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Horrid- I’d eat this book.

Horrid’s first page is one of the best beginnings I’ve ever read.

Horrid by Katrina Leno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Karina Leno’s Horrid is like the old house it takes place in, a typical haunted mansion that you’ve seen a hundred times, but you still want to explore the dark insides.

I was excited when I came across the Owl crate addition of HORRID in a used bookstore, especially since the timing aligned with my YA Horror binge. I loved the cover, and the creepy poem in the beginning hooked me immediately. Leno’s use of the old rhyme is stellar, and as a writer that loves to add poetry to prose, I’m 100% partial to a creepy nursery rhyme being part of a novel.

That said, I went in with low expectations. I hadn’t heard raving reviews for Horrid. After all, I found my copy in a used book store less than year after it’s release.

Maybe that’s why I loved this story so much! I got a much better book than I anticipated. I adored the creepy house and garden, the Agatha Christie references, and the simple, classic feel to the writing. The first page is perfect, one of the best beginnings I’ve ever read. Horrid doesn’t have a flashy plot. It’s not groundbreaking. The characters are familiar because I’ve seen similar ones before. But Horrid is creepy, and sometimes I want less flash, more comfort. Horrid is a thunderstorm read, a book you grab over a quiet fall weekend and read by the window while it rains. Exactly what I needed at the time. I devoured it in two days.

I have a feeling the ending might throw some readers, which I can understand. If you aren’t prepared for a horrid ending (Sorry about the pun, I couldn’t resist), or you’re looking for something truly terrifying or out of the box, I recommend passing on this one. I happen to be in the mood for classically creepy when I read this, so I loved this book. That said, I’m ready to find an out of the box YA horror now.



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How to Write a Story’s First Page

Beginnings. They can be the easiest part of writing a new story, or they can be hardest. And there are so many incredible first pages out there. What makes those first few pages so compelling?

I’ve thought about this often, especially since I teach a class called “Great Beginnings” at the Muse Writer’s Center. In fact, I’ve studied the concept of beginnings extensively, pouring over craft books, going to conferences, and spending hours tucked between my library’s shelves, opening book after book to read the first few pages. After more hours of study than I can count, I’ve learned that almost every great beginning has four specific things in common.

  • A hook (especially if you’re a new, unestablished writer)
  • Setting to ground the reader
  • Introduction to a Main Character (note the word Introduce)
  • Clues to the story’ genre and theme
  • A story problem with an emotional impact

It sounds simple until you need to squeeze all four factors into one page. One page is about 250 words. Around 75 sentences. Three, four paragraphs tops. How do you do this in a few paragraphs? After numerous blunders and a few successes, I’ve come up with a formula for a solid first page.

first line hook+ interesting world detail + character introduction + instant emotional distress.

I know, it sounds mean, instant emotional distress. But it works.

The first line hook is simple: write a single line that demands readers’ attention.

Subtle world building is important too, especially in fantasy, which tends to be where my work lands. No matter what genre your story is, it’s important to remember what makes world details important at this stage of the story. It isn’t the world details themselves, but how the main character views those world details.

The character’s voice has it’s moment to shine in a first chapter. Readers learn about characters based on what type of words they use and what they talk or think about. An adult will think about different things than a child will, and someone from the 1880’s will speak with very different phrasing than someone might today. Clues to what kind of story your telling can be given through word choice and tone, which can establish a creepy/funny story. A comedy probably won’t start on a dark, rainy night, but a scary story might. A middle grade comedy might start in a treehouse on a summer afternoon. It’s incredible how powerful word choice can be.

The backbone of this formula is the emotional distress. What does the character want, and why can’t they have it. What do they want to protect, or save, or gain, and what do they have to loose.

It’s easy to jump in to the “big” story problem, but in those first pages it’s best to use what I call a “perspective” problem. Something that matters to the main character on a small scale. Something that allows readers to get to know your awesome MC (main character) while also giving the reader time to care about what happens to the MC.

This “perspective” problem happens in so many books I couldn’t possibly name them all. In Harry potter, Harry is mistreated by his caretakers. Wizardry is non existent until Hagrid shows up. In the Hate You Give, Starr is regretting going to a party and worried about her social place in the world. A friend getting shot by the police isn’t a flicker in her mind. If we didn’t have those first chapters to get to know these two incredible characters, what happens to them later wouldn’t have as much impact.

That’s the magic of incredible beginnings–making the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary relatable.

Hope this helps someone as much as it’s helped me. I’d love to hear other takes on great beginnings too!

Keep writing everyone,

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The Truth Project by Dante Medema

Oh, the beauty of fall. Cozy evenings, apple cider, orange leaves.

Speaking of orange leaves, check out this beautiful book: The Truth Project by Dante Medema.

As pretty as the cover is, it doesn’t do justice to the story inside. It’s THAT good.

The Truth Project follows Cordelia, a teenage Alaskan poet struggling with the age old question Who am I? as she accidentally stumbles across a family secret when her Genequest results reveal the man who raised her isn’t quite the man she thought.

Best of all, it’s written in verse. An entire book written in poetry!  Check out this sample from the first page:

I am obsessed.

Before I go on, I need to admit something: I’m one of those DNA kids. You know, the people who accidentally find their biological family online? Yep. That’s me.

Because of my experience, Cordelia’s story hit me in one of the softest, most protected parts of my heart. Maybe that’s why I loved it so much. Maybe.

But really, I think my love for this novel is a testimony to the beauty and rawness of Cordelia’s emotional arc. Verse novels are hard—I’ve written a POV in verse, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve tackled—but in The Truth Project, Cordelia’s story isn’t held back by the unconventional format. Instead, the story is better because of the verse. Every word holds weight. Every line has a punch. The pages read like the wishes we’ve all made in our quietest moments—heartfelt, tender, and authentic.

Despite my obvious emotional attachment to Cordelia discovering her DNA surprise, there were other parts of this book I loved just as much. Sana, Cordelia’s best friend, is an absolute firecracker in all the best ways. The complex relationship between Cordelia and her sister, Bea, is relatable. Kodiak Jones, the bad boy love interest (is he really a bad boy though?) is my favorite love interest this year.

Yeah, I said it. My FAVORITE. Kodiak Jones deserves a fan club.

The best part of this book is the way it leaves you. Happy, a little bruised, yet warm and fuzzy on the inside. Positivity is something we all need, especially this year, and this story is a tough journey that ends with Cordelia in a gut-wrenching, yet better place.

If you’re looking heartwarming story that’s got something new to offer, read The Truth Project. As I give this book five stars, I wish I could give it more.

Keep writing everyone,

A Golden Fury book review

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


While I enjoyed this book, for me, it had no big zing. The writing was solid, but I like books with lines that are so beautiful I have to read them over and over again, and this book didn’t have that lyrical style I prefer. The story was well-plotted, but I saw every twist coming from a mile away. The magic system is clear, but much of that is because the idea of a philosopher’s stone having great power at the cost of a curse isn’t exactly new.

That being said, the curse was very well handled, and I enjoyed seeing a young girl find herself by herself. It was refreshing to have a story that let a toxic relationship break down and not be instantly replaced. Samantha let Bee (the MC) stand on her own, and find happiness alone, which I loved. Though I didn’t love this, I have quite a few fiction students I’d recommend this book too.



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Book Review: WHAT BIG TEETH by Rose Szabo.

I picked up Szabo’s debut, What BIG TEETH, during my last YA Horror binge. It’s a story about an everyday girl forced to go home to her creature-filled family. A story about generational trauma, and what makes a monster.

Yes, I binge genres. Think of it as wine tasting. Is that cabernet really delicious, or do I just like Cabernet? Same goes for books. Do I love this latest YA horror because it’s good, or because I adore a good fright? Only way I can know it to read six horror stories in a row.

I’ve never been the type that picks a book because of the title and cover. I’m more of a concept person. But when I saw the the faux rip revealing wolfish fangs above the words What BIG TEETH, I have to admit, I fell prey to the marketing. It was the first Horror book I read in my line up. I was intrigued.

Unfortunately, my intrigue waned with the rather slow beginning. Don’t get me wrong, What BIG TEETH isn’t the slowest book I’ve ever read, and it wasn’t slow enough for me to put down. Parts of the writing hooked me deep enough to stay. The monsters were incredible, dare I say, unique.

It’s a serious challenge to come up with something unique in this over-saturated, over-stimulating YA speculative market, but Rose Szabo pulled it off. What Big Teeth gets points for creativity. I haven’t read a book with such unique creatures in a very, very long time.

In fact, it was almost too creative. As the story unraveled, things went from imaginative to weird. I’ve heard What Big Teeth described as overtly odd, and it’s true. The first half of the book rambles through the plot. It leans on the creatures and intrigue of an old mansion and mysterious, handsome archetype a little more than necessary. It’s not scary. It’s strange. Many readers might be disappointed by that.

I appreciated the oddities. The book is about a family of outcasts, creatures the world rejects because they’re weird themselves. It’s an interesting peek into the interior of what something other might live like, and how living on the outskirts might effect relationships, family, and personal value for generations to come. That is the theme of What Big Teeth, someone different finding their place in a world that refuses them, and how to outlive mistakes of the past.

For some, this book might not resonate. I can understand that. If you’re looking for an old fashioned fright, this wouldn’t be my first recommendation, or even in my top ten. While is sits comfortably in horror, I suspect many readers might be disappointed with the lack of classic horror moments.

But if you’re looking for a horror story that turns the concept of a monster on it’s head and explores what it might be like to exist in a world not designed for you, read this.

What Big Teeth isn’t typical, and I think that’s exactly what Szabo intended. And thought it’s not my favorite book, I’m glad I read it, and will be recommending it to many of my students, specifically the ones who like weird, twisted, and strange

Those students are always my favorites. I can’t to share this with them.

Keep reading everyone,

In my writing toolbox: Scene Card worksheet from Story Genius

Today I’m going to share one of my all-time favorite plotting tools: The Scene Card Worksheet from what I consider one of the best writing how-to resources out there, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius.

Check out her incredible worksheet:

This is a quick snapshot from my own copy of Story Genius. I made my own worksheet, compatible with Microsoft Word and Google Docs in about 10 minutes, which I am happy to share, just reach out!

You know what truly captured my attention when I first saw this worksheet? It’s so simple. Many worksheets tackle an entire plot line at once, or have fifteen steps for each scene. This is the first worksheet that I’ve considered workable for any short story, chapter, or novel, no matter the genre or age range. To this day, it’s my most frequented tool in my writing tool box.

Before I go on, here’s a quick breakdown of Lisa’s terminology.

“Alpha Point” is Lisa Cron’s term for why a scene exists and what it needs to accomplish. In a nutshell, it’s what happens on the page, also known as the main plot point.

“The third rail” is Lisa’s equivalent to what I call “the heart of story”. It’s the reason the events happening on the page matter personally to a protagonist, and how each specific event changes or enforces their world view.

Cause and effect. This point is pretty straight forward, right? Something happens, and it makes something else happen. But when we start digging into a draft, it becomes obvious that there can’t be explosions for no reason. Everything that happens must relate to your character’s internal struggle, directly impacting what they want (or think the want) and what they need. A plot has to get in your character’s way, keeping them from their ultimate goal. The question is, is each scene doing what it needs to do? The answer is often found by examining these four questions:

  • What happens?
  • What’s the consequence?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What does the character realize because of this event?
  • And so, what happens next, and why did this scene lead the character to that decision ?

The first time I used this worksheet, I’d been working on my opening chapter for weeks. Even though I had fire, weapons, and an interesting lead, the events were falling flat. Once I took a look at the bottom of this worksheet, the third rail, I immediately realized my blunder. Yes, I had a fire. Yes, I had cool weapons and character with a cool job. But why did this fire, on this day, matter to this lead? As soon as I broke down the scene into this worksheet, I found my weak point and had the chapter polished by the end of day.

This worksheet helps me avoid hitting the “delete” button far more frequently. It saves time, lessens stress, and makes the drafting process, well, not easy, but easier.

I can’t recommend this method enough. But remember, if it doesn’t work for you, there’s a method out there for you somewhere.

Keep writing,