Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Recommendation: Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Yesterday, I finished Ship Breaker. What's not to love? It's action-packed, and Bacigalupi isn't afraid to vividly paint a gritty, repulsive world. The world-building is excellent and BELIEVABLE (something that even The Hunger Games, which I absolutely loved, couldn't quite accomplish), and at every turn, the characters are forced to choose between their morals and their survival. In other words, it's exactly what a post-apocalyptic/"dystopia"* novel should look like.

This book wasn't perfect. Paolo Bacigalupi tends to repeat himself a lot, and I don't think it's necessary to beat his readers over the head with Nailer's every thought. Also, near the end, the story became very predictable--so predictable that I was waiting for some unexpected twist, but that twist never came. It also didn't help that I am unfamiliar with the layout of a ship. It's difficult to follow the action when you have no clue what the surroundings look like.

For the most part, though, I did love this book. I recommend it to anyone who can handle book that is by no means glamorous.

*This novel isn't dystopic. Dystopia implies some sort of failed utopia, and usually connotes some form of totalitarianism. The world in this novel is more on the anarchy side. Still, a lot of people combine "dystopia" and "post-apocalyptic" into one genre, which is why I think it's helpful to identify it as both.

Monday, September 19, 2011

More on Critiques

I posted the first chapter of The Temple Well on Critique Circle, which for those of you who don't know, is an excellent place to receive critiques. As of today, it hit 6 critiques, the maximum number allowed for stories in the Newbie queue.

In my last post, I talked about a lot of the more critical comments I received. There was one comment I neglected to mention:

A lot of people were confused about who the main character was. If Olivia's the 'Chosen One', then she must be the main character. Right? But this scene is from Paula's point of view. And, well, it seems to focus on Paula.

Most of my responses to criticisms fall somewhere on this scale:

(Hey, my first time uploading a pic! Sorry about the crappy quality.)

Nowhere on this scale, however, is there a place for: "Yes! That is totally what I was going for!" (Well, at least not for criticisms.)

Well, in this case: Yes! That is totally what I was going for!

If I had to choose, Paula would be the protagonist of this story. Olivia falls in a very close second, but this is Paula's story first. (Which is a weird thing for me to say, because I don't really believe a story belongs to any one person. But that's a different rant.)

It seemed like a lot of the people who asked about the main character wanted it to be Olivia (or at least expected it). That confuses me. Haven't you read enough Chosen One stories? (Because if you haven't I can recommend a hundred others.) It's not like I wrote this story for the purpose of writing something groundbreaking, but I don't see why it always has to be about the Chosen One. It doesn't take much courage to fight for something when you know it's your destiny; the courageous are those who fight despite the fact that no one cares whether or not they even show up to the battle. (Not that this is supposed to represent Paula in any way--it's more of a general rant.)

So yes, these comments, if anything, reassure me that this story is going where I want it to go. And now, with that said, it's time to get more work done on my med school applications.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Updates (Life & Writing)

Life has been hectic lately due to all of the following:

1. I moved in with my brother in New Jersey.

2. I have been looking for a job.

3. I am applying to medical school.

4. My sister-in-law's parents are in town, and they don't speak English, so I am trying to learn Italian.

I could say more about all of those, but I'm not enough of a celebrity that people would actually care what's going on in my life. So here are a few (maybe) interesting things I've learned in the last two days:

1. Every occasion can be an excuse for job networking, including children's birthday parties.

2. Always make sure you live within driving distance of a Korean spa.

3. I will never, EVER be a stay-at-home mom.

4. Whoever says knowing Spanish makes it really easy to learn Italian lied.

5. When given a choice between playing with his own toys and playing with my Italian books or the power cord of my laptop, a baby will always choose the latter.

6. The people who say that young boys won't read a book about girls probably don't know what they're talking about. My first grade niece, Kindergarten nephew, and their third grade male neighbor were watching one of those Barbie movies with fairies and ponies and a pink-and-violet color scheme, and all three of them were equally sucked in.

7. (Kind of obvious, but) Italian cooking is amazing.

Anyway, in writing news, I have received a few critiques of the first chapter of The Temple Well. Some have been more helpful than others, of course, but here are some of the general criticisms:

-Starts off a little slow.
-People were confused by Olivia's task.
-Too many mysterious hints.
-Paragraphs too short.
-The relationship between Paula and Nathaniel is confusing.
-Too much going on.
-More description is needed.

I have decided to use a different scene for the opening chapter. I originally started it with the "knocking down bells" task, because it made sense that Olivia should learn control exercises before learning magic, but this task really isn't consistent with Takiran magic, and it doesn't serve much purpose other than wasting words.

Instead, I need something that fits both the plot and theme of the story. I already have an idea of what that might be...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another book that epitomizes me + Road Trip Wednesday

In my previous post, I discussed how Otherland is one of two series that most reflects my own reading and writing tastes.

The other series is, of course:

His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

I read the trilogy about eight years ago, so I can't really discuss it in heavy detail like with Otherland, but here are some of the reasons why it's awesome: (Spoilers are hidden.)

-Moral ambiguity and very flawed characters

-Religious/philosophical implications, and stakes that go far beyond life and death

-Unlike most of today's YA, the leading couple doesn't get a happily-ever-after. They both understand that there are more important things than their relationship, and are willing to sacrifice it for greater purposes.

I read His Dark Materials shortly before starting The Temple Well, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't any influence.


YA Highway, one of the blogs I follow, does what they call a weekly "blog carnival", where they post a question and invite readers to answer it on their own blogs. I don't normally do this, but since I was discussing His Dark Materials, the answer to this week's topic came pretty easily.

The question: What non-YA character would you love to see star in a YA book as themselves?

Am I the only one who would totally read a book starring teenage Lord Asriel?

Lord Asriel is one of my favorite kind of characters, mostly because he is proof that a great character doesn't have to be likeable. He acts like a complete dick most of the time, and he takes actions that are very morally reprehensible. It's all part of his "ends justify the means" philosophy; and that's where his character takes shape. Even though you hate him, he's an effective leader and doesn't take shit from anyone. (Even when he's held hostage, he still manages to be the one in power.) And even though he has ambitions, they're the "greater good" sort of ambitions, not the "I want to be in power no matter what" kind (a la President Coin).

It would be really interesting to see teenage Lord Asriel. Not only must he have been bad-ass, but this might have been the period of his life where he began his work on experimental theology. This could be where he began to build his suspicions against the Magistereum, and perhaps he even became acquainted with Mrs. Coulter around that age. (That last one seems unlikely, but even still...)

So yes, as much as I hate Lord Asriel, I would totally read that book.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A book that epitomizes me as a reader...

I took this phrase from Maggie Stiefvater's blog. It's an odd phrase, and you wouldn't think there'd be a concrete answer. Just because I like a book, doesn't mean it "epitomizes" me in any way.

Still, I can think of two books (well, series, actually) that do, in many ways, epitomize me as both a reader and a writer. Both series, unsurprisingly, are favorites of mine.

I won't bother summarizing the books, since you can easily look them up on Amazon or Goodreads, but I can talk about why I love them and why aspects of them relate to my own writing. Note: All spoilers are hidden.

Otherland quartet, by Tad Williams

-Usually, when I read a book, I find it hard to care about the plot. I can usually assume that the good guys are going to be successful, so no matter how high the stakes, it's sometimes difficult to relate to their struggles. An exception is when I have no idea how the hell they can manage a victory. Otherland is like that. Not only are the protagonists facing insanely powerful enemies, but they're trapped in a virtual reality world where they don't even know what Point A and Point B are, let alone how to get from one to the other.

-The characters are wonderful. Everyone always bitches about how we need more strong female protagonists who aren't Mary Sues. What I love about Renie is that her strength doesn't come from being a kick-ass warrior, super-genius, or powerful magician; it comes from her character. She's strong-minded, determined, and independent. What I also love about these books is that in addition to Renie, there is a huge cast of important secondary characters, and Tad Williams develops all of them. He uses multiple points of view, and even those characters whose points of view we don't see are given a personality and a history. This is something that is very important to me, especially in my own writing, because a story doesn't just belong to the protagonist; it belongs to everyone involved.

-The world-building is incredible. And I'm not just referring to the VR world. Williams uses slang, technology, net references, and press releases to flesh out his futuristic world. The world also has a very global feel. The characters come from several cultural backgrounds, with different races, ethnicities, ages, religions, and sexual orientations. All of them are treated very respectfully, and they rarely feel like tokens or stereotypes. (Ideally, Inter-World in my novel would have this global feel, but seeing as the story mostly takes place in Takira and North America, it's difficult to emulate this.)

-The novel often feels like it's parodying common fantasy tropes. For instance, Renie's group of VR companions feels like a weirder version of the LotR Fellowship. Instead of a group of diverse species (hobbits, humans, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard), you get a group of diverse misfits (humans, WoW characters, a baboon, a Goggle-boy, and a goth-clown). Another example is the "wise man who doles out vague advice." Kunohara fits this trope, but it's subverted/lampshaded in that he has a very good reason for keeping his advice ambiguous. What I really like about this is that the story makes fun of these tropes without being obvious or over-the-head about it. (Actually, I don't even know if Williams meant to do it.) The humor in parodies often takes away from my ability to relate to the characters or care about the plot, but these aspects of the story are actually very subtle.

-The books are long. I tend to write very long, so I can appreciate this. Sometimes they are difficult to get through (parts of the first and especially the fourth book), but for the most part, I felt the length was appropriate.

The books aren't perfect. The first book took me a long time to get through, often because the secondary character bits were confusing, and the fourth book was too long and repetitive. I felt like a lot of the revelations at the end were too sudden, (and some were irrelevant), and the ending was too happy and perfect for my liking.

Still, I would definitely recommend Otherland to anyone with the patience to get through a long book.


This post is long, so I will write about the other series later.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Begin at the Beginning

I went for a jog today. Kind of a joke actually, as Google Maps measures the entire route at about 0.4 miles. I wasn't even that out-of-breath.

I ran cross-country for a year and a half in high school, but I had to quit because I had shin-splints and bad knees. It's amazing how quickly you stop thinking of yourself as an athlete after quitting cross-country. Some days I don't even remember that I used to be a good runner.

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for me to forget I used to be anything. That's what happens when you graduate college a semester early and then spend the next six months looking for a job. If you had been smart, you would have realized that no one wants a Spanish major with only three months' experience for a lab tech, and would have gone back to your old lab, where everyone already knew you. Either that, or you would have looked in a genetics lab, because they're always hiring, but of course, you're the sort of passionate person who only wants a job in an interesting lab. Of course, you should have expected that most of the P.I.s you email won't even take the time to say "No thanks."

Eventually, you find something in a lab that's perfect: a place in your hometown that studies the signaling pathways involved in nerve injury and regeneration. So you work there for two months as a part-time volunteer, but then you find out that they didn't get the grants they were hoping for, and they kindly suggest you find something else. But by this time, you're so sick of St. Louis, because you've lived there your whole life, so you decide to move to New Jersey and try your luck there. Your half-brothers say they know people, but that doesn't really mean anything unless you're a businessman, but either way, it's a risk you're willing to take.

Besides, you keep telling yourself you'll finish this novel you've been working on for nine years. Your last draft hit 75,000 words before you realized it was time for revisions, and half of that was written in the last nine months, so there's no reason why you can't have a finished novel by the end of the year.

You're everything: you're pre-med, interested in surgery but also in spinal cord injury and hand transplants; you're a writer, and you're sure your novel is different and that your characters are complex and interesting, but it's really hard to focus most days; you're a Spanish major, and you love to travel, but you won't be able to leave anytime soon, because you have no money, and besides, you need to stay in the country for med school interviews; you're an adventurer, but adventure is something that has to find you, and it probably won't when you're browsing the internet at home or sitting in a cafe writing.

That's the problem with being everything--you're so unfocused and spread out, that you don't know who you are. You end up being nothing.

There's hope to this, or at least that's what I keep telling myself. You'll get into med school, you'll eventually finish the book, and if nothing else, you'll fail at everything, but that's okay. Losing everything means you have nothing more to lose. And that means you won't be a coward anymore. You'll be free. And then you can really start having adventures.
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