Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Blog Hop

 I'm participating in a blog hop. Sort of a fun way to link authors and readers.
First off... check out these Next Big Thing writer pals.
Sarah Bewley
Dean Harrison


How did I answer the Next Big Thing Blog Hop questions? See below:

What is the working title of your book?
The Resurrection -- but I've been told by industry-types more than once the title will have to change because it's too common. So... I'm not married to it.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I had a pretty graphic dream about being tortured. I guess you would call it a nightmare. A scene I wrote came from that dream, but it's evolved well past that. Most of my book idea come from an image or scene that I begin to ask a lot of questions about. This started like that.

What genre does your book fall under?
Definitely closer to an Urban Fantasy then anything else.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I hate casting in my head, because the actors that look most like the characters may not be the right age and kind of actor for the part. But if Taylor Kitsch could pull off a pretty great Americanized Dublin accent and would wear the face makeup required, he'd be my Callum Gallagher.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Jane wakes after a violent procedure with no memory and must figure out why a government sanctioned agency and an enigmatic man known as Raven is trying to capture her.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm still seeking representation. Maybe by next year, I'll have a better idea on the answer to this question. Keep checking back... or drop by my website: www.michelleladner.com 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? One year. But it's being redrafted and has been for a few months.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I've pitched it as a female Jason Bourne meets Xmen--so it's sort of like that.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? This question answers like the second one above. So I'll refer you to that.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I'm told by readers that it's dark and very character driven. Not for the reader that wants a quick light read. There's a lot of characters and all of them have a story, so if you like authors who build a world of various people that you'll want to know more about with some action thrown it, it'll probably be the book for you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

New Blog Launch


I've finally launched my new reading blog... the first post is up here:
http://maladner.blogspot.com

Things have been busy and disorienting for the Peas. We're trying to come up with some new ideas to keep things from stagnating around here -- unfortunately in that "thinking", we've failed to post regularly. Look for posts in the New Year. Meanwhile, check out my new reading blog... fashioned closely after A's fantastic Witty Title Here. 



***This hasn't actually gone so well--and I was advised against keeping a Book Blog as a writer. Since I'm not doing it well anyway... I may take that advice.
 
 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Vacation

I'm currently in Delaware with limited internet. J and A are doing their things. I've got a couple of great blog posts for you all--but I may not get them edited and posted via my iPhone. We'll see how this goes. :-)

Peas to you and thanks for your patience.

M

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lessons from Baby Writers

I want to ramble a little about inspiration and, perhaps, motivation in the context of something that might seem a little surprising. Earlier this month I had the privilege of sitting down with three young writers. My niece's fourteenth birthday party was upon me and two of her best friends had come to stay with her

"Aunt Michelle," my niece asked. "Would you mind if I walk my friends down to your house so they can meet you? They are writers and so are you... so *dot, dot dot*"

At first I was confused albeit flattered by the request. I'm nothing special -- what could I possibly have to say to a gaggle of aspiring teen writers? I'm not even the published pea. I have no secrets of the trade. Nor do I have a history of vetted publications to hold up as a guidepost that says, "this is how you become a successful writer." I realized that I suddenly felt under-qualified. But, of course, I obliged. I call myself a writer after all, and my niece is family. These are the things one does for loved ones. We endure a certain amount of embarrassment and pander to how we think those in our lives see us. In the end, what I'd envisioned as a potentially awkward experience -- where crickets chirped in the background and finally I was exposed for the fraud I knew I was -- well,  the experience ended up being one of the most rewarding of my young writing life.

I don't know if you've ever sat down to tea and cookies on a Saturday evening with three teenaged girls, but it's an experience no writer (or self-aware human, for that matter) should ever turn down. The incessant chattering, dramatic flourishes,  awkward mannerisms, statements of certainty based on limits that often make no sense...

In a word, it was awe-inspiring.

One can learn a lot if one just watches and really listens. Observational skills are the mark of a good writer, after all. What I found is emotion and internal dialogue ooze from a teen girl's pores, stinking up the room with raw unfiltered truths. It is a thing of true beauty.

You see... what I experienced with these three young ladies was a bit like staring into a mirror. A mirror that revealed the inner workings of my own mind. Young writers, all of us, wear our insecurities -- about ourselves and our writing ability -- on our sleeves. Some fake it -- and hide it -- better than others. But I've been to conferences where even the most incredible New York Times writers divulge that, yes, even they are still worried about failure, about readers not responding, about finishing the project. They worry about all the same things that new writers worry over, although in a slightly different context, because those are the worries of the writer.

What I saw during that precious moment with these three young ladies was a manifestation of what every writer feels. Insecurity, doubt, trepidation, and even the impulse to toss about a couple 'Hail Marys'! Curiously, each girl had a role in the conversation. On the surface, there was the supportive cynic, the overly-excited chatterer, and the nearly mute self-doubter. I recognized them all. Because we writers -- definitely this writer -- are all those things and many shades in between. A writer of any age can identify with the teen girl writer because we feel all those things too.

For four hours, I became immersed in their world. I got to see firsthand what it meant to them to be writers. I found it not so different from what is means to me. They worry about characters being genuine and believable. The exalt the books they love and criticize the books that they don't think work. They worry about not knowing what their story is about. They worry about grammar issues and spelling errors. They worry about the amount of work being done on a collaboration. They worry about, "are the funny parts really funny?" and "are the scary parts really scary?" They worry about finishing. Mostly, they worried about what readers think...

Girl 1: "Didn't you think it was great when my character did 'x'?"

Girl 2: "I love that part!"

Girl 3: *nods and smiles*

Girl 1: *beams* "That's my favorite part." (translation: I spent a lot of time on that bit.)

At the end of the day, we all want validation that our labor of love is worth it. We want readers that see what we see in the stories and characters that move us. We want to know that our creation is worth the time, the energy, and the blood, sweat and tears.

What do I think?

Of course it's worth it. Everything else aside, it's worth doing because we love it!  Because it's our passion. And because we can't envision ourselves ever giving it up.

This particular evening I got to talk to three passionate girls about the thing I love most. Crafting story. We shared insights about our projects. We asked each other questions. We laughed, joked, and snickered about the pitfalls of crafting a story.

At the end of the evening one of them said, "I got so much out of this. Thank you."

I replied, "I'm glad."

In retrospect, I should have said, "So did I. Thank you!" Because as writers, we are always learning. And it isn't necessarily from our mentors and idols that we learn the greatest lessons. These young ladies reopened my eyes to the love of writing and why I choose a writing life. They taught me about myself, about my writing, and about what it means to be a writer. The writing life should be about hope, creation, and the love and excitement of the craft. Success in terms of the end game (publication, sales, the coveted movie deal) should never be what it's about. It's arbitrary. But the passion and need to hone craft is not. It's passion and craft that attracts readers. So it's there that the real rewards lie.

If I could have a do over. A moment to tell those girls what I know now -- what I know because they retaught it to me -- I would say, "Keep writing. Trust your stories. Trust yourself. This is the writer's life. You're living it! So embrace it, grow, and have faith."



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scheduling Change

For the remainder of 2012, new posts from M will go up on Thursday. Due to my schedule, I can't manage the Tuesday post for now. We'll get back on track. :) Pea promise.  *fist bump*

Monday, October 15, 2012

Awkward...

If you hadn't noticed... the Peas have been on a month long blog break. If you had noticed... so sorry! Especially about the ball drop (ie. the lack of notification). Mea Culpa! I was put on that task and somehow it slipped out of my mind (somehow... *snicker* right...we know there's nothing by voices up there, certainly no real sense of organization or leadership). We peas have been busy, busy girls and I failed to pull together a guest blog agenda to keep things going while we were all on hiatus. Things are getting back to normal, at least for this pea. We'll do better from here on out. Promise.

Forgive us... our slackage. Pretty, pretty please...

Stay tuned for prompts and updates in the coming weeks. I'll be organizing some ramblings, prompts, and randomness to finish out the year before we figure out what 2013 will have in store for the Inside the Pod.

Peas and love. We've missed you.



Our apology face --------------------------->

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Meandering Thoughts on POV



Late summer leading into autumn has been busy and chaotic for all Peas here Inside the Pod. But as the Pea that spent the summer galavanting around the country, I feel I owe it to my Peas to pick up the slack for a bit. So... apologies. You guys are stuck with me and whatever random ramblings that flutter into my mind.

Today I wanted to talk a little about the impact of point of view on a story and character. This is something I have been thinking a great deal about as I continue to bite my nails pitifully and whimper while I stand over my manuscript, wondering how I'm going to fix it. The point of view you choose can do a lot to change the tone and voice of a story. Yes. Yes. I know every writer has a voice. But I think, so does every character. I don't know all the logistics. Far better writers have spoken about the subject. I am no authority. That said, figuring out the best way to highlight the strength of both the writer and the character in a story is a finely crafted magical thing I stand in awe of each time I read a great book.

Here's an excerpt of something new I've been working on. 

Thain Mora entered the cantina hoping for a reprieve from the brutal climate. The hot red-stained wind swirled indoors in his wake. He brushed the dust from his umber cloak onto the clay floor as the door clapped shut. Peeling the leather glove from his autothetic hand without a second thought, he raked back his hood. The Venture would begin in one hour and he wanted no part of it.
The crowded cantina grew quiet.
He didn’t have to look to know they stared.
Even here on Nacol, a multi-race port world at the edge of the system, the Vok were feared. But Thain knew it wasn’t the exposed clan markings on his neck, or even his mechanical limb that attracted fearful recognition. His peculiar white hair and ghostly blue eyes were enough to unsettle most beings in the thirteen systems. Including his own clansmen.

Third limited POV can offer up some great information. For one, you get to know the name of your character in the first line. But it comes with challenges when you can't keep the POV tight enough and it can feel like you are being told a story. Here's the same passage reworked.

I entered the cantina, hoping for a reprieve. The hot re-stained wind swirled indoors. I brushed the dust from my umber cloak onto the clay floor as the door clapped shut. I peeled the leather glove from my autothetic hand and raked back my hood. The Venture would begin in one hour and I wanted no part of it.
The crowded cantina grew quiet.
I didn't have to look to know they stared. 
Even here in Nacol, a multi-race port at the edge of the system, Vok were feared. But I knew it wasn't the exposed clan markings on my neck, or even my mechanical limb that attracted fearful recognition. My peculiar white hair and ghostly blue eyes were enough to unsettle most beings in the thirteen systems. Including my own clansmen.

First person closes the POV down. It feels more intimate. Dare I say, Thain seems more likable more quickly? Yet, you lose a little bit of information.

It's a tough call. And one every writer has to make. How are you going to tell your story? Who will tell the story? Whose story is it?  Point of view addresses these questions and more. One of the best, most fun things for me as a writer is reworking the POV in the early stages and discovering the answers to these questions. But what happens when you are a full manuscript into a story and you realize it's not working as well as it could? That's the tough part. Reworking point of view and character voice once you are 450 pages invested can be daunting. That's sort of what I'm facing now.

All we can do as writers is push forward and try to tell the best story we can. Understanding the craft and how it can help and hurt your story is the biggest part of this. As readers or writers, becoming aware of how and who is telling a story can be an eye opening experience. I challenge you to really listen to voice and point of view the the next book you read and consider the many, many options that author had open to them to tell that story. It's mind boggling to think how many ways a story could be told and the reasons why one way makes it to the page.

Until next week, when we'll have more of the same random writing and reading related whatevers. Peas be with you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rewriting the Rewrite

Apologies to our few, steadfast and dear imaginary readers for the late Tuesday post. If you haven't heard, we're having a hurricane! It's official. Hurricane Isaac is on the way... and Mississippi and Louisiana are in his way. Needless to say, the Peas have been a little distracted with storm preparation and giggling at the repercussions of The Weather Channel's reference to our state as a land mass. Ah... the entertainments provided by the clash between social media and the national media. It's endless. But enough on that. Let's get to my actual blog topic today. Rewriting.

Every writer knows writing means rewriting.
(At least any writer worth their salt.)

And every rewriter knows that there's always a chance of another rewrite. Often times multiple rewrites. In some cases, years of rewrites. That is where I'm at right now with my own manuscript. Rewriting the rewrite. For me, its a daunting frustrating experience. Even when I fully understand and accept the necessity of it.

To catch ya'll up...

I've been on the cusp of completing a manuscript for about a year. I've long since written the last page. I've pitched it at ITW's Agentfest with great response. I've queried it with no response. I've had full manuscript requests for it from agents and even an editor. But I've never finished it and sent it out in earnest. Because I know it's not ready. Not ready enough to stand on it's own two feet and exist as a thing of true publishing potential.

It's my first finished book.

I'm not that good a writer yet.

This summer I let out my little creation to some non-biased readers. An old mentor, a friend who happens to be an agent, several renown instructors at a writing conference, and even a beta reader or two of known published authors. The feedback was staggering. And quite confusing. I've gotten everything from "send this to my office immediately" to "I'm sorry, you don't have any business sending this out."

What's an insecure upstart writer to do?

Rewrite.

It's all I can do.

At least if I want to ensure that I've written the very best book I possibly can. And why wouldn't I? With so much competition in a rapidly changing publishing landscape, I have to write the very best book I can if I want to have a hope of publishing success. Which, for me, means picking my book up off a bookstore shelf and knowing it's reaching as many people as it can. Why else would you write a book and publish it?

That said, I have to stay true to the story I'm trying to tell. And let me tell you...
Everyone has an opinion on how you should write your book, how you should change it, what will make it better, more sellable, more likable, just.... more.

As a writer you have to learn to filter through all that. Which is the hard part. Anyone can sit down and rewrite a book -- transfer changes to the page and hit save. But it takes a real writer to make the right choices which actually enables that book to take flight.

That's where I'm at.

Daunted, overwhelmed, and terrified I will make the wrong choices and may nudge my manuscript off kilter and send it careening off course where it it crashes and becomes a fiery pile of horse manure, ending my nonexistent writing career before it starts. So what do I have to do to save it?

Cut the cast of characters in half.
Make the protagonist likable.
Show the reader who to root for.
Create a more commercial conflict.
Narrow the focus.
Widen the social/cultural conflict and commentary.

And...well... there's a laundry list of suggestions from a multitude of critics I have to consider. Now whether I consider and toss away or consider and apply...that's the real test isn't it? Will I make the right choices to attract the largest audience I can? No one knows -- least of all me. All I can do is rewrite the best rewrite I can and put it out into the world again until either someone else or myself decides... yup, it's ready.

In the end, I'm the only person who can decide when it's done because it will never be finished. I know I can write a better book and I will try my damnedest to do so. Then when I'm happy enough to close the laptop on this bugger, I'll send it out and move on. Until then, I'll be right here, rewriting.

Because writing is rewriting. Every author worth their salt will tell you so.

Stay safe world in the path of Isaac. The winds are picking up here and the rain is starting. I'm going to shut this down and post before the storm lands. Peas be with you, always.










Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Finally!!

The Peas are finally back together!! We all say hello, blog followers!! :) ...now back to our dinner!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Progress


This month, much like on my plate as a child, the Peas have been scattered. We miss each other terribly and look forward to getting back into the swing of weekly meetings again. Alas, we have just been too busy with vacations and various other things for that to happen yet. Which means convening to discuss upcoming blog posts has been, well... impossible.

In fact, M and J don't even know they've left me unattended in the pod today. *mischievous chuckle* And since I have the run of the place, I thought I would share with you the progress I've made in my latest story -- one you might be familiar with -- as a look into the creative process of beginning a novel.

As you may remember, a while back the Peas had a game pod: flash fiction using story dice. For that flash fiction, I imagined a boy with a very strange shadow. I had no intention of going any further with it at the time, but J and M {and others'} enthusiastic response to it spurred me to look deeper and see if there was a novel-length-sustaining plot inside it. About 10 minutes after my plot investigation began, I had the whole thing mapped out. And so I started writing it.

Interesting to note... I've read numerous times about how every story an author writes is different -- has its own set of challenges, comes about in different ways -- basically, that a new story can completely wipe out a writer's perceived "routine" in the way he or she writes. But I had no idea how true that was until I began writing this story. In The Onyx Vial {the novel I'm currently shopping around}, the words abounded. The world filled in with vivid colors and sparkling details and characters whose voices flowed onto the page with ease. But the plot tripped me up far too often, morphing many times over several years. This new story, however, handed over the plot without a fight. A startling and welcome change. And while the main character came fully realized, writing him -- with his distinct voice -- has caused me to plod through my writing, usually allowing me only a paragraph or two at a time. For whatever reason, the words come slowly. Which means that while there is progress, it's small.



Now, to the good stuff. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you {the rough first draft beginnings of}:

A GREAT AND TERRIBLE MISFORTUNE *


No one ever tells you to be wary of your shadow. Why should they? It’s your constant companion. Trustworthy. Reliable. With you through everything, even when you can’t see it. So, what happens when it peels itself from the ground, grows claws and horns, and starts hissing fork-tongued whispers in your ear?
No one ever tells you to watch out for you shadow because no one has ever had one possessed. Until now.
My name is Finnegan Lonan, and I have a demon tethered to my skin.
In fact, it’s sitting beside me right now, watching me write this to you.
Having a demon shadow isn’t painful. Not physically, anyway. The only harm it can cause is psychological.
Lucky me.
Hey, after all, my shadow is the one possessed. I’m just fine... aside from the fact that it stalks me, lurking, murmuring, reciting my fears over and over and over.
Such a joy to have around, my shadow.
But don’t be fooled by how well we get along. I’ve tried to force it away. I’ve planted myself directly in the sun, where only happiness could possibly survive -- where darkness withers under my feet -- and allowed myself to believe this is all some dream. But time -- like the sun across the sky -- passes, and soon my shadow drags itself up and faces me. The truth is painfully clear. I will never be free of it. Not until I find the key to unlocking the shackles that bind us.
I can see it even now -- the demon’s keyhole tattoo on my wrist, marking where the shackles appeared those first few hours. It will never leave me, and we both know it.
So loyal, my shadow.
I can feel the weight of the ancient book in my lap. It gets me wishing I could read the language, wishing I could use it to do more than send the demon hissing and recoiling into the farthest recesses of my shadow’s edges.
“What did I do to deserve you?”
My shadow flashes a razor-sharp grin and sticks out its snake-tongue.
It doesn’t know. Even now, after all I’ve learned, I don’t think I know either.
Let me catch you up to speed.

It was a dark and stormy night…
Actually, it was the following morning.
The point is, it had been raining.
The sky was unusually dark for two-thirty in the afternoon, the sidewalks were slick and the crappy, uneven roads were choked with deep puddles. Despite my natural grace, there was no avoiding soaking the hems of my brand new pants (not that they were anything special when dry) as I made my way to the public library.
I love the library. There are so many books, I could never plausibly read them all in my lifetime. So the entertainment is unlimited. It’s also cheap. As in free. Which is perfect, because I’m always broke.
Anyway, so, it was March third, and I was walking to the library, lost in thoughts of… well, it’s not important who what I was thinking of. What’s important is that it was March third, a completely regular -- albeit damp -- and utterly forgettable day. Except that when something like a possession occurs in your life, you tend not to forget it.
Like I said, March third.
When I reached the library steps, a chill drove through me. At the time, I accounted it to the errant gusts of the reluctantly dispersing storm clouds. I should’ve taken it as a warning. No. An omen.
Instead, oblivious to my looming future misery, I entered that damned library’s giant gothic doors and made my way to the librarian, Hilda’s, counter.
I shouldn’t blame the library. It wasn’t damned any more than I was. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You see, I’d been going through this giant, six-story library for years, level-by-level, stack-by-stack, shelf-by-shelf, picking out any and every book that caught my interest. So it was a great and terrible misfortune that on March third, at three-thirty-three in the afternoon, I was standing on level three, in the middle of aisle three.
There I was, perusing the titles on shelf three, when I heard the ear-piercing shriek of the librarian. I turned to see what was wrong, except that I didn’t.
Despite my mind’s commands, my body wouldn’t move. I felt a thick, icy sludge fill me -- as though I were a mold and it was anti-lava pouring in the empty shell of me. It happened so fast my heart literally stopped beating.
I gasped for breath. I swear it. But my lungs sunk in on themselves and my eyes inflated, threatening to pop out of their sockets. And then I sneezed…
Seriously. I couldn’t make this up.
…The feelings were gone, and I was turned around, facing the balcony. I ran straight to it, peering over the edge at Hilda’s desk.
“She’s dead,” a voice in my head sneered.
But even as it spoke my eyes locked on her. As always, she was leaning on the counter, nose buried in a book, humming softly.
I started to ask her why she’d screamed, but my voice stopped short.
A cloud passed, letting a thin stream of sunlight fall through the glass dome ceiling -- casting my shadow on the floor two stories below me, where it thickened like tar and peeled itself off the clean marble floor, staring at me with hellfire in its blood red eyes.
At which point, I -- Finnegan Lonan, a boy well through puberty -- screamed like a five-year-old girl.
My proudest moment.
The sound startled Hilda right off her chair.
I meant to back away, but my legs were locked in place. My shadow swelled with the changing light, cackling softly as Hilda righted herself and whirled on me.
If she felt any concern for my well-being, it must have passed her face when I wasn’t looking. The moment her eyes met mine, she was seething. “What is the matter with you, Finnegan?” she screeched.
I looked into my shadow’s eyes, then back at hers. For a minute, I would argue, they were both possessed.
“Yes. What is the matter?” my shadow asked, tilting its head with mock concern. A gesture only half as frightening as the mirth that smeared across its face a moment later… The moment I realized two very awful things:
One, that this fiend had made the sneering inner voice of mine its own. And two, that it was only visible to me.
“That’s a startlingly simple question,” I muttered.
“Well then?” Hilda pressed, oblivious to my sarcasm.
My shadow swirled on the floor as a cloud obscured the sunlight, and then it was beside me, stretched lazily across the banister. I looked at it, at a loss for words, and still -- I’ll admit -- scared out of my soggy socks.
It lay there, chin in claw-like hands, feigning innocence and interest with wide, cartoon-deer-like eyes.
I’ll give it this, my shadow is one hell of an actor. I swear, that thing conjured a sparkle in its freakishly cute red eyes, and may have even piped Disney music into my skull.
But it didn’t mask its pointed teeth when it smiled, and I shuddered -- released from my frozen state of fear.
Able, once again, to function, I returned my focus to Hilda. “There’s a demon on the banister.”
My shadow snickered, but I ignored it, praying that Hilda might take me seriously.
Her eyebrows got all scrunchy, her lips caught between a frown and a laugh. “You’re reading too many books, Finnegan,” she said.
Yes. The Librarian said that.
“Scream like that again,” Hilda went on, “and you better be buried under a fallen stack. Otherwise, I will ban you for life.” With that, she turned her back on me.
I was on my own.
Well… but not.
I didn’t know what else to do. So I walked away from the banister. From my shadow. Hoping, foolishly, that it wouldn’t follow.
As I drifted toward the stacks at the far corner, away from the sunlight, my shadow crept behind me. Sunlight winked from my left arm, directing my eyes to the second-most unnerving sight of that day: white-gold shackles, the weight of heaven’s light -- ironically -- hung around my scrawny wrist. My eyes followed the chain, each link growing darker, less reflective, until it was nothing but a fuzzy matte-black blur disappearing into my shadow’s turbulent shape.
I stopped. Tugged at the shackles. The edge of my shadow shifted, puckering where the chain attached. I waved my hand. My shadow gave me a rude gesture back. I jerked my arm up above my head, yanking my shadow like the corner of a bed sheet. The fiend growled.
“What you think you’ll accomplish with that?” I could hear the smugness in its -- my -- voice.
“Irritating you, at least.”
Oh, how much simpler things would be if I’d just been talking to myself. If I’d gone crazy. But, no. I had my wits about me.
I was staring a piece of Hell in the face, and instead of running, instead of looking for a way out, I was having a conversation with it.
It’s no wonder things with haven’t worked out.
“What in God’s name is this?” I asked, pointing at the shackles.
“What the Hell it is, you mean,” the fiend replied.
A sense of humor. Boy, had I lucked out.
I scowled. “What. Is. It?”
“Permanent.”
My heart sank into the roiling acid of my stomach. I may have looked up in desperation.
My shadow chuckled.
I chose to ignore this. “Why?” I asked, still looking at the underside of the floor above me. I may have been asking God, but it was the devil’s minion that answered.
“Wouldn’t want you wandering off without your shadow.”
I dropped my gaze to the fiend’s.
Looking back, I recognize the terror that washed so slowly over me, building in feather-thin layers, not yet powerful enough to radiate through my skin, but enough to rattle my insides.
“Not these,” I lifted my shackled-wrist. “Why any of it?” It was the middle of the day -- in a quiet, well-lit library. For all accounts this wasn’t when possessions occurred. “Why… the shadow?” I was hesitant to bring this up. Afraid this would be misconstrued as an invitation for it to abandon my shadow and jump to my body. But I was being ridiculous. That was Vampires and houses.
Fear is so unaccommodating to intelligent thought.



*Title subject to change.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Alexis Read A Book

New review up at Witty Title Here! {Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake}

Thoreau's Bathtub

Previous posts might've led you to believe I'm not a big fan of "literary" fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm am a self-proclaimed Literary Literature Lover -- with capital Ls. I just don't believe it's the kind of book I could write... at least not at this point in my career. I still have too much to learn about craft and life.

That said, I love British and American classics -- 18th, 19th and 20th century books that have stood the test of time. (Generally these works are considered "literary"). This is one reason I find myself in Boston annually. My yearly literary pilgrimage. My annual cleanse in Thoreau's bathtub.

There's nothing quite like immersing oneself in the romanticism and history of writers' lives from another time. Over the years I've stopped at sites and seen artifacts pertaining to Emerson, Dickinson, Keats, Alcott, Hawthorne, Frost, Twain,  Longfellow, Poe, Thoreau, and many others. One of my favorite things to do is to trudge through New England, going from historic landmark to historic landmark, and taking it all in. This year, I brought my niece with me. We had a terrific time and, as usual, my Boston friends brought something new and literary to the agenda.

One of my favorite sites is the Longfellow House in Cambridge. It's a beautiful home with great historic and literary value. A home of General Washington and the Dante scribing poet, Longfellow. I've been to this site numerous times and each time I find myself affected by the history, the tragedy of Longfellow's wife's death, and the society of other writers he kept.

We also visited Orchard House in Concord -- where the Alcott's lived -- and we dropped by the Old Manse -- where Emerson and Hawthorne both resided. The tour guides and well preserved homes never disappoint. Though I've toured these sites before, the stories the tour guides tell are fresh and interesting every time. Seeing Louisa Alcott's sister's artwork painted on the walls of her room at Orchard House brings me instantly to Amy in Little Women. Life and fiction comes together so neatly in ways. I also loved learning that the taxidermied owl in the downstairs parlor of the Old Manse was named Longfellow by Hawthorne. His wife hated it, he loved it, and she often hid it from him -- the attic, behind the furniture -- but he always found it and brought it back out. In the three years the Hawthorne's lived at the Old Manse they etched messages to one another in the window panes -- early day text messages, love notes? It's just plain awesome. These writers were just people -- and walking through the same hall they roamed, listening to their life stories, is the best way to be reminded of that fact.

Another gem?  In the very room where Hawthorne wrote in the years he stayed there, Emerson stood at the same window and was inspired to write the essay Nature -- which birthed Transcendentalism. What was it about that place and that time? As a writer, I can't help but romanticize it.

One of the terrific new things I did this trip was visited the Houghton Library at Harvard. Not only were the books breathtaking -- ancient editions that go back to Gutenberg and before -- but the have amazing collections of letters and artifacts upstairs. The Emily Dickinson room houses not only the books she owned, read, and were informed and inspired by, but her writing desk, letters, and the chest of drawers her writing was found in after her death. Amazing items to peruse, to examine, and to think about. Houghton also houses each edition of Keats work and his life mask. Being able to look at Keats' still face in front of your own while surrounded by his letters and poems. It brings a smile to my face.

We swung by the Boston Public Library which is always a treat. They had an exhibition of letters from Poe, Phillis Wheatley, and so many others. I could've stayed for hours reading them all. Something about the handwriting and the language really transports you.

But there is one thing that I love to do, more than anything, when I find myself in the area. Walden Pond. There's something about having read Walden and walking through the forest paths and hanging out at the site of Henry David's cabin that seems so surreal and real at the same time. And I always walk the path from the site to the water's shore and submerged myself into Thoreau's bathtub -- because certainly he wouldn't have cleaned himself there, wouldn't he have? I like to imagine it anyway.

I love to reread the poems and stories of these writers. I love to travel to this place. But most of all, I love to piece it all together. For me, it creates a strange living history I can relate to -- something to remind myself that even the writers we edify were and are people too...who have to bathe and collect books and play and argue with their spouses... just like me. Somehow, even when I've experienced these places and stories before, it inspires me each time and in a strange way helps me to validate the writer's life I've chosen.










Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Give me wide open outer spaces…


The Peas are randomly busy with random business this week so I'm recycling an old post about setting from my time with the Criminal Minds blog. I hope you enjoy. We'll be back with more random wackiness next week!

Space… The final frontier… These be the voyages of the starship Fortune’s Fool. Arrr five-year mission be to explore new worlds and plunder their riches, to be the most feared band of pirates in the Andromeda System, to discover the dirty bilge rat what be stealing arrr rum and keel-haul ‘em, and to boldly go where no pirates have gone before!

This week I be -- ahem -- I am talking about a setting I’d love to write about but haven’t…yet. As you may have guessed, I’d love to write a novel set in space. But not just any space novel. I want to write about pirates in space. Think Star Trek meets Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Why would I want to write something like this? Well, first of all, it would be a lot of fun. I enjoy the process of world-building and a space pirate novel would give me the opportunity to literally create worlds.

Second, and this may come as shock to some, I like pirates. However, I have an extreme phobia of large bodies of water. (So naturally I live on the Gulf Coast. Yeah, I’m still trying to figure that one out myself.) My phobia would prevent me from ever writing a novel based on the high seas. Space seems a logical alternative.

Third, it would be a challenge. In my other works, such as BLOOD LAW, even though my main character is a vampire, she is bound by certain laws of nature -- mainly gravity. In space, gravity takes on a whole new role. Some planets have less where as some have more. Stars create various levels of gravitational pull. Black holes are the universal bullies. Years of research have been conducted on black holes. If I were use one in a novel, I’d have to be certain the science (for the most part) is correct. If not, I’ll be facing a mutiny of epic proportions.

Then there are the actual ships to consider with regard to science. Do they have gravity? If so, how is it generated? If not, what are the long-term effects of zero-gravity and how might a humanoid race evolve in such an environment? Are the pirates recognizable as humanoid or are they completely alien? The possibilities are infinite.

For me, setting is playtime but is also one of the more important aspects of the story. It’s vital to get it right. When discussing setting, it’s often easier to refer to films simply because of their visual natural. Would Bladerunner be just as cool if it were set in the Old West? What if True Grit played out against the backdrop of feudal Japan? Would Darth Vader’s famous line deliver the same punch if he told Luke he was Luke’s father atop the Empire State building instead of the bowels of Cloud City?

I don’t think so. Setting, as in real estate, boils down to location, location, location. Some of us just choose more exotic locales than others. So drink up, me hearties -- yo ho!

Peas out!
J

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guest Reader Interview: Twenty Questions with Chris Hutchison-Jones

My final reader at this roundtable of book lovers is Chris Hutchison-Jones. This one's going to require some explanation. First of all, it's seventeen questions not the usual twelve because there's just no way to edit this. Everyone should have people in their lives they refuse to edit. My interviewee did not replied via email... but rather post. Yes, that box in your front lawn that holds catalogs... it receives honest to goodness mail too! As I couldn't very well copy and paste this into the Blogger window, I'm left to interpret his reply the best I can and offer visual aids.

The single sheet of paper I pulled from the envelope. It's more organized that it looks.


Chris Hutchison-Jones
What you should know about this reader...
Chris is a great friend as well as a musician/songwriter, social worker, and philosopher of life. Married to Crissy (my previous reader interviewee), I've know him for a lot of years. He's also the person I credit for influencing me to re-embrace my passion for writing. He challenges me, inspires me, and even now with this blog -- coerces me to leave pre-describe formats and try something new. I added some photos to this interview to help create the best and most honest mood for this installment I could. 


Here's my interview with Chris Hutchison-Jones.



1) What kind of reader do you consider yourself?

Scattered? A fisherman? Restless?
Scattered? A fisherman? Restless? Short attention span. I read like a songwriter. I'm just looking for something to steal. I have several books going on at once, at varying degrees and speeds. I read Slaughterhouse 5 in two weeks. I've been working on Moby-Dick for three years. A Levon Helm biography has put everything else on hold.

2) What kinds of books do you read and why? 

The ones I can see. The ones I wouldn't mind dating. I take commitment very seriously.

3) What author's (or stories) do you return to again and again? Why?

I think most males of a certain persuasion go through a Kerouac phase. And he is fun to read still, but he's more of an old friend who doesn't quite fit in with my current station. Someday i want to write a version of On the Road for folks that work 9-5 and take family vacations. An existential crisis with coloring books and pics of the family with the world's biggest ball of barb wire in Texarkana.

Spin me a yarn.
4) As a reader. what do you expect out of the author and the story you are reading? 

Spin me a yarn. Be a good liar so the story's so good that I don't care if they're lyin'.



5) How has the eBook revolution changed the way you read and how you buy books?

The revolution was postponed because of rain. 

6) What makes you pick up a book or author you've never read before?

A whim. First and last name of the author starting with the same letter. 

7) With so many books to read, why do you choose the books you do?

Momentary inspiration. At any moment I have five to ten books to read. 

8) Film before book, or book before film? Why?

Plead the 5th.


9) List the five books that stick with you and tell why they do.

Desolation Angels
"I have nothing to offer anyone but my own confusion."
The Undertaking
How did death move outside and defecation move inside?
House of Leaves
Not sure I finished ... or ever started it.
Dante's Commedia
The perfection of theft
Dylan's Chronicles
Dylan in New Orleans writing Man in the Long Black Coat



Paper cuts and dry eyes. Trying too hard to change the world. 
10) What does reading give you in your life that nothing else can?

Paper cuts and dry eyes.

11) Some people read, some people don't -- why do you think you became a reader? 

12th grade English almost killed reading for me. No one should read Shakespeare with a list of words next to them, having to write down the page they appear.

12) What makes a book disappointing to you?

Trying too hard to change the world.

14) Does the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, Good Reads), book reviews (blogs, Amazon, and B&N), or any media buzz influence your desire to read a book? How or how not? 

Um... yes?



Yes. Book choice is often a game time decision. 
15) Do you judge a book by it's cover? 

Yes. Book choice is often a game time decision.

16) Do author blurbs, cover jackets, and award seals matter to you when choosing a book to read?

Not for hardbacks. Dust covers are promptly discarded. 

17) Have you ever read a book that surprised you, one you didn't expect to like but did? 

Slaughterhouse 5 ... didn't know it was a Sci-Fi novel. 

19) Have there been books you didn't finish reading?

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, I think I got lost in the navel gazing. 

20) Favorite villain of all time. Explain.

Dante ... a superior thief.



Instead of a bio I give you a somewhat shameless plug...
Check out Chris's band Dressing the Debutantes right here and learn most of what you need to know. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wanted: DRAMA LLAMA





<<<Wanted: Drama Llama for weekly exchange and to signify which Ninja Pea has endured the most drama during a given week. Requirements: llama must be adventurous and able to adapt quickly to new surroundings. Ultimate fluffiness and cuteness is preferred but not required. Llama must be able to thrive in a potentially high stress position, have an understanding and extreme tolerance of crying, bitching, and whining, as well as, possess an ability to bear those burdens when the sanity of a Ninja Pea cannot. An expected hazard for the chosen llama will be exposure to extreme mockery and ridicule by all manner of spouse, family, and writing colleague -- but this will be compensated generously with a near godlike status within the Pod. Please inquire within (the comment box below).>>>

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Jackson Hole Writers Conference Experience


June 28-30, 2012

There are a lot of reasons a person might choose one writing conference over another. Let me tell you, location really is everything. Jackson, Wyoming is an ideal place for a writing con. With breathtaking views and intimate access to faculty -- I couldn't have asked for more from my only planned conference this year.
Arriving in Jackson Hole
I'm a week out from my return and I must say it was much more than I could have hoped for. It was a little costly due to the travel expenses, but quite satisfying in the end. There were a lot of reasons for my decision to fly cross-country to a relatively (but not really) small writing conference where I knew no one and had no connections. And that ended up being the best reason for doing it. Other reasons included: the chance to tag on a Grand Teton/Yellowstone family vacation, the teen writer program (my thirteen-year-old niece was able to join me), the affordable critique program (with top agents, writers, and editors), the fantastic "beer tent" student readings, and intimate access to authors like Anita Diamant, Brandon Mull, Kyle Mills, and so many others.

I met a lot of wonderful people, got some great feedback, and I learned a lot that I actually didn't already know. That's the issue with doing an annual conference circuit, right? You start to hear the same things over and over. I was pleasantly surprised by my experience in Wyoming and learned and heard candid thoughts and opinions that were actually new to me after several summers of conference hopping. It was a good mix of all kinds of writers: poetry, Literary, commercial, screen, nonfiction, and YA. I even chatted with a southern writer who lives not too far from me. It ended up being a terrific hub of inspiring and supportive people. 

The panels and workshops touched on business and craft, and allowed a good bit of social time to make new connections and rekindle old ones. And the Arts Center where the conference was held was just a few blocks from anything one might want or need while away from home. With a cocktail party, wine and cheese nature walk, and a buffet dinner -- there was plenty to keep busy each evening when venturing out at night alone wasn't preferable.

Banner over the main congregation area at the Art Center
The keynotes and panels were what one would expect but seemed to sparkle a little more than previous experiences at similar sized conferences. Maybe I was looking to be inspired, but I think after JHWC's twenty years of experience --  organizers just do a great job of selecting dynamic speakers. Every writer should hear Dennis Pulumbo's Cosmic Rules of Writing. You'll be hard pressed to find a better more relatable writer, speaker or person than Michael Perry. Anita Diamant and Brandon Mull are gems of down to earth humans that are so generous with their time it seems incongruent that they are such rockstars in the industry. Naomi Shiyab Nye had my geologist husband on the edge of his chair with excitement about poetry, art, and life and Margaret Coel's knowledge as a writer with a fascinating lifelong career seems an endless well. I feel so lucky to have chosen this year and this faculty as my first JHWC experience. It'll stick with me for many years to come. Writers as a rule are pretty awesome -- but the collection in Wyoming this late June was impressive.

My specific critique experience put me in contact with invaluable feedback from writers Catherine McKenzie and Lise McClendon and agent Robert Guinsler. To boot, I had an extended critique I'll never forget over lunch with bestselling thriller writer Kyle Mills -- whose advice and honesty impacted me greatly. If that's not enough, Tim Sandlin might be the most generous and accessible conference organizer I've encountered to date. My experiences with getting my critiques lined up, getting my niece settled and comfortable, and all communications orienting me with what to expect were easy and friendly.

The Alpine House - our home away
All in all, I couldn't have asked for more from my one chosen writing conference experience this summer. I had told myself after the last few years of pounding the pavement from conference to conference that I'd take a break this summer and chose only one. I had a big year last year and needed a less overwhelming networking and travel schedule. What a conference to chose! It filled the space of a whole summer and has given me more to ponder and reflect on than I could have ever hoped for. There were so many high points and valuable connections and experiences made -- this little blog update doesn't touch them all. Clearly, I'd highly recommend the JHWC.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Healthy Level of Insanity

Okay, loyal readers, you've read our individual views of genre. It's a complex topic and as you've seen, even the Peas have similar yet differing opinions. Every writer will have his/her own view of genre and, indeed, of fiction as a whole. However, one issue that fiction often presents garners a nearly unanimous agreement: Fiction, regardless of genre, must be believable in the eyes of the reader. There's just one tiny problem with that statement. Fiction, by its very definition, isn't real. How can you make something that is wholly unbelievable seem believable? It's a paradox that drives authors insane. Fortunately, it's a healthy level of insanity so (for the most part) the Straightjacket Brigade stays far, far away.

Thomas C. Foster, in How to Read Novels Like a Professor, says this about the Un/Believable Fiction Paradox (a label I totally just made up on the spot here):
"...the essential artifice of the novel [is that i]t is a made-up work about made-up people in a made-up place. All of which is very real. We are asked to believe in and treat as potentially real a space that is manifestly imaginary." 
Think about it for a moment. Have you ever read a book set in a contemporary time/place that seems far-fetched even for a novel? Maybe the author failed to explain a crucial piece of world building, such as why a person suddenly takes on the appearance of a disco ball after joining ranks of the undead?* Writers, even science fiction and fantasy authors, constantly walk a tightrope between what is believable and what will cause a reader to stop reading. This tightrope is best summed up in the Law of Bogus Locales, as again stated by Foster: "Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as if real."

Essentially, the Law of Bogus Locales means that any real-world, identifiable locale in a novel is a fictionalized version of itself. A small Washington state town isn't the real town. Cincinnati, Ohio is a shadow of the real city. The same is true for St. Louis, Louisville, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, and any other place that can be located on a map or through a Google search. The version you read in a book exists only in the author's imagination. But...there's still that annoying bit about believability. Someone familiar with the area around Grand Central Terminal in New York will know there's a restaurant called Pershing Square tucked beneath the Park Avenue Viaduct and that the Chrysler Building is to the left when exiting Grand Central on 42nd Street. If a writer places the Chrysler Building to the right, a reader who knows that area may stop reading. To have any reader stop reading your book before the end is a death knell for a writer. These are the issues that drive authors crazy, give us nightmares, keep up us awake at night, and force us to double--triple--check every fact before we send a book to the publisher. And even then we worry.

So what do we do? Well...we cheat. We're kids with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs; we build and we destroy. We add our own bits of flair. We fiddle with geography to suit our needs. We leave out certain information and trust our readers to fill in the gaps. Yes, we still get called out from time to time by readers who want to know why we did/didn't mention X, Y, or Z. The answers vary from author to author, but the main reason usually falls along the line of "X, Y, or Z didn't fit with the story I wanted to tell so I added/deleted it."

The truth I'm trying to convey here is that all writers suffer from some level of insanity, but it's a healthy level of insanity. We chose to walk the tightrope. We accepted the challenge issued by the Un/Believable Fiction Paradox. We do it because we love the thrill. We do it because we can't not do it.

Until next time...

Peas out.
J

* This is in no way a slam or slight against such an author. Merely a well-known example used to illustrate a point.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Guest Reader Interview: Twelve Questions with Cristine Hutcison-Jones

Today at the reader round table is friend Dr. Crissy Hutchison-Jones. We've known each other for a number of years and founded our friendship on a love of food (another passion of mine). That friendship evolved into one where movies and books quite naturally became shared passion. I was a reader and writer and she was destined for academia in one of the most academic cities in the U.S. -- Boston. Now, what we're reading and what we're working on is always of common interest. With a very different take on reading and books than you've seen up to now (which is what makes this so interesting to me), here's what she had to say...

M:What kind of a reader do you consider yourself? What kinds of books do you read and why?

Crissy: Voracious and adventurous. I read all the time, and I'll try almost anything at least once. I love taking recommendations for things that I wouldn't have picked up myself. I divide up my reading based on time and situation. I read mostly research-related academic prose during the day. But I had to make a rule: no research within an hour of bedtime. If I read something purely for the sake of absorbing new information or deeply analyzing the content too close to sleep... I don't get any. The same goes for relaxation: if my brain is buzzing with research... I don't relax. So no academic books when I'm lounging on the beach!

My "fun" reading runs the gamut. Sometimes I pick up old favorites like Jane Austen or Anne of Green Gables or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy or some sort of religious scripture (I can't help myself -- I'm an academic, and many scriptures are fantastic reading!). Sometimes I go for intellectually stimulating histories or memoirs that teach me something about American culture: for example, last summer I read Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello, about Thomas Jefferson's family with his slave Sally Hemings; I recently finished Henry Louis Gates's memoir Colored People, about growing up black in West Virginia in the '50s and '60s. Sometimes it's critically acclaimed literature (most recently, Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize winner My Name Is Red). And sometimes it's just a great story, like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books or a lot of the YA I read.

The key for me with fun reading is that there be a strong, coherent narrative (I am NOT po-mo) and a good story. It doesn't really matter what the specific shape of the story is, or if it's real or fictional. There just have to be characters I care about, circumstances I can somehow relate to, and situations in which I see the character changing. I don't say growing, because not all great characters "grow" -- just like real people, they don't always learn positive lessons from their experiences. But I have to know and care about the characters and see them grappling with life in a believable way.

I suppose, at bottom, that I want to learn something from everything I read. I've recently completed a PhD in religious studies with a focus on American religious history, and not surprisingly much of my reading focuses on related themes. I want the stories that I read -- real or imagined -- to teach me something about American culture, the human longing for belief in something greater than ourselves, or human nature. But if I don't walk away feeling like a book has taught me something, I'm not satisfied.

M: As a reader, what do you expect out of the author and the story you are reading?

Crissy: I want a good, coherent story that shows me how people interact and how they are shaped by the world around them. And, in my fun reading at least, I want to see people trying to do what they should, and not just what's easy.

M: How has the eBook revolution changed the way you read and how you buy books?

Crissy: My fun reading habits haven't been affected by e-books. I don't own an e-reader, or an iPad. I probably should, given that I'm allergic to book dust. [Insert joke here about historians who can't handle old books.] But I like books and libraries and bookstores – real objects provided to me by real people.

I will say, though, that as a scholar, I ADORE Internet databases. I frequently turn to Google Books, which has worked with major university libraries around the US to get materials online for all to see. I find nearly everything I need for research dating before World War I there. I also use searchable online databases to find and retrieve thousands of newspaper articles and audio-visual materials. To be able to do so saves me countless hours in the library poring over microfiche, and immeasurable time and energy locating, requesting, and ordering materials via interlibrary loan.

(That said, I want to say that the amazing interlibrary loan staff at Boston University got me ALL of the dozens of books, videos/DVDs, and articles that I requested that are still protected by copyright and aren’t online... So, in the end, the world would be a much sadder place for readers of all kinds without the expertise and support of librarians, bookstore owners and staff, and the countless other *people* who help us find materials that suit our needs.)

M: What makes you pick up a book or author you've never read before?

Crissy: A compelling recommendation. I take staff picks in libraries and bookstores seriously. I've also found a number of good books (great literature or just good reads) based on NPR reviews and interviews. But the best sources are my reading friends and family -- they know me, they know good books, and they know how to pair the two things well.

M: List the five books that stick with you and tell why they do.

Crissy: Let's be clear... there aren't just five. I don't have five "favorite" books. But here are five that immediately come to mind:

- The Bible (I prefer the New Revised Standard Version):

I grew up in the rural South. My husband is a musician inspired by the American blues and folk traditions. I'm a scholar of the history of religion in the US. I pay attention to American politics, books, movies... The books that make up the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament influence all of that. And there are also a lot of great stories and fantastic writing in those books. Pick up a copy of Robert Alter's translations of Genesis (the creation stories; the formation of the Israelite people, the foundation of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) or The David Story (the biblical books about the fabled Israelite king David) some time. Or just grab any old copy of the Bible and read the Book of Job. You'll see what I mean.

- All things Jane Austen:

Austen was incredibly insightful and sharply funny. Her books are surprisingly clear-sighted in their portraits of her admittedly limited subjects, and they say some very universal things about people in their daily lives and relationships. And she does a remarkable job of critiquing her society in ways that are still relevant -- for instance, her assessments of tensions based on socio-economic class, and of the limits the world places on women and girls.

- Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-53):

I had to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school and I HATED it. But after seeing the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Bleak House a few years ago, I decided I’d try him again. BH was my first attempt and remains my favorite. Like Austen, Dickens was a masterful social critic, and he created characters who are unforgettably real. He also wrote beautiful, memorable prose, but always in the service of his story.

- L. Frank Baum, The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913):

My mother has a collection of Oz books that were given to her when she was a child, and I read them all several times over when I was very young. The Patchwork Girl was always my favorite. It's about a willful, tomboyish girl who begins as a wholly selfish creature but learns to be more caring -- WITHOUT sacrificing her self-confidence or her zest for life. It's also about a young boy who undertakes a quest to save his uncle, collecting a motley crew of companions who also become his family along the way. In other words, it's about how we build our own loving communities. Finally, (spoiler alert) the little boy turns out not to be a little boy after all, but an enchanted little girl. While she resists being changed back to herself at first, she comes to realize that she is the same person, whatever the exterior, and the people who love her, love her for herself and not who she is on the outside. For me, the book is all about self-determination -- of ourselves as individuals and of the communities we build around us -- and how successfully people can make themselves good and loving and compassionate and surround themselves with the same.

- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980):

Robinson, like so many of the authors I love, writes believable, human characters in wonderfully detailed prose. Although her second novel, Gilead, is the one that earned her a Pulitzer, I prefer Housekeeping. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman who is sent to live with relatives in a small town on the shores of an enormous lake in the middle of the plains. The novel's landscape, mood, characters, and plot all blend seamlessly, as Robinson tells a story of the struggles of different women to live in a culture that doesn't have a place for them outside of the home. (In one of my favorite passages, Robinson uses the story of the biblical Noah's nameless wife to image the struggles of all women. Did I mention that I'm convinced that the Bible is essential reading in order to fully appreciate Western literature??)

M: What does reading give you in your life that nothing else can?

Crissy: I become absorbed in books in a way that isn't possible for me in any other medium. Books allow me to completely inhabit someone else's world for a time -- whether in order to better understand some real person or event, or to experience something imagined. And I get to inhabit that world on my own terms, by constructing the sights, sounds, and smells of the story (around the framework of the author's description, of course) as they work for me. I'm not subject to anyone else's vision -- like directors, cinematographers, art directors, actors, etc. Books are a highly personal and personalized way to experience a story.

M: Some people read, some people don't -- why do you think you ended up becoming a reader?

Crissy: I can't remember ever NOT reading. I'm told that I was reading at age 3. I'm sure that it had everything to do with my family. Both of my parents are readers, and my mother read to my younger brother and me all the time.

The most important influence, though, was without a doubt my grandfather. We read constantly when we were together. In fact, according to family lore, I learned my letters by sitting in his lap and watching him do crossword puzzles, and my numbers by turning the pages of his books as we looked at the page numbers and counted out loud. Later, he helped teach me to read with little phonics books and children's books he ordered through a mail service (my favorite to read together was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham). He taught me to while away long afternoons with Scrabble, and he treated my childhood illnesses with bags of books from the public library. Reading wasn't just a pleasure for him -- it was a way of life. He did a brilliant job of passing it on to me.

M: What makes a book disappointing to you?

Crissy: Cheap plot tricks will ruin a book for me faster than just about anything else. If I see it coming from a mile away and I believe that the author intended readers to see it coming -- or, perhaps worse, if I feel that the author thought they were being clever and didn't realize that the typical reader would see it coming -- I'm seriously unimpressed.

M: Do you judge a book by its cover?

Crissy: I'm not foolish enough to say no, because I'm sure that a good cover attracts me without me thinking about it. But I often go into book stores with something in mind. Great cover art is usually just a bonus. But I will say that if a book's cover is bad, it may influence me not to get it. I've been slightly involved with cover designs on a (very) few academic books, and I know how much you can manipulate a book's image -- and readers' expectations -- by changing the cover. If a book's cover looks thrown together, I'm turned off. Also, if a book's cover doesn't seem to match its contents, I'm suspicious and less likely to trust it.

M: Do author blurbs, cover jackets, and awards seals matter to you when choosing a book to read?

Crissy: Author blurbs matter a lot more to me with non-fiction than fiction. If I recognize heavy-hitting scholars among the people blurbing a work of non-fiction, I'm more likely to take it seriously.

Awards seals catch my eye, but unless it's a really big award (Pulitzer; National Book Award; Newbery; or from a specific academic organization that I recognize and respect), it's not likely to sway me.

M: Have you ever read a book that surprised you, one you didn't expect to like but did?

Crissy: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850):

I avoided reading this "American classic" all the way through high school, a dual major in American Studies and Religion in college, and my graduate coursework in American religious history. I figured it was one of those "must-reads" that's actually a crashing bore. But I finally decided a few years ago that I really ought to read it... and it's brilliant. Gripping story, great character development, wonderful descriptions (I love Hester's walk "into the mystery of the primeval forest" that surrounded colonial Boston), and a fantastically gothic story. Everyone should read it.

M: Have there been books you didn't finish reading? Explain yourself.

Crissy: Off the top of my head...

Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven (forgive me... it was high school): It's incredibly sexually explicit just for the sake of being sexually explicit. I'm fine with explicit descriptions of sex... but I'm not fine with material that's there to "impress" or "shock" the reader without having any clear purpose in the story. If it doesn't help me understand the characters or their relationships, set the scene, or advance the narrative, please don't waste valuable pages that you could have put to better use actually TELLING THE STORY.

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life: I wanted a more honest and less hagiographic biography that would step away from the usual lionizing narrative, and this isn't doing it for me. I haven't given up entirely, but it's been sitting unopened for months.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves: The first volume was brilliant. The second was promising to be so. But the story is committed to brutal realism, and at a certain point it got too painful. It’s still sitting on the shelf next to my bed, but I haven't gone back.

Crissy Hutchison-Jones received her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University in 2011. She is a cultural historian of religion in the United States with a focus on the problem of intolerance. Her dissertation explored images of one minority, the Mormons, in American news, fiction, and film. She lives in Boston with her husband. You can find another of her articles here and you can check out a panel she participated in here.