Quick and Dirty Review: THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z by Natalie Blitt

http://www.amazon.com/The-Distance-A-Natalie-Blitt-ebook/dp/B00WELVQSI

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So, I’m supposed to be finishing line edits, right now. I’m supposed to be neck deep in removing all the extra commas from my manuscript (I have an addiction. I admit it — My name is Stacey and I use WAY too much punctuation.) HOWEVER, that being said, I took a night off last night.  My agent-mate, the lovely Natalie Blitt, had a book birthday yesterday with the release of her Teen Romance, THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z, so I took a few hours off to read it.

And it was fantastic.

But since I have to get back to those commas I’m going to do a quick and dirty review — five things I loved about this book about a girl who travels away from home to immerse herself in the culture that she loves — to get away from the family that drives her crazy — only to find love in a most unexpected boy.

#5 – Abby and Alice. The friendship between these two is perfectly real. Both are flawed, both are strong in their own way. They have fights and make up over real things. Their friendship drew me into this book right away.

#4 – French and Baseball. Full transparency — I don’t speak French and I don’t really like baseball. We’re an NFL family, around these parts. But the immersion of the French language and the baseball — all the baseball — made these characters real. The French language and the baseball references become a part of the story. They become characters unto themselves. And they are great fun.

#3 – Trivia as Foreplay. Here’s the thing — I am a sucker for a good nerd love story, and Abby is a nerd that I can totally get behind. She is smart and funny, geeking out on all things France and the beauty of words. (You know I’m all about that.) She’s got a head full of baseball facts and all kinds of family baggage and is trying to find her place in the world. And any book that uses a trivia competition as the first real set-up to romance gets an A+ from me.

#2 – CONSENT! Zeke is a jock. He’s the exact kind of guy you would expect to push back, if a girl says, “No.” But instead, Natalie Blitt has given us a story that at its heart is about consent and that, way more than his shaggy blond locks or his easy smile, is what made me love Zeke.

#1 – Instant Gratification. The e-book is available right now. Right here. Or here. And it’s $1.99! And it is a quick, happy read that made me smile. It was lovely and I’d recommend that you use a few hours of the time you’re supposed to be doing something else to fall into it, too!

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Why Fantasy?

I’ve been thinking a lot, since last night, about why I love the books that I do, and more importantly, what has driven me to write the books that I am writing. As I wrote the post about Reading Month, and I was noting what my kids were reading, I started to think about the books that I read, as a kid.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at my shelves, these days, but as a kid, I didn’t read much fantasy, and I never read SciFi. I read a great deal of realistic fiction, quite a bit of magical realism, and a boatload of “teen” book (most by the time I was in third grade, or so). It’s a good thing that old school YA was a bit tamer than today’s YA. Sweet Valley High was a favorite, and that was gentler than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Then, I skipped right on to adult literature–I read my first Stephen King book in sixth grade, Robin Cook was a favorite in fifth. I was all over the place, and I LOVED to read, but I didn’t have a home genre.

One of my early favorites was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and although it was a realistic fiction book, there was a bit of the fantastical in Mary’s home in India and again, at Craven Manor. Dickon, who could speak to the animals was, by far, my favorite character, and I loved the sense of fate that had sent Mary to the garden. Another all time favorite was The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Snyder. I barely remember this book, but I remember reading it multiple times, and finding a sense of comfort within its pages. Reading its Amazon description, I guess it makes sense. A girl finds a safe place to hide from her doubts, in a hidden, secret library. Right up my alley.

But it still begs the question–Why do I cling so much to Fantasy and SciFi, now?

The first answer to that question is pretty easy to answer. My dad–biologically, he was my stepdad, but he raised me–was a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars. We watched a lot of re-showings of The Beastmaster and Conan. There wasn’t a lot that he and I could talk about and agree on, when I was a teenager, but we both admired the hell out of Jean Luc Picard and we both knew that Han shot, first. That was enough. My dad passed away, a few years ago, but every once in a while, when I write a really kick ass fight scene or create a character that I know he’d identify with, I know that he’d have enjoyed my stories. It is enough.

So, I grew up on a steady diet of words about people I didn’t really understand, and a T.V. diet of characters that made things happen. That was the crux of it, for me, I think. In so many books that I read as a kid, the events of the story weren’t shaped and molded by the character–they were formed AROUND the character. But a lot of those Fantasy and SciFi characters MADE things happen. They shaped their own destiny. They took charge.

I’m a sucker for a sword or a wizard, any day, but what I love most is the sense of fate that you get in genre fiction. Yes, bad stuff happens. But a great genre protagonist is going to wrap their arms around that bad stuff and choke the life out of it. They take their destiny by the horns.

About 15 years ago, I met a guy, and he suggested that I read The Mists of Avalon. It’s a big, slow book–and it rocked my world. Girls who took charge of their own destiny. Women who shaped the world. The female heros that were hidden behind King Arthur’s throne. That same man handed me The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, and eventually a wedding ring (But that’s a whole different sort of tale) and in doing so, he nudged me toward my destiny.

There are countless stories, out there, and there are a million ways to tell them. But this is the one that I was born to tell.

Books, Books, and More Books

So, for those of you that don’t have young children, you may not know that March is Reading Month. We kicked off the annual word-fest with Dr. Seuss’ Birthday on March 2nd, and both the Elementary kids and the Middle Schooler have their own special reading calendar that they are supposed to follow, with special school-wide activities and fun dress up days.

Around here, every month is reading month, but we’ve been spending some extra time on it, what with all of the extra assignments, and it is really quite exciting to watch the kids really start to get it. Our 6th grade son has a map of the U.S. with 50 different assignments to accomplish, throughout the month. Some are as straightforward as “Read a Fantasy Novel” or “Use no screens, except for homework, for one day.” Others are a little more in-depth, such as “Follow a recipe and bring in samples for the class” or “Memorize a poem and recite it to your teacher.” Yesterday, he had to write a fan letter to his favorite author and send it, after showing his teacher.  What was really cool? It has just come to my attention that his favorite author is one of my favorite authors: Brandon Sanderson. I love him for his Mistborn books, finishing The Wheel of Time series, and The Stormlight Archives (Words of Radiance just came out! Hooray! And it is 1100 pages long! Hooray!) My son loves him for Steelheart and Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians and the Infinity Blade books, but I hear the things that he enjoys about them, and I know that someday soon, he’ll be reading the books that I love. He has never been much of a reader, up until recently, and I really love that he has found someone who speaks to him. It pleases me.

Our eldest has always been a big reader, and she has found an adoration for all things John Green. I can totally relate to this, as I think that he is a stunningly accurate, honest writer of teenagers. He gets them, and they love him for it. We are both dreading and looking forward to the release of The Fault in Our Stars when it hits theaters in June. Like so many others, we’ve both shed a few tears over that one. She’s reading An Abundance of Katherines right now, and I look forward to her review.

Our nine-year-old has just graduated from Magic Tree House books to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Three times, today, I caught her reading when she was mid-painting on a project, in the middle of a t.v. show, and just now, when I checked on her in bed. I cannot begin to express the joy that finding them stealth reading gives to me.

Our youngest, a kindergartener, is just finding his way in the world of words. We are reading Redwall aloud, at night, and every once in a while, over my shoulder, he will find a sentence that he can read. Tonight, it was “Try to be brave like your mum and dad.” I wasn’t even to that point on the page, yet, but he was looking, finding meaning, and discovering, all on his own. And, I’m not going to lie–the fact that he is fully absorbed and engrossed in a book about sword wielding mice and badgers with cudgels pleases me like a kid on Christmas morning.

As for the grown-ups–my long-suffering husband is slogging his way through my second novel’s manuscript and doing his best to put up with my inability to accept criticism. I am reading Before They Were Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, which is the second book of The First Law series. I’m finding that I really, REALLY enjoy his books–mostly because they are such excellent character studies. You really come to understand the psyche of his characters, none of which are clearly in the good or bad category. He writes an ensemble of gray protagonists, often gritty, often brutal, but you really get to understand their motivations in a way that many books don’t give you. It isn’t rainbows-and-unicorns type fluffy fantasy, but it is fantastic in its ability to make you believe that the characters he writes are real, even if you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley.

Writing-wise, I finished the first, revised draft of Whirlwind and have since sent it off to my beta readers. This is the tough place, anxiety-wise, for me. While I wait for feedback, I definitely start to second guess myself and develop a pretty good case of Imposter Syndrome. All will be well, though. That’s what revisions are for, right? I’m also working on a re-write of A Sown Wind, as well as beginning the outlining, brainstorming stage for book three, which I am thinking of entitling, When Gods Toss Dice.

In non-wordy stuff, I cannot recommend “True Detective” and “Black Sails,” enough. Both shows have really drawn me in, and I was sad to see the season finale of “True Detective” come so soon. We are also cruising through the last four episodes of “How I Met Your Mother,” and looking forward to the return of “Game of Thrones,” next month.

How about you? What are you reading? What are you watching? Where do you get your inspiration, and what stories speak to you? Enquiring minds want to know.

Week in Recap — Happy Super Bowl and some fun, word related stuff

What I am reading to myself: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie — Dark, gritty fantasy with engaging, flawed characters. I’m not too far in, but it is keeping me up past my bedtime, so that speaks highly.

What I am reading to my kids:  Pippi Longstocking and Charlotte’s Web (see below for anecdotal awesomeness)

What I just finished: The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence — I wrote up a review on Goodreads, which you can see below. This book is in my head. It’s hanging around, poking at the cerebral cortex. Jorg likes to stab things, and I think he’s checking out my hypothalamus. This is not a book for the faint of heart, BUT it is a really, excellent read.

Where I am at, writing-wise:  Finished a read-through and minor edit on A Sown Wind, this week, as well as churning out about 12,000 new words on Whirlwind. I’m feeling the end creeping closer, but those pesky knights keep spoiling the cream. See below for more on this, too.

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So, lately I haven’t been so faithful with the blogging, and I apologize. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve gotten a lot of writing done on Whirlwind. If not, well… screw you. 😉

So I thought I would just do a recap of what’s been going on at Casa Filak, what is coming up, and that sort of jazz.

Firstly, I have to say, “Go Broncos!” I love the gladiatorial feel of football season, and I am usually sad to see it come to an end, but I am really happy for Peyton Manning. He isn’t a spring chicken, anymore (although, I am loathe to admit that he is only 3 and a half months older than I), and at this stage in his career, this may be his last dance. I think there is a pretty solid argument that he is the greatest quarterback to ever play in the league, and to be the first QB to ever win rings with two different teams would be a fitting swan song.

Second, I have to give a shout out to Worldbuilders. If you haven’t heard of them, they are the fantastic charity started by fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. This year, so far, in their annual fundraising drive, they have pulled in over $500,000 dollars in donations for Heifer International, from geeks, all over the world. They are giving away some pretty fantastic prizes to those who donate, in a lottery-type format, and there are still two days to donate. Check out Pat’s blog for more information, or to just feel the love, because… wow. It is pretty awe inspiring to see so many geeks doing good for the world.

Book-wise, I have gotten a lot written this week, and for the most part, I am feeling pretty good. CAVEAT –  I have these characters–a group of knights. They’re good men. Loyal, headstrong, opinionated men. AND THEY KEEP BUGGERING UP MY STORY! I kind of want to hold up a little sign that says, “Zephyrs, I am not your b*$#@!” Except, well, I am. Because without them, my story has a broken backbone. And, as I’ve said previously, I sort of enjoy the way that characters highjack the story line, on occasion, but seriously, boys, this is becoming an epidemic.

As everyone in the whole country knows, the weather has been a bit horrific, as of late. We had three snow days in a row, where we live, and even my hubby took a day off, because our road was impassable. But something cool happened, while the kids were off.

My five-year-old son LOVES to read and be read to, which is awesome, but until this week, we had stuck to picture books. He enjoys a trip to the library, where we stock up on good reads, and we read two, or three, or four, each night. His nine-year-old sister gets in on the act, too, although we are usually reading a chapter book aloud to her at bedtime, too, and she is always reading one to herself, as well. (The big kids read, too, but they’re way to cool for mom to read to them, these days.)

Anyway, so the little man wants to watch Charlotte’s Web on one of the snow days. After it was over, and we were talking about it, I said, “Did you know that Charlotte’s Web was a book, first?”

He gave me this amazed-stunned look and asked if we owned the book. We did, and I found it on the shelf. He flipped through it for a few minutes and said, “It only has a few pictures.”

I agreed, and I said that we could read it out loud, a chapter at a time, if he wanted, instead of the picture books that we usually read. He was hesitant, but his love of Wilbur got the best of him.

After the required argument between siblings (Big Sister: “I’ve already read Charlotte’s Web, can’t we read something else?” Little Brother: “Shut up! You stink like Templeton’s rotten egg!”), we decided to read BOTH Charlotte’s Web and Pippi Longstocking. So we read a chapter of each a night, and it is awesome.

But that isn’t the best part. The best part is watching Little Man find words that he knows on the page. It is watching him absorb the story and beg for more (I’m not going to lie, we’re up to two chapters of Charlotte’s Web, most nights). It is having him beg for more story, as he gets out of bed in the morning. It is recognizing that he is changing from an observer, to a reader.

This is the last time I will watch this transformation in one of my children. This is the last of my brood to move from mundane, to literate. This is monumental, and heart-rending. This is as good as it gets.

*sob* I have a book to write, just after I finish looking through baby albums and eating therapeutic chocolate. Have a great weekend, and “Go Bronco!”

Fictional Character, Actual Rebellion

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I have a character that aims to misbehave.

As I thought about this blog post, this morning, I realized how crazy it sounds. The characters that I write are figments of my own imagination. Therefore, their behavior is dictated by me, right?

That’s what I used to think, when I started the first novel, but I could not have been more wrong.

When a character becomes fully formed, I mean real enough that you can see them and smell them and hear their voice and really, truly understand their motivations, they don’t like to be pushed around. I’ll admit it. Sometimes, as is human nature, I try to take the easy way out. I have been known to try to get a character from point A to point C, without a pit stop at B.

I was surprised the first time that a character put on their brakes and said, “Not on my watch, Lady.” That’s right. A fictional character held my fingers hostage and made me type something that I had not planned on typing. There are a lot of swords and daggers in my novels, and I’m pretty sure that I have been held with a blade at my throat a time or two, especially in the last few weeks.

Have I lost you, yet?

O.K., let me clarify. When I write, I use a rough outline. Very rough. I know where the novel starts, and where it ends, and I know a few key events that will occur along the way. As I write, sometimes my brain creates events that I didn’t foresee, and then I have to figure out how my characters would respond to those events.

That has become one of my favorite parts. I’ve been known to have an argument, out loud, between two characters as I drive down the road, trying to decide how they would deal with a situation. My kids think I’ve completely lost my mind, but it works. It isn’t often that my characters surprise me, because I have gotten to know them so well.

But sometimes, I don’t want them to follow their own nature. Sometimes, I ignore the events that should take place, because they are hard to swallow, or difficult to write, or they make me sad. I love my characters, and I don’t want to see them suffer.

And that is where I am, right now. A character that I love possessed my body (alright, that’s being a bit dramatic, but you catch my drift), and wrote a chapter that changes the whole ball game. It alters the course of everything that I write in the series from here on out, and it is hard. But it isn’t wrong. Honestly, it was a stunning revelation of truth, but…

It isn’t the easy way out.

So I am starting at a new square one. Two hundred thousand words written in the series, and the book has taken a turn that feels like a second starting place. It is overwhelming, but also a little awe-inspiring. It makes me grateful for the muse that keeps the story coming, makes me see the characters in new light, and makes me think about all the new possibilities. I have to step back, getting to know all of my characters all over again, in light of these new events. I have to rethink what’s been thunk.

And I have to write.

But that has been the coolest part about the writing process, thus far. I love that my characters have come to life. I love that they are real enough in my mind that they act accordingly, even if I try to force them to act against their nature. I love that they can make me laugh, and make me cry. I love them like I love my kids… and misbehavior is part of the growing up process, right? So, I’ll take this character’s act of rebellion and learn from it. The other characters will learn from it, and be changed by it, and the books will become stronger for it.

I will become stronger for it, even as that blade rests on my jugular.

(image courtesy of fyeahwriterleopard.tumblr.com)