Tag Archives: Vanessa Di Gregorio

A Lesson in Bad Writing – Why it’s Good to Read Books that Disappoint

5 Oct

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

~~~

You know that feeling you get when you read a great book? The one where you cling to every single word, and fight to keep your eyes open because you feel as though you’re on an adventure (and don’t want it to stop)? Where you lay in bed and find yourself still in that place, with those characters? Where you can feel your heart beating with adrenaline? Those books where you find yourself laughing and crying; where you can swear that your heart ached a bit? Where you close a book and it felt right, no matter how happy or sad it was?

Yeah… that didn’t happen to me the other night.

I hate when I see a book with so much potential that ends up being a huge let down. In fact, the first half of the book I’m referring to was amazing. Each chapter was from a different character’s point of view, and their voices were incredibly strong and compelling. The story kept me turning the pages. There was this incredible lead-up, and a wonderful world I was able to explore. And yet somewhere along the way, I began to find myself knitting my eyebrows together. Something wasn’t working anymore. The spell that had been woven so brilliantly at the beginning was lost to me.

And try as I might, I couldn’t find it again.

But why? The prose was wonderfully lyrical (and I even jotted down some absolutely BRILLIANT lines that I came across); the shifting P.O.V. was exciting and intriguing; the voice was strong; the characters were well-rounded; and there was a wonderful fairy-tale quality to it (in fact, it was a fairy tale retelling!).

Here’s why: The second half of the novel was preachy. There was a moral to be told, and that author was determined to make sure we understood the lesson being told to us. It became less about the story and the characters, and more about the message.

I was being lectured at.

Imagine my indignation, then, at realizing that I was expected to gain from the story a lesson in morality! No one reads a fairy tale looking to be sermonized. I was not looking to read a YA fairy tale retelling that pounds into my head the idea of God and miracles and heaven over and over and over. I was not looking for an anti-climactic, happy ending. I was looking for a story. I was looking for a character who would win my heart, and take me on a journey of learning and discovery with them – without it being obvious that I should walk away with an ethical message.

Characters are supposed to grow as the story continues. Somehow, I felt the opposite was happening; they were becoming less than they had been in the first half of the story. They were no longer real to me; I could tell that they were becoming shells of morality. They just weren’t believable. I was losing them; and they were losing me.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against God or religion in literature (or in YA). This wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I felt as if I were at Sunday school. And while some people might think, “well, what’s so wrong about that?”, I just want to say that a truly GOOD story doesn’t preach. It had become a two-dimensional parable – everything that happened seemed so contrived for this one purpose of teaching me a lesson; and it just wasn’t ringing true. The characters I had loved, the world that had mystified me, and the voices that had propelled the story became monotonous, repetitive, unbelievable, and annoyingly preachy.

If you can tell that an author is trying to teach you something, then the author has failed. No story should be written with a moral lesson in mind. A story should, first and foremost, resonate with readers. It should resonate with people who are constantly plagued with doubt, and fear, and even hatred at times. The most compelling characters aren’t perfect examples of morality. If your story happens to be a reflection or commentary of society, then great; so long as you focus on the characters first and foremost. Without them, your story is nothing.

The best books are stories first and foremost, and lessons or social commentaries second. That’s what makes them enjoyable to read. Otherwise, your reader won’t be able to invest in your characters or the world you’ve created. It doesn’t matter if it’s historical, or fantasy, or sci-fi, or contemporary – it all comes down to whether or not your reader will want to continue the journey with your characters.

As disappointed as I was, though, I’ve gained understanding into what doesn’t work. Being able to identify how a story goes wrong is a great way to understand how your story might perhaps be going awry (or, even, how your critique partner’s story might be heading off the rails). If you’re able to figure out what it is that doesn’t work, you’ll become a much better writer, and a much better critique partner. So as painful as it is to think of those novels that you just couldn’t get into (or that just fell apart, in my case), think about them a bit longer. Even after you’ve sighed and put it down, figure out what wasn’t working for you; once you’re able to find the specifics of what you didn’t like, you’ll be able to be a much better critique partner, and a much more capable writer.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

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Book of the Month – SPEAK

1 Oct

Today marks the start of a new month – and in honour of Banned Books Week, this month’s Book of the Month is Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the #SpeakLoudly twitter movement, and the voices of many bloggers crying out in outrage over the accusation that SPEAK’s rape scenes equate to nothing more than soft porn – and that it should be banned from schools.

First off, the fact that this man sees a rape scene as titillating and exciting is disturbing. That he thinks that a story centered around a rape victim’s silence is somehow morally degrading is ridiculous. That he is using religion to back up his argument is weak. That he is a man wanting to silence the voice of a rape victim (fictional or not) is sadly ironic.

Banning books is not an answer, or a solution. It is an attempt at silencing those whose voices are deemed unworthy, or morally questionable, or too vulgar. The opinion of a few should not dictate the choice of many.

I read SPEAK ages ago – probably when I was 13 or 14. And it impacted me greatly. Melinda is a character I will always remember. This is a book that speaks out for rape victims when they can’t.

By this point, I’ve lost a lot of the anger I felt when I first heard about Scroggins’ call for banning. Now I feel a sick, heavy feeling; a painful weight in my chest. When I first heard about this, I raged; I spoke out over Twitter, on Facebook, in the office, in class; anyone and everyone heard about how incredibly upset I was.

I think I wanted to throw something when I first read his argument – that was how upset I was.

Now, I’m still angry – but more than that, I am disappointed. It is sad to me that people are so willing to keep themselves and their kids so ignorant. That some people think themselves so above everyone else.

So here are some statistics. Did you know that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in America have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime? Did you know that every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted? Did you know that 15% of all sexually assaulted victims are under the age of 12? Or that victims of sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression? Or 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? They’re also 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

And did you know that sexual assault and rape are one of the most under reported crimes, with 60% still being left unreported?

Yeah. And this man thinks that kids shouldn’t be aware of rape, that it will somehow corrupt them or teach them too much. Oh, and while we’re at it, he thinks kids in Elementary school shouldn’t learn about reproduction.

Let’s just tell kids that babies come from storks.

Ignorance is not bliss. But it does lead to a lot of misunderstandings. People hate what they don’t understand. People ignore what they don’t understand. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that sexual assault and rape happen, and that a lot of people choose not to speak about it.

The one good thing about this whole situation is that people have been coming together to show their support. To have seen people so passionate about SPEAK and many of the other banned and challenged books out there is inspiring. It gives me hope that one day we’ll be past all of that. That we’ll all be free to Speak Loudly. Kudos to everyone out there who speaks up for the freedom to choose what we (and our children) will read – and to everyone who stood up for a book like SPEAK.

So if you haven’t read this book yet, I highly suggest you pick it up.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Your Ego is Not Your Friend – How to Take Criticism

23 Sep

or,

How to Avoid Hysterical Fits of Sobbing/Rage

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

Since Kat and Vahini both wrote wonderful articles about critique partner relationships and how to provide useful critiques respectively, I thought I would talk about – in further detail – how to deal with criticism (which Sarah talked about here; and how to get over yourself… which Sarah also talked about here). Because for me, the most difficult part about being a critique partner is being critiqued.

Not everyone reacts to critiques the same way. Some people get insulted; others become so sad and dejected that they lose all desire to even continue writing; and there are people who are indignant and think their critique partner has no idea what they’re talking about.

If you’re new to being critiqued, you’ll find yourself feeling INCREDIBLY nervous. Heck, even if you ARE used to receiving all kinds of criticism from others, you’ll probably still be a bit nervous about sharing your work with others.

Take me for example. Having been an art student, I’m used to receiving criticism – and art professors and fellow art students never hold back from telling you what they really think of your work. I’ve also taken a couple of creative writing courses and have had to share my work. So I should be used to receiving critiques, right?

HELL NO.

I mean, in a way I am; I’m much more apprehensive about myself, actually – and how I’ll end up responding. But I will always be nervous when I hand my work over to someone else for their opinion. I know myself. I get hurt as soon as I start seeing red everywhere. It’s just the type of person I am; though I know it’s silly of me, I want EVERYONE to be pleased with my work. Even though I know that it’s unrealistic.

I sometimes get so bummed out that I just sit in a slump at my desk, unwilling to continue working on my MS. Or I find myself looking for comfort food; ice cream and cookies and hot chocolate to devour as I sulk (and thereby also avoiding any and all writing). Or I scribble down angst-filled poetry. And other times I feel FURIOUS! I think, “How is my writing melodramatic?!? It is LYRICAL, dammit!”. Or, I think to myself, “Well, our styles of writing are SO different! Idiot.”

Harsh, I know. But I HAVE thought things like that; about people I respect and admire, close friends, and near-strangers. And chances are you’ll probably feel like that sometimes too. Sure, you’ll tell your critique partner, “Be honest! Tell me if something doesn’t work, if there’s something off. I want your real opinion! Don’t hold back!” – but once you see all the comments they’ve made, and read them pointing out all the flaws in your story, you’ll find yourself getting defensive. EVEN if you know you shouldn’t.

If you’re having this problem (and don’t worry – it’s only natural!), take a step back. Don’t respond right away. If your CP is using the track changes feature on Microsoft Word, don’t go through the entire MS in a fury rejecting all the changes your critique partner has made without even looking to see just what changes they’ve suggested.  It has actually happened to an editor I know – she just got on the wrong foot with the author, and he ended up even rejecting her corrections of spelling mistakes. So remember: your CP has done a WHOLE lot of work for you. They’re trying to help you improve. They WANT your MS to be the best it can be; they want you to get published.

So, here are 10 tips to help you throw your ego aside and take criticism from your critique partners – or anyone, really – gracefully.

1. As I said before, never respond right away. Don’t write a scathing email to the agent who has just rejected you and offered a few suggestions for improvement. That’s rude, and unprofessional, and you can bet that agent will never look at any of your future works. Likewise, don’t freak out at your critique partner if they think a character serves no purpose and should maybe be cut from your MS (or further developed, if you want to keep them). Read their critiques and do nothing – at least not right away. Let it sink in.

2. Take a step back. Wait a few hours; or better yet, wait a day or two. Distance yourself and try to be objective. Let their critiques sink in before you go back to reread your CP’s comments. And then read your work. Chances are, they might just have a point.

3. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard, but you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that they aren’t telling YOU that you lack personality – they’re saying your MC does. Find out why they’re saying that (and a good CP will give you reasons as to why your MC lacks the qualities of a great character). And even if they don’t give you reasons, you should always…

4. …ask. If you’re not quite understanding what they mean and need clarification, email them (when you’re NOT upset, of course). Or call them. Or meet up and talk about it over coffee (just don’t go if you think there’s a chance that you’ll throw your coffee in their face. Cause that’s a sign that you’re still pretty upset). Being good critique partners means that talking about one another’s work – in depth. Have a conversation.

5. Never confront your CP if you’re upset. Yes, I’m repeating myself – but this is important. Don’t tell them that they don’t get you or your work. They probably do. But they aren’t as emotionally invested in your work. It’s YOUR baby; your sweat and tears. And as a result, you’ll be blind to a lot of the problems – and get pretty upset when confronted with those issues. Especially if your CP has something to say about the one character, or one plot arc, that is your absolute favourite.

6. Read all the good things they have to say. A good critique partner will always mention what they really liked/enjoyed. They’ll highlight lines/paragraphs/bits of dialogue and say, “LOVE this!”. So if you find yourself getting upset, read only the good things they had to say. Chances are, you’ll start to feel better (not only about your work, but about yourself).

7. Be open to new ideas. Don’t automatically ignore what someone says because it’s not something you’ve ever thought of. Your CP is trying to push you to becoming an even better writer; and that means they’ll push your boundaries.

8. Embrace change/ have multiple drafts. I probably should’ve made this the first on the list. If you can’t bring yourself to revise your first draft because you think it is THE shit, you might not be ready for a critique partner. Your first draft WILL NOT be perfect. It will be flawed. If you understand that and are okay with the thought of changing your MS, then you’re ready to be critiqued.

9. Critique your fellow CP. Put yourself in their position. It’s not easy, now is it? You’ll probably feel terrible pointing out things that you feel don’t work. You’ll feel as though you might be overstepping your bounds by offering suggestions. And the last thing you want is for them to get really hurt by what you say. So try to understand both sides.

10. Don’t lose yourself. While you should never brush off someone’s critique, you should also remember that it’s okay to have differing opinions. You don’t HAVE to agree with everything they say. But if you do disagree, you should discuss it more in detail. And if you still feel that you’re right, get a second (or third) opinion.

So, think you have what it takes to be a critique partner (and take criticism yourself)? Then head on over to our Critique Partner page and find yourself a CP! And if you’re already a CP, remember to always give your reader credit. Be respectful, take a few deep breaths (and maybe eat some ice cream), and you’ll be on your way to earning the status of awesome-critique-partner (and maybe even earn this snazzy “Accepting Criticism” Writer Merit Badge):

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Plain Kate / Erin Bow Blog Tour: Interview and Plain Kate Giveaway!

19 Sep

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

~~~

As you all probably know, I absolutely loved Erin Bow’s YA novel, Plain Kate (which again, I highly recommend!).

Today, we’re the third stop in Erin Bow’s blog tour – and we even have a copy of Plain Kate to giveaway, courtesy of Scholastic Canada.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Bow, and I must say, I am INCREDIBLY excited to share her answers with you! For those of you who don’t know her, Erin Bow is the author of two books of poetry and a memoir (published under her maiden name, Erin Noteboom) – and Plain Kate is her first novel. She also studied particle physics and worked briefly at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research), but left in order to pursue her passion for writing. And she’s  married to YA novelist James Bow.

For those who aren’t familiar with Plain Kate (or just need a refresher), here’s the description from Goodreads:

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.

Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

If you want to know more about Plain Kate, check out my review for it here. And now, onto the interview!

~~~

Vanessa Hi Erin! Thanks so much for joining us. Plain Kate, your first novel, draws a lot from Russian folklore. Does it draw from any one in particular? What was it about Russian folklore that inspired you to write Plain Kate?

Erin Bow: Right before the beginning of PLAIN KATE came to me, I read this huge collection of Russian fairy tales.  I love fairy tales and I thought I knew them, but the Russian ones blew me away.   They’re full of white nights and strange transformations, villains that read as tragic heros, doomed heros that still stand tall.  When I read the Grimm fairy tales, they often seem familiar, as if you’ve heard them or part of them, as if you’ve been to that Kingdom.  The Russian tales aren’t like that.  They come from just over the edge of the map; they are wilder and darker.

There’s no one tale being retold in Plain Kate.  In fact the only thing explicitly Russian in the final draft is a rusalka — a sort of vampiric ghost — and the setting is more Eastern European than anything.  Still,  I hope I got some of that wildness and darkness, some of that sad triumph.

V: It took you six years to write Plain Kate. Did the story change drastically over time?

EB: Oh, yes. I remember having vague ideas about Linay going to see a king to have a wish granted, and Kate having to stop him with some heroic act of carving, such as making a statue of the King’s dead son. There was this bit of magic, you see, where if you could make the king cry he would grant you a wish, but he was rather mad and didn’t cry, and Linay needed Kate’s shadow to weave into his violin to make his music sad, but Kate’s carving trumped that by getting at the root of the king’s madness: grief.

Well.  It’s not a bad story, but you can see that I didn’t exactly have it flushed out.  And in the end, none of that turned out to be right: there was no King, and it was Linay that was mad.  This is often the way with me: I have only the vaguest notion of where I’m going, and I usually turn out to be wrong.

Even in this iteration of the story – the Roamers, the fog, the rusalka, the journey to Lov — I went through four different versions of the ending before settling on this one.  In fact I sold this book to Scholastic with a radically different ending.  Thank heavens my editor called me out on it.

V: You’ve said on your site that of all writing, you like poetry and children’s stories best; that, “they have in common mindfulness about the magic of language”. Why do you think most stories for adults lack that magic of language?

EB: As a reader, I like YA best, but I also do read a lot of literary fiction for adults.  I am often disappointed with it in a particular way.

If a piece of writing is magic, is a spell, then too much literary fiction is a spell that does nothing.  It gives us exquisite characters, wonderful prose — and then no story.  You get to the end of a book and think: that was beautiful, but what was the point of it?  The individual words have  this tremendous power but the spell as a whole just fizzles away.

In a YA book you can’t get away with that.  Young readers know all about potential and many secretly dread that growing up means fizzling away.   So they won’t put up with it in their books.  A YA novel will, therefore, never be a spell that does nothing.   The spell may not come off, it may blow up in the author’s face, but it won’t do nothing.

I also think young readers — along with poetry readers — are more willing to fall under the spell of a book than the average adult reader.  Think about it:  is there any book we love like the books we love as children?

V: What are some of your favourite children’s stories?

EB: For children — as opposed to tweens and teens — I love E.B. White’s stuff.  Trumpet of the Swan was my favourite book when I was eight or ten; it’s about a mute trumpeter swan named Louis (that went right over my head) whose father steals him an actual trumpet.  Now I like Charlotte’s Web better.  It’s got one of the great opening lines in fiction:  “What’s Pa going with that axe?”

I could name many more books, but E.B. WHite has a special place in my heart.  I loved him as a kid, and I still love him now.   He tells wonderful, deeply human and humane stories with his animal characters.   Yet he doesn’t write down to kids the way, say, C.S. Lewis sometimes did. As a kid, you just know it’s a magical, wonderful story.  As an adult you can read it aloud and marvel at the rhythmic beauty of the sentences.

V: Taggle was my favourite character in Plain Kate; he made me laugh, he made me cry, and he had a wonderful personality. How did his character come to be? Was he your favourite character to write?

EB: From the moment I wrote the first sentence, I knew PLAIN KATE contained a talking cat. I really don’t know where characters come from; they seem to be gifts from some great giver.

Taggle got away from me, though.  He was meant to be a sidekick, but he grabbed himself a character arc, and made a pretty good bid at being the hero.  There’s a scene in the middle where he tells Kate “I can’t cry,” and then cries, that made me cry too:  I could suddenly see all the possibilities for where he was heading.

And, yes, Taggle was my favourite character to write.  He’s so honest, and everything he does is so outsized.   He was break from writing the small, subtle reactions of dear Kate, the hidden ones of Linay.  And his body language was fun to do — I got to spend time watching cats and consider it part of my job.

V: Who was the most difficult character to write, and why?

EB: Kate herself was the hardest to write, because  when she feels things strongly — particularly if she’s angry or afraid — she shuts down.  The more she feels, the less she shows.  That’s tricky to portray on the page.   Just when your editor wants you to ramp things up, the character wants to harden herself away.  Then the editor writes “but what is she feeling?” in the margin, and you want to say, “she doesn’t know, and if she did she wouldn’t tell you.”  But you have to find a way to show it anyway.

V: What are you reading right now?

EB: I am reading NICKLE AND DIMED, a non-fiction book about living on near-minimum wage.  I want to read STARCROSSED or THE REPLACEMENT or MOCKINGJAY next!

V: Last question! What are you working on now? Can you share a bit?

EB: I’ve been telling everyone on the internet about SORROW’S KNOT, my work in progress that’s almost done.  Would you like to hear about THE TELEPORTATION OF GILBERT PEREZ instead?  I’m just getting started on it.  Here’s the first page.

On October 24, 1593, a young soldier named Gilbert Perez was found wandering dazed in the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City. On being told where he was, he insisted that he had just been on sentry duty in the governor’s palace in Manila ― and indeed he was uniform of the Philippine regiment — and offered the news that the governor had just been murdered.
He was arrested for desertion and on suspicion of witchcraft.
It’s in the history books.  Look it up.
***
About all that’s left of me — of the boy who staggered beside the ruins of the serpent wall  in the blinding sun, covered in blood, clutching his head – is the boots.  They just don’t make boots like they used to.  These days it’s all steel reinforced toes and orthopediac arch support.  Give me cross-bound leather any day.  And dye it red.
Blue jeans, now, blue jeans I’ll take.
And the name, Gil.  I’ve tried to hold onto that.

(It really is in the history books.  Look it up.)

V: I definitely will be looking that up in the history books! Thanks so much, Erin!

~~~

Giveaway Details:

Want to win a copy of Plain Kate? Here’s the scoop:

Contest is open to Canadian residents only (sorry all you non-Canucks!), and will be shipped directly from the publisher (much ❤ to Scholastic!).

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment with your thoughts on the interview.

For extra entries, you can do any (or all!) of the following:

+1 for following LTWF on Twitter (add your twitter name to your comment so I know you’re following)
+2 for commenting on my review of Plain Kate
+1 for following Erin Bow (@erinbowbooks) on Twitter (let us know if you do)
+1 for following Scholastic Canada (@scholasticCDA) on Twitter (let us know if you do)
+1 for being a fan of LTWF on Facebook
+2 for following this blog – (if you don’t, just subscribe to us with your email!)
+1 for sharing this contest on Twitter – (please provide the link of your tweet in the comments)
+2 for sharing this contest on your blog – just be sure to leave a link (so that we know who you are, and how you’re sharing it!)

There are 12 entries in total. Don’t forget to leave a comment with your thoughts on the interview, otherwise your extra entries won’t count. And don’t forget to add your email so that we can contact you!

The contest ends at noon EST on Saturday, October 2nd. The winner will be picked using random.org, and will be announced on Sunday, October 3rd.

~~~

Blog Tour details:

In case you’re interested in following the blog tour (which I suggest you do!), here is a list of all the stops (including past ones and those upcoming):

September 17th:
http://eoseventeen.blogspot.com/

September 18th:
http://www.blogger.com/www.yabookshelf.com

September 20th:
http://www.lil-library.blogspot.com/
http://www.lavenderlines.wordpress.com/

September 21st:
http://www.21pages.x10hosting.com/
http://www.bellasbookshelves.wordpress.com/

September 22nd:
http://www.todays-adventure.com/

September 23rd:
http://www.themoodyteenager.blogspot.com/

September 24th:
http://www.maybe-tomorrow.net/
http://www.shelfelf.wordpress.com/

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: Plain Kate

7 Sep

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

“A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.”

Katerina Svetlana is anything but plain. Though she is thin like a stick, she has two different coloured eyes – but that isn’t what is remarkable about her. What is remarkable is that Plain Kate is a skilled carver. And she is shadowless.

This is the type of story that will leave you with chills. It will make you smile, and even laugh; it will make you shiver in horror and shake with anger; and it will break your heart. And even after your heart has mended, this is the type of story that will stay with you.

And as if this cover isn’t gorgeous enough to pique your interest, here’s the wonderful description from Goodreads:

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.

Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

~

Drawing on Russian folklore, the story immerses you in a world full of culture and depth and language. A world where magic is an exchange of gifts, and where witches are unable to tell lies; where suspicions run deep, and traditions clash. A world of gypsy-like people called Roamers, traveling caravans, and rusalkas. It is a wonderfully realized world that Erin Bow has created; and she has done it very well.

The story’s prose is deceivingly simple; and strangely lyrical. It is not overwritten; but you will find moments of beautiful poetry hidden there. Bow weaves her words with such skill that it will leave you hungry for more. Her imagery is vivid, her descriptions clear, and her storytelling absolutely brilliant.

But what is perhaps Bow’s greatest strength are her characters. They are complex (like everything else in the story), and Bow does not hold back. The characters are charming and likable and incredibly sympathetic: you’ll find yourself rooting for them. And they are all distinctly different. Strong and memorable, Plain Kate Carver herself is outdone by her cat Taggle (who steals the show). His character is wonderful; funny and playful, serious and sarcastic. He is as haughty and self-loving as a lord. But the amount of growth one little cat was able to achieve in so few pages is remarkable. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone who reads this book will fall in love with him.

But Kate is also a joy to read. Though many things happen to her, instead of because of her, she is still a strong character. With folklore and legend, often the hero has no choice. And so in keeping with the spirit of folklore, Kate is a character who has things happen to her; things that are often beyond her control. But she still holds on and fights as much as she can, even though she is not a strong warrior. She is not in possession of any dangerous magic, or otherworldly strength; she is simply skilled at carving. But it is the strength of her heart that really shines through in the end. She is a character who is truly worthy of finding happiness; and you will pray with all your might that she does eventually find it.

Bow’s villains are also beautifully portrayed. They are not wholly evil, and as such are incredibly sympathetic; you will find yourself pitying Linay, and many others who do wrong. For these are character who are driven to do bad things, though they themselves are not evil; it is through fear, or hurt, or anger, or pain that they choose to harm. In my opinion, Bow has created some of the best villains; they are complex and heartbreaking, and so well crafted.

Even Arthur A. Levine couldn’t help but say good things about Plain Kate. Here’s what he had to say in Publisher’s Weekly:

I’ve been sent a lot of fantasy, some of it quite good. But it’s very rare for a book to stand out for me the way Plain Kate did.”

Levine said Bow’s prose has the “lyrical strength and classic proportions” of master writers. “She is a truly original talent,” Levine said, evidenced by a “breathless e-mail” he got from an associate at the most recent London Book Fair who said Printz Award winner Meg Rosoff had read Plain Kate and couldn’t stop raving about it.

Plain Kate is dark, sorrowful, and haunting; it will pull on your heart-strings and tear at your chest. But it is also full of hope, and joy, and love; you will find yourself smiling in delight. There is death, there is blood; and there is life and laughter. She explores the complexities of relationships and the gray area between right and wrong. And Bow excels at portraying both the light and the dark with such depth that it will leaving you reeling even after you’ve turned the last page of the book. It is a bittersweet story of family and friendship and belonging. Plain Kate reads like an old tale: like folklore. And it is a wonder to behold.

I highly recommend this book; it is as chilling and complex as Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and is so full of heart. In fact, it’s become one of my favourite books ever. I cried so many times; honestly, I thought a piece of my heart broke. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This story touched me, and I know it’s one I’m not likely to forget. If Kate doesn’t capture your heart, then Taggle surely will. Definitely put this on your list; you won’t regret it.

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Book received from Publisher

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: A Spoiler-Free Book Review of Mockingjay

5 Sep

By Sammy Bina & Vanessa Di Gregorio

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As you probably all know, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the last installment of the Hunger Games trilogy. And we must say, it was worth the wait! Perhaps we didn’t love it as we loved The Hunger Games (though the jury’s still out on that one, in Sammy’s case); but there’s no doubt about how good a read it is. Now, in order not to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, we will be as vague as humanly possible.

So here’s our vague summary: Some stuff happens (some of it quite epic). Some people die. There’s a climax and a conclusion. And you will laugh, and you will cry. The end!

But in all seriousness, what is so brilliant about Mockingjay is the way it resolves many of the series’ conflicts; and there are a lot of conflicts. In this novel, we find the Capitol once again at odds with the Districts, find Katniss fighting with almost everyone, and we see Katniss, Gale, and Peeta all struggling with themselves and each other. The most notable aspect of this novel is how it leaves you thinking about the horror that is war; and its consequences. Katniss and her friends aren’t spared from this cruelty, and deaths (which there are many of) occur quickly and furiously. We would find ourselves stopping to try and absorb what was happening, as the pacing during the action-heavy scenes is rather quick. However, we found that it worked really well and was far more realistic than if Collins had stopped to dwell on each and every individual death. Because in war, you lose friends, and you lose them quickly. You don’t have time to stop and think because thinking is what could get you killed, and by using that same tactic in the book it was, we felt, far more brutal and painful.

However, the book (which is spilt up into three parts) lacks the same urgency that is felt in the previous two titles of the trilogy. The story begins slowly, with Katniss absorbing everything that has happened since (and there’s a lot). And as the bits and pieces fall into place, we’re faced with a relatively slower pace for the first half of the book. Considering how Catching Fire ended, we had assumed that this book would start off in medias res. But while it doesn’t start off with a furious pacing, it does certainly end off with one. And if the book had started off where Katniss just hit the ground running, it probably would have been a much less effective opening. So much transpired during the first two books, especially at the end of Catching Fire, so it seems fitting to give Katniss some time to think things through (and there is a lot to think about!).

Peeta was by far the greatest surprise for us. His character is wonderfully explored in ways not seen in the previous books. He changes from the sweet, optimistic son of a baker to a scarred and brooding shell of a man. In some ways, Peeta has endured even more than Katniss, and everything that he has experienced up until now has really brought out a new side in him that, at times, can be really hard to handle. Because the books are told from Katniss’s point of view, sometimes it can be challenging to really get into the heads of other characters, but we believe Peeta was really challenged and explored in this last enstallment, and really rounded out an already beloved character. We may even like him better after this book, if that was at all possible.

Another aspect of the series that is really explored is the idea of good versus evil; which side, if any, is the enemy. Up until this point in the trilogy, we were led to believe that the Capitol was the root of all evil, but what if that wasn’t the case? Corruption exists everywhere, not just within the confines of the Capitol, and the way Collins portrays both sides is wonderful; neither the Captiol nor the rebels are perfect. She also does an excellent job instilling doubt in both her characters as well as her readers. If the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so good, what does that say about the “bad guys?” It’s really left up to the reader to decide which side they ultimately believe in.

The story is shocking, thought-provoking, and original. What we would’ve loved, though, was being able to see what was happening, instead of being told. There are a lot of blackouts in this novel which, sadly, means that we are told of events after the fact. And while it’s understandable to use one or two, it happened enough that it began to take away from the urgency of the later half of the book. We felt like a lot of the tension was lost each time Katniss woke up and was told what had happened while she was unconscious. Some of it was pretty intense, and it would’ve been really nice to have seen Katniss in those situations, rather than knocked out and on the sidelines.

There is also a lot of explaining; perhaps a bit too much at times. The Hanging Tree song was explained at great length as Katniss remembers the significance of the song. It felt a bit too much; we certainly didn’t need to be told what it was about for over a page, and we’re sure younger readers would have understood it as well. But we certainly can’t say Collins doesn’t trust her readers to understand complex ideas or issues, because this trilogy is full of it; Mockingjay especially. Which is one of the reasons why this series is so good.

We did love that the romance wasn’t so blaringly obvious in this book; in fact, there wasn’t really much romance at all. With everything going on, Katniss didn’t have time to think about whether or not she’d rather be making out with Gale or Peeta. Everything about the romance was very toned down and simplified, and really worked to keep the tension surrounding the revolution very immediate. The little romance that is in the book doesn’t take away from the trilogy’s overall theme and message. Some readers will definitely be disappointed by the lack of romance, but we felt that it worked incredibly well with the overall story/series arc. It would’ve ruined the book if it had been included more.

And that ending! It is bittersweet and haunting, and includes an epilogue that actually works. Though the epilogue might not be necessary, it ends the trilogy with an absolutely wonderful visual; one of hope. After everything that has happened to Katniss, the ending was perfect.

All that being said, Mockingjay is a must-read; especially if you’ve read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Collins has written a wonderful story featuring a remarkably strong heroine who suffers through heartbreak, hunger, and the horrors of war. It is gripping, edge-of-your-seat suspenseful; and not at all what you will have predicted. If you haven’t picked up this book (or this trilogy, for that matter), you are missing out! So, we definitely recommend you read this.

Actually, we insist.

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For our thoughts on Mockingjay with spoilers, check out the transcript from our live chat here.

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Sammy Bina is a 5th year senior who just completed her Creative Writing degree. She is currently querying her adult dystopian romance, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, and is working on two new YA projects. She is an intern at the Elaine P. English Literary Agency in Washington DC. You can follow her on twitter or at her blog.


 

 

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Writing Good… Err… BAD Villains

2 Sep

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
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There are some characters we just love to hate. The question is: are you hating those characters for the right reasons?

Nobody wants to write a villain who isn’t… well, bad. And no one wants to write a villain who doesn’t do a good job at being a villain. Some people want to write villians who are more than just “evil” – they want to explore what makes a person truly bad – what makes them tick. Maybe your villains aren’t wholly evil – maybe they’re sympathetic. But if there’s one thing everyone will agree on, it’s that your villain needs to be capable of doing some bad things; and they need to be convincing. Otherwise, your villain will be bad for all the wrong reasons.

And villains who are evil just because they’re evil are not only rare: they’re boring.

So, how do you make sure the antagonist in your MS is a bad villain, as opposed to a bad-ly written villain?

Motivation

First, your bad guy needs some motivation. Not all villains want to take over the world. Some want to regain something that has been lost. And others just like to steal princesses from castles. And others still are trying to play God. So the question is: What is driving Dr. Horrible* to be so, well… horrible?

Is it greed? It could be greed for more money, more power, more anything really. Catwoman is a good example (although she redeems herself later on – cause who says all villains stay villains?). And tying into that is a greed of the thirst for knowledge –  Think Faust/Dr. Faustus or Rappaccini.

Perhaps it’s power – some people are power hungry. They want to be at the top of the pyramid. Or it could be hatred or revenge, which can sometimes be tied together. Hatred is pretty straightforward – is there a culture, a person/people they hate? Have they been victims in the past to hate crimes, which has in turn made them into the villain they are today? As for revenge, well… vengeance can include hatred for the one that has wronged them. Some villains want to avenge loved ones, other feel betrayed – the list goes on.

Your villain’s motivations could also be due to insanity. Crazy people can do crazy things – think the Joker, a villain who has become the perfect example of madness. Or it could be fear. Are they afraid of something? Another person, another race, another country, or another gender? Has this fear so completely devoured your villain that they have driven themselves insane? The motivation could even be something instinctual – something deeply encoded into their DNA. Werewolves are often blood-thirty, meat-eating creatures and can’t help their predatory instinct.

Anyways, you get the gist. Your villain needs to be motivated; there needs to be a driving force behind his/her actions. Was there a turning point, or a traumatic experience that has caused them to be the antagonist? Are they incredibly ambitious? Or perhaps they think they’re doing the right thing (but are really misguided) – not all villains are aware that they are evil. Some think that they are doing things for the greater good. And others might want to get rich, or increase their own personal power.

Magneto

Take Magneto, for example. He is a great example of a complex villain. Having been in the Nazi concentration camps when he was young, he knows how inhumane and cruel a majority could be to a minority. This is something he remembers when he finds himself yet again a minority; this time, as a mutant. Which is why he believes the only reason for mutants to live peacefully is for mutants to be in control and take over the world. THAT is some good motivation to make one do bad things.

Evil Factor

Not all evils are the same. Some stories require a bully – or perhaps the bullied kid who snaps and becomes the real bad guy. Some require serial killers, others corrupt kings, cops, or politicians. Some stories require demons or zombies or other supernatural creatures. Rival gang leaders, a killer cyborg, ghosts, an abusive husband, the popular but bitchy girl – the list is endless. Just make sure that your story has the right type of evil for it. A story about highschool, where your antagonist is the popular girl, probably won’t include serial killers – unless that’s what you’re going for, of course. If you’re writing humour, your villain might be over-the-top, like Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Just remember; it needs to be plausible and make sense.

Do a Little Digging

Sometimes you just need to get to know your villain just a little bit more. Even if you don’t include everything into your story, knowing the back-story for your character can help. A few things that can help you build a great villain include:

  • Figuring out how they got to where they are now. What was the turning point that made them evil? Was there a traumatic event that occurred that has forever changed them? Or were they raised a certain way? Was something vital missing from their life?
  • Give your villain at least one thing they enjoy/love without greed or malice. Some love their significant others so much they’d do anything to get them back. Maybe your villain loves the feel of rocks in one’s hand, the smell of the ocean, or a treasured pet.  Maybe they’re attached to a family heirloom or photo. Play around a bit.
  • How are these two related? Bounce the two opposing ideas back and forth in your mind – how is your villain capable of loving something so much even though they’re filled with hate and malice?
  • Take a look at people you know – what are their flaws? Exaggerate those flaws to a fault.

This isn’t necessary, of course – but I think it can add another dimension to your bad guy. Figure out what makes them vulnerable. Look at Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) – Rowling shows us bits and pieces of Voldemort’s past that help us understand, to an extent, how he came to be. It makes him not only a much more believable character, but more frightening as well. And perhaps a bit sympathetic – the kid you meet in the orphanage, though creepy, is also a bit sad. You think to yourself, “What a cute kid. If only things had been different, he might not have turned into this.”

Just make sure other people who read your story think he’s as badass as you do (because sometimes we, as the writer, assume that the reader understands our characters just as much as we do). Being the creators, we’ve got a whole array of information stored away – information that your readers aren’t aware of.

Hero?

Where does your hero fit in? Do your protagonist and antagonist know each other? Have they known one another for a long time? Are are they meeting for the first time? Don’t forget to factor in your protagonist.

Lesser Evils

There is no one singular evil. Bad guys tend to have a posse of other bad guys. Voldermort had the Death Eaters – some of the most memorable being Wormtail and Bellatrix. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings had his Nazgul, and Saruman as his right hand man. Don’t forget about all the other bad guys in your MS! They deserve to be more than two-dimensional.

Believability

In the end, it all comes down to how believable your villain is. Some of the most compelling villains are not completely evil. And they serve a purpose in your story. They bring conflict, they create tension and suspense, and they can sometimes make us sympathize with them.

Who Do You Love to Hate?

So, with that said, I’ve still got one more suggestion to help you improve your villains: Read. I know, I say that a lot; but it really does work. Look at some of your favourite villains; what makes them such strong antagonists? Why are they so memorable? What makes you love to hate them? Do you empathize with them at all? Look at what makes them great, and apply that to your own villains.

And so I now have a question for you all. Who are some of your favourite literary villains, and why?

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*yes, I threw in that link because I think everyone should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – and because he’s a great bad-at-being-bad villain, but in all the right ways.

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper

29 Aug

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
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I love graphic novels; I always have. And I’ve been a long-time fan of Kazu Kibuishi (who is married to Amy Kim Ganter, whom I’ve also been a long-time fan of). So it made sense that I would one day pick up his middle grade graphic novel series, Amulet.

To be honest, I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick this up. The first time I saw the cover for Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper, I knew I wanted it . Actually, scratch that; the first time I heard about it, before it was published, I knew I wanted it. The only thing I really regret is waiting so long to pick this graphic novel up. You’ll be hooked after the first few pages, and Kibuishi’s art is absolutely lovely. The colours are vivid, the settings are breathtaking, and the creatures are wonderfully designed.

Though you can tell while reading that this graphic novel series is for children, chances are you’ll probably still enjoy it!

Here’s a description from Goodreads:

After a family tragedy, Emily, Navin, and their mother move to an old ancestral home to start a new life. On the family’s very first night in the mysterious house, a strange noise lures them into the basement, where Em and Navin’s mom is kidnapped by a humongous, tentacled creature and dragged down behind the basement door.

The kids give chase down a twisty spiral stairway and find themselves in a strange and magical world below. Most surprising of all, it seems that their great-grandfather, who was an inventor and puzzle maker, was there before them – and he’s left some unfinished business.

Now it’s up to Em and Navin to figure out how to set things right and save their mother’s life!

~~~

If you’ve ever read The Spiderwick series, you might find a few similarities; especially with the kids moving to an old, mysterious house that used to belong to an equally mysterious relative. And if you read a lot of fantasy like I do, then the story for Book 1 will be a bit familiar, playing on a lot of similar ideas and archetypes.  But similarities aside, Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper, is a wonderful read. Though older readers will find the story a bit predictable, I could not put this graphic novel down; and after finishing, immediately picked up Book 2. The plot is fast-paced and builds up steadily, with multiple series of adventures Em and Navin are forced to overcome in order to save their mother. There is tons of action; and Kibuishi is amazing when it comes to action packed scenes.

Like all good fantasies, The Stonekeeper introduces you to a world that has been wonderfully imagined; and gorgeously visualized. I found myself taking in all the wonderful details in Kibuishi’s artwork: the colours set the tone, as do the settings; and not once was I bored of the artwork. And his world is such a wonderful combination: it is fantasy, and steampunk, and sci-fi, all wrapped up into one fantastically realized world. I mean, robots and elves and monsters and giant mechs? How can you go wrong?

Em and Navin are well-written (and well-drawn) characters. They are complex and strong, in their own ways. They aren’t perfect, which makes them wonderfully realistic. Em seems like any other young girl you might meet, albeit a girl who is a natural born leader. She doesn’t want to live in the new house, says things that can be hurtful, and often is a wonderful contradiction (without being all over the place). Though she is brave, she is also at times frightened. Navin, though young, is a quick learner who is immensely curious. He is often much more optimistic than his older sister, but you can see the chips in his armor every now and then. Being the first book in the series, I know that they will only continue to grow into even more complex and enjoyable characters; and I look forward to seeing it.

Kibuishi has also changed the way one thinks of elves. His elves are not your usual elves, who are extremely tall and thin, with long blonde hair and gorgeous features. They do not live in the woods. His elves are ugly, frightening creatures. They are bad tempered, oppressive, and industrial; nature is not their home. In fact, his elves are so wonderfully not what you’d imagine; and are far more complex than just being the “bad” guys. One elf in particular, Trellis, is one of my favourite antagonists; he is a character who grows as the series progresses. And you will find him to be an incredibly complex and haunting character.

If that doesn’t sound exciting enough, note the influences Kazu Kibuishi lists in his interview with The National Post for Amulet:

“One of my biggest goals in life was to create a great fantasy graphic novel series in the vein of Bone by Jeff Smith and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki. It was one of those things I just wanted to do just to do it, like climbing a mountain. As I began writing the book, the focus began to shift more toward talking about family issues, like financial burdens and a person’s ties to their own ancestry. It was a place for me to discuss a lot of the stuff that was happening in my own family, and when I read it now, I can clearly see how close it is to my own life, minus the monsters and robots, of course…I’m influenced by so many films and filmmakers it would be hard to list them all! I can say, however, that Amulet was most inspired by films like E.T. and Star Wars, with dashes of Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue, John Carpenter films, the first two Alien films, and a whole lot of Hayao Miyazaki films.”

Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper is definitely a graphic novel I would recommend to anyone who enjoys reading comics, manga, or graphic novels. If you love MG and YA fiction and fantasy, then you’ll fall in love with the world Kibuishi has created, and the characters inhabiting it. It is a quick, fun, easy read that will leave you wanting more.  And if you’re still not convinced, check out the prologue for Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper here!

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Where to Begin: Writing Great First Lines

19 Aug

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
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Every story has a beginning; some are bad, some are good, and some are downright amazing. And it all starts with your first line.

Last week, we looked at our worst first lines. And you could tell that they weren’t working. So, what is key to writing that brilliant first line? How do you start writing when the first line is so all-important?

Well, it’s simple; just write. If you haven’t started writing a new manuscript because you don’t know how to start it (first lines are very daunting), just start writing. Even if it’s a scene that takes place later, once you’ve got one sentence down, the rest comes a bit easier. First lines aren’t necessarily born; they aren’t always the first things you write. Most of the time, that great first line you can be proud of comes after you’ve finished your manuscript; and after multiple revisions. So, don’t make first lines the first thing you stress over; make it one of the last. Then again, sometimes you start writing knowing only your first line. Just try not to think too much about it until you get to the revision stage. But regardless of where in your MS you are, I thought we could look at what makes a good first line.

It’s always intimidating when you try to think of (or edit) your first line. After all, it is the first thing people will read! It’s common knowledge that you should try to hook your reader in the first page; and some authors are able to do that with their first sentence. So, how can you achieve that awesome opening sentence that will make people want to read more right away?

Read.

Wordle: First Lines

Grab some books off your bookshelf and check out their first lines. Find your favourite ones and read those first sentences. What makes them so effective?

What you’ll probably notice is that they are:

  • Short, sweet, and simple
  • Set the tone of the story
  • Raise questions and/or shock you
  • Have a very compelling and clear voice

What you might also notice is that the first and second lines work in tandem together. So don’t stress about trying to put everything into one sentence. If it works better in two sentences, split them into two.

Here are some examples:

Short & Sweet:

Keeping it simple has always been a good tip when writing. It prevents overwriting, and gets straight to the point. Keeping it short also makes readers interested in learning more, and their eyes will quickly move to the second line.

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She learns pain early.” – Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao

You can’t get much simpler than this. It’s short and sweet; and best of all, it catches your attention. You immediately ask, “Why?” So don’t feel that you need to overwrite your first sentence; sometimes the simpler it is, the better.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” – Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Solider

Again, this is pretty simple. And this sentence also begs the question, “Why?” – We, as readers, want to know why and how the story is sad. It is effective, simple, and straight to the point. This line is also a great example of setting the tone of the rest of the novel.

Juniper was different from us.” – Monica Furlong, Wise Child

Yet another short and simple sentence. Reading this, I wanted to know, “Who is Juniper, and how is she different?”. This sentence also introduces a character in a way that is interesting.

Shock Factor:

Let’s face it; shocking people works. As does asking questions. When you throw something in that is so wrong, or grotesque, or strange, or uncanny, or terrifying, you get people’s attention. Be bold; make eyebrows raise. Do something so crazy that it catches your reader’s eye.

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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Geroge Orwell, 1984

This opening line immediately makes you pause. Clocks striking thirteen? When you think of clocks striking any number, chances are you’re thinking of a traditional round clock, with it’s hands pointing to the time; not a digital or 24-hour clock. You picture Big Ben striking midnight; but what do you picture when the author throws in something completely strange? Well, you end up intrigued. Orwell hooks you right from the get-go by shocking you.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger

Quite possibly my favourite opening line ever. Just brilliant. This is definitely shocking when you read it. It can be interpreted so many ways; is he heartless? Or is he in such shock that time no longer matters? Whatever your initial reaction to this opening (which is, I know, two sentences – which you can do!), you know that you’re immediately hooked and want to know more. Plus, it sets the tone for the rest of the novel beautifully, and has a great voice.

Setting the Tone:

The tone of your MS can be set in different ways; it can be in the description of the setting, or in the voice of a character, or perhaps just with a simple statement. Regardless of what direction you go, setting the tone allows you to create an atmosphere that entrances your reader.

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I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day I met death.” – Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death

There is a lot of great stuff going on in this first sentence. It makes you ask questions, and is definitely shocking; it introduces you to character, and has a wonderful voice; and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I don’t know how anyone can read this sentence and not want to keep reading!

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” – Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

I am a huge fan of this opening sentence. It’s still pretty short and sweet (definitely not a long winding sentence), and it gets to the point. It sets the tone; it seems that Katniss, throughout The Hunger Games, is left in the cold (in a way). She is left looking for warmth, but she is also wary of it. It just seems to me to be a wonderful first line to an amazing book. It makes you ask questions, and is a bit scary; as is a lot of what happens in the novel.

Narrator’s Voice:

If your MS has a great and compelling voice, use it for your first line. Great and interesting characters will always hook  your readers. If you can make your character come to life in that first sentence, your readers will connect with your character right then and there; and will want to keep reading as a result.

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If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

Chuck Palahniuk is great when it comes to capturing a narrator’s voice. The voice is so clear and intriguing and full of character; and he accomplishes this in only eight words.

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The first line is definitely something you want to be aware of when you write (but not too aware!). It should, at some point during your revision process, be given quite a bit of thought. Some might argue that the first line is even more important than your title! So remember: be bold, be brave, and be clear. Get people’s feedback; maybe someone will point out another line you’ve written that would work much better as a first line. Don’t be afraid to keep it short; as seen above, short and sweet can be incredibly effective, and will get people itching to read your second sentence. Don’t be afraid to shock people, or get them asking questions; don’t be afraid to introduce your characters right off the bat, or set the tone with a descriptive line. But be sure to give your first line some attention; after all, it IS the first impression your readers will get. And you want that impression to be lasting.

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Tomorrow, we’ll be answering the QOTW regarding our favourite first lines; and hopefully, you’ll share some favourites too!

Today, though, I thought we could share first lines we’ve written ourselves.
To start us off, I’ll share mine:
In the darkness before Dawn, our people, the Ane’a, were born.”

So, what are the first lines of your MSS?

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: Prophecy of the Sisters

17 Aug

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
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“Perhaps because it seems so appropriate, I don’t notice the rain.”

Right from the first page, I fell in love with Lia Milthorpe’s voice. I think that – and Michelle Zink’s gorgeously lyrical prose – was my favourite thing about Prophecy of the Sisters.

Set in the late nineteenth century, the story has a very Gothic feel to it; there are some elements of horror and a hint of romance. And there are some incredibly creepy scenes; the atmosphere and setting that Zink creates is very eerie and spooky. The Victorian period, a time of great propriety, is a wonderful backdrop to the dark and sinister prophecy that places Lia and her twin sister Alice on opposing sides. For me, things are just that much more ominous involving two young women from this period; though they are expected by society to be innocent and virtuous, they are forced to be anything but.

Here’s a description from Goodreads:

An ancient prophecy divides two sisters.

One good. One evil.

Only one will prevail…

Sixteen-year-old Lia Milthorpe and her twin sister Alice have just become orphans, and, as Lia discovers, they have also become enemies. The twins are part of an ancient prophecy that has turned generations of sisters against each other. To escape from a dark fate and to remain in the arms of her beloved boyfriend James, Lia must end the prophecy before her sister does. Only then will she understand the mysterious circumstances of her parents’ deaths, the true meaning of the strange mark branded on her wrist, and the lengths to which her sister will go to defeat her.

Debut novelist Michelle Zink takes readers on an unforgettable journey where one sister’s fateful decision could have an impact of Biblical proportions. Prophecy of the Sisters is the first of three books.

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The story and plot is wonderfully mysterious right from the beginning with the dark and vivid funeral scene . After her father mysteriously dies, Amalia discovers a mysterious mark on her wrist; one that, with each passing day, becomes clearer and much more prominent. As Lia begins to uncover the ancient secrets and mysteries surrounding her, she finds herself at the center of a centuries-old prophecy pitting her against her twin sister, Alice. Forced to battle their own destinies, which are so clearly laid out for them, Alice and Lia are also forced to fight against each other  for the future they want. For one sister, the prophecy is a curse; a burden that weighs heavily on her life, as well as the lives of those she loves. For the other sister, it is a calling; and a birthright.

The middle slows down quite a bit, but it is the beauty of Zink’s prose that will keep you enthralled. I found myself figuring certain things out before Lia did, but I was so engrossed in the story and in her character that it didn’t really bother me that much. There is very little action, but there is so much suspense and tension in this book that you won’t be bored. I for one could not put this book down; I would find myself catching my breath in horror, and could not stop turning the pages. The end becomes a whirlwind that will leave you breathless; and the extent that Alice falls into her role as the “evil” sister will horrify you.

One thing I wish there could’ve been more of is Alice. Her character is so wonderfully ambiguous; in fact, there are moments where you feel that she isn’t wholly bad, and others where you’re convinced that she is truly evil. She is a character that confuses me, but her role as both sister and antagonist make for a very interesting and conflicting individual; and it makes for an even more interesting relationship between her and her twin. Her loyalty leans more to one side than the other, and it seems that she might grow into an even more sinister character as time goes on. Being the first book of a trilogy, though, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing more of Alice in the next two books. Her character is just so wonderfully obscure that I could not help but be intrigued by her. Zink, with the two sisters, has created an extraordinarily mature relationship in its complexity.

The romance (or lack thereof) actually suited the book. It is never heavy-handed (like a lot of YA these days); instead, you get to see Lia get so wrapped up in the prophecy that she begins to neglect James, the one she loves. In Prophecy of the Sisters, Lia already has a relationship with James. So while the romance can add a bit of lightness to a very moody and dark story, the romance also serves another purpose. In Lia’s quest to discover the meaning of the prophecy, you see her move further away from James, and from the comfort that had once been their relationship. You see the cost of hiding secrets from another person, and how it affects not only one’s self, but those closest to them. And I thought that was brilliant on Zink’s part.

If you enjoyed Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (and the rest of the Gemma Doyle trilogy), then you’ll love Prophecy of the Sisters. While there are a lot of elements that are similar, they are definitely very different stories. Zink’s debut novel is a wonderful fantasy intertwined with mythology that is dark, twisted, and hauntingly beautiful. It will leave you feeling shocked – and wanting more. And while the prose, plot, and setting is much stronger than the characters, there is no doubt that they are still well-written and wonderfully flawed. I immediately went out and bought the sequel, Guardian of the Gate, which came out earlier this month. And you can be sure that it will be the next book I read. So pick it up; you will fall in love.

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.