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Friday, January 30, 2015

A Month in Rome

As mentioned briefly in a previous post, my university's study abroad program allowed me to spend the month of January in Rome, Italy.  Along with 27 other students, I took the course Theology 101: The Christian Theological Tradition.  I'm no theology major, but the course is required, but what better way to learn about the formation of the Christian church in the one place that is more central to its history than any other?

We arrived on New Year's Eve, just in time for a quick nap before wading our way through the festivities near the Colosseum.  In the next few days, we experienced the New Year's Day papal address, explored the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, visited St. Peter's Basilica and the archaeological excavations underneath (where St. Peter himself is buried), toured the ruins of Pompeii (*starts singing Bastille like the music-obsessed tourist that I am*), and drove through Naples.

And that was only the first week.

(Click on photos to see them full-sized.)

The next weekend found me in Venice.  Rome may be fascinating, but Venice is enchanting.  This trip was off the official program, meaning that we were completely on our own.  We didn't have much of a plan--we just wandered and had a blast doing it.  We attended mass at the Basilica San Marco, got lost looking for a water taxi to Murano (where they make the famous Venetian glass), woke up early to watch a sunrise that was clouded in fog, and more.  My question: is this city even real?

(I feel an intense need to reread one of my middle school favorites, The Thief Lord, which is set in Venice.)

The second full week was heavier in terms of classwork, but that didn't stop us from seeing more of the gems of Rome: the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Secret Archives, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See (the Vatican), among others.  Since you're probably a book nerd if you follow this blog, I wish I could show you photos of the sheer number of books and other documents in the Archives, but cameras weren't allowed.  (It smelled like old books, too.)

View from the Vatican Secret Archives
Me: How many domes can fit in one skyline?
Rome: LOL, is that a challenge?

View from the Vatican Secret Archives
During the third weekend, we traveled as a group to Assisi, Siena, Florence, and Orvieto.  Assisi is what you imagine when you hear "Italian countryside."  It's green, hilly, and only consists of off-white buildings.  Here, we visited several major churches.  It was at this point that I lost track of which is which, especially since many have similar names.  I'm currently in the process of attempting to identify and label each church in my photos.  Wish me luck.

After a night and a morning in Assisi, we hopped back on the bus for the rest of our weekend, which included Siena, Florence, and Orvieto.  We guessed it...more beautiful churches, toured the Uffizi Gallery, saw artwork like Michelangelo's David, explored shops and restaurants, and sampled the gelato.  

View from the Duomo in Siena
The final week included an audience with Pope Francis (us and several hundred other people), a violin concerto performance, several more church visits, a tour of the catacombs, a climb to the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, two papers, and a final exam.  If it sounds exhausting, well, it was.  In a good way.  Who can complain about being tired after seeing so much history and priceless art?

View from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
View from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Looking back, it's hard to imagine how we fit so much into one month--and even with all of it, there are still things I have yet to do.  For right now, though, I'm glad to be home.  I do appreciate not living out of a suitcase or not having anyone trying to sell me a "selfie stick."  However, how can you not miss Italy?  The pasta, the art, the narrow cobbled streets, casually passing the Colosseum while going for a run, the lights of Venice reflected off the canals, gold-leafed churches, the beautiful weather (and unusual lack of rain), chocolate gelato, that moment when the subway stop by our hotel started to feel familiar, climbing to the top of every high structure/hill to catch the view...   It was an unforgettable month.  I met so many amazing people and learned so much, both inside the classroom and out in the city.   

I don't think my future J-terms will be able to top this one.  That being said, I'm excited about my classes for spring semester: a theology/literature crossover course, more Communications & Journalism, introductory ethics.  I'm also taking my first college-level creative writing class, which should be so much fun.  (Be prepared to hear about this one.)

For now, though, I'm going to keep sorting through my 1,200+ photos and keep the memories fresh in my mind.

Ciao, Italia!
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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How To Write Faster (Recycled)

For reasons explained in my "100 Things Every Beginning Writer Should Know" post, I'm bringing back another writing post, this time from 2012.  This one also got a few updates.  Enjoy!

I've never come across a writer who didn't wish they could write just a little faster.  Writing faster means faster progress.  More visible progress, at least.  More books.  More practice, more experience.

The trouble is, how does one write faster?  Here are some tips.   Keep in mind that these things still take time.  Some save no time at all, but instead break up the writing process a little to make the act of writing itself go a little smoother.
  • Don't procrastinate.  You definitely don't need to go on Twitter right now, trust me.  iFunny can wait for later.  If you don't allow yourself to procrastinate, you get your writing done faster.  Guaranteed.  Think about it.  If you sit down at your computer to write 500 words, and you spend half an hour doing things other than writing those words, it's going to take you half an hour longer to get it done.  Simple logic.
  • Write a lot.  The more you practice, the faster you'll get.  It used to take me an hour to pound out 200 words.  Now I can sometimes get close to 1,000 or more, if it's a good day for me.  The more you write, the more you'll develop your personal voice.  You'll learn the best ways to phrase things, you'll learn how to work with your inspiration and characters.  It works the same way as reading.  Do you remember, in elementary school, how it would take you a week to read a 50 page chapter book?  Now you might read around two 400 page books per week or more (okay, I read two books in the last two days).  Writing kind of works the same way.
  • Outline.  This is a good option if you spend a lot of time staring at your screen, trying to think of what should happen next.  If you outline, you save yourself that time.  Yes, it'll still take quite a bit of time making up the outline.  It doesn't have to be fancy--all it really has to do is tell you where your story is going.  That way, you've saved yourself all that time you would've spent racking your brains and instead turned it into valuable time putting down words. 
  • Don't second-guess yourself.  Don't edit as you go.  That last line you wrote...maybe it's not perfect.  Should you change it?  How could you rephrase it?  Don't think these thoughts.  No, your first draft won't be perfect.  That last line might well have been messy and unnecessary.  Save it for later.  Just keep writing.  If you have to analyze every single thing you write, as you write it, you'll never make progress.  Write now, edit later.  Yes, editing takes a lot of time, but this way you'll make much better use of your time.
  • (added 1/21/15) Set realistic goals.  It's easier to put off writing when you're working with an ambiguous "I'd like to finish this book someday."  Yeah, you can finish that chapter tomorrow.  If you work with that mentality, though, your progress with be slower than you'd like.  However, if you're working toward a goal, you'll have more motivation to actually write.  Be as specific as possible.  Maybe you want to write 3,000 words a week.  Maybe you want to have the book finished by October.  Whatever your goal is, make it manageable.  You'll find that you make more progress when you have a goal in mind.
  • (added 1/21/15) Set aside a specific block of time for writing.  This goes hand-in-hand with setting a goal.  It's easy to keep saying, "I'll write after I do this, and this, and this," and so on, and before you know it, you have no more time left in your day.  Instead, it's much easier to say, "I'm going to write from 8 pm to 9pm today."  Then, you'll be able to plan the rest of your day around this, and writing won't get pushed to the wayside.
  • (added 1/21/15) Know when you need to take a break.  This post is all about making more progress, but sometimes, that just isn't possible.  Sometimes, you'll sit down to finish a chapter, but only write 120 words for an entire hour.  This happens.  In many cases, it's better just to take a break than to try and force out more words.  Maybe this just isn't a good writing day.  You'll be fine tomorrow, or the day after, and you'll get so much more done.  Don't let yourself take a break every time the writing gets difficult, but don't unnecessarily drain your energy when you're just not having a good writing day, either.  
  • Get zapped by a radioactive laser beam.  It might just give you special speed-writing powers.  Or it might just give you cancer.  You never know.  Disclaimer: I haven't actually tried this.
An important thing to keep in mind is this: Don't compare yourself to other writers, in terms of writing speed.  Your critique buddy churns out three novels a year, while you struggle to finish one?  That's fine.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Everyone writes at their own pace.  Don't let others' writing speed discourage you.

Again, these tips aren't miracle cures.  They won't make you able to write 15,000 words a minute.  But they might just help.

Do you have any tips to add?
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Red Rising, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and The Queen of the Tearling Mini-Reviews

Red Rising (Red Rising #1) by Pierce Brown
The Earth is dying. Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it. The Reds are humanity's last hope.

Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it's all a lie. That Mars has been habitable - and inhabited - for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.

Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside. But the command school is a battlefield - and Darrow isn't the only student with an agenda.

Released: January 28th 2014      
Pages: 382
Publisher: Del Rey      
Source: Goodreads First Reads giveaway

I'm still not sure what to think about this.  It begins with a confusing and unnecessary martyrdom.  We're introduced to a group of people, the Reds, who are the bottom of society.  They're poor, hungry, and ignored by the upper classes.  The first quarter of the book focuses on these people, developing the characters and their world.

Then, abruptly, it throws you into what feels like an entirely new plot with an entirely new setting.  Darrow is no longer with the Reds--now, he's going to pass as a Gold.  In order to move up in Gold society so he can start a Red rebellion, he needs to enter a school that essentially forces its students to compete in a capture the flag/Hunger Games hybrid.  This is interesting enough in itself, but it feels awkward to spend so much time developing one setting, and then disregard it for the rest of the book.

The game brings out Darrow's true personality.  He's cunning and ruthless, but also deeply caring with those he loves, which is why he gets himself into this mess in the first place.  While I couldn't always connect with him or agree with his methods, his motives are believable.  His relationships with the other students in the game are dynamic and compelling.

I can't love this book, since the structure of it feels so off.  However, I definitely enjoyed it.  For the most part, the plot is fast and has its share of twists.  Darrow is a likable, believable character.  The setting is detailed and well-developed.  Recommended for fans of dystopian books or science fiction in general.   

Similar Books: It takes place in a "battle school" like Ender's Game.  The structure of its society is similar to A Confusion of Princes, and it also reminds me of Avalon.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle #3) by Maggie Stiefvater
There is danger in dreaming. But there is even more danger in waking up.

Blue Sargent has found things. For the first time in her life, she has friends she can trust, a group to which she can belong. The Raven Boys have taken her in as one of their own. Their problems have become hers, and her problems have become theirs.

The trick with found things though, is how easily they can be lost.

Friends can betray.
Mothers can disappear.
Visions can mislead.

Certainties can unravel.

Released: October 21st 2014   
Pages: 391
Publisher: Scholastic Press    
Source: Library

Blue may be the main character of this series, but really, it's all about the Raven Boys themselves.  It's an excellent example of how relationship dynamics can turn decent characters into compelling ones.  On their own, the Raven Boys are interesting, realistic, flawed characters.  As a group, they reach a whole new level.

My favorite person in this series is Adam Parrish.  SOMEONE SAVE ADAM PARRISH.  He has the most to lose.  His chapters are the most interesting.  However, the majority of his storyline led up to an intense courtroom scene--and I was robbed of that scene.  You get the beginning of it, and then the rest is "offscreen."  Why skip over that type of intense conflict without even telling us the outcome?  That aspect was frustrating.

Other than that, I have no major complaints.  It's an interesting plotline that moves at a solid pace (for the most part--it can run slow at times).  Henrietta, where this book is set, is full of odd people that keep you guessing.  I can't say I liked it as much as The Dream Thieves, but it's still an improvement on The Raven Boys.

Similar Books: It's a paranormal novel with characters that remind me of those from Midnighters: The Secret Hour. It also reminds me of Through Her Eyes and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #1) by Erika Johansen
Her throne awaits . . . if she can live long enough to take it.

It was on her nineteenth birthday that the soldiers came for Kelsea Glynn. They’d come to escort her back to the place of her birth – and to ensure she survives long enough to be able to take possession of what is rightfully hers.

But like many nineteen-year-olds, Kelsea is unruly, has high principles and believes she knows better than her elders. Unlike many nineteen-year-olds, she is about to inherit a kingdom that is on its knees – corrupt, debauched and dangerous.

Kelsea will either become the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known . . . or be dead within the week.

Combining thrilling adventure and action, dark magic, mystery and romance,
The Queen of the Tearling is the debut of a born storyteller blessed with a startling imagination.

Released: July 17th 2014
Pages: 434
Publisher: Bantam 
Source: Library

If there was an award for the most incompetent ruler in YA fiction, it would go to Queen Kelsea of the Tearling.  This girl has spent nineteen years in training to be a good queen, but as soon as she reaches the castle, all of that knowledge goes out the window.  She threatens her entire nation with invasion by breaking a treaty.  The other nation is bigger, stronger, and has a better army, but she thinks she can take them because...why, exactly?  She nearly gets herself killed over and over, but somehow manages to survive, even though she has an equally incompetent royal guard.  These are supposedly the nation's best soldiers, but they allow not one, but two assassination attempts to happen.

I wish I had time to detail each individual problem with this book.  Maybe someday I'll return to this and write an expanded review.  For now, though, here's another glaring problem: the setting.  It seems like a standard high fantasy setting in a medieval era.  But apparently it's a dystopian novel?  Because--surprise!--it actually takes place in the future, after some ambiguous event called the Crossing.  What is that?  No technology survived this event, but Kelsea can make a Harry Potter reference?  We can't explain this, because instead we have to devote pages and pages to Kelsea's endless descriptions of people, places, emotions, the attractiveness of everyone in her guard, and so on.  434 pages, and not much actually happens--but there's enough description here to last an entire trilogy.

There's a lot of traveling.  Then Kelsea spends a lot of time moping.  She's not skinny.  She's not pretty.  She wants to be skinny and pretty--or does she not care?  She can't make up her mind, but she's willing to comment on other women's ugliness.  Then, 3/4 of the way through, she somehow develops magical powers due to the heirloom jewel she always wears around her neck.  It involves flashes of light that are enough to kill a man; that's all we get to know.  How does this power work, where does it come from, and how does she control it?  Apparently Kelsea's weight problems are more important than this.

Whoever compared this to A Game of Thrones could not be more wrong.  It doesn't have the complexity, intensity, or awesome characterization that this reference implies.  Instead, it's equal parts irritating and yawn-inducing.  Not recommended.
 Similar Books: It's a YA fantasy with a focus on political intrigue like Falling Kingdoms or Allies & Assassins, and has a female main character like The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Poison Throne, or The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

100 Things Every Beginning Writer Should Know (Recycled)

Fun Fact: I've actually been in Italy since New Year's Eve.*  Because I had to come up with an entire month's worth of blog posts in the space of a few days, I decided to bring back a post from January of 2013.

The more you write, the more you learn.  Everyone starts out making beginner's mistakes, but some are easy to avoid if you know what to watch out for.  As a list of advice for the beginner, or a refresher for the veteran, here are 100 things I think writers should know:
  1. Nothing you write will ever be perfect the first time.
  2. Writing is hard.
  3. Show, don't tell.
  4. Character development is the key.
  5. There will always be someone who doesn't like your book.  This is okay.  Haters gonna hate!
  6. Take every suggestion/comment/criticism with a grain of salt.
  7. Music is your friend.
  8. Writing a book takes a long time.
  9. Writing gets better with practice.
  10. Avoid cliches.
  11. Do research, but don't include every piece of research in your book.
  12. Give every character a secret.
  13. Physical descriptions of people are less important than you think.
  14. Spelling and grammar DO matter.
  15. There is more than one way to write a book.
  16. Carry your writing supplies with you everywhere.
  17. Don't listen to people who say writing is stupid.  They are stupid.
  18. Revision takes five times longer than you think it will.
  19. Don't use "the mirror trick."
  20. Don't write purple prose.
  21. Watch your pacing!
  22. There are lots of things about writing that aren't fun, but the fun parts make it worth it.
  23. Never be afraid to take a break.
  24. Don't stress about your word count.
  25. Find a writing routine that works for you, and stick to it.  And then, shake it up every so often.
  26. Spellcheck isn't God.
  27. Bigger words aren't always better.
  28. Know your characters better than they know themselves.
  29. Develop your antagonists, too.
  30. It isn't the end of the world if you have to delete something.
  31. Never underestimate the power of good old fashioned pen and paper.
  32. Know where your story is going.
  33. Readreadreadreadreadread.
  34. Don't overuse adverbs.
  35. "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug." -Mark Twain
  36. No one knows your story better than you do.
  37. Write about things you love.
  38. If you're bored, your readers will be bored.
  39. Simplicity is underrated.
  40. It's okay to use "said" more than you think it is.
  41. Don't be afraid to imitate other authors.
  42. You learn something every time you write.
  43. Stick with it!
  44. No two writers are alike.
  45. Don't edit as you write your first draft.
  46. Nothing you write is ever set in stone.
  47. Write about things that scare you.
  48. Originality isn't always about having nothing in common with other stories.
  49. There are some tropes that never get old.
  50. Your story does not have to be a complex literary tome full of symbolism and metaphors.
  51. Use all five senses.
  52. Know what your characters want.
  53. Your writing will get better!
  54. Nobody likes to read flashbacks, or dream sequences.
  55. If you say "well, you haven't gotten to the good part yet", you have a problem.
  56. You are the only one who can tell your story.
  57. A little comic relief can go along way.
  58. The internet is a great source of writing advice.
  59. Don't emotionally exhaust your readers.
  60. Keep a file of "deleted scenes."  That way, you don't feel like you're technically "deleting" them.
  61. Take inspiration from other authors.
  62. Don't be afraid to change things of your story.
  63. Make your characters miserable.
  64. Learn proper dialogue formatting and punctuation.
  65. Your writing style is unique.
  66. You have the final say on any changes made to your story.
  67. Don't be afraid of criticism.
  68. Nobody likes a Mary Sue.
  69. Remember why you started.
  70. Take advice.
  71. Let your characters teach you things about their story.
  72. In the end, no one can "teach you" how to write.  You have to learn for yourself.
  73. Don't be afraid to end your revision and call it done.
  74. If you are tempted to skim a section, your readers will be, too.
  75. Fiction is more real than you might think.
  76. You are your own harshest critic.
  77. Write a lot.
  78. Don't over-describe.  Don't under-describe, either.
  79. Everyone gets stuck.
  80. Longer does not mean better.
  81. People read for dialogue.
  82. Don't let Shiny New Ideas distract you.
  83. The strongest characters are the ones that are most human.
  84. When you think you've learned everything about writing, you're wrong.
  85. Revision is just as important as writing itself.
  86. Everyone loves a good vs. evil story.
  87. Let your characters make mistakes.
  88. Finish what you started!
  89. Don't line edit anything that you haven't structurally edited first.
  90. Keep a place to write down all your story ideas.
  91. Whether or not your readers can connect with your characters can make or break a story.
  92. If it doesn't affect you emotionally, your readers won't care.
  93. Listen to your instincts.  If something seems off, it is.
  94. Praise makes you feel good, but constructive criticism helps you improve.
  95. Back up your files.
  96. Experiment.
  97. Outlining helps some people, but hinders others.  Find your planning style.
  98. Writing is not the same as speaking.
  99. The best writing is the kind where you don't even know it's there.
  100. Love what you do!
I also have a second list of 100 things writers should know--it's right here.

What would you add to this list?

*It's true!  I'm spending the month of January studying in Italy.  I'll probably post more about this later.  For now, ciao!
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