Monday, June 29, 2015

Newbery Review: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith (1958 Medal Winner)

As most of you know, I live in Oklahoma. My family and I were driving in the surrounding region one day, and I suddenly found myself wishing there were more non-cowboy and Indian and non-Dust Bowl historical books based in Oklahoma, Kansas, and the like.

And not long afterward, I finally picked up Rifles for Watie at the library.

Jefferson Davis Bussey, sixteen-year-old and farmer's son, leaves his home in Kansas to join the volunteer Union Army. We follow Jeff through his training, his first whiff of the gunpowder, and his introduction to the beautiful Cherokee (and stubbornly Confederate) girl Lucy. But when an especially assigned mission goes awry, Jeff finds himself stuck among the notorious Stand Watie's Confederate raiding party, masquerading the gray uniform and discovering terrible information: someone from his own Union detachment is smuggling rifles to Watie.

At first, the book is slow-moving for modern eyes, but trust me and read on past the first act. Things quickly pick up from a trudging march into the color and vibrancy of an Oscar-worthy film. The author, Mr. Keith, spent ten years researching for this story, interviewing Civil War veterans and traveling to the places where his characters, both real and fictional, fired upon each other, drank Yankee and Confederate coffee, and bonded in brotherly friendship. We get a detailed tour of the lives of the era's Native Americans, and a glimpse into the lives of African-Americans. We experience the goodness and the wickedness of both armies. There's action and history and comedy and tragedy and even romance. This book is the historical package deal, and one of the most accurate, detailed, and unique pieces of children's fiction that's out there.

There is, of course, bloody war violence, some drunken behavior, abuse toward slaves, and the book's reading level is rather advanced, so it is more of a Young Adult novel than a Middle Grade. But nevertheless it comes highly recommended.

Rating: Five stars

Recommended reading age: clean enough for 12+ but will probably appeal most to 15+

Favorite characters: Jeff, Noah, Lucy

Content for parents: Battle action, civilians are looted, execution is discussed, no language except for a couple instances of the n-word, kissing, bullying, some drunken behavior, some stereotypical dialogue

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Reviews, check out Shannon Messenger's blog here!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Copying the Masters: J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm starting a new blog series that will most likely be sporadic and biased, about famous authors and where you should and shouldn't emulate them (especially in the current market) in your writing.

Today, we're going to look at a name that shows up on just about every writer's list of favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien. Undoubtedly, he has solidified the way modern fantasy is approached, written and read today. I doubt that as he sat reading samples to his Inkling friends, with C.S. Lewis pushing him to do better and Hugo Dyson swearing every time another elf showed up, that mild-mannered Tolkien had any idea that his thousands of pages of ten years of effort were developing into what fantasy author Susan Cooper calls "a passionate worldwide cult."

A quote from Tolkien on critics:

"Some who have read the book (Lord of the Rings)... have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing they evidently prefer."

Some facts about Tolkien:

1. His first contribution to the Middle Earth universe was the poem The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star, which for all practical purposes was a mythological fanfiction piece inspired by the "Crist" poem of Cynewulf. He was 22, and Lord of the Rings was not published for another forty years.

2. Tolkien was, in our sophisticated modern terminology, a pantser. An example of this is evident in that originally, Faramir was only supposed to show up at the Forbidden Pool and then never again. Well, that didn't happen, and aren't we glad!

3. His lifework, The Silmarillion, was published posthumously. Tolkien's goal was to create an entire new mythology.

This last point is a big reason why many writers who claim to emulate Tolkien really should not.

Tolkien did not have big movie effects and pretty heroes and complicated world building for the sake of complicated world building in mind. He did not have big political purposes. There were no sparkly Pinspiration boards or cosplay attempts. What there was, was a slow-working, dedicated man in a room full of loose leaf paper and pipe smoke painstakingly inking out, in his beautiful archaic handwriting, alternate versions of a work requested by his publisher. And with The Silmarillion, he was writing what he wanted to, which was an entire new mythological cycle inspired by the Finnish Kalevala.

For one of my projects, which is nothing like Lord of the Rings, I started delving into ancient Irish mythology, and I suddenly found myself looking at Tolkien's work from his own point of view. While paging through the Ulster and Fianna cycles, I understood better his goal of creating his own, new mythological cycle. It both raised my appreciation for his brilliance, but also distanced me from him as a writerly role model.

Here are some areas where it's probably not a good idea to emulate Tolkien:

1. Prose

Tolkien's narrative prose is inconsistent. It swings from beautiful/powerful to unfortunately purple to 1950s British newspaper to old children's bedtime story to The Cattle Raid of Cooley, sometimes all on the same page, but overall has that embellished stuffiness one finds in Baroque music, academic papers, and, well, ancient mythological texts written by Catholic monks. So if one takes away the inconsistency, his prose is actually quite brilliant for his work, especially in The Silmarillion, but it's probably not wise for you to imitate it yourself.

2. Dialogue 

Once again, if you look at Tolkien's dialogue and compare it to ancient mythological cycles, it's on spot. But for novels, no. Too much of that mix of grit, flowers, and fed information with All The Capitalized Names and Places.

3. Language

Are you a linguist? No? Tolkien was, and one of the greatest that ever lived. But you are, ten to one, not. Feel free to create your own language if you really wish, but most likely it'll come out as a inconsistent, weird blend of Sort Of Celtic Sounding Words, C-3P0, and American (looking at you, Christopher Paolini).

4. Race Based morality 

I'm not so much talking about orcs as I am Haradrim and Easterlings vs. Rohan and Gondor, and not even White People vs. Not White People so much as unreality. Even in the ancient mythology Tolkien loved so much, alliance lines were never so cut and dry. This is more of a World War mentality that once resonated with audiences, but is just unrealistic. The Human Bad Guys in Tolkien's work often have no explained reason for their alliance with the Enemy other than that their entire race is, for some unknown reason, allied with Him. I punched Paolini earlier, but he did try to mix this up in his own work.

5. Pseudo-Medieval Arthurian Worldbuilding

Before you decide you want to set your story in "medieval" times like Tolkien (he called it a pseudo-Celtic beauty that people idealized about, and denied that was what he wanted), actually research the medieval era. Pick any century and you will see quickly that it's quite different from your Renaissance Faire. Women were blacksmiths and men wore stockings and Catholicism ruled with an iron fist of superstitious terror. The culture was bawdy and dirty and sick. I find a lot of Tolkienites who want to write their own Lord of the Rings fall into this trap, when he himself wasn't aiming for it at all.

But here are some areas where it is a good idea to emulate Tolkien:

1. Go back to the originals

Like I said earlier, I started researching ancient Irish mythology and was blown away by it. In some ways it was terrible and in other ways it was amazingly inspiring and in other ways all I could think was, "This has got to be better than any action movie, ever." There were flying ships in fog and five-year-olds killing giant dogs with toy balls and top-notch schools for warriors run by women where you had to spear fight underwater and on tightropes. Instead of looking at past fantasy novels for inspiration, go back to pre-Arthurian mythology. Go back to raw imagination before the laws of the market controlled it. I'm not saying write Percy Jackson or Thor, but definitely give it a shot.

2. Write what you love

Tolkien wrote what he loved, and look what happened! Though it may be often misunderstood, as we've already established, the point still stands: Tolkien and his work are icons.

3. Create iconic new ways to change the way people look at fantasy

Tolkien's elves, ents, dark lords, and dwarves, though in some ways lifted from ancient mythological equivalents (see? Another reason to check out old mythology), revolutionized fantasy, especially the high and fair elves and the terrifying dark lords, which now are a staple to most popular epics. Create iconic images that stick with and inspire people.

4. Build from your world with what you love

Lewis and Tolkien once agreed that they needed to write books that had the sorts of things they enjoyed in them. Anyone can see that the Hobbits are like happy, contented English people. Tolkien's characters smoke, read old manuscripts and elegant poetry, speak fancy languages, enjoy good intelligent company in simplistic settings, and hate giant spiders. When you fill your story's universe with what you love, you can bring your readers to love it, too, in their own way.

5. Be patient, take your time, and do what you have to do

In a writerly world of Twitter pitch contests where every second counts, and where we try to write XXX words in XXX hours with the Write or Die app, we often get so wrapped up in trying to meet goals and deadlines that we forget to take the time and craft our story carefully. Tolkien took ten years on Lord of the Rings and his entire life on The Silmarillion. I'm not saying you have to take that long, but if Tolkien had gone with some of his earlier versions of LOTR, Eowyn would be dead, Aragorn would be a hobbit, and the Ring wouldn't have been The One. And he did this while giving three times more lectures than his contract called for, raising a family, and writing other academic work. If anything, Tolkien should make us ashamed if we complain about first world problems preventing us from getting our five hundred words down for the day, or if we show a lack of dedication.

6. Find honest CPs, but take their advice with a grain of salt

Tolkien had his Inklings, and as aforementioned they were not afraid to express themselves. But even then, obviously, Tolkien didn't always listen to what they had to say. When working with CPs, always put your story before their feedback, but feedback is crucial to creating a polished and complete MS.

So there we have it. In conclusion, Tolkien was a genius when it came to his writing, but we have to look at his writing for what it was supposed to be, and for what it is: an attempt to create an entirely new mythological cycle. The amount of effort he put into his work and his world is mind-blowing. And instead of borrowing from his work, we should follow his footsteps and create our own.

In the next Copying the Masters post, we'll be looking at the one and only Jane Austen.

Thoughts or comments? Feel free to share!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why You Should Reconsider Writing a Trilogy

Here's one trilogy where the second installation was the best

I love trilogies. Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, 100 Cupboards, on and on. Awesome sci-fi/fantasy trilogies. I love them forever.

To those of you in the querying trenches *points at self* you may have noticed that trilogies are no longer in vogue. Does that therefore mean you should't write them? No, of course not! But here's something to consider:

Have you ever heard of the sagging middle? Even if you haven't, you probably know exactly what I am talking about. The middle part of your book, the dragging, plot-point-lacking trek before The Big Twist. Well, here's the thing: sometimes, actually a lot of times (though not all the time!) the second book in your trilogy can become just a big lump of Sagging Middle *coughEldestcough*.

But not mine! you may say. Well, I used to myself. A couple years ago I was wrapping up edits on the second book in my own trilogy, and planning a second trilogy, both YA fantasy of very different veins.

Today? One trilogy is shelved, and the other is now only two books. My CP made a similar decision recently with an MG fantasy trilogy, and broke it down into two books as opposed to three. But why?

Well, for myself, I took the-once-trilogy-now-duo and created a timeline of the entire, sweeping plot of all three books. It was obviously too long for a standalone, even after I cut all of the Long-Pointless-Dragging-Parts-That-Were-There-To-Make-It-A-Trilogy-For-The-Sake-Of-Having-A-Trilogy. Without thinking too hard, I cut a line directly through the center of the sheet of paper, in the middle of what would have been Book Two.

The results?

I'd love to say a perfect place to split, but no, it wasn't. However, I saw the reality that Book 2 was about 50% filler material, mostly world building and false tension. And while world building is awesome, no one wants to read about that much world building.

Now your trilogy's second book may or may not be full of world building, but ten to one, with some darling slaughtering, you could distribute its most important plot points between Books One and Three. This may also force you to chop away at your word count, but you know what you'll have?

Tighter, faster-paced, punchier books. Two of them, shiny and fit and non-saggy.

For all you critical fans (or non-fans) of the Hobbit movies, you know that sometimes you can only spread so much plot over so much time. It's the same with books. Don't stretch your butter over your bread. Don't spend an entire book leading up to a jazillion-page long battle sequence *coughEldestcough*.

Did you ever read or write a trilogy where the second book felt like filler? What's your favorite trilogy?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Newbery Review: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1986 Medal Winner) and A Gathering of Days by Joan Blos (1980 Medal Winner)

Since I took a rather long, unannounced hiatus from reviews (sorry!), I'm going to review two Medal winners today! Both will appeal to fans of Little House.

Sarah, Plain and Tall

Short and sweet is the best way to describe Sarah, Plain and Tall. In fact, it's so short that I read it in about forty minutes, but it's so sweet I almost wish I had more.

In Kansas, farm children Anna and Caleb are anxious to learn who their new mama will be. Their papa put an ad in the paper for a new wife, and when Sarah answers, she writes, "I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall."

Anna and Caleb's desperate hope to see Sarah stay turns into overanalyzing every little thing she does. And while the ending is undoubtedly predictable for older children, the story is endearing enough for most readers not to care.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Recommended reading age: All ages (could make a good read-aloud)

Favorite character: Sarah

Content review for parents: a lamb dies

A Gathering of Days

A Gathering of Days is thirteen-year-old Catherine's journal from 1830-32. For people looking for modern formulated plot lines where anything mentioned in significance has to be a future plot point, this book is not for you. For people looking for an authentic look into 1830s New England, including the sometimes more difficult old language, this book is for you.

The full gamut of the era is covered in this book: the rising issue of slavery (Catherine and her friend Asa experience this especially when Catherine finds a strange note in her journal), Catherine's father's remarriage, and the excessively harsh winters. Don't except this book to grab you and suck you in. It won't. It will, however, make an impression on you, and if you're anything like me, you'll love Asa.

A lot of fellow reviewers seem divided on this book. I'm not sure why. Those who speak negatively say it isn't as memorable as Little House. In my humble opinion, it's in some ways better written than Little House, but not always. We get to delve much deeper into Catherine's thoughts than we ever do into Laura's, but this internalization takes away from the supporting cast, and portraying the supporting cast is where Little House shines. However, they share the same pattern of walking you through the daily lives and routines of the people around them.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Recommended reading age: 10+

Favorite character: Asa

Content review for parents: To be entirely honest, it's been about a year and a half since I last read this, but I don't remember anything drastic. Characters and animals die, and suffer in the winter. If you feel comfortable with your child reading Witch of Blackbird Pond or Little House or Caddie Woodlawn, you're safe!

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Reviews, visit Shannon's blog here!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Sidekick Characters in Literature

The sidekick, the best friend, the wingman, the support system, the foil. More oft than not, we love them even more than we love the hero.

Here's a list of my top ten literary favorite sidekicks. Drum roll, please!

10. Chuck (The Maze Runner)

While Newt and Minho tend to top the list of the fandom's favorite characters (and of course), no one can deny that when they were total jerks upon Thomas' arrival to the Maze. Chuck, on the other hand, despite their age difference and there being nothing in it for him except more work, takes it upon himself to basically adopt Thomas and put up with his angsty and angry disorientation. Slightly cynical, a mild-mannered prankster, and loyal to the end, I think what I admired most about Chuck was he was way more patient with Thomas than I would have been.

9. Butler (Artermis Fowl)

You know, to work for a nasty twelve-year-old criminal mastermind, follow through on his shenanigans, and save his skin constantly, you really have to have a sense of loyalty. Between this and his mere appearance, Butler is the personification of "Don't mess." As the series progresses, Artemis learns to appreciate his body guard as more than just a tough-looking accessory and disaster clean-up crew.

8. Snowy (The Adventures of Tintin)

Snowy, or Milou in the original French, is more than just the animal half of a classic boy-and-his-dog-duo. Part comic relief, part snarky, realist commentator on his friend's escapades, and part annoying little brother with fur and paws, with his weakness for bones and whisky, Snowy does more than fill the role of supporting character: he practically completes Tintin, in a canine, Dr. Watson sort of way.


7. Falkor the Luckdragon (The Neverending Story)

Okay, forget the dog puppet from the movie and read the book. Falkor is awesome. He can swim through the air, blow blue fire, has pearly scales, can sleep while he flies, and sing like a bell chorus. He cheers everyone but isn't afraid to tell it like it is when Bastian and Atreyu screw things up when they lose it emotionally. He risks his life multiple times to save people who'd otherwise quit on him.

6. The Raggant (100 cupboards)

Flying. Baby. Rhino.

Stuck-up pompous magical flying baby rhino.

Need I say more?

5. Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes)

Ah, Dr. Watson, the patient, uncomplaining best friend of Sherlock Holmes, and the quintessential wingman of all literature. Your typical British gentleman and exceptionally intelligent (though not as observant as Holmes), Watson puts up with Holmes' eccentricities, vanity, and sharp comments to be the foil Britain's greatest detective needs.

4. Bean (Ender's Game)

Bean is not like most sidekicks. At first, he's sassy and self-focused, more interested in topping and beating Ender than backing him up. He's not even a friend for a while, unlike the more altruistic and forgiving Alai. But Bean proves indispensable to Ender for two reasons: 1. He shows Ender his weaknesses and 2. is the only classmate who can think on his level. Forever destined to be sub-commander, Bean eventually and willingly takes the back seat in begrudging friendship with Ender, which eventually blossoms into mutual undying respect, and the greatest command duo their school was able to produce.

3. Reepicheep (Narnia)

Swashbuckling, valiant, and the model of chivalry itself, it's impossible to not love Reep. His undying faith in the old magic often leaves him the wiser among the Narnians, despite his pompous vanity and height difference.

2. Sam (Lord of the Rings)

"I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!"

Need I say more?

1. Passepartout (Around the World in Eighty Days)

If your eccentric boss (who fired your predecessor for heating his shaving water a few degrees too warm) told you, the same night he hired you, that you had fifteen minutes to pack and leave for a trip around the entire world in the steam era, what would you do?

Well, in Passepartout's case, he goes obediently albeit muttering under his breath, and in my opinion, becomes the book's real hero.

As French as Dr. Watson is English, Passepartout is the life of the party in comparison with his robotic master, often getting himself into comical trouble (whether with opium, Japanese circuses, or angry Buddhist monks), but also proves himself humbly heroic. He, not Mr. Fogg, saves Aouda, an entire trainload of Americans, and eventually the entire endeavor.

Some of you might be surprised that I put Sam at #2, behind Passepartout. The main reason is, while I love Sam, Passepartout is more three-dimensional in my humble opinion. Maybe I'll write a blogpost sometime on character development in the classics (SPOILER: Tolstoy wins).

Some runner-ups in no particular order:

Iko, Cinder

Clarence, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Cassiopea, Momo

Farid, Inkheart

Saphira, Eragon

Tell me! Who are your favorite side kick characters? Would you change this list, and why? Anyone you think I left off?