Favorite Book Feature: The Reader by Traci Chee

Sometimes I read a book for the first time and it instantly makes its way to my favorites shelf. That happened this month with The Reader by Traci Chee. I usually don’t read fantasy, but I picked up this book because I had read that it was about a world without a written language, so I thought it would help inspire me with my WIP. I came into this book expecting to get a few new ideas on how a world would function without a written language, but I was instantly blown away by this amazing, thrilling, and diverse story about magic, pirates, and a book that contains everything that’s happened and everything that will be.

Sefia has been on the run every since her father was brutally murdered. She survived in the wild with her aunt Nin, but after Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is on her own with the mysterious object her parents had her protect: a book. Sefia teaches herself to read and sets out to rescue her aunt, and along the way she befriends a mute boy, is helped by pirates, and discovers a magic she didn’t know existed.

This book instantly became one of my favorites for several reasons. First of all, I love how diverse The Reader is. The story is populated by people of every age and color, and men and women are complete equals in the fantasy world of Kelanna. I like that Chee doesn’t draw much attention to it—that’s just the way things are in Kelanna. It’s refreshing to read a story in which this is the norm.

I also love this book because of one of its main themes, which is how stories give life meaning. Several of the characters struggle with the idea of not being remembered. Captain Reed in particular worries that his life won’t mean anything if people don’t remember the stories of all the adventures he’s been on. He even tattoos his body with images of everything he’s done. By addressing this theme, Chee highlights just how important stories are.

But the main reason I love this book is because it’s clear that the author loves words. Her love and respect of language infuses every word of The Reader. Chee writes with such authority, and had me laughing, crying, and devouring the pages. Words have magic in the story, and I love this analogy. Stories are powerful, and it is fascinating to see how that works out in a fantasy setting.

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Happy Birthday, Somewhere Only We Know!

Tomorrow is Somewhere Only We Know’s first birthday!

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I can’t believe that my book has already been out in the world for a whole year. I’m so proud of my debut novel and I love how it turned out. My family and friends helped me celebrate my book’s birthday last November with an incredible launch party. I’ll never forget how amazing that cake was with an edible image of my cover.

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This has been a really fun year being a published author. I love talking about my book and sharing its story of hope. I hope that the books I write going forward continue to inspire people as much as Somewhere Only We Know has.

Thank you all for sharing my publication journey with me. This is just the first of many years to come of being a published author, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.

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Lastly, I am so excited to announce a little project I’ve been working on for fans of Somewhere Only We Know. Want to know what happens to Frankie, Susan, Lindsey, and Miranda after the book ends? Early 2018 be looking out for an epilogue, told from the perspective of the clearing in the forest where the girls meet.

Happy birthday, Somewhere Only We Know!

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My WIP Comp Titles

I apologize for not telling you guys very much about my work in progress (WIP). I’ve kept this story idea under wraps because it’s taking me forever to outline. About a year ago I wrote the first ten thousand words of this story, but, after a medical issue prevented me from reading a writing for several months, I realized the story didn’t work for a lot of reasons.

Part of it was that the story was so much bigger than I initially thought it was going to be, and part of it was because it was a dystopian and I hadn’t thought out all of the necessary details yet. I also just wasn’t ready to start writing the story yet. After I finished Somewhere Only We Know I had felt like I had to jump into something new, but that left me with a half-thought out story.

So now I’ve been taking my time with this idea, outlining it in detail and doing lots of research. Part of that research has been to read and watch all of the comp titles. A comp title is a relatively recent comparable book or movie, something similar to your story that you can use as a starting point to pitch your book and help put it into context for agents, publishers, and readers. So I thought I’d give you guys a taste of my WIP by telling you about all of the comp titles I researched for this project:

  • The Hunger Games Books and Movies
    I chose to watch the Hunger Games movies again because one of my protagonists reminds me of Katniss. Plus I realized my book was also going to be trilogy, so I wanted to watch how the Hunger Games story played out over three books. I had only ever read the first book in the series before, so I loved getting the chance to finally read the whole series.
  • Metaltown by Kristen Simmons
    I chose to read this book because one of her main characters, Lena, reminds me of my other protagonist. Also, this story was inspired by Les Mis, which influences pretty much everything I write.
  • The Selection Series by Kiera Cass
    The Selection Series are some of my favorite books, and I wanted to read them again to help me understand trilogy structure. It was helpful to study a story that I already knew well.
  • Legend by Marie Lu
    Another story inspired by Les Mis, Legend was a helpful and inspiring reread. My second protagonist is very perceptive, like June in Legend. And Lu also has two protagonists, so it was helpful to read this and see how she used both of them.
  • The Reader by Traci Chee
    This one is a fantasy, not a dystopian like the rest of the stories on this list, but it is about a world without a written language, a concept which will play into my WIP.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    This book is a classic, not really a comp title, but the concept of censorship will also play into my WIP.
  • City of Ember
    I haven’t actually read the book City of Ember, but I have always loved this movie for some reason. You’ll see messengers like Lina pop up in my WIP. But the main reason I wanted to watch this movie again was because of that small moment when Lina is coloring a picture of a row of houses. She looks up from the drawing and out the window at the dark alley in her underground city, and then she picks up a blue crayon and colors the sky blue even though she’s never seen the actual sky and doesn’t know what color it really is. This moment has stuck with me ever since I first saw this movie nine years ago, and it was the initial inspiration for my first protagonist.

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I hope that gives you an idea of what kind of story I’ve been working on. I’ll let you know more soon!

Favorite Book Feature: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

There’s only a few months and a few Favorite Book Features left for the year. October’s featured book is one that was a great source of inspiration for my novel Somewhere Only We Know: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Although most book lovers find it impossible to choose just one favorite book, if I had to, Speak would probably be the one.

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Fourteen year old Melinda Sordino called the cops at the end-of-summer party, and as she starts her freshman year of high school no one will talk to her. Her old friends ignore her, and no one else comes near her except a self-centered new girl. But Melinda can’t get herself to talk about what happened the night of the party anyway. She tries so hard to forget it, even though it’s destroying her. Melinda spends the school year trying to draw trees for art class and make it through school without speaking. Because if she speaks, then she’ll have to speak the truth.

Speak is one of those books that stays with you for life. I wish I had heard of this amazing novel sooner, because Anderson is now one of my favorite authors. The best part of Speak is the book’s voice. It’s hard to define voice. Voice is the style something is written in, and when it is good it becomes a work of art. It’s something you know when you see it, and Speak has one of the strongest voices I’ve ever read. I think I like this book so much because I want to write like this. I want to create characters like Melinda who completely draw readers in to their stories. Melinda doesn’t speak much out loud, but in her head she is observant and witty. She has a story to tell, and readers get to hear it even if the people around her don’t.

I also love this book because of its connection to art. Melinda finds that she is able to use art to be able to express herself, even when she can’t find the words. I tried to do something like this in Somewhere Only We Know, but with writing. I love being creative and I make a lot of crafts, but I can’t draw. If I could I’m sure I would turn to art more, but instead I turn to words. And so the girls in my book turned to the written word to figure out other possibilities for their lives. In Speak, it is incredible to watch as Melinda attempts to draw trees and her teacher encourages her to dig deeper. I used a quote about this as the epigraph to my novel:

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I have a great respect for Anderson because she chose to write about such difficult topics like rape and depression. Most people don’t want to talk about it or acknowledge that they happen, and people like to censor books about those topics in order to “protect” children from them. In “A Comment About Censorship” which appears at the end of my copy of Speak, Anderson writes, “Censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the dark and makes them vulnerable… Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” A writer friend of mine put it another way when she said we shouldn’t shelter our kids but insulate them.

Teens need books like Speak and Somewhere Only We Know because real teens are experiencing these issues. And I’m going to continue reading and writing books like these.

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5 Writing Lessons from Wicked

For my birthday this year, I got to see the musical Wicked for the very first time. I’ve been a musical fan my entire life, and I can’t believe I never got to see this show until now. Honestly I was a little disappointed, but I think that’s just because my friends hyped it up too much. Or maybe because I’ve seen Idina Menzel in concert and you can’t beat the original Elphaba. However, while I was watching the musical I realized that you can learn a lot about writing from the show. Here are five writing lessons from Wicked:

1. “Once you’re with the wizard, no one thinks you’re strange.”

Most people think writers are weird. At least that was my experience growing up. I was the super shy girl who read and wrote in notebooks all the time. And then once I got serious about writing and changed my college major to creative writing, nearly everyone asked me But what are you going to do for a living?

The sad truth is that no one is going to take you seriously until you publish something. Being a creative writer is like being an artist, and it’s a tough business to get into. But, like Elphaba, you have to realize that your talent is incredibly important. You will make a difference in this world if you don’t give up.

2. “I’m defying gravity, and you won’t bring me down.”

There will be lots of people who tell you you’re not going to make it as a writer. They will say you’re not good enough or that it’s too hard, that getting published is impossible.

Don’t listen to them.

You can do this. Put in the work. Don’t give up. And defy gravity.

3. “Maybe I’m brainless. Maybe I’m wise. But you’ve got me seeing through different eyes.”

One of my favorite parts in Wicked is when Elphaba says she wishes she could be beautiful for Fiyero, and that he shouldn’t lie and say that she is. But he says he’s just looking at things differently. I think this concept of looking at things from another perspective is so important to writers. That’s our job—to look at topics from different angles and tell a story. And that’s what the musical Wicked does—present another perspective on the story you already know to show you that the villain might not actually be the villain.

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These last two come from the structure of the story rather than the story itself.

4. Villain Story Arcs

Prequels and retellings seem to be pretty popular these days. Wicked is an awesome example of retelling a familiar story from another viewpoint. The show gives you the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West, and then runs parallel to the story we know of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz to tell the audience what really happened when a tornado brought Dorothy from Kansas.

If you’re like me and love making fairy tales your own, try taking a familiar story and looking at the story behind it. This is what Gregory Maguire did when he wrote Wicked the novel. You never know what you might uncover.

5. The Importance of Backstory

Not only is Wicked interesting in the way it gives you the backstory of a character you already know, the musical shows just how important backstory is in general. Backstory is whatever happened to your character before the story opens. For Wicked, the entire first act is the backstory to The Wizard of Oz, and the second act runs parallel to the familiar story. The backstory sets up the story better and gives you greater insight into who the character is.

However, that doesn’t mean that readers want to actually see the backstory. The point of Wicked is to show the backstory, but in regular books the backstory should be hovering underneath the surface of the story. You as the author should know a lot more about the story than what goes into the book. You should know your characters’ history and why they act the way they do. And this knowledge should infuse every word you write about those characters. As Wicked shows, knowing a character’s past can change the whole story.

It’s Okay to DNF a Book

Part of Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA mindset that I wrote about here is to read with purpose. Because you are taking your education into your own hands, you must pick which books to read. Reading is so important to writing. Through reading you can discover what works and doesn’t work in stories, you can pick up tips from both old and new writers, and you can see what’s current in your genre. And while reading is important, your time as a writer is limited (you know, with writing books of your own on top of life) and you must learn that it’s okay to DNF a book.

DNF stands for “did not finish,” meaning you give up on reading a book. There are only so many hours in a day, and you should be using those hours to your benefit. Most writers start out as bookworms, and they feel obligated to finish each book they start out of respect for books themselves. But some books just aren’t going to resonate with you and you shouldn’t force yourself to read them.

In fact, doing so may be harmful. For me, reading books I didn’t resonate with ruined reading for me for many years. Growing up you couldn’t find me without a book in my hands, and I’d read a book a day if I could. But I just don’t like most books that are considered “classics,” i.e., the books you read in school. I had so much trouble relating to those stories that they made me hate reading for a long time. But after I graduated from college and had time to actually pick what I wanted to read again—everything YA—I fell back in love with reading. And I think that’s why the DIY MFA mindset works for me.

I usually only read the first chapter of books before deciding if I’m going to continue with reading it. I value my time and choose only to read books that will benefit me or entertain me. As Pereria states in DIY MFA, “Choosing to go the way of DNF is not a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough to understand great literature. When you DNF a book, you are showing respect for your time and efforts. Life is short. Read with purpose” (177-78).

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You don’t have to feel obligated to read everything you start. You don’t have to keep reading books that don’t resonate with you. It’s perfectly okay to stop reading a book and pick up something else that will be of a greater benefit to you.

5 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

Being a writer is a lifelong career. I’ve loved books my whole life, and I started considering writing back in the fourth grade when my teacher noticed my interest in stories and started giving me extra prompts to work on. Almost ten years after that I changed my college major to creative writing. I had been planning on becoming a high school math teacher, but I realized I needed to follow my dream.

Even though I have a degree in creative writing and have been trying to write pretty much my whole life, it has been a very long learning process and I am still continuing to learn to write every single day. Here are five things I’ve learned that I wish I’d known when I started writing:

1. It’s Okay to Not Write Every Day
The most common piece of writing advice I see—and one I disagree with—is that you should write every day. I don’t. And I think it’s perfectly okay. Personally, I get burnt out if I write something every day. And I’m not the kind of person who can just force the words to come.

It was a hard lesson to learn that it’s okay not to write every day. I think the better way to think about it is to stick to whatever schedule you’ve made for yourself. I’ve made myself a goal sheet with how many hours I want to work each week, and I check them off as I complete them.

It’s also important to recognize that a lot goes into writing other than the actual typing of words in a draft. There’s brainstorming, editing, marketing, learning craft, and, of course, lots and lots of reading. Writing doesn’t always look like writing, but all of those things together add up to this job of being a writer.

2. No One Cares if You Write
This one came from my favorite college professor. It sounds harsh, but what it means is that no one’s going to pat you on the back if you get your work done or shake their fist at you if you don’t. Writers are on their own for the most part. And if you don’t have a burning desire to write—if you don’t have to do it—then you’re most likely not going to do it.

3. Social Media Doesn’t Have to be Scary
I don’t like the Internet. I’ve had to learn how to be online in order to connect with my readers. And what I wish I had known before I started was that it’s not as scary as it seems. I had to learn to take things slowly, learning one network at a time and then taking my time with creating my website. And it was way less scary and overwhelming this way.

4. It’s Okay to Invest in Yourself
This was probably the hardest lesson for me, because I don’t like to spend money. I feel really guilty if I buy anything for myself. I’m a frugal person and am always on the hunt for sales. The last thing I’d want is to spend money for a job in which I haven’t made any money (yet). But I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to invest in myself. It’s okay to take an online marketing class. It’s okay to buy those books on craft. It’s okay to pay for a web domain and a photo editing service. I’ve had to learn that I need to treat my writing like an actual business, and that I need to set myself up for future success by getting the right tools.

5. It’s Going to Take a Long Time
Being a writer is a lifelong career. We live in a culture where we feel like we have to have everything right now. But writing is a slow process. It takes time to learn how to write. It takes time to actually write a book. It takes time to publish a book. I’ve had to learn to take things slowly and realize that I’m in this for the long haul. So I’m going to keep learning and I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to keep trying to get published through a traditional publisher. And it’s okay if it takes a long time.

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While I wish I had known all of this back when I started writing, the most important thing I did know was that I had something to say. Everyone has something to say, some unique perspective that they can offer to the world. And I knew from the beginning that I had a lot to say and that I could say it all through writing. I don’t think I would have made it this far if I hadn’t known that.