he has to decide who he wants to be as a person. Very well-done.

Have you read this book yet? Or the Jack Blank series? Let me know if you’re a Matt Myklusch fan in the comments!

Revising, Writing

The Benefits of Reading Your Work Aloud Revisited

Yes, I have already posted on this topic–but it’s been two years. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging long enough to decide to write on something only to find I already did. And in this case, when I looked back at my original post, I was actually pretty satisfied with what I had to say on the topic (aside from cringing at the fact that I’d thought reading out loud would be a waste of time. Bad Michelle!). However, due to the amount of time that’s passed and since I have new readers since then, I’m going to update the post with some examples–because there has to be some added value :).

So here are specific areas where reading your work aloud will benefit your manuscript.

Point of view. My work-in-progress is written in alternating points of view, so reading it aloud was extremely helpful in keeping those voices distinct. I noticed turns of phrase or words that sounded out of place for a particular character. When I heard the words in addition to seeing them, it was much clearer that they didn’t fit the character.

For example, imagine a teenage boy thinking about the girl he loves with her current boyfriend. In my draft, it said:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although I wished he hadn’t even gotten that far).”

When I read this out loud, it sounded off. Not that a boy doesn’t wish for things, but I knew it could be stronger. So I revised it to this:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although it burned me he’d even gotten that far).”

It looked all right on the page, but until I heard it, I didn’t realize it was off for the character.

Something else that stood out to me was the tone of each character toward the supporting characters. Word choice is particularly important in conveying the tone, and it’s jarring when you hear the wrong word. For this particular MS, my two MCs are coming from two very different places at the beginning of the story. The female MC is in the dark about the world around her, so she has a mostly favorable attitude toward characters the male MC disdains because of what he knows. It became very clear as I read out loud if a description of a particular character was being attributed to the wrong MC.

Dialogue. As with point of view, dialogue needs to be unique to each character. Often I would read something and think, “Character A wouldn’t say that, but Character B would,” or vice versa. And within a scene, I could tell if the characters sounded too similar.

For this particular manuscript, I had a couple of characters with accents, so it stood out if my foreign character used too many contractions or my Southern character needed to say something with a different cadence.

More particularly with dialogue, I had to address how different characters referred to each other and authority figures. Would the MC’s boyfriend refer to her parents as Mr. and Mrs. or by their first names? Do they call each other by their names or do they use nicknames? My female MC had a nickname for the antagonist, and it was only as I read out loud that I realized I hadn’t consistently used it.

A few other questions that popped up as I was reading the dialogue:

  • Would this particular character use that metaphor?
  • Is this adult talking too much like a teenager?
  • How do these two characters react to each other differently than these other two during dialogue? Do they fall into familiar patterns?

Repeated words. Although I have a pretty good eye for noticing repeated words or phrases, reading aloud helps in that I notice if I use the same words too often. Maybe the phrases aren’t on the same page or even in the same chapter, but they’re more noticeable out loud. It also stands out when one character thinks or says something and then a different one thinks or say something similar, making the repetition a voice issue.

(My crutch words/phrases for this manuscript: stride, glance, going to. I’ll find more when I go back through with the express purpose of weeding them out!)

Flow. Often things that look fine on the page don’t sound as strong when you say them out loud. Sometimes I’d read something that looked perfectly fine but sounded awkward. I also added many contractions and deleted a lot of unnecessary phrases. Even if the book is never read aloud or put into audiobook form, I’d still like for it to flow.

Specifics. It’s common advice: always use specifics instead of generalities when you can. It speaks to voice in addition to giving the reader a stronger sense of place and character. A number of these generalities stood out as I read. I’d think: this character would be more specific. It might seem minor to replace “coffee” with “cafe au lait” or “TV” with “a family drama” but there’s a reason for it, and it impacts the overall tone of the story.

Qualifying statements. I thought I was pretty good about catching these while drafting, but I guess not good enough :). In any case, there were exponentially fewer qualifiers in this manuscript than, say, CAVEBOY. Anyway, those I thought, I knew, it seemed’s really stood out when I heard them loud and clear. Sure, they have a place, but most of the time they’re unnecessary.

Hmmm. I had a lot more to add to this topic than I originally thought. And I will be reading this manuscript aloud multiple times–maybe not with every draft, but enough to catch all those POV slips and clunky sentences and repeated words. What about you? Anything to add to my comments on the benefits of reading your manuscript out loud?