Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Happy Halloween!

I have two things to share today. The first is my Halloween/scary book recommendation: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. I started it yesterday, and had to stay up really late to finish it, because I needed to see some kind of resolution. I couldn’t possibly go to sleep with all those ghosts running around.

It’s a good book with strong characterization. There was a point just shy of the middle where I was really and truly scared, and that hasn’t happened to me (because of a book, anyhow) for a while. The last one before this was Marina Cohen’s Ghost Ride, incidentally, and I highly recommend that one as well.

I don’t tend to seek out scary stuff, but I really love Maureen Johnson’s books.Last night, reading The Name of the Star, I was creeped-out, afraid-of-the-dark, not-wanting-my-husband-to-go-walk-the-dog-because-she’s-too-cowardly-to-protect-him kind of scared. In fairness to the dog, of course, I did manage to set that one aside. And the book got less scary after that point, although still gripping.

So the upshot is, I recommend it for your Halloween read. Or your anytime read.

The second thing I wanted to share is a Halloween-related thought. Today is dress-up day for a lot of kids. It’s the day they get to be someone else. My daughter is dressing as a princess (a mediaeval princess, she likes to specify). Actually, I think princess has been a recurring them in her Halloween costume choices over the years.

I like to dress up. I usually pull together a costume of some sort to hand out candy at the door. I have a really cool witch’s hat, which, unfortunately, I can’t seem to find this year. Last year my husband and I went to a Halloween-themed Jack-and-Jill party as Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler (yup, a middle-aged, brunette Rose Tyler. Just what this world needed). Incidentally, there was someone else at that party dressed as a nerd; Aaron and I were mildly offended. But the point, I guess, is that it’s fun to dress up as something that you’re not.

But writing is even more fun. Because in writing, you don’t just get to “dress up” in someone else’s skin, you get to play pretend as well.

When my brother Mike was a kid, he and his friend Darren played with little plastic G.I.Joe and Star Wars figures. Listening to them, it seemed that every other sentence started with “say I.”

“Say I get to the top of the mountain.”

“Say your guy shoots but he misses.”

“Say I can fly.”

Anything was possible, as long as the other person agreed.

Writing is the best way I can think of to play “say I.” So, having dug out the Halloween decorations and made sure my daughter’s costume is sorted, I’m going to spend this afternoon playing dress-up in the best possible way. At my computer, writing.

Happy Halloween!

Book Review: You Against Me

Jenny Downham’s latest book, You Against Me, was released just last week from Doubleday Canada. It’s brilliant.

Doubleday sent me a few books to review, and since this one had the earliest release date, it was at the top of the list. But once I cracked the spine that wouldn’t have mattered.

The narrators’ voices and the situation grabbed me from the beginning. I’m a sucker for a good voice. The only reason I didn’t devour the book in a day is that it wasn’t an option this week.

Also, I had to wrestle it back from my friend who picked it up on the weekend and started reading it. She made me promise that she gets it next.

Nothing about this book is easy. Mikey’s sister Karyn claims a boy assaulted her. She is depressed and afraid to leave the house. He struggles to look after their younger sister and alcoholic mother and keep things together, hiding the truth about their situation from social services, while keeping up his job at a local bar. He doesn’t know what the answer is, he just wants to fix things.

Ellie worships her older brother, Tom, so of course when he’s accused of sexual assault she supports him. Karyn was at a party and drank too much; she made a decision and then changed her mind. She has no right to ruin Tom’s life. But as Ellie comes to know and care for Mikey, she struggles with decisions that will shape the future of her family.

Everything about this book is beautifully handled. The voices are real and the language is breathtaking at times. Downham does credit to the long, often painful processes involved in any legal inquiry or battle. Both characters grow up throughout the course of the novel, and the ending does credit to the characters’ journey without attempting to wrap anything up in an easy package.

If I have one quibble (and it’s a small one), it’s that I wasn’t sure of Mikey’s age, or even age range, for the first chapter or so. I was consciously trying to figure out whether he was older or younger than Karyn, whether he was 12 or 16 or 20. It became clear soon enough, though, and from that point on it was smooth sailing. There is also a bit of awkwardness later in the book, where Downham needs weeks to pass (e.g. between hearing and trial), and uses brief, unrelated scenes to mark the passage of time. It’s over with quickly, and completely forgivable.

You Against Me is an insightful, compelling  novel for older teens. It deals with difficult situations and shows that both sides of any given story have their own truths. I haven’t read Downham’s Before I Die, but after this, I intend do. I suspect she’ll be taking her place on my favourite authors list.

Book Review: Matched

This is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own. The girl-in-a-bubble cover is pretty, but didn’t grab me. Not sure why; it’s a great cover. It just didn’t look like my kind of book. But a few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet some book bloggers as part of a focus group at Penguin Canada. Almost without exception, they recommended this book. Now I know why.

Matched tells the story of a girl living in a society where officials decide everything from what you wear and eat to what jobs you’re most suited for and who you’ll marry. People are offered just enough choice (which colour dress would you like?) to keep them happy. To keep them complacent.

Cassia has always accepted the way things are. She has a moment of doubt when there seems to have been a mistake made over her perfect “match,” the man she’ll marry. She’s matched to two people, her best friend Xander, and Ky, whom she knows less well. The Officials assure her that Ky’s inclusion in the Matching Pool was a mistake. Because of his family history and social status, he’s not eligible to marry anyone.

Another thread of doubt comes from Cassia’s grandfather, who dies as society dictates, on his 80th birthday, but leaves Cassia something secret. Two poems. They’re not among the 100 poems that Society decided were allowed. These poems (Do Not Go Gentle by Dylan Thomas and Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar) are different. They stir something inside Cassia.

She comes to know Ky and what she learns of his history causes her to question everything.

I love Cassia’s growth as a character. I like the hints that we see of something under the surface that is not quite right. There’s no giant moment of revelation right away, just hints and small choices that built and build. The characters are well developed and the risks they take believable and frightening.

Ally Condie’s writing is clear and straightforward. The voice and observations she gives to Cassia ring true. My journey through the book was a little bit like Cassia’s journey — slow at first, and then faster and faster as the pieces started falling into place.

I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

Woolly Ragwort in your Nose

One of the perks of being a children’s writer is that you get to go back and read all the books you didn’t get around to as a child. Patricia MacLachlan’s beautiful, sparse novel Sarah, Plain and Tall came out in 1985, just a little bit too late for me. I discovered it a few months ago, when I borrowed a copy from the local library for research.

I borrowed it for research, but I loved it so much that I bought my own copy. Now I’m reading it to my daughter at bedtime. And I can see that, much as I loved the book, I was reading it wrong. I read it with a grown-up’s eyes. My Sarah is hearing it as a child. For her, it’s a completely different book. And I’m learning from that.

She loves the characters, just as I did. But we have completely different takes on Caleb, the younger brother of narrator Anna.

Anna’s mother died when Caleb was born. She, Caleb and Papa live alone on their prairie farm until Papa puts an ad in the paper looking for a wife. Sarah, who lives in Maine and has grown up by the ocean, answers.

The great question of the book is whether Sarah will stay. The family loves her, and she seems to love them, but perceptive Anna can see that Sarah misses the ocean.

Caleb, in particular, seems always to be looking for hints that Sarah will stay with them. He reads promises into her words. “Sarah said winter,” he said to me. “That means Sarah will stay.” Three more pages: “Sarah said ‘later.’ Sarah will stay.”

I found that touching and a little sad. Sarah, my Sarah, thinks it’s little-kid funny. Granted, some of that might be because of her name being in the book. (We often pretend the dog is talking about her. I think there are echoes of that at play. Never mind.)

I guess when I read Caleb’s words, I’m seeing them through a lens of experience… there’s something bittersweet about looking for promises that aren’t stated, because as grown-ups, we know that doesn’t always work out well. I’m worried for Caleb. Sarah, at seven, has less experience of that sort of thing. She just thinks it’s funny that Caleb’s repeating himself and insisting on a meaning that doesn’t match the words. And in a way, I’m glad that she doesn’t get it yet.

Tonight, though, she really drove home the point that she’s hearing a different story than I’m reading. There’s a bit where Caleb makes up a song:

Woolly ragwort all around,
Woolly ragwort on the ground,
Woolly ragwort grows and grows,
Woolly ragwort in your nose.

I don’t really remember that bit from my first reading. I suppose I skimmed over it. “Oh, he made up a song. Cute. Let’s see what happens next.”

Not so my daughter. She burst into helpless, body-shaking giggles. Clutched her sides. Wiped tears from her eyes. Made me sing it three times — and anyone who has ever heard me sing knows that such a request is not made lightly.

Needless to say, my hope of a soothing bedtime story flew out the window.

I managed to get her calmed down and read another chapter. Then, of course, she wanted to hear the song again. She wanted to hold the book herself and look at the words and sing them. More giggles. Absolute joy. You’d think Patricia MacLachlan was the greatest comic writer in the history of jokes.

My daughter loves this book now. I’m not sure that she’s seeing the same thing the Newberry Medal people saw in it, when they granted the award on the cover. I’m not sure she’s as taken with the lovely, spare prose as I was. But she wants to know if Sarah will stay. And she wants to hear about Seal the cat.

And most of all, I think, she wants to know if Caleb will make up any more funny songs.

Is there a lesson in here for writers? I’m afraid to go there, in case it leads to an epidemic of nose jokes. But there’s something to be said, I think, for keeping the reader in mind. For thinking like the reader. For creating characters who are so true to themselves and to their ages that they resonate with a reader… and, maybe, for remembering that nose jokes are funny, and that pure, open joy is a pretty wonderful response to a few typewritten words on paper.

Scribbling Women: Interview with Marthe Jocelyn

Today’s blog post is officially part of Marthe Jocelyn’s Scribbling Women book tour. That means that anyone who comments on it gets entered into a draw by Tundra Books to win a complete set of Marthe’s books! You can find more information, and a list of the other participating blogs, here.

The first time I heard Marthe speak was last November, when she was the keynote speaker for CANSCAIP’s Packing Your Imagination conference. I wrote a little bit about it here. My favourite line, still, was when she said that for a writer, lies are as important a tool as an eraser.

That’s a strange introduction to an interview, isn’t it? But I’m pretty sure Marthe was telling the truth here. You can decide for yourself. Read on for what she has to say about letter writing and online platforms and growing up around the stage.

* * *

ET: I remember from your PYI talk that you grew up around the Stratford Festival — did the stories there influence you in wanting to write?

MJ: I wanted to be an actress when I was very young, possibly because the writer was not as visible a part of what I watched and loved on stage. After a brief effort, I gave up the idea of acting, due to serious shyness. Possibly that is when I started to pay attention to the other ways I might participate in theatre. I have written two plays — one for child actors and one for a child audience — but the main trickle-down learning from the stage to my novels is probably the realization that dialogue is far different from conversation. It should be moving the plot or enhancing the characters.

ET: Were there some actors (especially women, since we’re talking about “Scribbling Women”) who showed you how characters could come to life?

MJ: I was a big fan of Martha Henry, initially because of her name and later because she was a great stage actress. I used to wait for her outside the (Stratford Festival) stage door, even if I hadn’t been to see the play. I still have numerous programs with her autograph.

ET: In your foreword to Scribbling Women, you mention coming across the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and that her letters inspired you to look for other women who wrote. You also make the point that the physical act of writing intrigued you — when did these women find the time to put their words to paper, given all the other things that they had to do? Do you think that, in writing, they (or we) are hoping to leave something behind to connect with future generations?

MJ: Of the eleven scribblers in my book, four were consciously attempting to connect with and pass along to future readers; Harriet Jacobs was a runaway slave who wrote a memoir for the purpose of revealing the trials and abuses suffered by the community of slaves that she’d grown up amongst. Isabella Beeton and Mary Kingsley each wrote books about her own particular passion — homemaking for Mrs. Beeton, and West Africa for Mary. Doris Pilkington-Garimara wrote memoirs about her mother’s and her own life as members of Australia’s Stolen Generations.

Nellie Bly was a journalist, concerned with the immediate, and all the others wrote private documents that they would be astounded to know are being read by the general public today.

As for “us”? Anyone who publishes a book is hoping that it will possibly be read beyond our lifetime. That is not, however, the driving motive behind my daily task of writing a few hundred words…

Which leads neatly into your next question…

ET: As a writer, how do you structure your time around writing? Do you ever think about why you do it?

MJ: I don’t really think about why I do it except that it’s one of the few things I know how to do AND like doing, in exchange for money. Structuring time is one of the big challenges. I make a to-do list every morning. I put a time beside each item. I get about halfway through the day on schedule and then I make excuses and change my mind and do an errand or read for awhile… and then I try to write some more.

ET: Some of these women were writing letters, wanting to share their stories with their friends and family. That was a practical thing, of course — back then, there was no other way to communicate with those who were far away. Still, there’s something interesting in that urge to share narrative in the form of long letters. Nowadays we don’t tend to do that. We share little blips at a time — email, tweets — and because the liens of communication are always “on,” there’s less of an impulse to step back and think about what the story of the past week/month/year has been.

MJ: True

ET: Are you a letter writer?

MJ: I used to write letters, before email, and I still manage the odd thank you note or condolence letter. But what is sad for the archives (fewer letters for historians) certainly makes for a livelier, if more vacuous, social life, with daily communication instead of monthly or even yearly with some distant friends.

ET: As a writer, do you put a lot of time into building your “online platform” (blogging, tweeting, etc.)?

MJ: No, not much. I’m learning, but it’s a bit too time consuming to make the commitment to using the “online platform” to its full extent.

ET: I liked the point that you made in your book about email not leaving behind any artifacts, like a scrap of cloth or a lock of hair. There’s the loss of handwriting, too. Seeing the shape of someone’s letters on paper can help us form an impression of them. When we type, all our letters look the same. Did writing this book change the way that you feel about writing and communication?

MJ: I was already a believe in writing, so I can’t say that has changed, but possibly my definition of “writing” has expanded. Even the women who were nearly illiterate and certainly not literary managed to tell profound stories and to reveal their spirit. And I found it intriguing that even women who were nearly illiterate chose, perhaps urgently needed to express themselves using words.

* * *

I should explain that by “interview,” I mean that I sent Marthe a rambling email filled with questions and observations, and she somehow managed to make sense of it all. Thank you, Marthe!

Please don’t forget to comment, so that you can be entered for your chance to win a set of Marthe’s books! I’d love to hear about the Scribbling Women who inspired you to write, or about your views on letter writing versus email. Or how you approach writing in your own life. And when you do have the chance to read Scribbling Women, please share your thoughts! I look forward to hearing them.

Book Review: Scribbling Women

Okay, so as previously mentioned, I’m part of Marthe Jocelyne’s blog tour for her new book, Scribbling Women.

I received my copy of the book in the mail a while ago. My first Advance Copy! Well, of a book that’s not mine, anyhow. (The book is due for release March 22, I believe.)

Being part of the blog tour means that I get to post a review of the book before the book is even out. Yay!!! It also means that on Wednesday, March 30, I’ll be posting… well, something. That’s my blog tour date. It’s a surprise, largely because I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to post on that day.

But it’ll be cool.

And even if it isn’t, you want to be here and to comment, because Tundra Books is hosting a huge book giveaway. One complete set of books by Marthe Jocelyne–that’s 28 books, ranging in age from toddler books to YA novels. Take a look!

You can, in fact, leave a comment on each of the 30 participating blogs for 30 chances to win. And as soon as I can figure out how to upload a PDF to this website, I’ll have the list of participating blogs here for you.

In the meantime: my book review.

Scribbling Women is a collection of stories. Stories of women who left behind their words. Their diaries, their letters, sometimes their fiction. These women give us glimpses into their worlds — worlds that are fascinating, and for the most part, worlds I knew nothing about.

In her foreword, Marthe tells us that when she was researching for this book, she found information on thousands of women who left their words behind. Thousands. This book tells the stories of eleven. So how did she choose? She narrowed her list to “those whose stories made me catch my breath.”

We start with Sei Shonagon. Her real name is unknown; Sei would have been her family name, Marthe tells us, while “shonagon” meant “junior counsellor.” That was probably the job of one of her male relatives. So her name has been lost, but her words have not. She left behind a collection of snippets written while she was at court. Thoughts. Poems. Observations. She was born more than one thousand years ago, but many of her “lists” (like poems in themselves) still ring true.

Things that Pass by Rapidly
A boat with its sail up.
People’s age.
Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.

From Sei, we move to Margaret Catchpole, who was sent to prison for stealing a horse. And from there, she was sent to Australia: Transported for Life. She left in 1801. Her letters give us a glimpse into a world that’s as far removed in time as it is in distance.

The next entry, Mary Hayden Russel, seems confident and sure of herself, despite travelling on a whaling ship in a time when women on board a ship were generally considered bad luck. And the next story, Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story, is perhaps the most horrifying. She spent years living in a tiny, cramped space as a runaway slave, watching the world through a peephole.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was one of my favourites. She’s a Victorian lady with the mind and heart of a scientist. Her writing is deliciously descriptive. “The first day in the forest we came across a snake — a beauty with a new red-brown and yellow-patterned velvety skin, about three feet six inches long and as thick as a man’s thigh….We had the snake for supper, that is to say the Fan and I; the others would not touch it, although a good snake, properly cooked, is one of the beat meats one gets out here, far and away better than the African fowl.”

Nellie Bly amazed me, too, with the things that she endured for the sake of investigative journalism. She wanted to tell the stories that mattered, from the point of view of those who were living them. She was driven to share the truth.

The same could be said of each of these women, each in her own way. Ada Blackjack wrote from an island north of Siberia. She wrote her story by hand in halting English, only using the typewriter left behind by one of her party to report the death of the man who had been her last companion.

Dang Thuy Tram was a doctor in North Vietnam. Her diary, when found by a Vietnamese Sergeant, prompted him to tell his American friend not to burn it: “There is fire in it already.”

And Doris Pilkington’s account of her mother’s escape from a government-run Native Settlement and back to her family is heartrending.

Marthe does a wonderful job of using her own words, with selections from the women’s writing, to tell their stories. Her writing is transparent. Through it, we get to see what she saw, in reading the original sources.

If there’s a weak spot in the book, it’s the short linking paragraphs used to connect the women’s stories together. The transitions and connections often feel forced. She compares how long two women waited for replies, for example. And yet, I would not like to see the book without them. These connections, as forced as they might seem at times, help create a thread between the stories. They drive home the point that these women all had something in common.

At whatever time, for whatever reason, each picked up a pen to express herself. Each left behind something of her own remarkable story.  And each, in her own way, knew the value of words.

Marthe’s Jocelyn’s book, Scribbling Women, will take you on a journey through a range of places and times. I’ve heard it said that the drive to write is the drive to make worlds come alive. If that’s the case, Marthe Jocelyne, along with each of the women she writes about, feels that drive.

Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

I haven’t posted many book reviews here, but I just finished a good book, so I want to share.

Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution is a YA that clocks in at a hefty 123,000 words. I devoured it in a few days.

I’m a sucker for a great voice, and Jennifer Donnelly has it. Her main character, Andi, is gutsy and outspoken and intelligent and hurting. It made for some compelling reading. The character in the French revolution-era diary grabbed me equally as much, and I love seeing Andi’s growing fascination with her. Add some fascinating insight into the evolution of music and a look at the city of Paris, both in the 18th century and in modern times, and I was hooked.

The only place that this novel sagged a little, for me, was when (spoiler alert) Andi goes back in time to live the life of the girl in the diary and meets her musical idol. The idea of her sharing her iPod with him was cute, but overall, the scenes with him in them just didn’t live up to the promise of the rest of the novel. However, we’re soon pulled back into the story again, for a satisfying ending.

A great book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a friend. I know I’ll read it again.

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Stay tuned for my review of Marthe Jocelyln’s new book, Scribbling Women. I’ll be part of her upcoming blog tour, which means several cool things including a giant book giveaway. But that’s another post.

Something I Learned from Carole Enahoro

Last week I found out that my friend, Carole Enahoro, has been shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well. Regional winners will be announced in early March and final results in May.

Carole was a member of my writing group here in Whitby. Actually, she was the one who invited me to join, so I owe her a lot. But don’t tell her I said that; it’ll go to her head.

Anyhow, it’s wonderful to see a Whitby writer doing well. (Okay, so she grew up in Britain and Nigeria and even lived in Oshawa for a bit, but once a Whitby girl, always a Whitby girl.)

I read Carole’s book last June. It was my first time reading it; DDW passed through the writing group long before I ever got there. I’ve read friends’ published novels before, but this was different. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses from Carole, so I know something about how she puts her books together. It was incredible, reading her story through that lens.

Here’s something I learned from Carole: words count. (Well, duh, you say. Isn’t that what being a writer is supposed to be about?) But Carole is very particular about word choice. I doubt that there’s a noun or a verb in her book that she hasn’t examined.

An example: she has two sisters in her book, Barbara and Mary Glass. A main theme in her book is water. Think about what glass has in common with water. With ice. With mirrors. A name is such a little thing, but when Carole names a character, it isn’t. You could probably write a whole thesis about the water, glass and ice images in DDW, the ways they’re used, and what that’s meant to reveal about each character and moment in the book.

Here’s the best part of the post: the lesson. This is a tiny snippet of something Carole taught me. I can’t give it all away, or Carole will get mad and use some of her schmancy British insults on me. And since I have to look most of them up, it gets embarrassing. Still, I’m willing to risk it to share this.

Think about your manuscript. Think about a central theme. Now come up with an image or word to represent that theme. Write it in the centre of a blank page. I’m willing to bet that Carole started with “water.”

Brainstorm. Brainstorm off your brainstorm ideas. Don’t stop until your whole page is covered. Get into opposites. Water might lead to wet, which might lead to dry, which might lead to desert, sand, sun, heat. And sun might lead to moon and stars. Or to fire which you might already have on your pages as an opposite of water. Draw a line to connect it to sun. Moon and stars might lead to night, black, ink. Just keep going.

When your pages is covered in spidery scribbles, sit back and look at it. Read the words. Circle the ones that resonate for you — the ones that strike you as particularly strong, or that just feel right for some reason you can’t explain.

Now put it away until your book is written. This isn’t early draft stuff. Wait until you’re pretty sure of your story and ready to think about specific word choices that will make your novel stronger. And then, when you need to introduce a minor character or a town name, take a look at your page. See if there’s a word or an idea that might work. “Smith” is boring. Maybe there’s a name that can link to theme in some way — either by falling in with it or by highlighting its opposite.

When you’re describing something, see if some of those powerful words will work for you. Is that skinny, silvery cat tail curved like a scimitar or like a crescent moon? It depends. But when you choose words that resonate with your theme on that weird, subconscious level that you access when you’re brainstorming, cool stuff happens.

I don’t make a lot of grown-up book recommendations. I write for kids, so most of what I read is written for kids. I will say this, though. Once I started reading Carole’s book, I couldn’t put it down. It was vastly different than anything I had ever read. It was funnier, sadder, richer, and just plan more than I expected. And once you read it, you won’t look at water, or words, the same way again.

Eight Favourite Books on Writing

Happy New Year!

In honour of resolutions and all that, I decided to start out the new year by sorting through my collection of books about writing. (Okay, the truth is that I need to move the bookshelf so I can plug in a phone cord.) There are some discards — books that never really spoke to me, books about kinds of writing that I’ve decided not to pursue. But there are also some treasures.

Some of these aren’t the usual writer’s list. I have those, too — Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott, and a daunting and as-yet-unread copy of Story by Robert McKee. The copy of ‘A Passion for Narrative’ by Jack Hodgins that I won at my high school graduation. But those aren’t the ones that I find myself going back to. And maybe it’s because my focus of late has been on craft, but I’m tending to choose the books that give me something of the nuts-and-bolts of the whole process, rather than the books that inspire.

Without further blathering, here are the books that I pulled from my shelf that I would not part with.

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. This was the first book that I read that dealt with mythic structure and the hero’s journey. I liked the second edition so much that I bought the third edition when it came out. I haven’t bonded with the new one the same way, though; it doesn’t have that lovely, dog-eared look that the old one had.

Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers. There are some similarities between this book and Bird by Bird, at least thematically. This is the one that keeps me on track, though. It’s a wonderful guide to have with you when you tackle a novel.

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. I hate the title of this one. Hate it so much that I’m tempted to get out my sewing machine and stitch together one of those cutesy, quilted book jackets that are sold at craft fairs in Harlequin sizes, just for this book. But if you can get past the presumption and oily-slick feeling of the title, it’s a great book with some wonderful advice on improving your work.

On Writing, by Stephen King. Okay, so one of the classics made the list. I love this book. It’s the first book that I recommend to anyone who tells me they want to write. I’m not a big Stephen King fan, mostly because I’m a big chicken and reading scary books=sleepless nights, but I love what he has to say about the craft of writing and his own journey.

Room to Write, by Bonni Goldberg. Yup. Not the usual Goldberg. But this is, hands-down, my absolute favourite book of writing exercises.

Novel Metamorphosis, by Darcy Pattison. What I like best about this book? It tells me things that I hadn’t thought of before. Things that, in retrospect, should have been obvious. I discovered this book when I was already partway through a major revision, and I hate to interrupt a revision mid-stream. But once I finish, I’m going back and tackling the manuscript again, with Pattison’s book in hand. (Take that, work-in-progress!)  My only regret is that it’s a workbook, and I refuse to write in the book. I’ve been creating my own set of worksheets to go along with the exercises. It’s a cumbersome process, but at least I’ll be able to use them more than once. (I’d offer them for download, but that’s not exactly fair to Darcy Pattison, is it?)

And of course, the book on character that I’ve already written one post about: Getting Into Character, by Brandilyn Collins. This one takes a look at what writers can learn from the method actor’s craft. I struggle, sometimes, with really getting into a character’s skin, and this book gave me some new ways to approach the problem. Lots of books will give you lists and lists of interview questions and facts that you need to know about your character. Noah Lukeman’s ‘The Plot Thickens’ does that, and does it well, so that the questions force you to really get inside your character’s head. But I’ve never liked the lists of questions. I have trouble taking them seriously. Collins’ book was something new, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Finally, and maybe it shouldn’t even be on this list because I’m still reading it for the first time, Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickhkam. I’m pretty sure that I’m driving my husband nuts with this one. I’m working through it slowly, and it seems like every section has a new little gem to offer–which I feel the need to blab about non-stop until I’ve internalized it and worked out how it applies to each one of my seventeen gazillionty works in progress. It will probably deserve its own post, once I’ve finished reading it. At this rate, that should be sometime in 2012…

So there you have it. Many writing books are dear to my heart, but these are my current favourites. If you’re working your way through a new year’s resolution that has to do with finally finishing that novel, or polishing your manuscript so it’s ready for submission, you might want to check them out. Heck, if you live nearby, I’ll lend you my copy. But only if you promise to give it back.

Getting into Character

This is a writing book recommendation.

Sometime last year, around the time my husband and I visited Stratford, I started thinking about acting. Not about me acting! No, no, never. I took Drama in grade ten because someone told me it was smart to have an easy course to bring up my average. Ha.

I started thinking about actors and what they have to do. A script is, more or less, just dialogue. Often really good dialogue (okay, absolutely brilliant dialogue), but dialogue nonetheless. Actors move beyond this and add all those tiny details and textures that make a character come alive. From what a character says, they’re able to reach down inside and build a whole person.

It’s not always the same whole person, either. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is different from David Tennant’s Hamlet is different from Ben Carlson’s Hamlet. But the words are still the ones we studied in high school.

Granted, I know very little about acting (see comment above re: grade ten Drama). I do know what it feels like to watch when a character comes alive, though. It’s that moment when I forget that I’m watching an actor and just start watching the character. The actor becomes invisible.

So since I’m working my way into a line of business where it’s a good thing if characters come alive, it occurred to me that I might learn a thing or two from actors. I even toyed (briefly) with the idea of taking a class, but, well… grade ten Drama. I still have nightmares.

I thought I’d try reading about it instead. In a used bookstore, I found a lovely, red hardcover called “Modern Acting: A Manual.” That sounded like just the thing. It was published in 1936, but the basics couldn’t have changed that much, could they? It’s a dense little book. My bookmark is in chapter four, but I know I waded ahead to other bits as well. I enjoyed the glimpses into an actor’s life (“The actor’s body is his medium of expression”), but this wasn’t a book that was going to change the way I wrote. It drove home the importance of observation, but didn’t give me any new ways to think about it.

Then I came across “Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors,” by Brandilyn Collins. This made me very happy because, you see, someone had done the hard work for me. I love it when that happens.

This was the book I wanted. She draws on Method Acting (which I had heard of only in the sense that Viggo Mortensen is apparently a method actor and insisted on carrying his sword around New Zealand for four years) and applies it directly to writing. She uses examples from books, everything from David Copperfield to modern thrillers. And she gave me a new way to think about observation. Several new ways, actually.

She talks about Personalizing, a way to avoid stereotypes and make characters memorable. The chapter on Inner Rhythm was an eye-opener for me, as was the one on Action Objectives. Of everything in the book, I think it’s the action objectives (a driving power behind every action, every scene) that I’m going to keep foremost in my mind when I’m editing down my current project.

I can’t claim to have internalized everything in the book yet, or to be doing it right. I wish! I do know that I drafted a new novel shortly after reading this book and I did it differently because of what I had read. Better? Worse? It’s a new draft. Hard to tell. But I certainly have a better handle on this main character then on some I have written, and for me that’s rare in a first draft. My “bad guy” insisted on becoming more complex than planned, as well. I like him much better for it, although I’m not sure that my editor will.

I read a lot of writing books. This one stands out for me. I feel a bit guilty, actually, because I’ve told my writing group about it but not offered to lend out my copy yet. I’m not ready to let it go.

And the best part? Now I don’t have to take that drama course I was considering.