Monthly Archives: May 2015

Genre Lessons: Fantasy

Dragon.

Image by Flickr user Baltasar.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

I read a lot of fantasy already, partly because I write it, so some of this month’s genre lessons are a bit narrower in focus, looking at things on a word/sentence level. But I think they can still apply to writing any genre. Here are my three main takeaways from this month’s reading.

1. The right description can add enormous depth to characters and worlds. I’m not talking about long, flowing passages here (though they have their place when used correctly). I’m talking about one or two well-placed words. For example, one of the books I read this month takes place in a very violent world, where soldiers rule and slaves are routinely beaten and raped. When one of the narrators, a reluctant soldier, describes a slave he just met, he notes that she smells “like fruit and sugar.” In other words, edible. Though he respects and even cares about this girl, this brief description shows how much the world he’s grown up in has subconsciously affected him. Maybe I’m getting nit-picky here, but the author could have chosen any words to describe this girl’s scent. These four say a lot about both the narrator and his world.

2. You should know everything about your characters’ histories and cultures, but you shouldn’t put all of that into your book. The book I described above is set in a world with numerous cultures, though the focus is on two main characters, so we only get the details on their peoples’ histories. However, we still see minor characters from other cultures, and because the author know those characters’ backgrounds, these brief interactions give us glimpses of other worlds. Even passing characters have rich histories, and watching them interact for just a few paragraphs left me with a solid impression of their background. I haven’t spoken with the author, but I’d bet she knows a lot more about these people than we see on the page — that’s why what we see rings true.

3. End every chapter with uncertainty. The main thing that keeps  someone reading is a desire to know what happens next. A character is about to die. A spy is about to get caught. The heroes are about to enter the villain’s lair. One of the books I read this month did this very well. The story is told by two narrators in alternating chapters, and every chapter ends with a question. To get the answer to that question, first I had to read a chapter from the other narrator’s story — which answered another question I’d been left with earlier. “One more chapter” very quickly became two, then three, and so on. If you’re writing a book with dual narration, I highly recommend reading other books that have this kind of back and forth.

So, those are the main lessons I learned from reading fantasy this month. What have you learned from the books you’ve read lately?

Get Caught Reading Month

May is Get Caught Reading Month! To celebrate, I’m sharing a few of the books I’ve enjoyed lately. All of the summaries are from Amazon.com.

An Ember in the Ashes. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir​
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier — and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined — and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Under a Painted Sky. Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

None of the Above. None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned — something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s entire identity is thrown into question. As her world unravels, can she come to terms with her new self?

The Witch Hunter. The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker (advance copy via Netgalley; release date June 2, 2015)
Elizabeth Grey is one of the king’s best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. But when she’s accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.

Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can break the deadly curse that’s been laid upon him.

But Nicholas and his followers know nothing of Elizabeth’s witch hunting past — if they find out, the stake will be the least of her worries. And as she’s thrust into the magical world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and one all-too-handsome healer, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.

What have you been caught reading lately?

Leave it all on the page

Ink splatter. I just got feedback from my CP on my latest manuscript, which means I’m diving into another round of revisions. She gave me some great advice about world-building, but her best tip was to not hold anything back. I thought I’d put everything I needed into this draft, but I was still holding on to a couple ideas for potential sequels. (I made sure this one could stand alone, but I’d love to spend a couple more books in this world.) My CP told me to put it all in the first book.

“You’ll get more ideas for sequels,” she said.

Right away, I knew she was right. I could — and should — put more of the confrontations I’d been saving into this book. As I started figuring out how to work those in, I came up with even more ideas to raise the stakes for my characters. So my advice to other writers who are saving ideas for sequels is: don’t. At least, not in the first draft. If you wind up with too much going on, you can always scale it back. But it’s hard to know what to cut until you have everything in front of you.

So whether you’re writing an epic seven-book saga, a duology, or a standalone, don’t be afraid to put everything on the page.​

How to get your books on librarians’ radar

Library.

Photo from the American Library Association’s Flickr.

I’ve come across a number of blog posts recently about ways to support authors (beyond buying their books), and one thing that keeps coming up is to ask your local library if they carry the book. I think this is a fantastic idea! Getting your books displayed in libraries, and especially getting them talked up by librarians, will help more readers find your books. Even if that doesn’t translate to increased sales right away, it does mean an increased fan base, and more people who may buy your future books.

With that in mind, I’d think just about every author would want his/her books in every library. But before you run off to mass email every library in the country (yes, it’s been done before — I check our library’s reference email, where all those “contact us” messages get sent), I thought I’d clear up some common misconceptions about library acquisitions processes. Note: This post reflects only the procedures in place at the public library where I work, and other libraries may have different policies. If you’re unsure about your local library’s policies, I recommend asking a librarian there.

I’m fortunate to work at a library that has a healthy enough materials budget for us to purchase almost every book patrons request. Unless the book is out of print or prohibitively expensive (usually textbooks), we will buy it. (And the books we don’t buy we do our best to get through interlibrary loan.) This goes for eBooks, too — if there’s a title we don’t have that is available for libraries to purchase*, and someone requests it, we buy it. However, when someone who is not one of our patrons asks us to purchase a book, it goes through a separate review process. Our Collection Services Manager will look at the book’s summary and reviews (usually in trade journals), and will decide whether that book is something that would appeal to our community enough to justify the cost of buying it. I recognize that this puts self-published authors at a disadvantage, since they may not have access to those trade journals, but we can’t afford to buy every book if there’s no guarantee it will ever be checked out.

So what’s an author to do? I think it’s important to build relationships with your local libraries and librarians. Having been on the librarian’s side of hosting authors, I could devote a whole post to that alone. But if you want your book in other libraries that don’t already carry it, I recommend encouraging your fans to develop relationships with their libraries. Ask them to request your book if they can’t find it. Do a social media shout-out during National Library Week asking fans to share favorite library stories or pictures of their favorite books (including yours!) on their library’s shelves. Most importantly, encourage them to ask their librarian to recommend similar titles.​ This will make the librarian far more likely to remember your book in the future if s/he didn’t already know about it, and to recommend it to other readers looking for books like yours.

Note: I think it’s great when authors promote other authors’ books, but there’s a difference between an author saying on his/her website, “I liked these books” or “I was inspired by these authors” and a librarian saying, “because you enjoyed these specific things about this book, you may enjoy these other books that also have those things.” Plus, if your readers have a relationship with their librarians, those librarians will probably be more likely to read and recommend your books.

*Technically, we don’t purchase the book, just the license to loan it a certain number of times or for a certain amount of time, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Do you have a relationship with your local library? What would you recommend to authors looking for more librarian love?​