Monday, February 22, 2016

Blackbird Summer - A Book Review

I was lucky to receive an advanced copy of Blackbird Summer by Em Shotwell. I've been looking forward to reading it since I saw her pitches during a Twitter pitch party over a year ago.

Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down! The characters, the story, the world, drew me in and refused to let me go. It was one of those books that you didn't want to end.

The story takes place in the small town of Brooklyn, Mississippi. We meet the Caibre family, who are shunned because of their various Gifts. Though the family doesn't cause any trouble, the residents of Brooklyn avoid them, of course unless they need the family's services. Because of this, the family keeps to themselves.

21-year-old Tallulah Caibre wants to make her own decisions about her life, but that's not the way things work in the Caibre family. Those with Gifts are supposed to follow the path set out for them. For Tallulah, that means marriage and helping to home school the children. When she meets Logan, she's even more determined to find happiness on her own, especially since he doesn't care about her family's reputation.

Tallulah's dreams of a life of her own are shattered when tragedy strikes the family and the town seems to rise against them. She's is determined to find out who is attacking her family. She soon finds herself torn between what she wants and her duty to her family.

Em had me hooked right from the start. I loved Tallulah and her, stubbornly independent sister, Delia. All her characters jumped off the page. They had great depth, each with their own personality and I could relate to them. For anyone who's grown up in a small town, like myself, you can understand Tallulah's desire to escape and do something more with her life.

I was amazed at the depth of emotion Em captured. I was so drawn in that I got teary in several parts of the book. The dynamic in the family was perfectly captured and I found that parts were written as only a parent could. There were times where Tallulah saw her parents struggle or they said things that really resonated with me on the parental level. There were parts in the story where I cheered out loud or gasped because I knew something was coming. It was an emotional rollercoaster and by the end of it, I felt that I had taken a journey...which is a good thing.

The world building was wonderful. I enjoyed the different gifts the family had and the way they lived. You could understand Tallulah's frustration with the status quo, but also understand why the family lives as they do. I really got the small town feel from this book. As I mentioned, growing up in a small town of 1500, I could relate to a lot of things in the book. Em did a wonderful job of capturing some of the challenges of living in a small town.

The characters weren't the only reason I couldn't put this book down.The suspense kept me reading as well. When someone started targeting the family, I to keep find out who it was. She does a wonderful job of leading the reader along without giving away too much and keeping you wanting more. I was questioning who it was up to the end.

If you enjoy urban fantasy (though this one may be tagged as rural fantasy) and stories about family with a side of a love story thrown in, Blackbird Summer is a must read. I can't wait to read the next one in the series.

Blackbird Summer will be released on April 5, 2016. For more, visit Em Shotwell's blog, Goodreads, or her Facebook page.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Joys (and Frustrations) of Pantsing

I've never been much for plotting out my stories. I like to sit down and see where the characters take me. Sometimes it works...other times not so much.

I'm not against plotting, it just doesn't work for me. I've tried to sit down and determine how the story should go, but I find that if I force myself, the ideas refuse to come. I get my best ideas when I'm "in character" writing.

When I started writing the urban fantasy manuscript that I'm now querying, I knew who I wanted the main character to be. I thought he'd be divorced, with a bit of a drinking problem, in his mid-30s, and not want to be tied down. Well, when I started writing Cole (actually, he started out as Logan), he basically laughed at me. He kept the jaded sarcasm I had planned, but everything else went out the window. He ended up being in his late-20s, never been married, and wanting a commitment from his sort-of girlfriend. When I met a paramedic in the opening scene, I thought she would be his love interest. Well, he had other plans again. Ali, who I'd intended to be a passing character ended up being his love interest and is now getting her own book. I'm quite happy with the way things turned out and the unplanned characters who appeared. There were a few times a character popped up and I said, "Why hello! Who are you?"

That's some of the fun of being a pantser, exploring the story and following the characters. Some people who plot do this as well, even if it messes up their plans.

This doesn't just happen with the characters, it also happens with the plot. I often start with a concept and a plot. Sometimes I know the subplots, most of the time I don't. Sometimes I know the ending, but not always. It's not always easy to write when you're not 100% sure where you're going. It takes a lot of trust in your characters. I do spend a lot of time reminding myself to just go with it and anything I don't like can be changed or dropped during revisions. I also tend to leave some blanks that need to be filled in when I've got a good handle on the story.

Once I get that first story written, and have explored the world and characters, I often know where the rest of the series will go and have more specific things planned for the books to follow. For the book I'm querying now, I have three or four more planned. Maybe not enough for full plots, but enough that I have lots of notes on things I want to happen.

Being a pantser can mean more editing time. So the time spent pre-planning is often spent refining the story on the second or third draft. Once I finish my first draft, I've started taking cue cards and writing all the major points on them. Then I lay them out and shuffle them around looking for scenes to move, delete, add in, or blend together.

I also find that pantsing can lead to exploratory writing. I often write scenes that are more for my discovery of the story or character that don't make it into the final version. I keep a folder of deleted or original scenes because I'm always worried I'll need them. That doesn't happen too often though.

Everyone's writing process is different. You have to do what works for you. But no matter what your process is, be ready to change it if you find something else that works.

What do you find works best for you?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dark Currents - A Book Review

I recently finished reading Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey. I came across the book at my local bookstore and thought I'd give it a shot. I always love trying new authors.

In Dark Currents, half-demon and liaison for the Norse Goddess Hel, Daisy Johanssen, must w
ork with her long-time crush, police officer and werewolf, Cody Fairfax, to solve the drowning death of a college student. Though the family is putting pressure on the police department in Pemkowet to rule it as an accidental death, it's not. Daisy and Cody know the young man's murder has ties to the eldritch (supernatural) community, and if not handled carefully, could cause problems between the mundane world and eldritch.

I must admit, this book wasn't for me. I had a hard time getting into the story and found that I didn't care if the case was solved. The stakes weren't high enough for me to worry about it for the first 300 pages. Once Daisy and Cody finally figured out what really happened, then it got a little more interesting, but still not enough to really draw me in and make me want to get to the end as soon as possible. It was a good thing I didn't put the book down and forget about it.

One of the hardest things about writing fantasy is the world building. This Carey did very well. I liked the way she developed the interaction between the paranormal and the mundane. The story takes place in the tourist town of Pemkowet where the veil between supernatural and mundane is thinner than other places. This allows paranormal beings to thrive there. There were several different supernatural entities, with I liked, especially the appearance by the Oak King. Carey did a good job of making her world believable.

I found the main character, Daisy Johanssen, too contrary. Most of the time she came off as immature and ditsy, especially when she cheered for herself when she used a big word. I understand that she was still learning about her abilities and her role as Hel's enforcer, but she seemed too inexperienced. It really hurt Daisy's credibility when her former babysitter, Lurine (who is also a supernatural entity), showed up to protect Daisy when she, Cody, and another detective were going to question the local Ghouls. There were other times you'd get a glimpse of someone I thoughts was much cooler, especially when she drank her scotch and listened to Blues records. The two sides of her personality seemed too contradictory for me.

I also didn't feel the attraction between Daisy and Cody or Daisy and Stefan. I like it when I'm dying for the main character and love interest to kiss or get together. Here, I didn't feel it at all. There were a few moments where it was close, but I didn't find myself rooting for any relationship.

Unfortunately, there wasn't enough I liked in this book to make me pick up the next one.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Matter of Opinion

Beta readers (betas) and critique partners (CPs) are essential to the writing process. They allow you to see your work differently and can help you figure out what is and isn’t working in your story.

But do you always need to take their advice?

This is a tricky question.

If you have a good betas and CPs, they will give you their honest opinions. They will also tell you to take what works for you and leave behind what doesn’t. I’m never offended if I critique something and the writer decides not to use my thoughts.

The important thing is that you considered the advice. I weigh everything my betas or CPs tell me. Sometimes the advice resonates immediately; sometimes I stomp my feet and cross my arms, but in the end, know the advice was right; other times suggestions don’t work for me.

Everyone reacts to things differently.

I love hearing the different ways people react to or view my stories as long as the feedback is given in a genuine and helpful way. I had a beta tell me she quit reading one of my manuscripts because she didn’t like what was happening to the main character. She did end up finishing the manuscript. I was fascinated and asked her several questions about her reaction.

I had two great CPs for the urban fantasy I’m currently querying. It was interesting to see their thoughts because sometimes they gave opposite advice. For example, one encouraged fewer details in spots, while the other wanted more. I considered everything they said and in the end, trusted my gut, and did what I thought was best for the story based on their advice.

It can be easy to dismiss all comments, but then you’re missing out on ways to improve your work.

It can also be easy to take everyone’s advice and try to work it into your story. If you do that, you’ll be editing forever and end up with a story that’s not true to your vision.

You know your story. Learn to trust your instincts about what can improve it and what isn’t a good fit.