What Are You Reading This March?

Originally posted on Reflections of a Book Addict:

March has been an absolutely crazy hectic month for me. As such the amount of time I’ve been able to dedicate to reading has been quite short. It’s the 22nd of the month and I’ve only read 5 books!! I guess I should be happy that my total is 5 and not 0. With such a small amount of books completed this month, I’m being realistic with what else I plan to complete this month. On my list is Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments #1) by Cassandra Clare.

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Attachments was Rowell’s first novel and is a true gem. After reading Eleanor & Park and Fangirl I was dying to read more. I’m literally on pins and needles awaiting her next novel Landline due out this July. City of Bones got bumped up my list after I saw The Mortal Instruments movie. I…

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5 Books I Totally Hated (and Why)

The Twilight Series

People fall into one of two categories where these are concerned — they love it or they hate it.  Obviously, I hated it.

And not (just) why you might think.  Stephenie Meyer can form a sentence.  She can construct a plot.  My problem is that she took the MOST boring characters and the MOST boring plot and made them her focus.  Jasper took part in 1800s vampire turf wars.  Alice was deemed crazy and kept in a dark isolation room most of her life.  Carlisle was a preacher’s son who managed to completely tame his bloodlust after being bitten (because he’s just that awesome, not that he has some dumb power like Bella).  Rosalie was raped, beaten, and left to die by her fiance and his friends, but got her revenge Kill Bill-style after she turned.  Why can’t I read about that instead of the cheesy Harlequin romance that drags on 100 times longer than every other Harlequin?

And on the subject of characters, Edward is completely unrealistic.  “Oh, he actually acted like a vampire and killed people to drink their blood, but it’s okay, because he only killed bad people.”  Who is he, Dexter Morgan (and even he has made mistakes)?  And he’s a virgin after more than 100 years…yeah…

Emma

I feel like a traitor for hating this book since I love Jane Austen’s other books, but, to me, Emma was just a flop.  The titular character was whiny, annoying, egotistical, and completely oblivious to the facts.  I understand that this was kind of the point and she supposedly learned a lesson, but I couldn’t get past her flaws to find a trait that I liked or could even connect with.  My motivation to read it after that was based purely on the fact that I had to write a paper about it.

Mockingjay (SPOILERS)

Although the story of the Hunger Games trilogy was decent, I think that the actual execution fell flat.  It’s kind of the opposite of the Twilight series.  They seemed to get gradually worse, making the final installment the real disappointment.

Mockingjay and its predecessors suffer from the same problem as so many other YA novels — overly simplistic writing.  Obviously, you need to be on your reader’s level, but I’ve seen third grade chapter books with better sentence construction.  When your sentences are so basic that they sound contrived, it’s disappointing.  And when your descriptions are so jumbled and unclear that a college-educated writer can’t make sense of what’s going on, you have a problem.

The final issue I had with Mockingjay was that it tried to do too much.  The story against the Capitol was enough — don’t try to splice in issues with the government of District 13 along with it unless you’re going to set that up a little earlier.  Obviously, no government is going to be perfect and you can point that out, but if it’s so bad that the main character feels the need to assassinate the President to prevent her from taking power, then it needs to be a part of the larger story arc.  Otherwise, just focus on Snow’s evil, the decadence of the Capitol, the tragic bombings of the other districts, and the torture/brainwashing Peeta suffered.

And for the love of God, DON’T EXPLAIN YOUR METAPHORS.  Yes, Katniss is the cat with the red dot, going crazy for what’s dangled over her…but no person is quite that poetically self-aware.

Frankenstein

Pretentious.  Long-winded.  A total guilt-trip.  Excessively dramatic.  Confusingly written (a story within another narrative written down in a letter some third person is reading…?).

Madame Bovary

I had the same problem with Madame Bovary as I did with Emma.  The title character was so whiny and downright stupid that I was unable to connect with her.  I couldn’t even make a connection to the story because all the characters were either oblivious retards, simpleton peasants with no personalities, arrogant aristocrats, or user douchebags exploiting a weak-minded woman.  And unless you have some in-depth knowledge of French culture during the time period the books take place, a lot of the references that supposedly characterize Madame Bovary will just go right over your head (I certainly didn’t know that at the time, opera was considered plebeian entertainment on par with modern WWE).

 

Want to know about some books I really liked?  Try these past posts:

Reviewing Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Terry Brooks: Sometimes the Magic Works

Read a Banned Book!

How to Be a Better Writer: Advice from the Pros

There are no laws for the novel.  There never have been, nor can there ever be.

Doris Lessing

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Ray Bradbury

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Robert Frost

You can fix anything but a blank page.

Nora Roberts

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

C.J. Cherryh

Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.

Anne McCaffrey

I advise writing to oneself. If you don’t want to read it, nobody else is going to read it.

S.E. Hinton

To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.

Allen Ginsberg

The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read!

George R.R. Martin

Reviewing Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

First, a disclaimer: This is the third of Morrison’s books that I’ve read, and I am honestly unsure if she’s capable of writing a bad book.

A Mercy is slightly different from her other books in that it doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on the black experience. Instead, it is more about the disenfranchised in general — particularly women. A white European wife, the daughter of a black slave woman, an Indian woman, and one young girl of unknown race are the main characters — defined by men, by religious turmoil, by greed, and by the harshness of living in the New World. Some triumph, some abide, some turn into monsters. It’s a beautiful set of stories, heartbreaking and freeing all at once.

My only complaint is less of a complaint and more of a preference. The structure of the stories (non-linear) gives away some of the suspense. But perhaps the story was less about the stories and more about the feelings — little events that cause huge repercussions over time and and through separation.

No matter what sort of books you usually read, put A Mercy in your “to read” pile. Now. It’s amazing, moving, and even short enough to finish while you’re waiting in airports this summer.

The Gift of Reading

At the beginning of the month, I found out there’s going to be a Little One joining us in December (yay!).  When I get a break from all those famous pregnancy symptoms, I’ve been obsessing over what s/he needs.  There’s diapers and onesies and plenty of blankets for our six-month long winters…and books.

I’ll always believe that one of the great blessings of my childhood was having books at my disposal.  All kinds of books.  My parents always read for pleasure and encouraged me to do so.  My grandmother also had a huge collection of books — the accumulated titles of her childhood and those of my mother and her siblings — that I always had access to.  One of my first memories is of looking through a picture book Bible and making up my own stories to accompany the pictures, since I hadn’t learned to read yet.

My love for the written word never left me.  Books have always been my solace and my favorite pastime — from The Poky Little Puppy to Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Shannara, A Song of Ice and Fire, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen…

When I was young, I was never discouraged from reading anything.  Sure, my mother wasn’t always happy with my choices (like that um, juicy romance I picked up at 13), but I was never censored.  Reading is enrichment and it’s a love that lasts a lifetime.  I got that gift and I want to pay it forward to my little Peanut.

While I was looking through the children’s section online at B&N, I came across many of my old favorites.  Where better to start Peanut than with Mom and Dad’s favorites?  Eventually, s/he will decide to love mystery over fantasy, or documentaries or historical fiction or maybe even New Age poetry.  But for now, some good old pictures books will do.

 

The Tawny Scrawny Lion (This always made me want carrot soup!)

Horton Hears A Who! (One of hubby’s favorites)

Corduroy

 

Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

Originally posted on 101 Books:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. –Ernest Hemingway

Before I wrap up The Sun Also Rises (review coming tomorrow), I thought I’d take one more look at Hemingway’s writing style.

He called it the “Iceberg Theory,” and  it’s a great descriptor of his style.

Essentially, he gives you the facts—those hard facts are the tip of the iceberg floating above water. Everything else—the supporting structure—floats beneath the water, out of sight from the reader.

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Venturing Into the Gray Areas with Purple Prose

Keep your writing clear and coherent, and avoid pretentious or overly formal language.  Write to communicate, not to impress. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t dumb down, but don’t let your writing get in the way of your message. There’s a fine line between elegance and pomposity.

Mark Nichols, “7 Tips for Editing to Improve Usage” @ DailyWritingTips

Excellent advice.  The only problem is, where’s that “fine line between elegance and pomposity”?  The short answer is, no one really knows because it’s different for everyone.  One person’s purple prose is another’s beautiful description.  One type of writing might warrant lots of elegance, style, and 25-cent words, while another might require you to be short and sweet.  Or, you might need to use one style or the other for effect.

It takes practice to determine what’s best for yourself and your writing, and your preferences/needs may change over time.  Nichols, however, has some good guidelines that we should follow:

1.  Always be clear about your meaning.  Pretty writing is fine but don’t let it cloud the point you’re trying to make in writing.  Your readers should always know what you’re trying to say.

2.  Get rid of ulterior motives.  As a teacher/tutor I see this problem a lot.  Many new students, particularly college freshmen, write in exceptionally elevated and complex ways because they think that’s what they should be doing.  Instead of sounding formal and sophisticated, however, often it just comes out as contrived and stiff.  Don’t try to impress people with your vocabulary or prowess in using 4-line sentences that aren’t run-ons.  Just write.

3.  Know that the line is there.  If you understand that there is such a thing as being too grand, or being too basic, you’re less likely to fall into either trap.  You’ll be more aware of your writing and of how it comes across to readers.  If you find that you’re not, well, that’s what beta readers are for.

Practice!!!

Descriptive Writing From Photographs  @ ProjectGrad

Descriptive Writing Practice — $2.00 download in my TpT Store

Writing Concisely @ The UNC Writing Center Online

SEO and LSI 101: What They Are & How To Use Them

SEO, or search engine optimization, has been around for quite awhile.  Anyone who uses the web for business of any kind should have at least a basic understanding of SEO and its brother, LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing).  Ironically, there are few reliable sources out there to give you a basic understanding of how SEO & LSI work.  Unlike academic writing or all the citation styles I bitched about recently, there isn’t one set, established way to do things.  SEO & LSI are creatures of necessity, evolving from the complexities of search engine algorithms and continuing to do so every time those folks at Google decide it’s time for an update.

Being a veteran SEO user, part-time online writer, and your friendly neighborhood blogger, I decided that maybe I should try laying down some basic guidelines for using SEO & LSI, at least as far as writing/text content goes.  First, you have to understand what exactly SEO & LSI are.  Based on my experience and within the context of writing, these are the definitions we’ll work with:

Search Engine Optimization: the strategic use of keywords and phrases in web content to improve the organic visibility of a website in search engine rankings

Latent Semantic Indexing: using words and phrases that directly correlate with your SEO keywords to improve search engine visibility without overloading the actual keywords

Clear as mud, right?

Ok, first we’ll start with SEO.  Based on that definition, we’ll say that SEO is…

1 – Strategic.  SEO content is written with search engine visibility and ranking in mind.

2 – Based of the use of keywords and phrases.  For example, an SEO content article titled “The AKC Top Ten Dog Breeds of 2012” would use keywords/phrases such as AKC, dog, dogs, and dog breeds.  This means that they are targeting users who go to search engines and enter these words or phrases with them.

3 – Organic.  SEO content is different from other forms of advertising such as targeted advertising.  It strives to find the balance between using keywords naturally and using them in the right percentages that search engines find them.  There’s a lot of inorganic “SEO content” out there on the web (I’ve linked to some examples), but the best content will be good writing and informative reading first, keyword-linking second.  As a side note, most pieces of SEO content are no longer than 500-600 words.

Ok, now that we’ve got that clarified, let’s move on to LSI.

Technically speaking, LSI or Latent Semantic Indexing is a mathematical formula that computers and the people who think like computers use to categorize and classify documents.  Unlike SEO, it’s a bit more structured.  LSI in various forms has been around since the 1960s and is used by search engines, the intelligence community, technical support engines, and document databases like EBSCO and ProQuest.

For the online writer’s purposes, LSI boils down to synonyms and synonymous phrases.  It’s meant to reduce keyword-stuffing and find content that is written naturally and reads naturally.

For example, say I wrote an article titled “15 Ways To Lower Your Gas Bills This Winter.”  My key phrase for SEO purpose would be “lower gas bill(s)”or “how to lower gas bills.”  Those are the specific phrases that I’m hoping readers will type into a search engine and find my content.  To encourage LSI, I would also include phrases and keywords such as “reduce gas bill,” “reduce heating costs,” “spend less on utilities,” “lower electric bills,” “reduce electric bills,”  etc., etc.

If writers and search engines relied only on keyword use in online content, there would be a lot more trite, uninformative, badly-written pieces on the web than there already are.  So, using LSI concepts, search engines will also look for content that uses similar phrasing, since that’s more natural writing/speaking.  It also widens the net, so to speak, since users might search for keywords that just aren’t used in any content they’ve found so far.

Here’s an example:

LSI example

I searched for “types of dogs” and was given some websites that use that phrasing.  However, I was also presented with websites where the key phrase is “dog breeds” instead of “types of dogs.”  This is latent semantic indexing in action.

Another common example would be to search for the keyword cheap and be presented with content that uses the keywords inexpensive, frugal, and low-budget.

Writing for the virtual world takes practice, and there are plenty of other aspects of SEO and LSI, but those are the basics.  Once you’ve got a grasp on them, you’re ready to make your foray into the world of online writing.

An Example of SEO Writing Done Wrong

 

Related Reading:

10 Old SEO Methods You Need To Stop

Good SEO, Bad SEO: Do You Know The Difference?

Why So Many?!

Did you know that, if you get specific, there are about 8 different citation styles for academic writing?  This doesn’t include those little quirks your professors sometimes insist on (“If you staple your paper it’s an automatic F!!!!!”).

There are, all together:

  1. MLA
  2. APA
  3. Chicago
  4. AP
  5. Turabian
  6. ASA
  7. ACA/IEEE

Some people will group them — like, Chicago/Turabian/AP.  But, believe me, there’s a difference.  And it always drives me up the wall.

Each citation style comes from a different association or group.  MLA from the Modern Language Association, which sets rules for literary writing and so on.  If you’re an English major, you’ll be using this a lot.  APA, ASA, and ACA/IEEE is for the sciences — psychology, biology, etc.  I hate APA with a passion, but the real kicker is Chicago, AP, and Turabian.  They’re all basically the same, have similar or same roots, but they have minor, minor, minor differences from each other and from MLA.  Like, Chicago prefers footnotes to in-text citations, while MLA wants in-text citations but likes footnotes for additional information or clarifications.

Ugh.

Once writers leave school, most don’t have to deal with this sort of thing.  But it’s the same concept as trying to submit the same manuscript to one publisher who prefers Arial 11 and to another who wants it in Times New Roman 12.  Or stapled versus not stapled.  Or with the author’s name in the header AND title page versus just on the title page.

Why so many?  Are the literary gods still arguing about what’s best, leaving us poor writers to duke out between us?  It drives me nuts still, nearly two years after leaving college.  Today being Superbowl Sunday, I am one of the few Essay Writing Tutors available, meaning I’ve got multiple sessions going and am trying to tell one student how to use APA and another why Turabian papers need the full citation in the first footnote but abbreviated ones after.  And I almost told an MLA student he was missing his running head.

*facepalm*

For the record, I personally prefer MLA.  With in-text citations and footnotes only if you have extra/supplemental information.  And I never staple papers unless I’m told to.

 

A Novel Idea: The Only iOS App A Writer Needs

So, I got super-lucky this year and scored an iPhone for Christmas. I’m pretty infatuated with it so far, and I’m proud to say that Goodreads gets a top spot in my app list alongside Angry Birds and Bejeweled.

There’s something like 1 million apps available for iPhone users, free and paid, for pretty much every purpose on the planet. By some strange fortune or by divine guidance, I managed to find a total gem among all the games, podcasts, and pizza delivery assistants. My friends, I introduce you to A Novel Idea.

No matter what platform or device you use, there’s no shortage of apps and software programs designed for the fiction writer out there. I’ve tried many of them and was never fully satisfied. A Novel Idea is the first such program that looks like it was actually designed for writers, by a writer, and by one who understands the need for a certain balance between structure and chaos and is realistic in his estimation of just how much time most writers actually spend writing on their phones/tablets.

Open up the free version of this app and you get all the basics — Novels, Characters, Scenes, Locations, Ideas. You can add and edit an unlimited number of entries to each section, then leave them floating free or attach them. I went in and made a page for each character in one of my novels, then linked each character to the Novel page. I added scenes and ideas and linked them to certain characters and novels, I could even link characters by their relationships — So and So is Such and Such’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/boss. And the best thing is that all of this linking and customization is completely optional, and there are no annoying reminders or notifications that pop up if you choose not to include them.

This is just one aspect of the beauty of A Novel Idea. For each novel, you can include a title, plot details, themes, premise, point of view, and more details. And even better, most of the sections are free-writes, so you can add as much or as little detail as you like. The same goes for Characters, where you can key in gender, age, physical attributes, roles, species, internal and external motivation, conflicts, skills & talents, education, and much more. When you’ve got all that information together, you can create custom groups to put your characters or your novels or whatever into. I grouped mine by genre — fantasy and contemporary fiction — and then by trilogy, since some characters belonged to multiple books, etc., etc.

It’s a lot of information. But the layout is so user-friendly that it’s as if some excellent friend went and organized all my notes and files in a way that’s actually organized but doesn’t feel awkward to me. (I had a friend like that once. In college. After graduation we moved to separate states. Sigh.)

I am, as you could probably tell, in total head-over-heels love with this app. My only complaint is that the Pro version — which allows you to sync between your devices, your computer, and Dropbox; export to iTunes, turn off the ads, and write scenes with word counts — is on the pricey side for an app at $2.99. But, the app is so great for note-taking and world-building on-the-go (or when I get an idea in bed and don’t want to dig out my notebooks or drag out my laptop) that I plan to most willingly pay the price next payday. Bottom line — if you are a fiction writer and you own any iOS device, you should be ashamed not to have A Novel Idea.

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