Friday, December 27, 2013

P4A (Again) And The Best Of All The Things 2013


I know that I blogged about Project for Awesome (P4A) last week, and you probably don’t want to hear about it again, but I’m going to tell you anyway.  One of the best things about Project for Awesome is the 48 hour live stream.  A bunch of people who are involved in the Project stay awake for 48 hours and try to be entertaining.  The video above is the weirdest moments from this year’s live stream.

~*~

2013 is pretty much over.  I was thinking about the 60ish books that I've read this year and trying to come up with my favorites.  Most of the books that I read were classics, and I’ve discovered that classics tend to blur together in my mind, especially the British ones.  I still love reading classics, but none of the ones that I read this year really stand out in my mind.

Which books did stand out (for good reasons)?  Here are my top 3 that came out of the All The Things pile.  The Summaries are from Goodreads.
 

#3.  The Fault In Our Stars – John Green



Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.


Why I liked it: Like all of John Green’s books, the plot was predictable, and the characters were similar to characters in his previous books, but that didn’t matter because I thought that he handled the Cancer Kid thing perfectly.  The characters were kids who happened to have cancer.  The cancer did not define them.  They also didn’t die gracefully as disease martyrs.  I thought that the book was very realistic in that way. 

(And, if you watched the video above, the author of this book is the guy with the Sharpie on his face).

 

 
 

#2.  When Prophecy Fails: A social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World – Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter



When Prophecy Fails [1956] is a classic text in social psychology authored by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. It chronicles the experience of a UFO cult that believed the end of the world was at hand. In effect, it is a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world, and the adjustments made when the prediction failed to materialize. "The authors have done something as laudable as it is unusual for social psychologists. They espied a fleeting social movement important to a line of research they were interested in and took after it. They recruited a team of observers, joined the movement, and watched it from within under great difficulties until its crisis came and went. Their report is of interest as much for the method as for the substance."-Everett C. Hughes, The American Journal of Sociology.


Why I liked it: I have been an amateur cult researcher for a lot of years, and this was one of my favorite books about cults ever.  The authors infiltrated a benign UFO cult and recorded how the cult grew and developed as it was happening.  Most books about cults are written by scientists who studied the cult from the outside or by former cult members.  This one is unique.

 

 
 

#1.  Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood



"Cat's Eye" is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman--but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, "Cat's Eye" is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.


Why I liked it: Margaret Atwood is tied with Stephen King for my favorite author ever.  I’ve read all of her short story collections and all but 3 of her novels.  I loved this book because of the characters, especially the bullying that happens within the group of young girls.  It was disturbingly realistic.

~*~

Here’s the final All The Things update of 2013.

I’m currently reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

All The Things = 17 books.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Project For Awesome 2013


 
 
Project for Awesome 2013 is over, so you can’t vote or make videos, but you can still donate to the Foundation to Decrease World Suck.  As of this blog post, the 2013 Project for Awesome has raised $795,191 for charity.  That’s the biggest Project for Awesome ever!  I love this project, and I’m thrilled that it did so well this year.

The Project for Awesome was started by YA author, John Green, and his brother, Hank Green, in 2007.  The event is held annually on December 17 – 18.  Here’s how it works:

1.       People create videos promoting their favorite charities and upload them to the Project for Awesome website.

2.      People vote for their favorite videos or charities.

3.      People donate money to the Foundation to Decrease World Suck.

4.      The ten charities that get the most votes (and are approved by the Foundation’s board of directors) split the money that the Foundation raised during the Project for Awesome.

5.      The charities do good work, and the world sucks a little less.


The goal of the Project for Awesome is to raise money for charities while promoting awareness of charities.  There are a lot of lesser-known charities that do great things and could really use donations.  The Project for Awesome and the Foundation to Decrease World Suck are run by volunteers, so there are very few overhead costs.  Almost all of the money raised goes to the charities.

In 2012, the Project for Awesome raised $483,296.  Each of the following charities received $40,500.

Office of Letter and Light / NaNoWriMo.  This charity organizes events that help children and adults get excited about writing.

Not Forgotten.  This charity partners with local ministries to help abandoned children in Peru.  They created my favorite video for the 2013 Project for Awesome.  I hope that they win again.
 

Wildlife Waystation.  This organization rescues and provides sanctuary for exotic animals.

Alzheimer’s Society.  This organization provides information and help to people and families who are suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Harry Potter Alliance.  This is a huge group of Harry Potter fans who work together to find creative ways to help the environment and stop poverty and genocide.

Save the Children.  This organization works to improve the health and safety of children all over the world.  John Green made his 2013 Project for Awesome video about Save the Children.
 

BGSU Dance Marathon / Mercy Children’s Hospital.  This is a program at Bowling Green State University that uses dance to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network.  The money goes to support research funding, enrichment programs, medical equipment, and anything that will increase the quality of life for children in Northwest Ohio.

Uncultured Project.  This organization helps people who are living in poverty.

Techo.  This organization is working to end poverty and promote positive community development in Latin American and Caribbean slums.

Love146.  This organization works to raise awareness of human trafficking.

 
If you want to give money to a charity, please consider any of the charities above or participate in next year’s Project for Awesome.  I’ll let you know this year’s winners when they’re announced.



Friday, December 13, 2013

Eat Like You’re Going Extinct




I have a health magazine that came with my gym membership, and it has a ton of articles about the paleo diet.  The articles claim that you’ll be healthier if you eat like a caveman or a dinosaur.  That statement confuses me because dinosaurs are extinct, and the average Neanderthal had a lifespan of less than 30 years.  That doesn’t seem very healthy to me.  I don’t want to go extinct, and I’d like to live to see my 30th birthday.  However, the diet was interesting enough that I bought a cookbook called Paleo Comfort Foods: Homestyle Cooking for a Gluten-Free Kitchen by Julie and Charles Mayfield.

According to the internet, there are a few different definitions of “paleo diet.”  This book’s introduction says, “What is our definition of paleo?  We eat meats (predominantly grass-fed), poultry (pastured), game (Charles is an avid hunter), fresh seafood, and any other high-quality proteins we can get our hands on.  We eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow.  We eat little bits of fruit here and there—especially when in season, and picked fresh from our garden.  We consume fat without the fear of fat making us fat” (page 31-32).  Later in the introduction, the authors say, “These recipes are filled with ingredients and foods (for the most part) that your grandmother would recognize.  However, here’s what you won’t find in these recipes: grains or gluten, legumes (with the exception of two recipes using green beans, in which you’re eating mostly the bean pod, and they don’t have near the lectin load as dry beans), and the only bit of diary is with a few recipes that really do need the milk solids in non-clarified, but still grass-fed butter” (page 34).

Overall, Paleo Comfort Foods is a really nice book.  I love the giant pictures.  The book is durable and fairly easy to clean if you spill stuff on it while cooking.  I haven’t made all of the recipes, but most of the ones that I have made turned out well.  My favorites were jambalaya (even though I made it too spicy for most people), fried chicken (it’s actually more like baked chicken), and farmer’s pie.

This probably isn’t the best book for beginner cooks.  I’m a horrible and impatient cook.  Most of my food comes out of a box and goes into a microwave.  I sometimes get annoyed if I’m required to stir the food halfway through microwaving.  Cooking the recipes in this book was a big change for me.  A lot of the recipes took hours to make, and there were a few times that I had to call my mom because I didn’t understand something.  The book did help me start to get over my fear of touching raw meat.  This diet has a lot of meat in it.

There are two things that irritated me about this book.  The first is the font size in the foreword, acknowledgements, preface, introduction, kitchen foods, and cooking tools sections.  These sections take up approximately 50 pages, and the font is huge.  Huge font = higher page count = more expensive book.  I would have liked to have a smaller font or fewer sections at the beginning of the book so that the price would have been lower.  The price is $29.95, which isn’t horrible for a book with huge color pictures, but it might have been lower without 50 pages of monster font.  

The other annoyance was the index.  It’s sparse and not very useful.  For example, you need 1 teaspoon of filé powder to make jambalaya.  I had never heard of filé powder, and I wanted to know if I just needed it for this recipe or if it’s a common ingredient in a lot of recipes.  I looked it up in the index.  It wasn’t in there.  That makes it difficult to know if you should buy a lot of an ingredient or just enough for one recipe.  Some of the ingredients in this book are very expensive, so it would be nice to know how much to stock up on when they go on sale.

Even though there were a few annoying things about Paleo Comfort Foods, I’d still recommend the book to anyone who likes to cook and wants to try the paleo diet.  I don’t eat paleo often enough to know if it has any impact on my health, but it’s yummier than a microwaved Lean Cuisine. 
 
 
 


Friday, November 29, 2013

On Mary Sues


 
I have never written fan fiction or wanted to write fan fiction, but over the last year, I have been reading it out of curiosity.  The first time that I scrolled down to the comments of a fan fiction piece, I saw this comment:

"Your main character is a Mary Sue!"
My reaction to that comment was “Um, who’s Mary Sue?”  I had a college degree in fiction writing, I had been to writing conferences, I had been to author readings, I had attended workshops, I had read dozens of books on writing, I had turned down an offer to tutor at a writing center, and I had edited for a literary journal.  I had never heard of a Mary Sue.  I’m willing to bet that a lot of writers, editors, and professors have never heard of a Mary Sue.  If they knew about Mary Sues, they would’ve taught me about them, right?

According to Google, a Mary Sue is a poorly-developed, unrealistically-perfect, idealized character that represents the author.  The author turns himself/herself into a character and inserts that character into an established fictional universe (such as the Harry Potter universe or the Star Trek universe).  The fictional author-character interacts with the established characters in that universe in some way. 

Judging by the volume of “Your character is a Mary Sue!” comments, Mary Sues are common and undesirable in fan fiction.  If you Google Mary Sue, there are quizzes that will (supposedly) tell you if your character is a Mary Sue.  While reading fan fiction, I saw authors arguing with commenters and denying that the Mary Sue label fits their characters.  I saw authors begging commenters not to call their characters Mary Sues.  I saw authors apologizing for the fact that their characters are Mary Sues.  I saw authors creating intentional Mary Sues.  I saw a lot of disagreements between commenters over whether or not a character is a Mary Sue.  The Mary Sue label seems to be subjective and applied often.

I decided that you have to be ballsy to put your fan fiction on the internet.  Writers have to have thick skin, but some of those Mary Sue comments are just nasty.  It made me wonder if there are aspiring writers who are so paranoid of creating a Mary Sue that they don’t write.  I also wondered if there are aspiring writers who have quit writing because of the Mary Sue comments.

I’m not sure how to answer those questions, but I really hope that Mary Sue paranoia doesn’t stop anyone from writing.  The fact that I’ve made it this far in my writing/editing career without hearing about Mary Sues makes me think that they’re not something that professional writers spend much time thinking about.  If you enjoy writing, then write.  Don’t worry about Mary Sues.  Constructive criticism is great, but it seems as if some people on fan fiction sites are just trolls who enjoy starting arguments.  Don’t let them discourage you.  Write your story the way that you think it should be written.  Trust your writer instincts.  Now, go write. 
 
    

Friday, November 15, 2013

Character Development Exercise


 
I’ve always been slightly baffled by “Interview Your Character” exercises.  If you’re not familiar with these, they’re lists of questions for an author to answer about their fictional character.  The lists usually contain questions such as, “What’s your character’s favorite ice cream flavor?”  And, “How did your character learn where babies come from?”  These exercises are entertaining, but do they actually help with the story?  In my opinion, they don’t.  The fact that my character prefers chocolate ice cream isn’t helpful because it isn’t relevant to the story.  In the type of fiction that I enjoy, characters are usually too busy fighting for their lives to stop for ice cream.  Knowing their favorite flavor doesn’t help me.

I did some thinking, and some Google-ing, and some fiction-writing-reference-book checking, and I tried to come up with a character development exercise that would always be relevant to a writer’s story.  Here’s what I came up with. 

The most realistic characters in literature are the ones who seem to exist separately from the plot.  The characters do not exist solely to move the plot forward.  The plot is something that happens in the life of the character.  That character existed before the plot happened, and if the character survives the plot, he/she/it will continue to exist after the plot is over.

So, this is the first step in my character development exercise:

1.       Separate the character and the plot.


Who was this character before the plot happened?  Who would they be if the plot never happened?  What strengths/weaknesses/personality traits are they bringing into the plot? 

Harry Potter can be used as an obvious example of a character who brought traits into a plot.  The first time that Harry comes to Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat considers his personality and debates about whether to put him in Gryffindor or Slytherin.  The reader learns that Gryffindor students are brave and chivalrous, and Slytherin students are ambitious, cunning, and resourceful.  Harry possessed all of these traits before being told that he was a wizard.  If he’d never found out that he was a wizard, he’d still have these traits.  They are part of his personality.

The next two steps in the character development exercise are about human behavior.  A lot of human behavior is driven by two things: desire and fear. 

Think about your character separately from the plot and answer these two questions:

2.       What is this character’s greatest desire? (Not directly related to the plot).

3.      What is this character’s greatest fear? (Not directly related to the plot).


If your plot is about a character who needs to kill an evil overlord, their greatest desire shouldn’t be to kill the overlord.  The desire and fear should be much deeper than that.  They might be so deep that the character doesn’t even realize that these things are determining how he/she/it reacts to certain situations.  Once again, think about the character before the plot happens.  It might be helpful to go all the way back to the character’s childhood.  How was the character raised?  If the character had overbearing, perfectionist parents, the character might be terrified of failure.  This could make the character scared of trying new things because there’s a possibility of failure when anything new is attempted.  On the other hand, it could make the character rich and powerful because the character puts a ton of effort in to everything that he/she/it does in order to avoid failure.

What if your character was orphaned as a child?  This could cause a desire for love and acceptance, and that could lead to the character getting involved in an abusive relationship.  The character desires to feel loved so badly that he/she/it will settle for a relationship with someone who takes advantage of the character.

Here’s the last step in this exercise:

4.       Look at the events in the plot from the character’s point-of-view.   


The plot will reveal your character’s greatest desires and greatest fears.  It might be so subtle that the average reader doesn’t notice, but you (the author) should notice the desires and fears being revealed.  Different characters will react to the same situation in different ways because their behavior is being driven by different desires and fears.  A character who desires happiness may have no problem leaving a job that he/she/it hates.  A character who fears failure may be reluctant to leave a crappy job because he/she/it might fail at finding a new job.

If it helps, you can do this for each character and major plot point:

This character desires ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: _________________.

This character fears ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: ________________.

Friday, November 8, 2013

NaNoWriMo


Happy NaNoWriMo!  If you’re participating, you should have at least 13,328 words written by the end of today (if I did the math correctly).  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month.  Every November, writers from all over the world attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. 

Instead of participating in the writing this year, I was going to do National Novel Editing Month and try to cut 50,000 words out of a novel.  I’ve only cut 3,600 so far.  I have a feeling that I’ve already failed at NaNoEditMo.

Last year, I did succeed at writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  It was a fun experience because I only had to worry about the word count.  I knew that the novel would be a complete, unsalvageable disaster that no one would ever read, but it was liberating to be able to write without worrying about the results.  I totally agree with John Green in this Vlogbrothers video from 2009.  (If you're on this blog's mobile site, you might not be able to see the video.  I still haven't figured out why.)

 

Happy NaNo, and don’t be afraid to suck.  Now, go write.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Editorial Philosophy



This was originally a school assignment, but I found it interesting because I’ve never thought about my personal editorial philosophy before.  It helped me understand my reactions to certain pieces of literature.  I thought that it might also be interesting to authors, so I’m posting it here.  I know that I’m not the only person who has these opinions.

 

~*~

 

There are many elements that I look for when determining whether or not a story should be published.  The first is imagery, which seems simple because most stories should have it, but I’m the type of person who thinks in pictures and whose senses are closely tied to memory.  When I look at the hundreds of books on my shelves, in my drawers, and spilling out of my closet, I often don’t remember the names and backstories of the characters.  Sometimes, I don’t even remember the book’s plot.  What I do remember is the imagery, and when I think about the story months or years after reading it, the imagery is always the first thing that comes back to me.  I can take a book off my shelf and say, “This novel has a scene of a mother and daughter walking in a river,” or “This literary magazine has a story where a man puts wood carvings of people on his fireplace mantel.”  I want stories that have strong imagery because those are the ones that I remember and want to read over and over.

 
Since I enjoy reading a piece many times, I look for writing that will hold up to multiple readings without becoming uninteresting.  I like stories with layers.  I love to read a story a second or third time and see things that I missed the first time. 

 
I want to read about characters with intricate pasts, complex motives, believable desires, and psychological depth.  I prefer main characters who are active, not just reactive, and definitely not just victims.  I like characters who take control of their lives and make the events in the plot happen.  I don’t want to see them only reacting to events that were created by circumstance or by less-important characters.  Some reaction is fine, of course, but I also want to see the character doing/creating/causing something.  I get annoyed by characters who are victims and nothing else.  If a character is being bullied or targeted by bad guys, there has to be a good reason.  I want to see the character do something to change the situation and not just mope around feeling sorry for himself/herself.

 
I enjoy reading many different types of stories, but I most often find myself being drawn to stories that are quirky and unpredictable.  I have heard people say, “There’s no such thing as an original idea,” and maybe that’s true, but I definitely think that there are original combinations of ideas.  I love it when I read a story and see some combination that I’ve never seen before or think about something familiar in an entirely new way.  I want stories that entertain me as well as make me think and keep me guessing.  I have very little tolerance for predictability.  It’s disappointing to guess the end of a story, flip to the last page, and discover that I’m correct.

 
I look for stories that make me feel something.  I’m always happy when some element in the first few pages of a story makes me sit up and pay attention.  I want plots that make me so curious that I can’t put the story down until I find out what happens next.  I want to feel the tension that comes from reading faster and faster until I find out what happens.  I also want characters that I can care about.  The characters don’t have to be likeable or be good people, but they have to be intriguing enough that I care about what happens to them.  The best stories are the ones where I care about the characters so much that I’m anxious when they’re in trouble, and I’m happy when they achieve their goals.  I have read so many stories that involve breakups and makeups, death and destruction, plans thwarted and battles won that I sometimes feel as if I’ve become emotionally numb to those types of stories.  I always appreciate it when an author gets me invested enough in the plot and characters that the story’s events have an emotional impact on me.  

 
I don’t have as much experience with poetry as I do with novels and short stories, but I’m most drawn to poems that play with language and sound beautiful when read out loud.  I also like poems that are able to say a lot with very few words and have strong imagery.

 
I prefer nonfiction that has a narrative and is both entertaining and educational.  I want to learn something without feeling as if I’m learning something.  I’ve never enjoyed reading a textbook.

 
I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs because there are so many poorly-written ones out there.  It seems as if anyone who is slightly famous or had something slightly interesting happen to them publishes a memoir, even if they’ve never written anything before in their life.  I dislike memoirs that are self-indulgent.  I’m reading the book because I want to hear a good story, not because I want to hear about the awesomeness of the author.  I enjoy memoirs that skip some of the “I,” “I,” “I,” “Me,” “Me,” “Me,” and focus on being entertaining and educational.

 
That’s my editorial philosophy as of right now.  It will probably change in the future.  Thanks for reading it.  

 


Friday, October 25, 2013

Crappy Editing Solves/Ruins/Creates Mysteries


If your bookshelves are anything like mine, almost all of your books come from one of five large publishing companies.  However, there are thousands of publishing companies out there.  I wanted to know what kinds of books the smaller companies are publishing.  I bought a book published by a small company.  It was horrible.  It was possibly the most disappointing book I’ve ever read.  I know that small publishers are capable of producing quality books, but this book was just bad.  It made me feel sad for the author because it’s the publishing company’s job to not publish something until it’s ready.  This book was not ready.
 
Here’s what happens in the book:
A wealthy business owner’s son goes missing and is assumed to have been kidnapped.  Two detectives are hired by two different people to find the son.  The detectives don’t know that they’ve been hired to work on the same case until they meet in a bar and start talking about their cases.  One of the detectives says something like, “I know what happened right before the business owner’s son died.”  The other detective doesn’t react to the news that they guy who they’re both looking for is dead.  They just end their conversation, go their separate ways, and continue looking for the missing son.  Nothing else is said about the son being dead.
I spent about two-thirds of the book being massively confused and rereading to figure out why I was massively confused.  Why were the detectives still treating this case like a missing person case if they knew that the son was dead?
Then, at the end of the book, the detectives find the son’s body and don’t seem surprised that he’s dead, but the way that the dead-body-discovery scene is written feels as if the death is meant to surprise the reader.  It wasn’t a surprise to me because the detective said that the son was dead two-hundred pages ago.
I’m still confused.  I have a feeling that the author changed some scenes, and the dialogue about the son’s death wasn’t supposed to be in the published version of the book.  I can’t come up with another reason why the detectives would continue looking for someone who they knew was dead.  It would also explain why one detective didn’t react when the other detective said that the son was dead.  The mistake led to me being confused for the majority of the book.  If I didn’t have a compulsive need to finish every book that I start reading, I would have put this one down and not picked it up again.
This is why good editing is so important.  One misplaced line ruined an entire book.  (Well, one misplaced line and about eighty distracting typos ruined an entire book).  So, edit carefully. 




Friday, October 18, 2013

How To Fail At Writing


 
Disclaimer: this post is my opinion.  Feel free to disagree in the comments.

~*~

I was researching the reading habits of the American public (a very depressing topic), and I came across this comment at the bottom of one of the articles:

“I write paranormal romances, so I read everything except paranormal romances.  I don’t want my writing to be influenced by other paranormal romance authors.”


I’m sorry, anonymous internet poster, but this is a horrible idea.  If you want to write paranormal romances, you should be reading every paranormal romance that you can find.

Here’s why:

Genre conventions.  Paranormal romance is a genre, and like any genre, readers of those books have expectations that the book needs to meet.  What traits do paranormal romance readers find appealing in heroes/heroines?  Does the main character in a paranormal romance tend to be a man or a woman?  How does the typical “boy meets girl” scenario go in a paranormal romance?  Do paranormal romances differ from regular romances in any way besides the paranormal element?  Do paranormal romances have traditional happily-ever-after endings?  How big of a role does the paranormal element have to play to satisfy the reader?  What are some common paranormal elements found in the genre?  Does one of the main characters have to be non-human?  Does the paranormal element typically cause conflict between the hero and heroine? 

I don’t know how to answer these questions because I don’t write paranormal romances, and I haven’t read enough of them to learn the genre conventions.  A paranormal romance writer should understand the conventions.  They should know what the readers expect.  The only way to learn these things is to read paranormal romances and see what other authors are doing to satisfy the readers.

Writers also need to be reading within their genre to make sure that what they’re doing hasn’t been done to death.  Maybe readers have seen your story too many times before.  What you think is original might be cliché to someone who reads the genre.  Maybe the market has been saturated with vampire romances, or mermaid romances, or whatever romances for the last few years, and publishers aren’t publishing those types of books right now.  You won’t know these things if you’re not reading.

Finally, being influenced by other writers isn’t a bad thing.  A lot of great ideas are sparked by reading, and it doesn’t hurt to study the work of successful writers.  So, please read within your genre.  It won't kill you.

 

 

~*~

I haven’t given you an update on All The Things recently.

All The Things = 19 books.  I somehow managed to acquire more books.

I’m currently reading A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I bought the book because of the title only.  I had no idea what the book was about.  Turns out, it’s a really good book.