Book Review – Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Rating: 5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review.

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I LOVED this book. Seriously. There was just something about it that resonated with me in a way that a book hasn’t really done in a long, long time. From the story concept to the characters to the writing, it was all amazing. Honestly, this book hadn’t even been on my radar until I started writing my own novel about superheroes and villains, and I’d decided to check out a few books in the genre. I’m so glad I found it, though, because I’m in love.

Anyway, gushing aside, let’s get into this review.

This book had everything I love to see in novels, the most important of which being amazing characters. The two leads, Nova and Adrian, were so fun to follow. Nova being a kick-ass villain and Adrian being a too-pure-for-this-world hero led to some great moments between the two of them and between them and the other characters in the book. The juxtaposition between their personalities really led to the story feeling dynamic, and I enjoyed getting to follow both of their points of view throughout the novel.

The side characters were equally lovable, both on the side of the Anarchists and the Renegades (aka the villains and the heroes). Every character felt complex, and I grew attached to most of them almost immediately. Adrian’s patrol team specifically made me grin every time they were on the page, and I loved their relationship with Nova.

Another thing I loved in this book was the romances. I liked them because they didn’t overshadow the main plot, but rather accented it nicely. There were a lot of moments between different characters that left me squealing and grinning like an idiot, reminding me why I don’t read books in public.

The world building was also great. With so many layers and so much history, it would’ve been easy for this world to be a jumbled mess, but Meyer did a wonderful job at making sure everything made sense and was explained thoroughly to the reader. Sometimes, with fantasy worlds like this, there can be a lot of plot holes when it comes to how powers work or where they come from. Meyer, however, leaves no hole unfilled, which I was glad to find. There were some questions left unanswered, of course, but it was made very clear that these were for mystery purposes and not because Meyer was dropping the ball.

The last thing I loved about this book (that I can talk about without getting into spoilers, at least) was the pacing. The story always felt like it had a forward momentum, even in the moments when not much was happening. Whether we were focusing on the main plot or romantic subplot at any given moment, there was always tension that kept me on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen next.

My only real complaint about this book is really just a personal preference thing, and it’s so small I didn’t even bother to count it toward my overall rating. But what I really wanted from this book, more than anything, was more Adrian chapters! It was clear that Meyer’s main focus in this novel was on Nova and her story, but I really wanted to see some of the big, important moments from Adrian’s POV instead of Nova’s. Especially some of the romantic moments. But, again, this was a very small and personal complaint.

Overall, I thought this book was a joy to read. It’s fun and action-packed, with lots of complex characters and a great plot line. I’d recommend this book to any and everybody, but especially to fans of the superhero genre.

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Book Review – Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review.

Hype is a strange beast. On the one hand, it can get you pumped up for a book that then meets or exceeds your expectations, and you get a certain high from enjoying a book that others have enjoyed. On the other hand, it can give you unrealistic expectations for a book that then doesn’t meet those expectations, and then you’re bummed because you really thought you would love that book. My experience with Scythe was of the later variety.

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Book Review – Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review.

If I had to summarize this book in only one word, it would be “clever.” I mean, how many Cinderella retellings are there in the world? About a million, if I had to guess. But this one really stood out from the crowd, and I had a great time reading it. So, with that said, let’s jump into this review!

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Use Your Scenes (And Use Them Well)

Scenes. I love ’em. I love reading them, and I love writing them. My favorite thing to do is sit down and write out a random scene from one of the many story ideas kicking around in my head. It’s almost like a stress reliever, and it’s a surefire way for me to push past any writer’s block I might have. However, during my time at Columbia College Chicago, I learned that, for some people, scenes are difficult to write. It shocked me to learn that some people actually prefer summary to scene. I mean, don’t get me wrong, summary can be a great tool. We all know that not every moment in a story needs to be a scene. The last thing I want is a step-by-step account of how a character gets ready in the morning. But to write a story entirely in summary? Well, I’d argue that’s not really a story at all.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Creative Writing Degrees: Yay or Nay?

When you go to Google and type in “Are creative writing degrees…”, the very first auto-fill that pops up is “worth it?” And, it’s a legitimate question. If you’re going to go to college and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a higher education, you want to make sure you’re getting some bang for your buck, right? Because the last thing you want when you leave college is to feel like you not only wasted your money, but your time. I get it. And, having gone through four years of college to graduate with a BA in Fiction Writing, I feel pretty damn qualified to help you make that decision. So, with that said, let’s get started.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – The Shiny Thing

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Allure of the Shiny Thing” in which I discussed how I was struggling to write one novel because ideas for a million other novels were vying for my attention. The phrase had been one I’d learned from a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and at the time I was adamant that pursuing the shiny thing was the worst thing I could possibly do. However, recently I actually did give in to the shiny thing. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Dust Off Those Vocal Chords

The title says it all. Dust off those vocal chords, because today we’re going to be talking about the benefits of reading your writing aloud!

“But Leighton,” you say, “why would I have to read my writing aloud? The whole point of reading is that it’s done silently.” To that, I say: Tell that to the audio book listeners out there. No, but seriously, this advice that I have to give you has nothing to do with whether your book will be read aloud someday or not (which, it totally will). It has to do with making your book the best it can be. That may also seem confusing, though. Like, how could reading a manuscript aloud make it better? Well, it helps in a few ways. Allow me to enlighten you.

First, it clues you in to how your novel’s language flows. As you’re reading aloud, you’ll be two thousand times more aware of any awkwardly-phrased lines, and you’ll be able to get a sense of the rhythm of your writing. For example, when reading your manuscript silently, those five sentences in a row that consist of seven words each may not even register. But when you’re reading aloud, the odds are better that you’ll realize the rhythm is starting to get monotonous, and then you’ll be able to pinpoint the problem and shake things up with shorter and longer sentences.

Second, repeated words and phrases will stand out to you more. As humans, we can sometimes become fixated on certain things. I’m especially guilty of this. Once I hear a word or phrase I like, I use it until I’ve run the well dry. In high school, I had this problem with the word “juxtapose.” I used it EVERYWHERE. The thing is, I didn’t realize I was using it everywhere. But if I had read my essays and writing aloud back then, it would’ve stood out like a sore thumb, and I would’ve been able to exchange a few of the “juxtapose”s with some “compare”s and “contrast”s. And, in case you’re wondering why it matters if you use the same word or phrase a lot, here’s the long and short of it: Word repetition just sounds clunky and lazy to a reader. The general rule is that common words (like “the,” “and,” “had,” “my,” “it,” etc.) can be repeated without someone noticing, but more complex words and any phrases should be used sparingly and interchanged with synonyms when possible. So keep your ears peeled for those repeated words while you’re reading your novel aloud.

Third, it gives you a better idea of your narrative voice and/or the first person narrator’s voice. When writing in your own voice, you want the narration to sound like… Well, like you! And when you’re writing in a character’s voice, you want the narration to sound like your character. As it turns out, this is easier said than done. A lot of the time, novice writers fall into the trap of writing awkwardly, for lack of a better term. They don’t use contractions, their language is stiff… There’s just nothing to the narration. And if a writer doesn’t read their writing aloud, it’s going to stay that way. If they do read their writing aloud, though, there’s a much greater chance that they’ll hear the awkward stiffness, and they can then work on correcting that. (On a related note, if you’d like me to make a post specifically about writing voice in the future, let me know in the comments!)

Fourth, it makes it easier to notice grammatical errors. When you’re reading your writing silently, you tend to skim. I mean, odds are you know your story inside and out, so skimming is only natural. The problem with this is that you can’t catch errors if your eyes are flying over the words faster than your brain can actually comprehend any of what you’re reading. When you read your work aloud, however, it forces you to slow down and actually read. When you do this, most of your grammatical and punctuation errors will be pretty obvious. They’ll make you stumble, trip over the awkward phrasing or oddly placed comma. For me personally, my biggest sin is accidentally putting a period where a question mark should go. Reading aloud helps me spot those moments and correct them without anyone else having to point them out to me.

Fifth, your dialogue will improve tremendously. It’s kind of like the voice thing I mentioned earlier. Many writers really struggle with writing realistic dialogue, and it’s because they allow it to become stiff and awkward. Reading the dialogue aloud, however, is the perfect cure. Doing so will help you recognize all of the parts that feel not-so-realistic. Then, you can work toward writing something more true to life. Sometimes I speak my dialogue aloud before I even write it down, in order to make sure it sounds how I wanted it to sound.

And if you take my advice and find that reading your writing aloud really does help to improve your writing, then I’ve got a challenge for you to take it one step further: Have someone else read your writing aloud for you. Or, at the very least, record yourself reading it aloud and then listen back to the recording. Trust me. Reading it aloud to yourself is one thing, but listening to someone else read your writing is so enlightening. You’ll be able to hear all of these things I’ve talked about in this post, especially if you recruit a friend to help you out and don’t just record yourself. This is because your friend won’t know the nuances of your story, while you do. So, with someone else reading for you, you’ll hear how your reader will perceive things rather than how you, the writer, perceive them. It’s like a beta reader for your ears. This, of course, is not as necessary as reading your own writing aloud, but it will make your book even better if you do follow through with it.

The most important thing to take from this post, though, is to take the time to make your book the best it can be. Dust off those vocal chords and really put in some effort to tidy up your story. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Let’s Talk About Writing – Cutting Your Manuscript Down to Size

Today we’re going to be talking about one of the most dreaded words to a writer: “Cut.” The word that makes us quake and hug our manuscripts tightly to our chests. “No, please, anything but the cut!” we cry. No matter how much we hate the word “cut,” though, I think we all realize that sometimes there’s just no way around it. Some things just have to be cut.

Before we get into this dreaded topic, I wanted to remind you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

Believe it or not, even if you’re an underwriter, you’re not immune to cuts. It isn’t something that only plagues the overwriters of the world. Even the most bare-bones underwriters can insert a fluffy scene that adds nothing to the overall plot, and that’s exactly the type of thing that needs to be amputated from your otherwise beautiful manuscript. It hurts. It sucks. But trust me, it’s actually not as bad as we make it out to be. Us writers tend to have an air for the dramatic. The truth is, if you cut something from your novel, by the next time you pick up your manuscript you’ll have forgotten it was even there in the first place.

So how do you know what needs to be cut? Well, if you have an agent or editor, a lot of the time they’ll tell you what scenes they think are extraneous and need to be given the boot. You don’t have to wait for an agent or editor, though. In fact, you can increase your chances of being picked up by one or the other by taking a surgical eye to your own manuscript and cleaning it up before it even reaches them. It’s definitely more difficult than being told by someone else what needs to go–because odds are, to you, everything seems important–but with a little practice you can definitely pick out a few scenes that really don’t need to be taking up space in your novel. So I’ve got a few tips for you when it comes to cutting scenes from your own manuscript.

1.) Is there a lot of pointless dialogue that goes nowhere? Cut it.

I’m serious. Even it holds some of the funniest lines you’ve ever written, it’s got to go. Your readers aren’t going to want to sit through a shit ton of banter that ends with no real conclusion or purpose. In fact, it may frustrate them enough to shut the book and never pick it back up again, and, like I always say, that’s not what you want.

2.) Is there a scene where there’s one or two important issues surrounded by fluff? Cut the scene and add the issues into a different, fuller scene.

By this I don’t mean over-saturate an already full scene with even more information. But if you’ve got a nice, rounded scene that has room for one or two more bits of information, squeeze them in there. For example, in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy, my main character needed to learn a bit of information about his new teacher. Originally, I had him learn the information while being fitted for his school uniform, a scene that was mostly fluff with only a little bit of stuff. In one of my later edits, however, I cut the fitting scene entirely and gave the information to his new friends to tell him during a fuller scene that was all about learning about the teacher and the school anyway. It just made more sense, and made the novel flow much smoother.

3.) Is there a scene with information in it that really isn’t all that important? Snip snip.

This is similar to my earlier tip, but instead of moving the information, you cut it altogether. Obviously, make sure this isn’t information that’s pivotal to the plot or any of the subplots. This would be more like information about a certain character that isn’t really consequential in the long run. Maybe you learn that a character’s parents are getting divorced, but that information doesn’t really hold any weight in the grand scheme of things. If that’s the case, it should go.

4.) Is there a scene with too much information? Slice and dice, and sprinkle the information throughout the novel instead.

This is similar to tip number two, in that you’ll be finding scenes with space to add some information, but it’s different because instead of pulling from a mostly-barren scene, you’re pulling from an over-saturated scene. If you’ve info-dumped a ton of your research or your world building into one section, you need to split it up. I’ve actually made an entire post about fixing info dumps, which can be found here.

5.) Is there a plot device that keeps recurring over and over again? Get rid of it.

If we’re on the second or third time in the novel that your main character is having an argument with their significant other about how she wants to be with him but he’s too dangerous for her (I’m lookin’ at you, Twilight), and there’s no real progress being made, you’ve got to cut it. Each scene needs to reveal something new about a character, move the plot forward, or raise the tension. If you have a scene like this, where none of that is happening, why is it even in there? Kick it to the curb, my friend.

And remember, cutting scenes is important if you plan on self-publishing, too. Maybe even more so, because unless you hire a developmental editor, you won’t have anyone telling you which scenes to cut. It’ll be entirely up to you.

I know it may be tempting to just leave your manuscript how it is. To you, it probably seems perfect. Like no scenes are extraneous, like every single one has a reason for existing. This is where I stress that you should put on a hyper-critical eye, and view your novel not as the author, but as a reader. If you were a reader, would you really care about a scene where two characters exchanged small talk and then went on their way with no real reason for the exchange to have happened in the first place? Or would that drive you nuts? Of course, your novel should make you happy, but at some point you also have to think about what will make your readers happy.

Hopefully that gave you a better understanding of what to cut from your manuscript and when, and hopefully you’re able to walk away without too much emotional trauma. Cutting scenes from your novel is rarely fun, but trust me, it is rewarding in the end.

Book Review – Zenith by Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review. For my spoiler-y thoughts, check out my Book Breakdown on my YouTube channel, which was posted on 4/18/2018 (My Channel).

I went into this book having read and watched a plethora of negative and/or rant reviews about it. I knew the general plot of the book, I knew about the trigger warning for rape, and I knew about the Spiced Rigna and how “hope is a raging asshole.” So when I cracked the spine of the library book I’d borrowed (because obviously I wasn’t going to spend money on a book people were shitting on right and left) I thought I was in for a dumpster fire. I thought I would be trudging through the book from beginning to end, rolling my eyes at the awful writing and wishing I hadn’t decided to review it for my Book Breakdown. Then, the unthinkable happened.

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