Monday, June 27, 2011

Author Interview: Tessa Gratton

Tessa Gratton, author of BLOOD MAGIC, has agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions. Awesome, right?

A little bit more about Tessa from her website:

Born in Okinawa, Japan while my Dad was on duty with the US Navy, I moved around throughout my childhood and traveled even more. Reading and theater were the two things that got me through it all.

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2003 with a degree in Gender Studies, I went on to graduate school for a Master’s in the same. Halfway through, I ditched my advisor in favor of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic epic poetry, because the blood, tragedy, and violence were much more civilized than academic in-fighting. I don’t have a graduate degree, but I did translate my own version of Beowulf!

Despite having traveled all over the world, I settled in Kansas (where the flying monkeys live) with my partner, two cats, and a mutant mutt named Grendel.

1) Who/What inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve always told stories, and been writing since I was about 8 years old. My inspiration comes from within!

2) Why did you choose to write about teens?

I love to read YA, and so many of my favorite books are books I read for the first time when I was 13-17ish years old. I want my writing to connect with that unbelievable passion I had for book then. Teens have crazy passion, which is amazing to write about.

3) What part of writing/publishing is your favorite? What part can't you wait to get to?

Cracking open a book that I wrote is pretty intense! I was just at the American Library Association’s annual conference, and seeing my book on display with so many other amazing books, and talking to people who’d read it… it’s so surreal, and incredible. I can’t wait to have a whole shelf all to myself.

4) What was the hardest part of writing Blood Magic?

I had to take something out that I loved loved loved – but it was the best thing for the story so it had to happen. That was gut-wrenching.

5) What was it like when your agent told you your book had an offer?

I was dizzy. Just had to sit down, then stand up, then sit down, then stand up… then drink champagne.

6) Was there a time you didn't want to be a writer?

I went through phases where I wanted to be other things – a ballerina, a paleontologist, an actor, a wizard (I still want to be a wizard) – but writing was always part of the equation somehow.

7) At the end of Blood Magic, Nick and Silla are planning on going to Chicago. Will they ever see Yaleylah again?

Maaaaybe. LOL. Silla does own a house there, after all.

8) Is there anything you can tell us about the next book, the Blood Keeper?

It’s a companion novel that takes place in Kansas, 5 years after BLOOD MAGIC, and deals with a lot of the fallout from the first book. Many original characters make an appearance, though the narrators are both brand new.

Thanks for having me! :D

Thanks for coming down! Remember, Tessa's debut novel BLOOD MAGIC is on sale now, and her second book THE BLOOD KEEPER will be out summer 2012.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review: Blood Magic

Two events change the lives of two teens forever. For Nick, it was being forced by his Dad and new stepmom to move from his home in Chicago to a small town in Missouri. For Silla, it's discovering her parents dead in pools of their own blood. The entire town thinks Silla's dad committed a murder-suicide, but Silla knows better. It's only when a spell book written in her father's script shows up at the door from a mysterious Deacon that things begin to change. Nick and Silla, with the help Silla's brother Reese, begin to unravel the secrets of the spell book that may hold the key to the deaths of Reese and Silla's parents. But magic this magic is written in blood, and the sacrifices needed to find the truth may be too much to bear...

I knew I had to pick this book up from the beginning, because come on, witches? I'm a huge fan of magic, and I knew that Tessa Graton's story would be a dark one. The book begins by introducing us to our two main characters, Silla and Nick and their meeting in the cemetery that binds them together. Both are written from a first person POV, which really helps us get into the main character's heads. Both of the characters have great voices here, seemingly very normal people but with really interesting quirks that separate them from the card-board cutouts, which I love. I particularly liked Nick's voice, and was hooked in within a few moments of him on the page.

But I think what really impressed me about the writing was the subtly that Gratton used here. It can be easy to slip into too much telling with first person narrators, but in Blood Magic we learned everything about Silla and Nick at just the right pace. Silla never came out and told the reader about her love of theatre, we learned it more and more as we got to know her, which was really refreshing. More so, the duel povs switch quite frequently, which gave us a more rounded view of some scenes. Her passages and chapters tended to be a little shorter for this, so if you don't have a long time to read, you can always sneak in a chapter or two on a lunch break.

I think what really made me love Blood Magic were the passages all throughout the book from the POV of her villain, Josephine. Not only were we able to sympathize with her villain through these diary entries from her, but we're able to get a glimpse into the darker parts of the magic that Nick and Silla haven't gotten to, yet, and it grew tension and created an air of mystery. Who is this woman? Why is she important?

I'm pretty sure I could go on all day about her characters. Each one was fresh and true to themselves. (My favorite was Reese, of course!) They were the strength and the heart of this book. Not to mention that she puts so much effort into the ambiance, making the cemetery and forest itself come alive as its very own character.

The pace wasn't overly fast, but it had just enough tension and mystery to make putting it down impossible. I loved the ending it all it’s heartbreaking, insane, disturbing glory, and would highly recommend this for anyone who's looking for an urban fantasy with a bit of a different twist.

Overall: 5/5 stars.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How To: Tension

Okay, so I know I haven't dabbled in writing about... well, writing, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Although I've got to put in a disclaimer here: What I found is, if you're trying to improve your writing, read books on writing, study the craft, that's all awesome. But the best way you're going to improve is if you do it yourself. Take what I've said here and experiment with it, play with it. If you decide my advice doesn't work for you, toss it away and do what does work for you. There are a million different ways to write, don't feel limited by my advice. (Or anyone's!)

So today, I'm going to do a little coaching about TENSION.

*Cue music that goes DUN DUN DUN*

Tension is one of my favorite parts of writing or reading a novel. It's not always easy to understand, or easy to implement, but once you have it down you will have readers up all night to read just one more chapter. And isn't that what we all want? Depriving our readers of sleep so in their confused and fuzzy mindset they put down half their paychecks on several hundred extra copies of our books? (You know. Just in case.)

What is tension anyway? Why do we need it? Tension is, essentially, the mystery of the book and its stakes. 90% of the time, it's what draws your reader deeper and deeper into the story, wanting to find out more. It should be on every. Page. Of. Your. Novel. Sometimes it can be hard to put in tension that relates to your main conflict on the first page, or even on every page. And rightly so. How can you give hints or anticipate an event your characters have no idea is coming? Simple. You don't.

Every bit of tension doesn't have to relate back to your main conflict. In fact, it shouldn't. With every piece of the puzzle that fills into your story, the tension should grow.

There are three kinds of tension: The things your characters keep from your reader, the things your narrator keeps from the characters and the reader, and the things your narrator keeps from just your characters.

So let's start where it's simple: the first five pages. How do you introduce tension in the first few pages? One of the easiest ways is to have your character keep something from the reader.

I'm going to use examples from Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, because this woman wrote the book on tension. Seriously. It's fantastic. Anyway, in Healey's opening pages, two of the main characters wake up in a dorm room, and our MC realizes that not only are they late, but they're going to be in trouble. Immediately, the reader is interested. Why are they going to be in trouble? True to her 1st person narrator, Healey doesn't keep the info from the reader for long. We find out the two characters have been drinking, which is against school policy, and the guy with her has to sneak out of the window because he's not allowed in the girl’s dorm.

Well, tension broken, right? We know what the fuss is about. Except Healey doesn't stop there. For a moment the characters discuss what they talked about last night without revealing what they talked about. The reader is immediately interested again because, quite frankly, who can resist gossip?

And so Healey builds on this. Introducing tiny mysteries that seem almost insignificant, but keeps the reader interested long enough for her to get to her main conflict.

So go back and look at your opening pages. Is there anything you could leave to a bit of mystery? It can have absolutely nothing to do with your main plot. It doesn't even have to be that important to the main character, but as long as it keeps the reader interested, it'll keep them turning the pages.

For example, say your main character has to meet her teacher to discuss a grade. If your original text looks something like this:

I was supposed to meet Mrs. Sherman after seventh period to discuss our papers, but I dragged my feet all the way there. Dread was building in the pit of my stomach. Would Mrs. Sherman actually fail me? What if I didn't make that scholarship?

Try to heighten the mystery:

I dragged my feet as I walked, dread building deep in the pit of my stomach. Being late would cost me, I knew, but I couldn't force myself to move any faster. Meeting fate's funny like that. My entire future rested on what Mrs. Sherman thought, and some stubborn part of me refused to be punctual.

The first is pretty standard, and there's nothing overly wrong with it. But the second, if you didn't know the character was meeting a teacher, can trick you into reading further. Though it's not life or death, the reader wants to know why Mrs. Sherman holds so much power over our main character. More so, when dealing with tension, remind the reader of the stakes: The character’s future depends on this meeting, so you understand why this may be crucial to her, even if it’s not crucial to the plot.

This leads me into another point. Some writers like to play Keep Away. This is when the characters all know something, but the reader has no idea what they're talking about. POV characters can only keep things they know from the reader for a little while, but if it doesn't come out, the reader can get frustrated. It's like being left out of a conversation. It's best not to use this method of tension for the whole book. Characters keeping info from readers should be used as tiny bridging tensions that can help bring you to your main conflict.

When you get into your main conflict, you're going to want to use the second form of tension: Your narrator keeps info from both the reader and characters. This is just saying your characters have no idea how the story will turn out, and neither should your reader. Again, we want to tie this further back into the stakes of the novel.

Let's take The Hunger Games as an example for this one. Throughout the Games, we know that Katniss is probably going to win, but we don't know how. And neither does Katniss. This adds tension, but what adds more tension is when we're reminded of what's at stake. Katniss could lose her life, but she could lose more for the people of her district. If you keep reminding the reader why this is so important, they'll feel more of that tension, that desperation that your character is feeling.

So instead of something like:

With the bundle of bread clutched under one arm, Margo ran until her breath was short and every part of her ached. The Marshall was behind her, his horse barreling through the woods as if the twists and turns were no more bothersome than flies.

Let's remind the readers why it's so important Margo escapes:

With a bundle of bread clutched under one arm, Margo ran until her breath was short and every part of her ached. The Marshall was behind her, his horse barreling through the woods as if the twists and turns were no more bothersome than flies. She ducked behind a log and skid down a hill. She couldn't be captured, not here, not now. Not while her brother lay on the edge of death at home. He needed her, and she couldn't let him down.

The last kind of tension is a bit tricky, and should be used sparingly. The information that your narrator keeps just from your characters. If you need an idea of this, imagine a scene in your novel from another point of view, farther from your MC than you've gone before. Usually this is from your villain’s POV. I've used this both in Crash and Shell and it is effective, but not something you want to overuse. Having a scene from a villain’s point of view is great for tension, especially near the climax. All it does, really, is remind the reader what's at stake, and sometimes reveal information that the MC may not know. Perhaps the villain knows the MC is coming and has set a trap? Suddenly the reader is fearful, because they know the MC is in trouble.

If you have your characters feel the desperation, then your reader will feel it too. The clock's ticking, time's running out, your characters have to complete their quest before the villain can thwart them. Show the stakes. Make it seem likely that your good guys will lose. It will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for sure.



Thursday, June 2, 2011

Book Review: The Lunatic, The Lover and The Poet

Horatio is a scholar, a poet, and a skeptic. His days are spent studying at Wittenberg University, until a chance encounter with the Prince of Denmark, whose beauty and wit pulls Horatio into a world completely alien to his own. Horatio’s poems of the Prince's beauty attract the attention of his patroness, a manipulate baroness by the name of Lady Adriane. But when a rival poet by the name of "Will Shake-spear" begins to court both his mistress and his prince, Horatio stands to lose everything. He'll have to pick up his pen and fight, for his love and for his destiny.

Hamlet is probably one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare plays, so I knew I had to pick this one up, and I'm super glad I did. Myrlin Hermes weaves a world for Hamlet and Horatio outside of the Denmark court, before the death of King Hamlet and all the insanity that followed. The writing style was definitely the first thing that drew me in about this book. I was amazed at the beauty of prose. It's definitely at a level that the Bard would have been proud of. The book begins with Horatio accepting a "translating" job from a baron, where he meets her rather un-lovely wife Adriane. But the book really picks up once Horatio discovers Hamlet by the riverside. The scene in which Horatio and Hamlet first meet is one of my absolute, favorite parts of this book. The prose is vivid and paints a beautiful scene, but it's Hamlet who the reader falls in love with here. Hermes paints him as beautiful and dangerous, intelligent and insane. She captures Shakespeare's Hamlet so beautifully that I knew right from that moment that this book would end up being a favorite of mine.

The characters really give this book depth. Not only can Hermes capture the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare's characters, but she creates Lady Adriane, who's dark and sexy and fits in so well with Horatio and Hamlet that I'm surprised I can't dig her out of the original play itself. Life for Hamlet and Horatio wouldn't have been so difficult if not for Adriane, and in that sense the reader comes to love her and hate her. She's a character that you won't soon forget.

As it's set before the original play, I was expecting certain events to take place at a certain time, so this book would inevitably lead into the play. But I was surprised at the twists and turns that Hermes pulls. They're by no means loud and shocking, but quiet, so quiet that the reader could almost miss the crucial decisions that Horatio makes near the end that inevitably change his and Hamlet's destiny indefinitely. The end is every bit as beautiful as I'd hoped with enough variation from the original text that I never once skimmed or became annoyed with predictability.

If you're a fan of Hamlet, or Shakespeare in general, I highly recommend this book. It's everything you expect it to be and everything you don't. It's dark and sexy and I can't get enough of it.

5/5 Stars. An instant classic.