Friday, December 31, 2010

The Year of a Writer

I spent most of my year talking with people who don't exist.

Had a stay on the far side of the galaxy to battle giant pigs.

Went schizophrenic for a bit as a teenage girl.

Fought valiantly in The Great Rabbit Wars...someone needed to slay those smug beasts.

Brought light into a world of darkness.

Ventured into the dark world of the forest.

Saved the world, one story at a time.

Here's hoping that many of you can join in on some of these adventures in the coming year. Writing the stories is great, but sharing them is better.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gently Down the Stream...

Shifting from writing one story to the next is a lot like it is with reading one story to the next. There's a transition that has to take place, a resetting of the mind. One world needs pushed aside to make room for another. But I never like to let it drift too far. It's like a balloon on a string, floating and bouncing along, but always within reach because I enjoy letting the world of one influence the next. My characters, be it from a novel or a chapter book, are always talking to one another in some way.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Exit Door

When writing a novel, somewhere near the last few chapters I begin to search the landscape for a path out of the world I've created. Between every paragraph in the final chapter, I'm looking for that exit door. The one that will take me to the proper conclusion. There are lots of ways out of the forest, but writing an ending is about choosing the right one, finding that last sentence that finishes the story the way you want it to end. I walked through one of those doors today and I like where it took me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Come Back Later, This Imagination is Occupied

One question children always ask me as an author is how I come up with my stories. My response to them is that writing is a lot like playing with toys. When I was child, I would act out story lines with action figures that would last for days. Writing is just a grown up way of doing the same thing.

Around the holidays, I always feel this analogy more intently as the days after Christmas were spent nearly absorbed in new toys and new stories. As I got older, these days meant being engrossed in new books and music, leading to more stories. This is the time of year when I make deposits in the idea bank for slow withdraw over the year.

First deposit was made on Christmas Eve morning when I woke from a strange dream about my first kiss with the idea for a novel. If I need to write that check later, it's nice to know I can cover it. I've also thrown ghosts and mermaids in the safe. There's not much to them right now, but they'll accumulate interest over the year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Most Influential Books I Read This Year

Before I sign off for the holidays, I wanted to bring together my list of the ten books that most influenced me as a writer over the past twelve months. It should be sort of obvious from this list that I'm not compulsive about reading every new book when it comes out. I'm actually quite particular when it comes to books and rarely take chances on something just because it's new, after all, I have a 'to-read' list in the hundreds.

When I read, I'm pulled in by the same things that I stress in my own writing. The elements of a book that appeal to me are character, emotion, and the author's writing style. The ten book below are the ones which most captured my 'writer's' imagination this year. (In no particular order)

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Absolutely riveting stories with an amazing heroine that makes you care not only for her own survival, but for the people around her as well. Rarely is such page-turning action found in books with so much depth.

Mice Templar by Michael Avon Oeming & Bryan Glass

A collection of Mice Templar comics in one volume. Early in the year, this the book reminded me how much I love mythical fantasy, which dominated my Great Rabbit Wars blog story and the current book I'm working on. Amazing scope of story, intriguing characters and spectacular art.

This middle grade novel swept me away into a story that I felt I've always wanted to visit. Featuring one of the best main characters I've encountered in a long time, this is a timeless sort of tale and one of the rare books that I see myself wanting to read again and again.

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau

The fourth and last book in the City of Ember series is a perfect ending to a story that has inhabited my imagination for the better part of two years. The resourcefulness of the two child main characters and their ability to dare to think bigger than their adult counterparts is an idea that has always appealed to me.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

This modern fairy tale about hobgoblins was one of most original and well written stories I read this year. The world created in its pages is terrifying and wonderful at the same time. It's attention to core fairy tale elements is something that has been weaving its way into my own work of late.

This Newbery Honor novel from 1968 is one of the most beautifully sad stories I've ever read. It's delicate look at how it feels to be a child that nobody likes is amazingly handled. It feels to me like the story some of my teen characters might have told as younger characters.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

The classic Swiss children's novel from 1880 felt surprisingly modern when I read it this year. There's a reason Heidi as a character has endured for so long. Unlike so many child characters today, Heidi doesn't feel contrived at all. She's simply a child, complete with a child's confusion and generosity.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A terrifyingly exciting look at our possible dystopian future. The best of this genre takes current disturbing trends and stretches them to their farthest reaches of plausibility. Too far, or not far enough, and the results can be mixed. But Margaret Atwood walks the line perfectly. In addition, her writing style magnificent.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Yes, it's a wonderfully told romantic love story which is most likely what propelled it to Bestseller's list, but it's also an achievement in writing. To tell a story out of time is hard enough, but to tell it with as much time skipping as this is masterful. Not only that, but this book features some of the best written conversations I've encountered.

This book is not at all what one would expect from the cover. It's much older than the 'look' suggests and much less light-hearted. Another amazing character, Olive is an eccentric girl who is slowly abandoned by her best friend and quickly becomes an outcast. Kim Kane is able to make the reader feel the painful experience while never making Olive feel like a victim.

That's my now you all have something to buy with those endless gift cards that you are sure to receive. (On most of the links, you'll find a full review that I wrote if you're interested, along with the reviews of other readers).

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yo, Ho, Ho!

Even pirates love this time of year!

Sending you all lots of good cheer.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

After two weeks of covering only releases from this year, I'm dying to talk about some old tunes and dusty records that I've dug out of oblivion. This year has definitely been the year of vinyl for me. Most of my purchases have been on that resurgent medium and of late, those purchases seem to dig deeper into the obscure and unheralded. I've chosen a few of those for here, as well a few great selections passed to me by friend Marc, the Godfather of Prog. In addition, I'm continuing to share some of my rediscovered love for groove metal. Enjoy.

Boris - Japanese Heavy Rock Hits Vol. 1-4: In the last few months of last year, everyone's favorite heavy Japanese band released these four 7" records as a series. In recent years, this band has put out many varied releases, from heavy metal to drone, all with very mixed results in my opinon. I absolutely love their 2003 album Akuma no Uto, but have been less impressed with some of the follow-up albums. However these four singles, consisting of seven songs, has been getting a lot of air time in my speakers. It's much more mellow than most of their work, and just has a great heavy rock meets Blonde Redhead feel. Supercool.

Doctor Hook - Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show: I bought this album purely on the cover and the fact that it was recorded partially in San Fran in 1971. It turns out the band is from my old home state of New Jersey, right across the water from NYC. The album ended up being quite good, not that I was all that surprised from the look of these lads. There is an obvious Captain Beefheart influence, but it's fused with a country bar band feel. "Kiss It Away" is an absolutely brilliant track.

Television & Patti Smith - Early Gig '75: This is a concert bootleg from CBGB's featuring both of these artists in the very early stages of their careers. They don't play together (as far as I've been able to tell). First, Television plays an amazing set and they sound great, like a mellow Stooges. "Foxhole" and "Breaking My Heart" really stand out. Then, Patti comes on and plays a cool set, including "Gloria". It's nice to hear some light-hearted banter from her on stage, too. I think she's always portrayed as being so serious, that it was a fun change of pace. Finally, Television comes back on and plays some more. It's a shame the album suffers from really bad recording quality or it would be truly wonderful. As is, it's a fun listen for interested parties only.

Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Frieberg - Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun: I didn't even know this 1973 album existed until I came across a copy of it for sale. Being an Jefferson Airplane fanatic, I snatched it up without concern to the band members' somewhat spotty '70s catalog (though I'm bigger fan of it than most). This is Paul and Grace's follow up to the excellet 1971 album Sunfighter and last album before Jefferson Starship is born in '74. The unique thing about this record is that it lacks joy, which oddly makes it enjoyable. This is an album about the death of '60s optimism turned inward. It's full of mythical and fable imagery and '70s guitar lines which make for a softer psychedelic sound that feels grown-up in a way.

Godz - Contact High With the Godz: This 1966 debut album from one of the original NYC freak folk outfits has been one I've wanted to hear for some time. It's a wonderful lo-fi garage sound of bluesy folk. It's one of those albums that's great for waking up to. "Come on Girl, Turn On" and "May You Never Be Alone Like Me" are the two tracks that really stand out for me.

Sleep - Sleep's Holy Mountain: My recent renewed love for Black Sabbath inspired heavy metal led me to this 1993 masterpiece by the San Jose band. This is stoner metal at it's absolute best. Heavy riffs, perfectly delivered vocals. Like Electric Wizard, this band is the sound of Sabbath fast-forwarded to a natural progression. This is one of my top albums from past years that I've discovered in 2010.
Ash Ra Tempel - Ash Ra Tempel: The 1971 debut from Berlin space prog pioneers is only two songs, each clocking in around 20 minutes in length. Both tracks are sprawling examples of prog wonderfulness that are much in the spirit of Pink Floyd's output of the same time. Just a perfect spacey album that I've listened to many times in the past week while writing.

Chicago - Chicago V: I rescued this 1972 album from my parents' garage recently and wasn't expecting much, being familiar with the band's soft rock schlock. However, it was more pleasing than I would've thought. It's a soft jazz-rock fusion album of the kind that could only be made in the '70s. For a good chunk of this album, it's very light and not really noteworthy. But when the sound clicks, like on "Alma Mater", it approaches the greatness of Elton John's Madman Across the Water.

Fleetwood Mac - Mr. Wonderful: In my continuing effort to familiarize myself with the Peter Green version of this band, I acquired this, the band's second album from 1968. This is the early band's best effort. A wonderful British Blues album that stands alongside the Bluesbreakers albums. "Love That Burns" is brilliant. Peter Green is in rare form on this album. Truly Mr. Wonderful.

Camel - The Snow Goose: The British prog-band's third album from 1975 follows this masterful Mirage (which I reviewed a few weeks back). It's an mostly instrumental concept album with moments that simply beautiful. This band is certainly influenced by Pink Floyd albums such as "Atom Heart Mother" and "Umma Gumma", but they push the idea further to create something that still feels fresh decades later. Another great album to listen to as I work.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Picture That! Picture Book of the Week

Welcome to the obligatory Holiday edition. 'Tis the season when the Picture Book shelves in stores are overtaken by good cheer, magical snowmen, and Santa, the most loved man in human history. This week, I felt obligated to choose a holiday story. Mostly because I'm pretty much a sucker for a good secular Christmas tale and always have been. But in addition to the holiday nod, I wanted to spread some joy to the neglected genre of Beginning Readers, which in my mind are essentially picture books since the images tell the stories in these books, leaving the text to narrate the action. This week's selection is two gifts in one.

The Littles Have a Merry Christmas
Based on the books by John Peterson
Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers
(Scholastic 2002)

Adapted from the popular novels from the '70s, this reader visits in on The Littles as they get into the holiday spirit. As a special surprise for their uncle, Tom and Lucy journey to Trash City to bring some of his friends together for Christmas.

The appeal of The Littles stories is same as in stories about fairies. The idea of little people living unseen lives all around us is irresistible. Naturally, the visual interpretation of this world can be equally irresistible. In my opinion this series brings that world to life in a wonderful way. I've always loved Jacqueline Rogers' work. She's done many amazing books in the begging reader genre and there's something about her watercolor style that really reminds me of early elementary school.

Personally, I enjoy the art of writing primers. It's one of the oldest styles of children's writing, using direct sentences with high frequency words to tell a story. Sure, many of them can be dry and dull (I'm talking to you Dick and Jane). But a well written one can be just as fun to read as anything else (I'm talking to you Cat in the Hat). I've written several books in this genre and really enjoy it. There's something special knowing that kids will remember these books for being the first books they read by themselves.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Think I'm Turning Taiwanese, I Really Think So...

My writing was interrupted yesterday when a box was unceremoniously thrown from the bottom of my porch steps and slammed into my door. I emerged just as the delivery man was walking away to retrieve the hostilely delivered package. It turned out to be from one of my publishers and seeing as how I wasn't expecting anything that would mean more work for me in the near future, I happily opened it. Inside were several copies each of the Taiwanese editions of Pirate School #1 and Pirate School #2.

I always get a giddy feeling seeing my writing in a language I can't understand, but these books were especially exciting for several reasons. Here are all the things that I loved about flipping through these books over the past few days.

* The book reads from right to left so the cover is the back and the back is the cover.

* The book costs 14,300 of whatever the Taiwanese currency is. I'm sure it won't make me rich, but it's fun to pretend.

* The text is vertical. I think I should start writing this way. It looks rather dignified.

* The titles are printed in glossy glitter type.

* I now know what my name looks like in Chinese characters.

*Jennifer's wonderful illustrations are each given more room to breathe and can be seen in much better detail.

*An entire new group of children will be able to enjoy these stories, which I love so much.

So thank you to MUCH, my Chinese language publisher for the a wonderful printing. And thank you to the great people at Penguin who have done such an amazing job making these books truly global. Hopefully I'll get to see the Japanese editions soon.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Art of a Conversation

Between two characters on a page, there are certain things that need to be said. Knowing the words each will speak is one thing...putting them together in an order that feels natural is yet another.

One thing that really bothers me is reading a conversation that feels written. You know the type. Words nobody would ever say. Everyone speaking in complete and complicated sentences. Voices that feel same as the narrative voice. These are the obvious butcheries.

There's another more difficult obstacle to writing a good conversation and that's capturing the flow. When writing, there's this tendency to follow the and next, and next, and next model that keeps a story moving forward. But I find conversations rarely play out that way. There are pauses, subtleties, and tangents to consider. A conversation disrupts the natural course of the text. It requires special attention. And to make things even more complicated, the prose between the dialogue must be precise in order to hold up the and next structure of the story.

I've spent the last two days reconstructing pages of dialogue into a conversation. It's exhausting work. I hope readers appreciate the art of a good conversation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

Continuing where I left off last week, I'm still trying to catch up on some of the more promising releases from this year. At this point in the season, it's too late go off on a exploring whim, not if I ever plan to put together a list of my favorite albums. Instead, I focus on bands with a good track record of pleasing me audibly or recommendations for reputable sources such as MoJo magazine's top list or friends with good taste. My top twenty five list is nearly filled up, but there's definitely some wiggle room with albums kind of just hanging on by a song or two. A few of these may have muscled their way in, but I won't won't know until I've played through the handful of albums I'm still hoping to see under the tree.

Electric Wizard - Black Masses: I discovered the pure stoner metal joy of Electric Wizard's classic 2000 album Dopethrone last year and have been a fan of these British sludge masters ever since. Still as heavy as ever, the band however has improved considerable over the last decade. They've incorporated more drone elements into their sound ("Crypt of Drugula" is a perfect example) which effectively makes the album more interesting for repeated listens. It's strange to refer to a stoner metal album as dynamic, but this one sort of is. If you like Sabbath and want to hear what that idea has evolved into, check out this album and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Air Waves - Dungeon Dots: The second album from Brooklyn based Air Waves is a nice piece of fuzzed out indie rock. It's sort of a bare bones kind of album, not quite lo-fi but lingering on the edges. It reminds me a little of Best Coast, only not nearly as sunny. It's a soothing, comforting kind of album, though it could stand out a bit more in my opinion. "Bisous" is a beautiful song and definitely worth checking out.

The Greenhornes - "****": This Cincinnati band has been around for over a decade, releasing four albums (this being the fourth) and two fine EPs, but are probably best known because they share a rhythm section with a certain band known as The Raconteurs. This album may be their most mature work to date. It sees them moving past the retro '60s garage sound with Jagger like vocals, not losing it altogether, but infusing it with a soul vibe that blends nicely. An all around solid album. If you've been into The Black Keys new album, The Greenhornes are certainly worth checking out. As the album title suggests, it's not 5 stars, merely four, but that ain't so bad.

The Sword - Warp Riders: From the sound, right down to the album cover, this album doesn't try to hide its influences. This Austin, Texas band set out to create a heavy metal album that draws upon the riff heavy sound of '70s metal on their album and achieved it with great success. Shredding guitars and Ozzy-ish vocals combine for a very enjoyable listen. Bonus points for being a space odyssey concept album.

Natural Snow Buildings - The Centauri Agent: My favorite drone folk outfit returned with another album this year, after two epics last year, including the 7 hour plus masterpiece Daughter of Darkness. This one clocks in just over two hours in length and sees the French duo tackle something they haven't yet ventured into: space. Drone folk combined with space rock is a match made in heaven. Another classic from a band that has already achieved legendary status.

Johnossi - Mavericks: This is the third album from the Stockholm duo and sees them moving even further from the indie-folk sound of their debut to a more alternative rock sound. I have to confess that after loving their debut, I've found each of their next two albums to be something less than unique. There are moments of greatness to be found on this album, but there are also moments of blandness. It left me a little disappointed, though I still strongly recommend their 2005 self-titled debut.

Those Poor Bastards - Gospel Haunted: The Madison, Wisconsin band's fifth album steps up the crazy in their gothic death folk sound. There are a few other bands out there making this kind of music, most notably O'Death, but Those Poor Bastards seem to take it to another level. Like a more dire Nick Cave or warped Patti Smith, the band creates unforgettable records. "Ill at Ease," the albums 12 minute epic, is quite possibly their best song to date.

Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking It Easy: This Brooklyn, via Athens, Georgia, band's fifth album is a great americana indie album in the vein of Magnolia Electric Co or more recent Wilco. Like many bands of this genre, there's a heavy Neil Young influence that shines through. Very pretty, sprawling songs that capture a soft feel that is great to listen to when...well, taking it easy. The closing track "Los Angeles" alone makes this album worth listening to, not that there aren't a few others that don't help out the cause.

The Young Veins - Take a Vacation!: I caught a video for the single off this album and found the Kinks like sound intriguing. I was surprised to learn this is a spin-off band of Panic! At the Disco, a band that I don't think too much of. This is one of those obvious side-project kind of albums, designed to move in another direction than the core band. In this case, it was to create a retro '60s indie pop album. It achieves it's end and stands as an enjoyable 28 minute little record. Though like most projects of this kind, it's doesn't really stand out as anything truly mesmerizing. A solid okay, but maybe more so if bands like Vampire Weekend are you're thing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Picture That! Picture Book of the Week

A few months back, I wrote about my love for the BBC cartoon, Charlie & Lola based on the picture books by Lauren Child. I've been watching the show ever since, getting in at least one episode per week. It honestly may be the best cartoon I've ever seen, even repeated viewings crack me up. This week, I thought I'd review on Lauren Child's earlier picture books. In many ways, this book serves as a first draft for the Charlie and Lola books. Artistically, the main character is simply a rough version of Lola and the dialogue seems a meeting of what would later become two voices. Beyond that academic curiosity, this is also the first of Lauren Child's books that I encountered over a decade ago and it's a wonderful book on it's own.

I Want a Pet by Lauren Child
(Tricycle Press 1999)

'I really want a pet' an unnamed girl announces at the start of the book, but picking the right one proves to more difficult than she anticipates. Her mom wants her to pick one without much fur, Dad suggests one that lives outside, and her Grandad believes stuffed pets to be best.

The little girl desires something a little more...exotic. But with each of her choices, one family member points out something wrong with it. Lion, wolf, and octopus are quickly ruled out as are other possibly fun critters. Just as it seems there isn't any solution to her dilemma, the little girl decides on the perfect pet. She just won't know what it is until it hatches.

I love this kind of picture book whose main purpose is simply to have a laugh. Lauren Child has always had the ability to capture the humor that comes with being a kid and trying to figure things out. There's something genuine in her characters that don't trivialize childhood difficulties, but never forget the silly joy in them as well. She has a subtle humor that can only come out in a picture book where the expressions add to the jokes in the dialogue. I Want a Pet is one of those books that can be read over and over.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

We Used to Wait for It...

I used to be the kind of person who watched the up-coming releases for records and books with excited anticipation. Tuesdays meant a definite visit to the record shop to snatch up just stocked albums. I'd mark my calendar with the date of the newest title by a favorite author months in advance. Movies were an event to see opening weekend. That's the way it was, but I must admit, I rarely do any of those things these days.

It's possible I'm just getting old, but typically that phrase implies a lack of interest. That's not the case for me. I still keep track and get excited for new releases, I just don't feel that need to have something the first second that I can.

In this age of endless entertainment, I wonder if the concept of 'must have' or 'eagerly awaited' can even apply. I remember when there used to be midnight sales with lines around the corner. Though that still happens, it's takes a phenomenon to get those doors open at midnight and even then it's kind of lackluster crowds. These days, if I have to wait a day, a week, or even a month for something, there is plenty else to distract me from it.

Is there such a thing as entertainment overload?

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Dead Are Walking

I've always seen the zombie threat as the fear of the inevitable. It's our fear of death manifested. The massive zombie attack then is the fear of the end of everything. Mass extinction. I believe the recent debate about fast zombies vs. traditional staggering ones is tied into this. In our modern society the inevitable always feels right around the corner, something that can strike at any moment and crash quickly upon us. It makes sense then that zombie lore would speed up as well.

The Walking Dead on AMC chooses to remain with the slow zombie model (In full disclosure, I have not read the comics, so I refer only to the television show). At first, this bothered me. To be honest, it still does a little. In today's world, the slow zombie doesn't feel like much of a threat. It's an inevitability that can be avoided the way we ignore high cholesterol or the dangers of smoking. These zombies are so easily killed that there's little tension there. The only threat comes from the massive hoard. Naturally, this is a symbol of how at times the inevitable weighs heavier on us than at other times. But still, where's the immediacy?

Much like the zombies in the show, I felt the series got off to a very slow start. I was hardly impressed with the first episode and barely impressed by the second. I felt the characters were all formulaic television tropes and that the story felt culled from a million other stories. But there was always enough to keep me coming back. In the end, I feel as though I was rewarded.

Over the last four episodes, the characters found themselves. The story took some risks. And the show evolved from a show about zombies to a show about survivors. The last two episodes were truly gripping and compelling and seem worthy of all the praise being heaped upon this show.

I have to admit, I'm going to miss it until it comes back. I still have some big questions about the premise though, most pressing: Why in Hell would you keep going back into the city?