Wordy Wednesday: Reading for Inspiration

So a quick list of things that happened this past week:

  • Saturday, Hannah and I checked out Summer Streets (basically, they shut down seven miles of Park Avenue in the morning for people to explore). We rented bikes and rode them from one end almost all the way to the other, which was simultaneously a beautiful trip and also way too hot to be good for our health. Despite the latter, I still HIGHLY recommend this if you’re ever in New York on a day when they put this on. (The end we didn’t get to also had a zip line and Slide the City and stuff set up. You had better bet I’m coming back someday.)
  • That evening, we also splurged and saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was INCREDIBLE. Oh my gosh. Like I cannot get over how good it was.
  • Sunday we grabbed brunch with another friend on the upper west side, checked out a street fair, then sprawled in Central Park for a couple hours—and sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself that yes, this is actually my life right now, because little eleven-year-old Julia who dreamed of New York City wouldn’t be able to handle it. (I love Ann Arbor and I’m excited to go back in a couple weeks, but also I’m going to miss this city so much.)
  • Yesterday I finally made it over to Books of Wonder, which completely lives up to the hype. Such a good selection of every type of children’s literature, and so many signed books, and I got to listen to little kids squealing with excitement over in PB while I ogled the YA (which is always a nice thing). I’m trying to limit how many books I purchase right now, since I need to keep my suitcase under fifty pounds (aaand I’m kind of supposed to be reading school books, to get ahead on my work for fall semester)—but I did cave and pick up a signed copy of Damage Done by Amanda Panitch. (Quick story on that: once upon a time I was in the same pitch contest as Amanda—X-mas in July, way back in the yesteryear of 2013—and while my entry was lucky enough to get a few nibbles, hers absolutely STOLE THE SHOW and got SIXTEEN requests and I’ve been obsessively following its publication story ever since.)
  • And, finally, last night Hannah and I met up again to grab dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where we listened to all the amazing performers and stuffed ourselves until our stomachs felt like they were going to explode. (Like, it’s going on eight AM and I’m still a little over-full. What a wonderful and terrible thing.)

Note that so much more happened in the past week than I’ve listed here, but I don’t want to bore you too much with the details of my life. But in essence I’m going to need to sleep for a month when I get back to Michigan. (Only another week and a half left in NYC. They’re going to have to tear me away.)

Onto the reason we’re here today: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I’ve been reading a lot this summer. A LOT. Between reading manuscripts for work, and trying to get ahead on reading for my literature class this fall, and all the free time I’ve had on the subway, I’ve read eighteen books since arriving in New York a month and a half ago. (And I’m a slow reader. Imagine what I could do if I was a fast one.)

I’ve also finally begun feeling more inspired to write again, and I think this is in no small part due to what I’ve been reading. Which is to say: I’ve been reading a really wide variety of books. Wider than I normally do.

So, here are the types of reading I’ve been doing that have helped inspire me to write and why.

Rereading Your Favorite Books

I’ve read Anna and the French Kiss approximately a billion times. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I absolutely adore that novel and will probably reread it a billion more times in the future.

Rereading it this summer, I really paid attention to what makes me like it so much. Anna’s voice, and the way Stephanie Perkins weaves subplots together, and the descriptions of Paris. This is a great exercise, because it shows you what kinds of things you most connect with in books so that you can better learn from them and work on those sorts of things in your own writing. (Plus, it gives you an excuse to read your favorites again, and who’s going to say no to that?)

Reading New Books in Your Genre

I’ve also been reading a lot of new books in my genre. Now, I write thrillers, which luckily still leaves me with a broad range to read, but also means a lot of thrillers are VASTLY different from mine. This is okay, because what I connect to depends less on setting and the specifics of the plot as much as the overall structure and feel of the story. (Example: An Ember in the Ashes. Totally different from anything I’d ever write, but still a thriller and still BRILLIANT.) What makes me keep turning the pages? Why is this scene exciting? What makes this mystery so unpredictable? 

Although I could think through questions like these with books I’ve read before, I’ve found that it helps to look at some fresh blood too. Keep up with what’s new in your genre and all that.

Also: reading new books is a great way to get inspired. Who knows, maybe discovering a new twist on the whole red herring thing is exactly what you need in order to work out how to handle the red herring in your own novel as well.

Reading New Books Not in Your Genre

I don’t write contemporary/realistic fiction, but I’ve been reading a lot in that genre this summer. And that’s good, because you can learn a ton from books that have next to nothing in common with what you write.

As mentioned, I love the voice in Anna and the French Kiss, so I really paid attention to that while rereading it. However, it’s also important to read new books in genres other than your own. All books have baseline similarities between them, like voice, plot structure, character arcs, etc.–and although these things may all manifest themselves differently depending on genre, you can still find things you like about them in other genres to apply to your own writing. And the really great part about doing this is that you’ll likely find things established authors in your genre aren’t doing as much, so they’ll be even more unique as you figure out your own twists on them.

By reading books in other genres for the first time, you open yourself up more to those sorts of realizations. It can be difficult to pick out things like that in books you’ve read before, because you already have preconceived ideas from previous reads. But with a new book, you’re just a blank page waiting for inspiration to strike.

Rereading Books You Don’t Like

We all have those books we absolutely despise. And I’m not saying, necessarily, to reread those. (Because that constitutes a form of cruel and unusual punishment.) But maybe pick up a couple books you had to slog through for school, or that you found just kind of generally annoying, or whatever it was and give them a second chance.

I’m currently rereading The Great Gatsby, which I know objectively is a, well, great book. But I found it boring and difficult and weird back when I had to read it in sophomore year honors English, so when I found out we’d be studying it in my lit class this fall, I was less than thrilled.

Currently, I’m fifty pages in and loving it.

Sometimes you just weren’t ready for a book the first time you read it. Other times, when you reread, your initial reaction sticks. Either way, rereading a book you don’t like can be a great exercise in opening your mind to old ideas you’d previously rejected, or at the least studying what you don’t like about those books so you can avoid those things in your own.

Reading in General

The most important thing is to read. Open yourself to new reading experiences. Really pay attention while you’re reading (while it should be fun, you should also be learning).

Soon, someone might be reading your own book for inspiration.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

PS. I promise the now very belated Ch1Con recap will go up soon! It’s mostly written. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to finish it in the next few days. Thanks for being patient! ❤

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Story Time: Going Home

Warning ahead of time: This is going to be a long and sappy one.

Yesterday was my first day of spring break and after a funky chain of events involving yet another dermatologist appointment and my mom needing to get back to work, I ended up with her minivan and the task of getting myself home in one piece.

Although I learned to drive a billion years ago, I didn’t get around to getting my license until the very end of 2014, and since then I haven’t been home enough to really use it. Until yesterday, I’d only driven by myself once before and that was entirely on surface streets that I knew like the back of my hand, making the trip to a friend’s house New Year’s Day in a compact, easy-to-maneuver Jeep.

So there I was, in Mom’s massive, headstrong minivan, driving for the first time in a month and for the first time by myself in two. On only my second solo trip.

Mom had rattled off a series of directions for getting home as we pulled up at her office, but I didn’t trust myself to remember anything (I was a little more focused on, you know, not killing anyone), so I opened Google Maps on my phone and told it to guide me home.

The first bit went all right. I turned where I was supposed to, merged onto the highway without too much trouble, and was even feeling so good about my prospects of surviving that I turned on the radio.

Then I realized which way home Google Maps was taking me.

There’s this terrible stretch of highway I’ve taken a thousand times as a passenger, but had never driven before, where a bridge breaks up the monotony of patched pavement. On one side of the bridge is an entrance ramp, always clogged with road rage-y drivers trying to force you out of their way, and on the other side is an exit ramp that sometimes gets so backed up, the line blocks the entrance ramp.

Here’s a problem with Google Maps: It told me what I needed to do. I even recognized what I was speeding towards. But it didn’t click until I was like twenty feet from the exit ramp, the entrance ramp people crowding me out of the far right lane and trying to force me even further to the left, that it really clicked that Google Maps was instructing me to take the exit that has made my mild-mannered mother mutter expletives on more than one occasion.

I can’t remember ever once going past that exit—I don’t even know where that highway leads past that exit—but as I tried to merge into the right lane, the car in that one pulled up beside me and tried to merge into mine. We were barreling towards the exit I needed and he clearly didn’t want. And somehow magically, magically, I managed to slow down without the pickup truck on my tail rear-ending me, giving the car to my right just enough time to pull ahead and into my lane while I swerved into his and straight down the exit ramp. A ballet of sorts.

Heart pounding, palms sweating, I made it down the exit ramp (which is actually an entrance ramp) and onto the connecting highway.

Slowly my heartbeat slowed. I recognized the backs of strip malls as I passed. And I stopped needing Google Maps because I was back in home territory, on streets I had driven before although never alone, and I made it home.

It was a beautiful day out, all clear blue sky and sparkling snow. Heat pulsed through the vents and I yanked off my hat and scarf. Unzipped my heavy down coat.

I pulled up outside my house and realized I didn’t want to go in.

So, after sending a quick text to my mom to let her know I was still alive, I pulled away from the curb and made my way to a nearby nature trail. I had to use a traffic circle and turn left into the parking lot—both things that terrified me just a couple months ago—but I made it fine. I sat in there in the warm minivan for a little while, letting “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers wash over me. Then I headed out on the trail.

The snow was about a thousand inches deeper than the last time I’d gone hiking there, a few days before Christmas with my family, and I wasn’t dressed for it, with only a light sweater on under my coat and heeled, knee-high faux leather boots. But I made it a decent way along the path, stopping to watch a churning river flow under shiny, clear ice and following deer tracks along a side path. After a while, I found what I was looking for: a pair of benches out in the sun, their snow melted so long ago they were dry.

I sat down on one, pulled the book I’d brought from my purse, and read.

hiking and reading 2-27-15

I don’t know if you’ve ever just sat out in the middle of nature without another creature in sight for an afternoon, but it’s one of my favorite ways to detox, especially on days like yesterday when it was cold but not too cold. (No bugs, no other people, but also no hypothermia.)

At one point an old man walked by and we exchanged hellos, but otherwise I didn’t see a single other person the entire time I sat there.

Growing restless after a while, I got up and hiked a couple more of the side paths, then came back to my bench and lay down with the sky so blue, blue, blue above me and the sun warm on my cheeks and birds calling to each other somewhere high in the branches, and read for a while longer.

At which point I realized I had no idea how much time had passed (it could have been two o’clock or five) and my phone was dead, so I pulled myself up and made the trek back to the minivan.

It wasn’t TOO late (only like three thirty), so I drove from there to Barnes and Noble to pick up a few more books, relishing in the fact that I’d managed to turn left out of the nature trail’s parking lot despite heavy traffic and I parked between two cars at B & N without straying outside my spot’s lines. (Also the fact that I drove past the pet store without stopping, despite my realization that I was an adult with a credit card, a car, and no one to stop me from going in there and adopting a hundred kittens.)

Perfect. The afternoon had been perfect.

Then I tried merging into the right lane to turn towards home and the car beside me wouldn’t let me over.

This was no complicated, lucky dance like had occurred on the highway. This was someone who clearly didn’t want to let me ahead of her, with another car right behind her.

This time, I missed my turn.

It wasn’t devastating or anything. It was only another mile to the next turn towards my house, so I’d barely lost any time or gas. But it was disappointing for an entire afternoon of doing well behind the wheel to end in this.

Except, wait—I saw a street sign coming up that I recognized and had forgotten about. My old street, the one my family lived on until I was around six, that also connected to where I needed to go. A shortcut.

I turned onto it.

I’ve been on my old street plenty of times since we moved. We still know people in the neighborhood and, as mentioned, it made a nice shortcut. But I’d never driven it before, not even with an ever watchful parent in the passenger seat, so it was strange to guide the minivan up the road, drawing closer and closer to the house where I’d learned to ride a bike and had countless playdates and first fallen in love with make believe and stories and symbolism.

The backyard’s full of fruit trees—cherry and a whole row of apple. There’s a maple tree that my brother and the neighbors and I climbed constantly and bled all over almost as constantly from scraped palms and knees. We had a sandbox shaped like a tugboat that my brother used to grow maple saplings from seeds and a play gym my dad built himself.

This was the house where my brother and I built forts in the living room with cardboard bricks and couch cushions to keep the monsters away while watching Scooby Doo. This was the house where I had “tea parties” with countless babysitters with my pink plastic tea set full of hot water from the bathroom sink, and made up complicated, endless stories about my collection of toy horses.

This was the house where I terrorized our cats by zipping them into suitcases and yanking them out from beneath furniture. This was the house where my brother once shattered the bathroom window by hitting it at just the right spot with a toothbrush while trying to kill a fly. This was the house where my parents left a TV on in my bedroom all night long for weeks on end in kindergarten because I was afraid of the dark and sleep and everything in between.

I have so many wonderful and terrible memories of that house, all so lodged in the past, buried under more recent things, more relevant ones, I hardly ever think about them anymore.

As I pulled near, I spotted movement up the driveway and I realized there were three little kids racing toward the garage with backpacks that were far too big for them bouncing, two boys and a teeny, tiny girl, dressed in head-to-toe pink.

It’s funny how life goes on. How one day you’re five years old, living in one house, and the next you’re twenty, just driving past it on your way to another. It’s funny how hard I cried when my parents made us move, how we panicked when we thought the movers had let my cat out and he was lost forever, but we found him and everything was okay and he made it all the way to my senior year of high school instead.

It’s funny how now I’m a junior in college, contemplating where to go, what to do after I graduate, and how those kids were still so many years away from existence the last time I was inside the house that is now theirs—and it’s funny how then, by chance; thanks to a jerk not letting me turn when I wanted to—there we were in the same place at the same time for a moment, a flash as I drove by and they hurried up the driveway, these kids who will never know who I am or what they have in common with me and probably didn’t even notice the minivan as it passed.

It’s funny how there I was, enjoying an afternoon of freedom on my first day of spring break—feeling it settle into my bones, this Being An Adult thing—and completely on accident, I drove past the house where my life took shape and didn’t see the place where I tore up my knees on the climbing tree or made up my very first stories in a cozy pink bedroom cluttered with toys, but three shiny new lives also just starting to take shape, another little girl in pink trying to keep up, life going on, on, on.

And it’s funny because symbolism. I’m in love with symbolism, and here was a whole bunch of it handed to me on a platter. A moment that would feel “too constructed,” not real, in fiction, but happened in real life.

I didn’t slow down or anything. Just kept driving. The kids disappeared behind trees and mailboxes.

But I pressed a little on the gas pedal and smiled.

~Julia

TCWT Blog Chain: Learning by Example

The December Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain topic is:

“What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?”

I’ve talked about this a little before. The best way to learn about writing is to pay attention. Pay attention to what you like or don’t like about the books you’re reading. Why you react in a certain way and how to either achieve the same effect or avoid it.

As writers, the books we read are our text books. And you don’t necessarily only learn from books in your genre. All reading you do teaches you in some way.

So, here are some books I’ve learned from and what they taught me.

**********

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Break Boundaries

Like a lot of people, I hadn’t read anything, really, in first person, present tense before The Hunger Games. It’s funny because it feels so natural to read it now, but at the time it took some getting used to. But I was also really happy to see it, because that’s the POV+tense combo I’ve always naturally written, and pre-Hunger Games I felt like it was something I wasn’t supposed to do.

Basically: The Hunger Games taught me that if it’s what feels right to you for your story, go for it. Even if it seems unusual. (And now look at us. EVERYONE writes in first person, present tense. Don’t be afraid to be the person who knocks that barrier down.)

Harry Potter by JK Rowling: Plotting & Planning

JK. ROWLING’S. PLOTTING.

I’ve never seen anyone else do so much work laying the groundwork for later plot developments and twists. Not to mention how much development she put into the world-building. The Harry Potter series taught me planning ahead is worth it. (And even the smallest hint in book one, brought back to be something huge later in the series, can make the reader all warm and glowy and happy inside.)

Also that growing up the book series alongside the reader is a really awesome thing to do.

Also a million other things because Harry Potter.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Hard Doesn’t Mean Impossible

Major spoilers on this one if you haven’t read it: Before I Fall taught me it’s okay to kill your protagonist at the end. I’ve seen so many of those unsatisfying “saved at the last second” endings–and endings when the protag DOES die at the end, but in an unsatisfying way–that it’s nice to see one that just feels Right. Before I Fall proves that killing your protag in a way that doesn’t piss the reader off is possible. END SPOILERS

Before I Fall also taught me your main characters don’t necessarily have to be “likable” for the reader to like them. Sometimes it’s the worst people we find the most fascinating.

Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan: You Don’t Always Have to Be Serious

The Percy Jackson series taught me that books don’t always need to be “serious” to be good. Sometimes your narrator can be super sarcastic and a little egotistical and it can be hilarious and that in itself can qualify as good.

Divergent by Veronica Roth: Line-by-Line Pacing

This book is such a fun action-y romp. I was rereading Divergent while working on revisions a while back, trying to figure out what made the line-by-line writing so rapid fire, and I realized it had a lot to do with the sentence length. VRoth is a master of the short, punchy sentence.

After making that connection, I reread some of my other favorite action-y books, examining their sentence structures as well.

As mentioned in last week’s Wordy Wednesday: Shorter sentences make writing run faster, so they’re better in your more intense, action-packed stories. Longer sentences make the reader slow down and pay more attention to the language, so they’re better in more literary, look-how-beautiful-this-imagery-is pieces.

Divergent was the first book to make me really think about how sentence length is an actual, active element in writing.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: There’s More than Romance

This book is all about friendship and it taught me you don’t have to tell the traditional romance-centric story to still have strong, beautiful relationships the reader will fall in love with and root for.

Waltzing the Cat by Pam Houston: Fiction CAN Feel Real

You’ll notice this one isn’t a YA novel, which just proves my point about learning from a variety of sources. Waltzing the Cat is a book of short stories, all starring the same narrator, I read for my first college creative writing class. And although it’s not something I would have picked up on my own, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never read something that feels as real as this. Like I thought it had to be a series of short memoirs while I was reading it, but nope, fiction.

If you want to learn about character and setting development, Waltzing the Cat is the way to go.

**********

So, there you have it. Some of the writing-related lessons I’ve learned from books.

If you want to check out the other posts from this month’s Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain and see how other people approached the topic, here’s the schedule:

5thhttp://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

6thhttp://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/

7thhttps://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

8thhttp://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/

9thhttp://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

10thhttp://kirabudge.weebly.com/

11thhttp://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

12thhttp://randomosityofeden.wordpress.com/

13thhttp://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14thhttp://www.alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/

15thhttp://www.juliathewritergirl.wordpress.com/

16thhttp://miriamjoywrites.com/

17thhttp://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/

18thhttp://unironicallyexcited.wordpress.com/

19thhttp://theboardingblogger.wordpress.com/

20thhttp://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/

21sthttp://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22ndhttp://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

23rdhttp://lilyjenness.blogspot.com/

24thhttp://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

25th – [off-day]

26thhttp://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

27thhttp://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

28thhttp://www.pamelanicolewrites.com

29thhttp://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/

30thhttp://maralaurey.wordpress.com/ and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

31st – http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

What have you learned from the books you’ve read?

~Julia

Want to Guest Post?

Hey there! I’m going to be going out of town for a couple of weeks in June, and since I won’t have internet access during the trip, I’m going to need to get a nice queue of blog posts put together before I leave. And because I don’t have time to write a thousand and one posts myself before my departure date, I figured I’d see if anyone wants to write a guest post instead.

Your post should be between three hundred and a thousand words, and it can be about pretty much anything you want, minus porn or Twilight (unless you’re bashing S’meyer’s writing, in which case be my guest). Want to talk about a book or movie or author you really love? Want to share a short story you’ve written? Want to gush about a fashion trend you’re obsessed with, or how to dress like a certain book or movie character? Anything goes. Send your ideas in.

If you’re interested, email me with your idea and a sample of your writing (or just send me your proposed post) at: jbyerswriting@aol.com. I can’t wait to read all your awesome ideas! (Watch them be so great nobody even wants me to come back from vacation.)

Thanks for the help!

 

~Julia

I’m Eating a Popsicle (While Reading “Water for Elephants”)

(You know you’re jealous.)

So you know how I gave up ice cream for Lent?

… Well that doesn’t apply to popsicles. (YUSSS!!!!!)

Anyway, I’m reading Water for Elephants right now, and while it’s interesting so far, and I’m enjoying it, some parts of it are just disgusting. Which I guess I should have figured out from the quote on the cover of the book:

But yeah. I didn’t get that, for some reason.

  • Violence? I can take that.
  • Gruesome descriptions? I can take that.
  • “Gritty” and “sensual?”  Not so much.

Maybe it’s because — let’s face it — I have absolutely 0% experience with guys, but a lot of the descriptions and characteristics of Water for Elephants just really bother me. The issue with this “bothering,” though, is that these details, and situations, etc actually add to the storyline… I mean, if it was just pure sex, I would put the book down and stop reading it in a heartbeat, but the fact of the matter is that Water for Elephants has an interesting plot, and the plot’s interesting enough that it’s keeping me reading, despite the gritty, sensual details. They’re important to the story, and the voice of Jacob the narrator, and the way the entire thing goes over, overall… So even though it all bothers me, I keep reading right on through it all — albeit only scanning the parts that get to be a bit much for my (largely innocent) mind — because it’s necessary to the plot, and the plot interests me.

And yeah. What do you guys think about… well, “gritty” and “sensual” stuff in books? Do you stop reading if you come across anything like in Water for Elephants, or do you not really care?

And now I’m going back to eating my popsicle. Mmmm, non-ice-cream-frozen-bliss…

This is what book nerds do on the weekends.

 

~Julia