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Monday, November 24, 2014

Books I Didn't Enjoy This Year (And How They Make Me a Better Writer)

I read a lot. It's a simple fact, I'm a reader. I'm not ashamed and I don't boast about how well-read I am. I honestly haven't even read many of the classics, and really didn't enjoy the ones I did. I read for fun, I read because I have a lot of downtime at work and it is something to do on the commute. I read in the bath in the evening and I read in bed at night. I go to cafes when I have a few hours to spare and I drink coffee. It's just part of my life.

A few years back I got a Nook, it was a pretty decent eReader, but something strange happened to it when it moved to Japan and the customer service I received in trying to fix the issue treated me like an incompetent monkey so I switched to a Kindle. Three years later, my Kindle is my best friend. I rarely leave the house without it in my purse, it doesn't even have a case. I've split coffee on it, dropped food on it, and one time left it on a bus.

This year (so far) I've read 55 books, last year I read 53. They aren't huge tomes of novels, I would say the average size of the books are about 300 pages. A large portion have been young adult, and the genres vary greatly from fantasy, to science fiction, to horror and mystery and thriller and contemporary and you get my drift.

As an aspiring writer reading helps me, it gives me ideas and it lets me see how words should flow and it shows me how to craft a story. But, it also helps me know what I don't like. What sort of things in novels make me roll my eyes, what kind of things make it difficult to turn the next page (or tap it), and what just makes a book not very enjoyable. As a writer I think it's really important to reflect on why you aren't really into what you're reading. What makes this book annoying and rudimentary? Why don't I want to finish this book?

That’s why I am giving you five books that I didn't enjoy this year. There were more than five, believe me, but I've decided to limit my list to books that were only released in 2014. I'll make another list of books I really loved this year, as there were far more of those, but I want to wait until the year is over.

1. The Infinite Sea (Fifth Wave #2) by Rick Yancey.

Goodreads rating of 4.10  Stopped reading at 58%

 I loved The Fifth Wave. It was released last year and I read it very quickly and I thought it was great and wonderful and such an interesting book. I love a good dystopia and, honestly, it's really hard to find a decent one following the release of The Hunger Games. The young adult genre is loaded down with them and most of them are utter crap. They're essentially romance novels under the guise of being a cook dystopian book. And I hate romance novels.

The Fifth Wave definitely had romance in there, but it was so much on the back burner that I didn't care that much at all. I couldn't wait to read the second book and learn more about this story. It started out decently enough, and that was great. There are a lot of point of views in this book, which can get confusing and annoying. I know some people don’t enjoy too many point of view changes, and I have read a few books where it’s just too much, but overall I like a few points of view in a story.

But, then something happened. A character was brought back who really shouldn't have been brought back and so began what I like to call The Curse of Catching Fire. Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy and it started this annoying trend in these YA dystopian novels of the second book being all about romance and… screw the actual story! Now, thanks to the multiple POVs the Infinite Sea isn’t a perfect case of that, but when this character came back and started this stupid love thing again I just knew I wasn’t going to finish the book.

The main character is also unbearable. She’s just an awful character. I cannot handle the sort of main characters that are just so hard headed, dramatic, and all around annoying. The other characters in this story are great, they have such potential and there is so many interesting back stories that are hinted at, they just aren’t mentioned enough. If there was less focus on this awful main character and more focus on these supporting characters it would have been much more enjoyable.

Plus, the titular “fifth wave” is stupid. I don’t understand why it is what it is and it doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry. It is. Waves one through four were slightly understandable but I often felt myself thinking “why?” whenever the fifth wave was mentioned and the reasoning behind why it was chosen.

2. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Goodreads rating of 3.99   I stopped reading at about 30%

When I first read the premise of this book I was really intrigued. A man who is reborn at the same point in time over and over and over again, when sudden in his fifteenth life this woman comes and asks him to save the world! He then has to work in all of his lives thereafter to keep catastrophe from happening. It was interesting, it was unique and I wanted to read it right away.

Thirty percent of the way in I couldn’t read anymore. I had been scanning the book for maybe the last twenty pages just hoping for something to happen. I understand the need of establishing a backstory, of setting up a foundation for which the actual story has to happen, but a third of the way into the book and they story hadn’t started yet.  Where was the girl who was to come to Harry on his deathbed and say how in his next life he needs to keep the world from ending? It was just the same things over and over. The same life over and over and nothing was happening.

Maybe, if I have nothing else to read, I will try to go back and get through the rest of the book because I really, really wanted to read it and even writing this again I am thinking how I should have finished it and maybe it did get really interesting. But, I know that I don’t stop reading books just because I get a little bored. I have pushed through books because I got it in my head that I had to finish them many times. Usually, if I am giving up on a book it’s because I’ve not touched it in a few days and I want to move onto something else. I am the type of person who can only focus on one book at a time, I don’t enjoy jumping from story to story, so if I stop reading a book and change to another, I won’t pick the former up until I’ve finished what has replaced it.

This was just one of those books I stopped reading and never came back to. I didn’t feel like it, there was always something better to read. Eventually, I just gave up on the notion of finishing it all together and moved it to my dreaded “dropped” shelf on Goodreads. Sorry!

3. Death Sworn by Leah Cypress

Goodreads rating of 3.65    I finished this book!

Seeing as I finished this book it must not have been all that bad, but it was definitely one of those books which I was just reading because there was nothing better to tide me over. In my actual review of the book (I rarely make reviews) I said how the book just went by really quickly, and it did. This book required zero brain power to get through. It’s mainly dialogue and there’s very little description. That’s because it mainly takes place in a cave. It’s about a girl who used to be some great magician in training who suddenly lost her power and has to live with assassins.

It’s a fantasy novel. That’s important. When you pick up a fantasy novel to read you have very clear expectations with what you want. You want a great world. You want to be transported somewhere else. You want to leave your world and enter another. Maybe you want magic, maybe you want adventure, maybe you want politics. Maybe you want all of it. But you want something more than just talking and characters. Which is really all you get in this book.

The lead character just seemed unnecessarily difficult. The assassins and she had the same goals. They wanted the same things! Yet she always complained about what they were doing because it wasn’t the way that she would do it. Okay, that’s great. Thanks for sharing. I just couldn’t find myself any motivation to care for either side. Why was the evil side evil? What made them so bad? Nothing was given to me in that regard. No history or anything other than, “They did bag things to me!” Well, maybe you’re unlucky? I don’t know.

It’s a decent book to read if you just want something mindless to tide you over until the book you’re really wanting to read comes out. I don’t think I’ll be reading the second, however.

4. The Shadow Throne (Ascendance Trilogy #3) by Jennifer A. Nielson

Goodreads rating of 4.19  I got about halfway, maybe.

This one may be my fault. It’s a middle grade book so I don’t expect great prose or conflict that are too deep. I expect fun characters and an interesting story and action. I read the first two books a while back, before I lived in Sapporo and was in rural Hokkaido and I loved them. They were so witty and fun and the characters were great. The first book is about a boy who fakes being this missing prince and his attempts at making people believe that he is this prince. It’s a really great read and I enjoyed it so much. Even for a middle grade book! It didn’t feel like one at all.

This one, however, does. I think it’s because in the third book they are trying to face some more adult topics, and it’s just so difficult to do at a middle grade level. It just felt really juvenile while the other books didn’t. There was so much going on and there was so much skipping around that I often felt confused. A preteens suspension of disbelief is probably much more forgiving than mine,  even though mine is pretty great, but it just didn’t work for me.

The author was trying to do too much with too little. The book is too short to allow all that she wanted. The audience is too young to explain things as they should be. If this book had been produced in a way similar to Harry Potter, where the writing grew with the intended audience rather than stay at the same place over multiple years, it would have been more successful (and is one of the reasons Harry Potter was so successful, I should know, I read the books from ages 10-18 as they came out!). Book one was great for middle grade, but book three should have been bumped up to young adult.

5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka. J.K. Rowling)

Goodreads rating of 3.78   I read maybe 40% of the book.

Kaley! You just mentioned loving Harry Potter yet you didn’t enjoy J.K.’s book?

Yes. I am one of those, but not because I think this book is awful. I honestly think that as someone who has such fond memories of Harry Potter, who holds those books on such a high, infallible pedestal, that it will be virtually impossible for me to like anything else J.K. Rowling writes. The standards of expectations are too high, even if I like to tell myself they aren’t. My mind expects too much.

This is definitely not a bad book. My mother read it and enjoyed it and she reads constantly. The characters are fantastic (J.K. Rowling has a way with characters) and the writing is witty. I just don’t like detective novels. Both of her adult literature attempts that I have read have disappointed me, not because I didn’t like her writing but because I didn’t like the genre. My mistake. I thought my love of her writing would convert me over to a detective novel, but I was wrong.

Speaking of the writing, though, it seemed sort of misplaced. J.K. Rowling has a very distinct way of writing. Her language use is a little strange and her flow is very distinct. It worked really well for Harry Potter, as the books are typically full of quirk and it’s fantasy so things are going to be a little different. But in a book devoid of any magic at all, it almost seems out of place. It feels like I should be reading something fantastical but all that happens is the mundane.

I loved the characters and I didn’t intentionally not finish. It was just another case of me setting the book down to read something else and not picking it back up again, much the same as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

I’ll still try to read everything she releases. Something else aside from Harry Potter that she writes will have to suit me, right?

I tried very hard to be as objective as possible in these reviews. It has been a long time since I’ve read many of these books, so some of the specific details are fuzzy in my mind, but my emotions are still there. It isn’t often that I don’t finish a book and I’ll spend months keeping a book on my “currently reading” list before shifting it to “dropped”. Some have even been there for years.

The whole purpose of doing something like this is to get this, why didn’t I like these books? What was it about these books that made me not finish them and how can I use that to become a better writer? And I have made this brief list:
1. Annoying Lead Character – People have to be able to connect to your main character. Make them likable in some way, even if they aren’t very likably (see Jorg in Prince of Thorns).
2. Juvenile feeling – Make sure the plot suits the level at which you are trying to write at.
3. No plot progression for too long – There needs to be some backstory given, but be sure to keep it at a minimum and try to work it in throughout the book rather than all at once.
4. Inability to connect to the conflict – Try very hard to make your readers care about what they need to care about. If the bad guy is bad, make him bad!
5. Rushed with too much trying to be done – If there seems to be too much going on, maybe you need to edit some of it out. Make sure everything that is important to the story gets thoroughly explained.
6. Writing style – Your writing style is your own, remember that not everyone will like it, but your tone has to fit what you’re writing.

This blog post has been very long, but I hope it was interesting. If you’d like to see more book reviews by me, I can think about it. I think it’s difficult to be a literary critic as everyone has such specific tastes for what books they like, but I can give it a shot. I will make a similar list of books I really enjoyed this year in about a month, so look out for that!

Monday, November 17, 2014


I can count on one hand the number of winters that I've had snow in my life.

Nothing prepares you for it. It's always very sudden. One day the weather forecast says rain but the sky decides that rain isn't good enough, and the temperature dips just a tiny, little bit, and the water freezes. It's usually night, which comes much earlier in the day than you'd prefer, and you’re walking along and you realize the rain is too slow. The water drops a little too big. Then you realize it's not even rain at all. You've worn shoes that won't protect your feet from the slush and your jacket is just a bit too thin, but none of that matters because snow. It's beautiful and it's been a long time and it's falling.

It feels heavy almost, walking through that first snow of the season. The way it moves in the air reminds you of the tiny pieces of seaweed that float in the ocean, the connection to the warm sun of the ocean and the cold flakes hitting your cheeks a strange feeling. Then a tiny flake will find its way to your tongue, a tingly sensation as each individual snowflake melts. It's crisp and it's clean and it's cold.

You watch the snow fall to the ground, each tiny piece disappearing just as quickly as it appeared. Its brief life ends in a flash and you’re thankful. You had a good life, you think to yourself, you're one of the first. And it's true. In the month that follows the first snow the newness is still there, the excitement of things changing and the world as you know it becoming different. Their short little lives fill you with that childlike feeling, even if you know that in a few weeks you'll wish it were summer again.

The trees get covered first, their thin branches collecting the flakes into tiny little piles of what looks like cotton. It's as if there was some really huge pillow fight that you just pissed and all the stuffing has been left behind. It will remind you of Dr. Seuss without the color. It will remind you of childhood. It will remind you that there are things in this world you're still not too old for.

Then you'll walk inside and it's warm, you'll leave the quiet of the new fallen snow and the world seems brighter somehow, more distinct. You'll close your eyes and feel melted snow on your lashes touch your cheeks, a chilly reminder of winter's start. You'll rush to take your jacket off and your hat and your scarf. They will be wet with tiny little beads. In subway stations you'll see everyone's hair dotted with the droplets and you'll know that outside the snow is falling.

That next morning is shocking, it always is. That first time made your heart race and you found yourself giggling as if you were five again as you hopped through the snow in shoes that weren't warm enough, weren't dry enough. Now, it's been a couple of years and you're prepared. You put on your boots designed just for this, pulling them from the back of the closet they've rested in for spring and summer and most of fall. Your feet are heavy with the unfamiliar weight of added lining and waterproofing. The ground is covered now, the nighttime is always the busiest for snow. You walk through the half melted piles that line the sidewalk, trying your hardest not to slip, your legs not yet adjusted to winter. You're coat's warmer today, you've brought your gloves and you've left a few minutes early so that you have time to enjoy the snow in the daylight.

Everything is quiet, it's so much quieter with the snow. Everything you've read about it in books in true. There's a stillness to it even in the middle of the city. And it's white, so much white. Your life had been filled with green before, and now you've gotten to see different colors. The reds and oranges and yellows of fall and the white of winter. You never knew such whiteness existed.

The day will go on, the temperature will rise, and the first snow will melt and freeze into dangerous slicks of ice. You'll find yourself wishing for more snow, anxious for it to really start. The first snow is just a tease, it always is. It'll be weeks before the permanent blanket covers the city. You'll get used to the roofs out the window being laden down, using them as makeshift measuring sticks for how much snow had fallen as you slept.

I began to write this for NaNoWriMo last week after the first snow happened here in Sapporo, and decided it would make a nice blog post instead. It's a bit different from what I normally post so I hope you enjoyed it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

5 Tips to Conquering National Novel Writing Month

I first learned about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) back in 2006 when I had an English teacher who shared the project with us in class one November. I remember thinking the idea was interesting, but I never had the motivation or wherewithal to actually do it.

Two years ago I was sitting in my tiny, cold apartment on the brink of my first ever Winter with a capital “W”, in a town where I had barely any friends and realized that I have a lot of time to dedicate to something like this. I’d been thinking of a book that I would like to write for a month or so leading up to the November first start date, and decided that NaNoWriMo would be the perfect time to stretch out my writing fingers.

So I did it. And I completed it. Easily.

It was a great feeling of accomplishment: 50,000 words in 30 days, averaging 1,667 words a day to hit that 50,000 word mark. I ended the month having written 50,586 words. When I did NaNoWriMo again in 2013 I ended the month at 50,502..

This year I am doing it again. I had prepared myself a lot and had great ideas for books I wanted to write the last two years, but found myself bogged down in the intensely detailed stories I was trying to write. With the strict writing schedule required from NaNoWriMo it didn’t leave me much space to work out plot issues when they popped up, or build on my world if I went to an area I hadn’t yet planned.

With my two years of experience I think I have a handle on how to go about NaNoWriMo, especially if you find yourself not having too much time to dedicate due to work and/or your personal life. Granted, the event has been going on for fifteen years now so I am by no means an expert, these are just things for that work for me as a more casual writer. I know people who hit 50,000 words in the first week and end the month having written hundreds of thousands of words!

2012 word count per day

1. Write in Different Places

I cannot be productive in my apartment. It’s impossible. My apartment is a place where I relax. I don’t do any lesson planning there and I don’t write there. If I am at home I am curled up in my chair under a blanket watching some YouTube video, catching up on American television, or watching a random documentary on Netflix. My mind goes into shutdown mode at home.

There have been times when I have written at home, and if I actually had a desk to sit at and write rather than an ottoman that my laptop sits on I may be more inclined to write there. But, alas, I do not have the space for a desk in my tiny Japanese apartment so I do not have one.

Regardless, I think that different locations can break the slog of always sitting down to write. Take your laptop to a Starbucks and enjoy their free wifi and outlets (maybe one of the only places in Japan that has both of these). If your laptop has the battery life, take it anywhere and just write. Maybe even see if you can just go visit a friends and share what you’re doing with them. I write at school in my free time and I write in cafes.

2. Have a List of Names

There is nothing worse than being in the groove of writing only to introduce a new character (or location) and just stop because you can’t think of a name for them. I have ruined many writing sessions because I have to stop and search for a name for my character.

In the week leading up to NaNoWriMo I opened up and just refreshed their Random Name Generator. I like theirs because you can select different countries or even historical periods to get your names from. If I get bored of refreshing (which I did) I then open up a random country and jut write names I like. In my fifteen minutes of searching I ended up with a list of about 30 names that I pull from when I introduce a new character.

Also, always remember that you can change a name if you don’t like it, removing the stress of finding the Perfect Name makes it a lot easier to just choose one and go back to writing. Microsoft Word has that lovely “change all” feature where you can search for a word in your document and substitute it out with another, so it is very easy to go back through and change a character’s name, even after you’ve written upwards of 50 pages!

3. Don’t Force Yourself to Write Everyday

While writing every day would be ideal, I think for most people it is impossible to sit down and write anything of merit just because you have to. When I give myself the time to actually get in the mindset and just write, I can easily knock out the required 1,667 words a day in about 45 minutes to an hour. If I sit in a café for three or four hours on a Saturday afternoon, I can write 4,000 easily. And that includes random texting breaks and time spent on Facebook just clearing my mind after a chapter finishes.

Last week I was extremely busy, I had a lot of classes to plan, so free time at work was minimal until later in the week, then I had three days of my part-time job (rather than two) in the evening. I was exhausted. But I knew that this week at school I would have so much free time due to exams that I didn’t worry about not being able to write much.

Currently, I am very far behind, but I know that I can easily write 2,000 to 3,000 words a day (if not more) just at work, so I can easily make up the lost time. Not constantly worrying about writing all the time makes it easier. My first year I was able to write daily thanks to my work schedule being easy, but last year was much different, and I had stretches where I wouldn’t write for days yet I still finished.

I think giving yourself three or four days in the week to write 3,000 to 4,000 words is perfectly acceptable and how I prefer to do NaNoWriMo. Plus during the down days I can focus on what I want to write next in my story.
2014 graph - Clear break in writing

4. Have a List of Things to Write

Because I take days off to think about where I want my story to go, I can create a list of different scenes or events I would like to write about. I was walking through a very gray, drizzly, cold November day last week and decided that I would like to write about one of my characters reminiscing about similar times related to that weather in his past whilst walking down a road. So I wrote it down on my List To Write and when I was next free I wrote about it.

Sometimes a certain scene can just not what you’re in the mood to write, so I think it’s a good idea to skip it and write something new. That change of pace will refresh your mind and you can come back to the skipped scene easily. The great thing about early drafts is that you’re going to change things anyway.

Things that I usually have on my list include: how two different characters met; a history explaining the certain aspect of a character; history about the setting itself; minor events that happen in the story that maybe don’t play a role overall but I feel like writing because something inspired me like a song or real-life event. Sometimes when I am just sitting on the bus or subway a scene will pop into my head and I write it down. Even if it doesn’t fully work for the story, just writing something with my characters is good for the development of those characters’ voices and personalities.

5. Just Write

Sometimes we hit a block and we just can’t think of where to take our story next. This happens to me all of the time. I actually think forcing yourself to write something can help break through that wall. Put on some moody music (high energy, intense, sad, whatever) and just write using those characters. Write something that is nonsense. Have two characters meet for dinner and discuss something. While it may not be useful to your story and you may not even use it in your book at all, the practice will help you develop the characters more and maybe their conversation will lead you to something that you didn’t think of for the story itself.

To me, writing is a very organic process. I’ve written fantasy stories and I spend quite a bit of time in the prep of the world itself. Designing governments and magic systems and cultural habits. But the stories themselves I like to allow to happen more naturally. I have a basic design of where I want to go, things I want to happen, but I feel the story is more enjoyable to write when I have a loose goal at the end like “I want to write a story about self-discovery in not needing anyone to love you” and then have the story morph around that.

I think one of the best things I heard from a writer was when I read something by John Green years ago. He said how 90% of his first drafts aren’t even in the books. When you break away from that mindset of perfection and following a strict outline you give yourself the freedom to let the story just happen. Relax the mind and just write. It is much easier than you think!

As a note, this blog post was just over 1,700 words! So 1,667 isn't so bad!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Happy Little Things: October

A few years ago I read somewhere that keeping a daily log of things that make you happy can help raise your overall happiness, even if they are little things such as “great weather today!” and “the TV show I watched last night was really good.”

I did this for a while when I first moved to Japan as a way to document the things happen around me as well as the aforementioned. After a few months I fell out of the habit as things become more mundane around me and my life in Japan shifted from “a new adventure!” to just being my daily life.

When I neared the end of my time at my previous school my mood had declined. Summer was on its way out, my routine had gotten rather dull, and I was having a hard time just looking at the happy side of things. On October first I switched schools and found myself looking forward to the new start, and with it came a desire to start up my old project.

I bought a cute little notebook from Central, my favorite stationary store, on a day that just so happened to be one of their biggest sales. Already this was a book for happiness! I began filling it with random things until the first of October, when I decided to bring back my daily happiness memos.

Now that October is ending I have a month’s worth of happy things that I can read whenever my mood tips. I've decided every month to share a selection of these Happy Things so that I have a more permanent log and maybe inspire others to look for happiness in the small things.

I won’t be sharing each thing I wrote down, as some are personal and others too boring (“School lunch was tasty!”).

10/2/2014: The principal talked with me for 20 minutes about how I feel at the new school.

10/6/2014: First lesson that wasn't a self-introduction went really well. The students paid attention and had fun.

10/7/2014: I learned a few new warm-up games from a company meeting (which are working well in class now).

10/8/2014: I had my first really great lunch with 2-5.

10/10/2014: I got my schedule for the next week with plenty of time to prepare before Monday rolls around.

10/11/2014: I met some nice people at an English seminar and learned that a male friend defines himself as a “Boob Girl” rather than “Boob Man” (a man who likes boobs).

10/14/2014: I had a pleasant interview with a graduate student who is writing a paper about foreigners who work in Japanese public schools teaching ENglish and ways that Japan can improve their English curriculum.

10/18/2014: Museum trip plus burgers plus housewarming party plus impromptu bar trip equals a fantastic Saturday!

10/22/2014: I was really stressed about a split class I was going to have where teachers may be present (first half of the lesson in one class and second half in another) but it went much better than I anticipated.

10/23/2014: One of the teachers I work alongside told me that I always have very interesting ideas for activities that he has never seen before.

10/24/2014: The first special needs class with all of the students present went really well. They all seem really excited about learning English and catch on quickly!

10/26/2014: The weather couldn't have been more perfect. It was great to walk around the city and look at all of the autumn colors.

10/27/2014: Watching the vice principal and one of the receptionists battle the flies that have taken up residence in the kitchen area was one of the funniest things I have seen in a while.

10/31/2014: The fact that I can spend Halloween with so many of my friends while dressed as Sailor Moon (thanks to my mother for the costume) is a great way to end the month!