Book of the Day: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The way it looked when I read it

I don’t think it was one book, but many, that saved my life as a child. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was surely one of them. It made me want to be a writer.

I was quiet, sensitive and imaginative. We moved to a new town where the houses were bigger, the families richer and more status conscious, and the kids more cruel. By second grade all of the kids in my class already had friends, or at least other kids they traveled with that could protect them from the truly sadistic kids at the top of the heap. I walked into class on that first day with no armor and no allies. I dreaded the unstructured time of recess and walking between school and home. I never knew what kind of mean things the kids I passed would say, but I knew they would say something. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, it didn’t get better until seventh grade. That year I started junior high, a new school with a new group of kids who didn’t know I should be treated as an untouchable.

But in second grade, the picture books gave way to longer books with characters I could spend hours with all on my own. Book by book, I built a safe space inside myself where I could journey and be free.

Meg Murry, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, was awkward, wore glasses, and felt like a disaster just like I did. And her faults, it turned out, were her strengths. She was like me, which helped make it okay to be me. She had my name, too, a name I’d come to hate for all the ways other kids used it against me. Meg helped me take it back. She traveled to other planets, met magical beings, and found courage she never knew she had in order to save her family. I am pretty sure the minute I finished this book, I went back and read it again.

If anything I write does for one person what A Wrinkle in Time did for me, I would be happy.

Here’s how it starts:

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn’t usually afraid of weather. —It’s not just the weather, she thought. —It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong. 

This book was probably my first science fiction book ever. I still remember trying to wrap my mind around the idea that you could somehow fold space and time into pleats. I’ve loved time travel stories ever since.

Thanks for reading my post! Were there books that saved you as a young person? Which ones? Comment below!

Book of the Day: Travel Through Time and Tour Rome With the Popes

I was wandering down cobbled via del Moro in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere when I found a used book store, and on the one shelf reserved for English language books, I saw Anthony Majanlahti’s The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide

I didn’t buy it then, but when I came home, memories of that book haunted me until at some later time, I recalled it, and then ordered it from Amazon, the UK store, because it wasn’t for sale in the USA store. (But it is now!)

This is one of my favorite books. Period.

Rome, Tourism, Angels, DaVinci Code
Castel St. Angelo, Refuge of the Popes

It’s like a magic mirror. Step through it into a velvet and damask world of conniving and plotting like you’ll find in any Shakespeare history play, or in Game of Thrones, or in Dune, for that matter. But these plotters, these princes, appointing their nephews to high positions, giving their brothers and sisters lucrative towns to administer, going to war, dressing like the Caesars, throwing parties in which guests toss golden plates into the Tiber, these grasping power-mad men are the Popes. Like any emperor, they put the treasury of their kingdom to use, building themselves fine palaces and monuments. Rome bears the marks of these men everywhere. Many of them polished their legacies, but still managed to improve the traffic flow for the tourists. Read this book and you’ll never see the Papacy or the city the same way again.

Each chapter covers a papal family who shaped the Rome you find today. And after each historical chapter comes one that could be used to take a walking tour of that family’s palaces and compounds. It’s a marvelous way to deepen your understanding of the grand squares, the bridges and elegant public spaces. From Palazzo Farnese to the Quirinale Palace, from the Ghetto to Piazza Navona to Villa Borghese, this is both an architectural and artistic tour of the Eternal City, and an intimate portrait of waves of papal ambition and corruption. Beauty and power are inextricably linked, as in any great civilization.

It’s very dense, like a flourless chocolate cake, or like a flaky cornetto stuffed with Nutella dipped into an espresso.

This book may not be for you. Maybe you just want to know a little bit about the past and culture of the places you visit. But me, I like to dive deep into history, to try to imagine myself walking back in time. If this book is for you, you are really going to thank me.

What’s your favorite place to travel? What’s your favorite book about it? Please share below! Comments very welcome!

Book of the Day: For Game of Thrones Fans, The Iron King

GOT Inspiration

In the Game of Thrones series, George R.R. Martin masterfully manages a broad cast of characters, sweeping conflict, location and plot. His ability to keep things moving and keep the reader involved in the story is an inspiration for every writer.

George R.R. Martin’s Inspiration

I recently discovered that he’d used a series of historical novels as a strong inspiration. And the series, called The Cursed Kings, is about a part of French History that I love—the fall of the Knights Templar.

Not one, but two French television series have been made from The Cursed Kings series, of which this book is the first. George R.R. Martin wrote the forward for The Iron King. He cites The Cursed Kings by Maurice Drouon as a strong influence on him while writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

Drama Kicked Off by a Curse

The Iron King kicks off in Paris in 1314 where the French king Philip the Fair (as in ‘good looking,’ not in any way as in ‘just’) has arranged take down the Knights Templar, to whom he owed vast sums of money. From the flaming bonfire, white-bearded Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay curses the king, and the Pope, who is colluding with him, saying they will both be dead in a year and “You shall be accursed to the 13th generation of your lines!” You know we’re going to have fun watching that curse come home to roost.

This plaque stands where the last Grandmaster of the Knights Templar was burned. It says “On this place Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple was burned on March 18, 1314.
Here is a great book to read before you visit Paris, by the way, especially if you are a fan of medieval court intrigue. And Game of Thrones fans, I hate to break it to you, but that’s what you’re watching so avidly every week! You are also watching Epic Fantasy, a genre which at one time seemed the least likely to be brought to HBO as a series. Bravo to the folks to made that happen, and who keep us watching!

Thanks for reading my blog! Please leave me a comment. What’s your favorite thing about Game of Thrones?

Book of the Day: Voyage to the Time of the French Revolution

Notre Dame, Paris, France, Margaret Mayo McGlynn
Paris, France, Cathedral, Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Paris

So you want to go to Paris. Who doesn’t? April is a beautiful time to be there. Trees with soft purple blossoms rain petals at the foot of Notre Dame. Lovers kiss in the parks, and the restaurants serve white asparagus grown in the Loire Valley.

The first time I saw Paris I was with my mother in 1989, the 200th Anniversary year of the Storming of the Bastille, and I’d just emerged from a messy breakup. I was cranky and difficult, a painful state amplified by the hi-test cafe au lait served in our little hotel in Montparnasse.

When I picked up a copy of Christopher Hibbert’s the The Days of the French Revolution, Mom let me read it to her at bedtime. It was just what I needed, a gory blow-by-blow account of that violent and thrilling time. The pictures it flashed on my mind might have been made by a videographer of the sort who took the Vietnam footage beaming into our living room nightly when I was a child. My mom would nod off when I was only a few pages into each chapter, but I kept reading.

It grabbed me first with a rather graphic supposition about the King’s inability to sire children, and a surgery performed to correct that royal predicament. Later the Parisians storming the old prison, increasingly murderous, leaving death in their wake. One unforgettable vignette shows Marie Antoinette peering through a Versailles window to see the head of her best friend on a pike. Bloody? Yes. Disturbing? Uh-huh. Boring? No way.

Léon-Maxime Faivre - Death of the Princess de Lamballe [1908]

Léon-Maxime Faivre – Death of the Princess de Lamballe [1908]

This book is vivid and detailed. If you are visiting Paris for the first time and your taste runs a bit more Silence of the Lambs than The Notebook, this is the read for you. This was my first Hibbert, but definitely not my last. The guy wrote about many things I find fascinating. Maybe you will, too!

Ever read any Christopher Hibbert? What’s your favorite history book? What’s your favorite era in history to read about? Comments are welcome!

Book of the Day: Shakespeare’s Restless World

Yesterday was Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday, and in honor of him, today’s book is Shakespeare’s Restless World.

I was lucky enough to visit the British Museum and see this exhibit a year or so ago. Only twenty objects in it, and I could have spent hours there. There were video clips showing top actors speaking key speeches. John Dee’s magical scrying mirror, with which the gifted mathematician spoke to angels, reveals a twilight mind straddling magic and science. A rapier and dagger found on the banks of the Thames unfurls a more violent time than you might imagine, unless you’ve watched all of the Tudors, of course. There’s even Henry V’s supposed battle gear, including his helmet. From a single fork tossed into the river an entire banquet of Elizabethan snacks unfolds.

Each chapter in this book was a room in the exhibit. Authored by the man behind The History of the World in 100 objects, this volume will take you from microcosm to macrocosm. If you ever wanted to step back in time to Elizabethan England, without getting the plague or all the other ills that flesh was heir to, here’s your time machine!

Here’s how the book starts:

Can this cockpit hold
the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
within this wooden O the very casques
that did affright the air at Agincourt?

I love the way Shakespeare uses ‘casques,’ the French word for ‘helmet,’ for Agincourt is in France. He brings you to his setting right away. That kind of wordplay makes me geek out.

This text from the Prologue of “Henry V” is telling. Yes, Neil MacGregor can cram it in, reading an entire civilization deeply from just twenty artifacts.

What do you think? Are you a Shakespeare fan? Have you ever seen one of his plays?

Did I mention that Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing Richard III in the upcoming series of history plays from the folks who brought you The Hollow Crown: The Complete Series?

Excited? Me, too!

What’s your favorite Shakespeare play and why? Let me know below.

Be Your Own Tour Guide – Great History Books for Travel

Notre Dame de Paris, France

Everybody travels differently, which is why I don’t like organized tours. What you find interesting I might find deadly dull. Travel just isn’t one size fits all. Which is why I like to do lots of research on a place before I go. I like to be my own tour guide, so my husband and I can go at our own pace and see what really interests us.

One of my favorite ways to get to know a place before I visit is to read a great history book about it.

I’ve done this over and over again before trips to Italy, France and England. And now, you can check out what kinds of things I like to read in my very own Amazon store. Pretty cool, eh? Please take a gander and let me know if you have any questions.

Click here to check out my History Books for Travel Store!

I’ve got pages for France and Italy, and there will be more to come, probably Bermuda, oh, yes, and Los Angeles. There’s so much great stuff about here that I can’t wait to share with you!

Unforgettable Love Story: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell reads a bit like poetry and is my favorite book of the last six months. It’s set in the 80s. A boy and girl meet on the school bus and don’t speak. Instead they silently bond over his comic books, which she reads over his shoulder. It drew me right in with it’s searing authenticity.

It called forth in me that intense feeling of love, a sharp ache, that maybe only 15 year olds can feel. That’s quite a feat, since it’s been a long time since I’ve felt quite that. I was up until five in the morning finishing it.
I got the book on Audible, which is read by two different readers, male and female, as the chapters alternate beween Eleanor and Park’s point of view. Very effective.
Don’t you want to feel that crazy intense love again, but without actually having to live the agony? 
Wow. Just read it.

LA Times Festival of Books 2014

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Very worth it to get the Festival Pass to this event! Can’t believe I’ve lived in L.A. since 1992 and this is the first year I went!
The Book Prize awards made me eager to read many books outside my genre (Young Adult Fantasy). Particularly interesting winners were: 
  • for History, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. To me it is so poignant how each new generation seems to have trouble wrapping its mind around this war, which cost so many lives. I believe my grandfather Kirk Bell, born in 1901, lost all of his older brothers but one to it, and he was the youngest of 17 children.
  • for Graphic Novels, Comics, Ulli Lust’s Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, which just reminded me of my wild days in college. Ah, the foolish things we did in our twenties. The author was in Germany, so she sent a series of drawings illustrating her excitement at having won. So sparkly and fun! 
  • for Poetry, Ron Padgett Collected Poems. This author sent a video in thanks, and he was so funny and authentic, one couldn’t help wanting to dig into his poetry.

Attendance included a free copy of Susan Straight‘s novel Between Heaven and Here. Straight won the Robert Kirsch Award, which goes to someone who writes about the American West, and her American West is Riverside! Straight was achingly humble in her acceptance speech, in which she talked about stalking my old teacher Joyce Carol Oates (probably for other reasons than those that made me consider stalking her). Straight helped create the MFA Creative Writing program at UC Riverside, which I found on a list of underrated and potentially fully funded MFA programs. Intriguing!
The Eminent Mr. John Green
John Green, Vlogger par Excellence and Author of The Fault in Our Stars, won the Innovator Award, which he so richly deserves. If you haven’t checked out Crash Course or Vlogbrothers you are in for a treat. The man and his talented brother Hank seems to be singlehandedly elevating intelligent discourse all over the interwebs. They are my heroes.
At John’s talk the following day, in which he packed the capacious Bovard Auditoreum, he had only to step out of the darkness onstage to be met by thousands and thousands of teenage girl screams. Go nerds!
Tony DiTerlizzi’s Study for an Orchid Sprite
Saturday I attended a few panels at the Young Adult (YA) stage. At one, Tony DiTerlizzi, co-writer (with Holly Black) and illustrator of The Spiderwick Chronicles talked about deciding what fanciful creatures ‘really’ looked like by studying natural history. Check out his beautiful illustrations!
At another YA Fantasy Panel in the Norris Theater, with Soman Chainani (The School of Good and Evil), Cynthia Leitich Smith (The Feral series), the irrepressibly funny Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures series), the resplendently hot-pink-haired Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone series), and moderated by adorable John Corey Whaley (Noggin), folks were tired and punchy, which made for lots of ribaldry, but still managed to bust out some awesome pointers for the aspiring writers in the audience. 
One 15 year old stood and asked for ADVICE ABOUT BECOMING AN AUTHOR. Laini Taylor said: 
  • finish your novel, beware the ‘slutty new idea’ that tempts you to skip to the next project before finishing this one. She said she was 35 before she finished her first novel, even though she’d wanted to write since childhood. (Um, I’m about to turn 50, people!)
  • don’t have a Plan B because those she knows who invested in one are only doing that now. (Kind of troubling to me, since I’m paying my bills with the plan B, but I’ll be the exception, dammit!)
  • Be able to take criticism (more on this below)
On how to deal with WRITER’S BLOCK:
  • Maybe you are blocked because you took a wrong turn. Time to go back and figure out where, which may involve cutting chapters.
  • Sit down and don’t stop writing until you get down 50 things that could happen next.
  • Turn off all the lights and blast the song Xanadu (yes, that 80s trainwreck of a beloved guilty pleasure film starring Olivia Newton John) and dance around the house
  • Start typing the phone book and you’ll quickly want to write anything else.
  • Have two documents open, the ‘real’ one and one for the crazy ideas.
  • Smith writes one entire draft, then deletes it and writes her novel again. I know! Oh my freakin’ fur! She says it works like a charm.
  • Taylor saves everything she cuts. Be willing to cut.
  • Ask for all criticism in writing, not in person or on the phone.
  • Put the critical missive under a brick for a few days. You’ll need a waiting period to deal with your resistance. Maybe it’s more than just a few days.
  • Deal with your ego, get over yourself, cut, revise and make those changes. This is critical if you want to get published.
Pretty great stuff, I thought!

Just What I Need: Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

Revising a novel is a lonely business. It gets overwhelming.

Last Friday I went to a reading at Skylight Books, a Los Feliz neighborhood gem, and in their sparse but well-curated Writing section, I found James Scott Bell‘s book, Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

In my experience, books on writing can be full of fluff, throat-clearing and nattering to beef up content that might fit into a half-hour PowerPoint presentation. This one, happily, has almost no non-nutritive filler. Mr. Bell’s tips start in the introduction—including a great little exercise on how to sharpen your sense of plot.

Books on writing sometimes contain only uninterrupted prose, paragraph upon paragraph with few bullet points, sidebars, or headings. This one isn’t like that. It’s got headings and bullet points aplenty, so you can read it front to back, or you can scan it for the bit you need right now.

And the prose is beautiful, with lots of varied sentence construction. I really appreciate that. If you can’t write great prose, please don’t try to teach me how to write.

I also love all of the examples from books and movies I already know. And, if you don’t know these examples, Mr. Bell lays out the plot or sets the scene so you will get it.

I was around page 24, and I already felt so grateful that I tweeted the author to thank him. He tweeted me right back. So this guy is also savvy about social networking. A definite plus.

This revision stuff scares me like Mrs. Brody is scared of Quint. There is much to do. I have to delete delete delete sections and stitch the remaining scenes back together in a way that doesn’t leave the manuscript all effed up like the skin of the Frankenstein monster. I can get into a downtrodden frame of mind about it. Mr. Bell’s book tells you up front that this dark mood will come. It gives you several techniques to help combat it, like a little post-it somewhere in your space that says ‘I can fix it.’

Yes, darnit! I can!

I think this book is going to be my best friend as I tromp all Hobbit-like through the revision marshes toward the distant burning mountain of Draft Four.

Hooray, I say!

San Francisco Writer’s Conference 2014 – Day 1

I am dog tired and it’s only day 1. This is intense. Lots of energy. Trying to learn how to pitch your novel rapidfire with only 5 clear bullet points, and networking like crazy, bonding as quickly as possible with folks doing the YA Fantasy genre thing. Many business cards were given, many gathered. Hope to God I can put faces with cards when it’s all done. Already building my YA Fantasy cohort.

Things I learned from the Children’s, Midgrade and YA Pitchathon

Who was there:

  • Natashya Wilson, Editor at Harlequin Teen (Editor of Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series)
  • Laurie McLean, Forward Literary Agency
  • Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Forward Literary Agency
Gems and Nuggets:

Elevator Pitch:
  1. Just give them enough to interest them.
  2. Four sentences, 25 words or less.
  3. They really like the high-concept pitch, aka, it’s like Silence of the Lambs meets Charlotte’s Web, except good, because that would be sucky and what the heck does it mean, anyway? For this, use movies, books, and even video games that everyone knows.
  4. Never claim your novel is the next Harry Potter.
  5. It should be punchy.
  6. Don’t tell the end.
  7. Only tell the A plot.
  8. A YA Fantasy should be from 85 to 90k words.
  9. Another formula for the pitch “Who fights who to get what?”
Speed Dating:
  1. Your name
  2. Genre of your novel
  3. Title of Novel
  4. Word Count
Query Letters
  1. Don’t make me scroll
  2. First line is your logline high concept, aka Indiana Jones meets The Mummy (The Hook)
  3. Second paragraph is your back of book copy (The Book)
  4. Third paragraph is about you (The Cook)
  5. Another formula to describe the above is the The Hook, The Book, The Cook
Things I learned from Pitchcraft by Katherine Sands, Literary Agent
  1. In any pitch you only have time to cover 5 points, so choose them carefully
Basic Novel Pitch Formula
  1. Place (also time, era, modern day? 1066 Hastings? What?)
  2. Person, for instance, Bill, a 45-year old accountant who has always wanted to be an opera star
  3. Pivot: The dynamic moment that sets the whole story in motion.
General Notes About Pitchcraft
  • Set off sparks
  • Get interest
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Comparisons to other books, for example, “For readers who loved “The Hunger Games and the mortal instruments, my Contempory YA Fantasy pits the heroine against real historical magicians and alchemists who are seeking to use her power to make their immortality permanent.
I also attended a great talk by Rusty Shelton about ‘Discoverability in the Age of Social Media’ lots of great way to leverage social media to build ones brand, even as a novelist.
But as I am now a steaming pile of OMG, I must rewrite my pitch, asta la bye-bye for tonight!