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June 2012

Prose’s Unsung Heroes: Punctuating with Personality

Writersdontcry Lovelorn EmoticowYou know that guy who ends every sentences in three exclamation points? What speaks louder to you: the content of his missive, or the fact that he screams everything he says? That, my friend, is the power of punctuation.

We talk a lot about words when discussing writing—from the sounds of words to the myriad of ways to arrange those words. But writing isn’t just composed of words. There are also spaces, italics, bold text, all caps, small caps, and a whole legion of punctuation. And I’m not just talking about your use of the serial comma, or whether you put one or two spaces after a period! I’m talking about a host of hard-hitting exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, em-dashes, semi-colons, and other unassuming characters that add bursts of personality your manuscript—whether you like it or not.

Just like the music in a movie, punctuation can drastically alter mood and interpretation. That same sob scene will read differently if it’s backed by the world’s tiniest violin squeaking unsympathetically, the hellfire and brimstone of Carmina Burana, or banjos. But overdosing on strong punctuation is like setting your make-up gun to “nightmare circus”—leaving the face of your manuscript a riot of screaming colors.

As a rule, the reader should never come away with a stronger impression of your punctuation than your story. So how to wrangle these textual divas into enhancing your prose—rather than distracting from your intent? Here I’ve outlined the many personalities of punctuation, along with tips on how to—and more importantly, how not to—use them.

Exclamation Points Try Too Hard
Example: I love you!!!

Exclamation points are like party hats for your sentences. Like a literary laugh track, they are excited and want to let you know that you should be excited too!!!--even if there's nothing to be excited about! Some people use exclamation points like smiley faces—to show that they’re enthusiastic. And a lot of people use them for everything in children’s books, because they want kids to be excited about what they’re writing, and probably because they get the sense that they should talk to kids in a very energetic voice. But I dare you—just once, try reading a book written entirely in exclamation points aloud. It begins to sound a lot like screaming.

Continue reading "Prose’s Unsung Heroes: Punctuating with Personality" »

Summer Reading Author Exclusive: Rick Riordan

This week's featured Summer Reading for Kids & Teens author is one of my personal favorites, Rick Riordan.His latest book, The Serpent's Shadow, is one of our Editors' Picks for summer reading and I'm looking forward to spending a lazy August day reading the short stories and and insider info on his characters in The Demigod Diaries (available August 14). 

Recently the title and cover of the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, The Mark of Athena, were revealed and of course I can't wait to see what will happen next. Luckily, when we sent Riordan some questions from our Facebook fans and Omni readers one of them asked for a sneak peek at The Mark of Athena.  You'll find his answer (and yes, he gives a sneak peek!) to this and other questions in the exclusive video below.

How to Survive in Anthony Bourdain's New Graphic Novel

In Get Jiro!, renowned chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain makes his first course in graphic novels a memorable one. The comic takes place in a near future, where Los Angeles is ruled by (surprise!) chefs, with patrons literally begging to get into the door of the top restaurants. Maybe this isn’t a surprise for Bourdain’s fans—after his dishes, he is known for his sarcasm and humor—but co-writer Joel Rose and artist Langdon Foss bring a shocking level of violence to the tale. There are knives aplenty, and there is no shortage of beheadings and blood splatter. Two factions of chefs are at war: the Internationalists, power-and-pleasure-seeking capitalists, and the Vertical Farm, militant vegetarians—and Jiro, a quiet sushi chef, is adrift between them.

What I took away from Get Jiro!, though, is that I’ve been incorrectly (and possibly offensively) eating sushi for the past decade. Very early in the book, three obnoxious patrons visit Jiro’s restaurant, and one of them is quickly dispatched for his lack of tableside manners. This scene was so brutal that I had to do a little investigation into what the now-headless customer did to break etiquette. Learn from my mistakes, Omni readers. Here is how to eat sushi without risk of beheading:

  • Never dip the sushi into soy sauce with the rice-side facing down. Sushi rice is already seasoned and a soy soak can damage the flavor balance.
  • Try picking up a piece with your fingers instead of chopsticks. This is a smart way to let the chef know that you are ready for a proper roll.
  • Place the sushi onto your tongue with the fish-side down. I could kick myself! Of course the tastiest part should be the first thing that hits your tongue.
  • Never, ever order a “California roll”—at least in Bourdain’s future Los Angeles. Yikes.

Get Jiro! releases next month, and it’s every bit as feisty as culinary mind behind it. The above breaches are all punished with tongue-in-cheek severity, but the presentation was enough to forever change my eating habits—a sure sign of a palatable narrative.

--Alex

YA Wednesday: "Shadow and Bone" Author Leigh Bardugo

June's spotlight pick for Best Teen Book of the Month was a no-brainer--we were unanimous about Shadow and Bone and the only argument was whether or not to also include it on the adult list. 

When an teenage orphan's hidden talents are revealed to everyone--including herself--she is suddenly whisked away to join the elite Grisha, the magically inclined people who live and work under the mysterious Darkling.  Not unlike Katniss and Gale, the connection between Alina and Mal, the orphan boy who has been her best friend since childhood, is sweet, innocent, and fraught with difficulty--their story as much as Alina's self-discovery, was part of what made Shadow and Bone impossible to put down. The writing is so cinematic that I can still picture favorite scenes throughout the book despite my having read it months ago, and I really wanted to be a part of the Grisha world.  The second book in this trilogy honestly cannot get here fast enough...

You can read more about Shadow and Bone from the author, Leigh Bardugo, in the Q&A with her editor, Noa Wheeler, below and check out a cool trailer for the book:

Noa Wheeler: I was really struck when I was reading Shadow and Bone by the beautiful setting. It’s not our world exactly but it feels very Russian. Can you tell me a little bit more about the setting and how it played into your writing?

Leigh Bardugo: I think a lot of people have come to expect the medieval European setting from fantasy, and I wanted to use a different cultural touchstone for my world. There's also this terrible tension between the beauty of Russian culture and the brutality of its history that just lends itself to high-drama narrative. The more I researched the more inspired I got.

NW: I truly believe that Shadow and Bone is a book for everyone. It’s fantasy but there’s plenty here for someone who’s not a regular fantasy reader to fall in love with. That makes it feel different to me from a lot of what’s out there. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think makes this book different?

LB: I hope you’re right! I tried really hard to make the book accessible to people who might not ordinarily pick up high fantasy. I’m a fantasy writer, so I love world building. I love maps. I love all that good stuff. But the story really began for me with the relationships between Alina and Mal and the Darkling. And I hope that comes through. Some people are put off by fantasy because they pick up a book and there are 10 terms and each one has 20 consonants and three apostrophes and you have no idea how to pronounce things and it kind of makes the book feel like work. So I tried to ease people into the world a bit more gently. That's also why I chose to tell the story from Alina's point of view. She’s very down to earth, very pragmatic, has a modern sensibility. I hope her perspective will make it easier for readers to enter Ravka.

NW: Another thing I think makes this book so different is that the magic is very accessible. For instance, I love the idea of the Small Science, of something that looks like magic being an enhancement of what’s actually around us all the time. Can you elaborate on that aspect of the story a little bit?

LB: I've just always been interested in the functionality of magic. I love Harry Potter and I always wondered what actually happens physically and structurally when you mutter a curse or wave a wand. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of how the magic worked. So the Small Science is really about manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels. It’s basically magical molecular chemistry.

NW: This is a little bit of a fangirl question, but if you could meet one of your characters who would it be and why?

LB: Well, my fangirl answer would be The Darkling. Because he’s gorgeous and mysterious and dangerous and all those fun things. But I would also love to meet Genya. She kind of serves as Alina’s guide into this magical world of the Grisha and the political maneuvering of the royal court. She’s a combination of a make-up artist, a plastic surgeon, and a sorceress—and on the surface she’s the classic fairy godmother, sassy best friend character, but there's a lot more to her than that. She’s been kicked around and looked down on a lot throughout her life, yet she’s always managed to keep her chin up and stay fabulous. I like that, and I think she’d be really fun to hang out with.

NW: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

LB: The message at the heart of the story is basically that the things that you fear most in yourself, the things that make you different, are also the things that give you power. And that embracing them can make you beautiful. So I would love it if people took that away from the book. I would also love it if people came away from it wanting to know what happens next for Alina and Mal! Things get really intense in the sequel, Siege and Storm. There are some new characters and what I hope will be some big surprises.

Trend Stetting 17: Smart Quotes

ByrneI should mention right away that I loathe epigraphs. It's a visceral reaction: the same feeling I get from footnotes in fiction, the scraping tool dentists use, and people who call their coffee drinks "expresso." Like literary criticism, epigraphs tell me how I'm supposed to feel about a piece of writing before I've had a chance to read it—please don't mess with my head like that. Maybe (maybe) I'll check out your italicized George Orwell excerpt after finishing your book, so I can look for the connection. But not before. Never before.

Here's something I do love, though: pith. And it doesn't get much pithier than a good quotation, expertly employed. Robert Byrne may be America's foremost employer of quotes, as evidenced by his satisfyingly chunky new collection, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said. (Why that particular number? He explains in his winning introduction, so I won't spoil the story here.) In logical progression—the chapter on "Love" precedes "Marriage" precedes "Birthing and Babies" precedes "Divorce"—Byrne's book marches us through the stages of our lives as elucidated by masters of the bon mot.

On the modern end of the spectrum, Byrne offers wisdom from Jon Stewart on war, Ellen DeGeneres on religion, and David Sedaris on travel; reaching back into the archives, he calls on trusted sources W.C. Fields (re: children), Jane Austen (re: happiness), and Anthony Powell (re: aging). Comedian Rita Rudner has apparently cornered the market on sex and relationships—"Not only was I not asked to the prom, nobody would tell me where it was"—along with usual suspects Steve Martin and Woody Allen.

Even with all these accomplished wordsmiths to choose from, I have only B.B. King to thank for my favorite quote in Byrne's extensive volume: "Nobody loves me like my mother, and she could be jivin'." You won't see that line at the front of my next book, but it's a serious contender for my gravestone.

Other fine collections for your quoting needs

The Quotable Hitchens: Offend everyone you know as articulately as possible.
The Book of Poisonous Quotes: Somewhat obscure, but worth it for the author bio alone.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: The granddaddy of the genre, now in its 17th edition.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: The Movie, the H.R. Giger-inspired Art Book, and More

Prometheus-bookRidley Scott’s blockbuster sci-fi horror flick "Prometheus" has divided critics and audiences alike and become something of a Rorschach test in that viewers seem able to come up with multiple interpretations for elements of every scene. Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The New York Times have all enjoyed the film to varying degrees. Roger Ebert called it “a magnificent science-fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn't have the answers. It's in the classic tradition of golden age sci-fi.” Variety was less kind, citing cardboard characters and clichéd dialogue. The Atlantic called the movie “a gorgeous mess.”Within the geek and science fiction subcultures, debate has raged fast and furious over every aspect of "Prometheus," with a clear sense of ownership on display. SFX felt the film fell short, concluding that “unfortunately having fanboys pick holes in it rather than debate its grand ambitions is probably not what the filmmakers intended.” Farther afield, writer Genevieve Valentine, a rising star in the fantasy field, more or less ridiculed the movie in her post “Ten Things You Should Know About Prometheus,” saying the movie is like being trapped by a magician who promises wonders but never delivers. Meanwhile the iconic weird fiction writer Caitlin R. Kiernan mounted a vigorous defense, refuting some fans’ issues with the movie’s logic in one post and expanding on her thoughts in a second post. (Note: both posts contain R-rated language.) There have even been running battles about the male-only medical bed in Prometheus. To me, it clearly had to do with the secret purposes of the Weyland corporation, especially given the contemptuous way Charlize Theron’s character introduces it, but your mileage may vary. As with prior Ridley Scott films, including, of course, "Alien" and "Blade Runner," it may take a few years for the dust to settle and for any of us to get a real sense of the merits of Prometheus—especially since the director’s cut might include up to 30 minutes of additional footage.

Continue reading "Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: The Movie, the H.R. Giger-inspired Art Book, and More" »

Colum McCann Reads Opening Lines From Our 10 Best Books of June

Our thanks to Colum McCann (National Book Award winning author of Let The Great World Spin) for indulging our request to read the opening lines from our top-10 Best Books of the Month for June.

We especially appreciated some of the commentary.

 

The books:

>See more Best Books of the Month

Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award Winners Announced

Abna3At a special ceremony held at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park this weekend, two debut novelists--Alan Averill and Regina Sirois--were named winners of the annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Averill won the Grand Prize in general fiction for The Beautiful Land, and Sirois' On Little Wings was awarded the Grand Prize in young adult fiction.

This year's contest drew thousands of submissions from aspiring writers around the world. Six finalists were selected by a panel of authors, agents, and editors; Amazon.com customers voted to select the winners. Averill and Sirois will each receive a $15,000 advance and a publishing contract from Penguin Group. Their novels will be published by Berkley Books and Viking Books for Young Readers, respectively. Both are available for pre-order at www.amazon.com/abna.

At Saturday's ceremony, Sirois and Averill each credited their spouses for supporting their writing.

Abna2Averill is a former video game script doctor from Seattle who wrote a draft of The Beautiful Land as a part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), during which writers attempt to complete a novel in 30 days. The Beautiful Land is a sci-fi/horror story of a computer genius' efforts to find and save his high school love--with a time machine. One customer reviewer wrote: “From the opening statement to the last quote, [it] had me excited all the way through. The prose is strong, descriptive in a quirky way, charming, and unique. The characters are extremely memorable.”

Abna1Regina Sirois, born and raised outside of Kansas City, had studied creative writing but didn't start writing seriously until she became the mother of two girls. On Little Wings is the story of 16-year-old Jennifer’s discovery of an aunt she never knew existed, and her search for the truth about her family. One of the panelists wrote: "this tale of family, home, and heartbreak reveals the ways in which we are held prisoner by our memories of the past as well as our expectations of the future." And a customer reviewer said “any given sentence, paragraph or scene was sublime.”

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, now in its fifth year, is an international contest co-sponsored by Amazon.com, Penguin Group (USA) and CreateSpace. “This contest not only recognizes talented authors but also connects them directly with readers looking to discover great new writers," said Nader Kabbani, Director of Independent Publishing at Amazon.

To view excerpts and reviews, and learn more about current and past winners and finalists, visit www.amazon.com/abna.

From Facebook to Fiction: The Tricks and Traps of First Person

Writersdontcry I, EmoticowThe allure of first person is strong—it’s edgy, intimate, and goes down as easy as gossip. In the era of Facebook, we are writing more than ever—and almost all of it in first person. It’s a small step from detailing reality to detailing dreams—and from there, to detailing the events of a story. And with the success of many such ventures, why not? There is something powerfully emotional and immediate about first person, especially when we are so used to connecting with people via their online lives. And all the practice we receive from our own journaling makes first person both an approachable and natural form of narration.

But, while writing a journal—online or otherwise—provides excellent writing practice, when it comes to your actual story, there are a few important differences. For one, your online journal has context: you! For another, the reader has no expectations of an entertaining, immersive, world-shaking story from an online journal.

We care about online journals because they belong to real people—it gives it a sense of importance lacking in fiction. But once you know it’s “merely” another work of fiction, the bar raises—as do your expectations. In order to keep the magic, it’s important to understand the tricks—and traps--of first person narration, as well as how to control the context and expectations of the story.

Voice Is Everything

Voice is always important—but never more so than in a first person story. First person stories force an intimacy between reader and narrator unlike any other story. And, speaking as a reader, if that intimacy is abused by a narrator voice I don’t fancy, it doesn’t matter how compelling the story is--I will put that book down. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, the same as if that unlikeable voice were whispering in your ear. Just as a particularly good voice can get me excited about just about anything--from the history of the sea cucumber to the secret lives of washcloths.

So, take a little time. Think about those voices you’ve heard that can still a buzzing room without raising their volume. The voices that could say anything and make it music to your ears. The voices that silence the voice inside your head and fill the cavity of your skull with their own resonant tones. And then try to craft an engaging first person voice with those same qualities. Remember: many of the tricks that work for you as a person will read incredibly differently coming from an unknown character on paper. Being unduly negative can easily unite readers against you, rather than inciting empathy as it would were you to use it with people who know you for a good, relatable person.

Continue reading "From Facebook to Fiction: The Tricks and Traps of First Person" »

Buzz Bissinger's Blunt and Unflinching Memoir, "Father's Day"


BuzzI'm trying to picture those dads receiving copies of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son. After a father’s day dinner with the family, after the U.S. Open golf tournament or a ball game on TV, they crack open the book and by page three they are realizing this will not be a cozy read, nor will Bissinger be the chummy narrator. 
This messy, complicated, often cynical and frequently eloquent book is the story of Bissinger's attempt to learn more about his brain-damaged son during a cross-country road trip. Bissinger acknowledges from the start that he doesn’t really know his son, “nor do I think I ever will.” 
Zach Bissinger and his twin, Gerry, were born prematurely; Gerry emerged first, and those three extra minutes made all the difference. 
Now 24, Zach works in grocery store and lives in a group home with other young men with brain damage, Down Syndrome, or other disabilities - the “unwanted,” Bissinger calls them. Bissinger loves his son, but for years has wrestled with the shame and anger of being “robbed.” The road trip is an attempt to engage Zach’s love of maps, to see old friends and revisit places Zach had lived, including Odessa, Texas, where Bissinger researched his book Friday Night Lights. But from the start, neither father nor son is sure it’s a great idea. “Maybe we can fly,” Zach suggests. 

Continue reading "Buzz Bissinger's Blunt and Unflinching Memoir, "Father's Day"" »

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