Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Favorite Things Round-up

I've been reflecting on the past year. It's been stagnant in some ways - I've continued writing (a lot), but have no significant milestones to mention - but eventful in others, e.g., Derek and I bought our first home and my little sister got engaged! I suppose I should call 2013 The Year of the House because renovations have dominated our time and attention. In between home improvements, there were several new things I enjoyed this year, and I thought I'd share them with you. (Note: Nobody is paying me to sell things here. It's all strictly my opinion.)

1. Birch Aquarium
I had the pleasure of visiting this San Diego aquarium twice over the past year, and each trip was fascinating. I love how the aquarium focuses almost exclusively on sealife native to the California coast. Plus, the view of the ocean from their tidepool deck is unbelievable. 
(Image is my own.)

2. Arrested Development Season 4
The latest season of this show is weightier than the original three, but it's got the entire original cast with many beloved former guest stars ("It's a Bob Loblaw law bomb!"), and after a few viewings, it's feeling like it's part of the canon. It's only available on Netflix right now, but I'm hoping there will be a DVD set soon.

3. BlackMilk Leggings
Crazy designs, crazy fun, crazy comfortable. It took me a while to figure out how to wear these weirdos (I like tall-sized tamis from Old Navy and tunics from Athleta), but once I did, I get compliments all the time. The only downside: Hand-wash only. Here's a cool video of an artist designing for the company.

4. Donner Purse
I've been wanting a good travel purse since the one I use day-to-day is open-top. I found this OverLand Equipment one on Pinterest (of course) and got it on sale (Shh!) on Amazon. It feels super secure for flying and walking around in the city. I've even started to use it for hiking in lieu of a backpack.

5. Tieks
These ballet flats are a splurge, which is why I have only one pair and they're basic black. But oh, how I love them! I wear them with everything from dresses to yoga pants. And if you look at the shoe on the right in the picture, you'll see that they fold up (!) which makes them perfect for travel or for going out when you have to do some walking to get there but want to wear heels at your destination.

6. Socially Progressive Toys!
I first heard about GoldieBlox when I saw this video on YouTube. I am beyond tired of the gender segregation of books and toys. There's more variety of interests within genders than there is between them. I haven't personally used GoldieBlox since I'm an adult and they're sold out anyway, but the concept of the company is to make toys that enable girls to think like engineers and play in ways traditional toys don't encourage. Another cool company that makes future-engineer toys is littleBits. Their kits look like fun for adults, too, but they're pricy. (Sidenote: There is some controversy regarding copyright in regards to the song in the video I linked to above. I'm making no comment about that, only about how cool the concept of the company is.)

7. Favorite New Board Game
Derek and I had heard of Ticket to Ride from Wil Wheaton's Tabletop show, and we easily found a copy at our local game store. The employee there recommended the European board as the best, and now that I've played several versions, I agree. There are also iPhone apps for the US and European versions. I play those so I get better at beating Derek at the real-life version. *cackle, cackle*

8. The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Series
I have loved every book in this series by Laini Taylor: the titular first novel, the sequel (Days of Blood and Starlight, which I blogged about here) and most recently and to my absolute delight, the companion novella Night of Cake and Puppets, which is a charming piece of fiction all on its own. I can't wait until April 2014 when the final book in the trilogy comes out. (No, really. I can't wait that long. I'm going to have to figure something out.)

9. Pasadena Parrots
I bet you didn't know there were parrots in Pasadena, huh? I sure didn't, and when we moved into our new house and heard flocks of them squawking as they flew overhead, I didn't know what was happening. These guys are so loud and obnoxious it's hilarious, and they're so out of place that it feels magical whenever I see them, like there was a tear in the fabric of space and some parrots flew through. (You can read about the parrots' theoretical origins here. It's believed they escaped from an aviary, but I like my tear-in-the-fabric-of-time theory better.)
(Image is from Wikipedia)

10. Petunia Picklebottom Grocery Bags
I can honestly say these grocery bags have made my life easier. In LA, plastic bags are being banned everywhere, and if you don't bring your own bags to the store, you have to pay for paper bags. I've gone through a few types of reusable bags and these Petunia ones are my favorite. They're cute and sturdy and they fold up like envelopes until they're as small as my wallet! (Hint: There are usually a few of these in the sale section of Petunia's website.)

There you have it! I'll close with some pictures of Derek and I taken by our dear friend Cynthia for our Christmas card, and I will say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza, and New Year! Whatever you celebrate, may your holidays be merry and bright.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Inevitability of Good Plot

Trigger/Spoiler Warning: This post is about plot in YA novels, but it includes a reference to fictional sexual abuse. It also includes SPOILERS about the novel Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor. Read with caution.

My Path to Reading Days of Blood and Starlight
Last night my husband and I went on a long walk. As usual, we started the walk by talking about his work and ended talking about mine, which is to say, we talked about what I've been reading and writing. I told him about Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight, which I finished yesterday afternoon. This book had been tormenting me since I finished its predecessor. Wondering if the sequel would be as good as the first book in the trilogy (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) I perused Goodreads for clues. Reviews were great, yet I kept coming across a single word that gave me pause: brutal. A few days later I was walking past a favorite bookstore and I stopped in to ask if they had Days of Blood and Starlight and to get the booksellers' opinions on it. I was disappointed on the first count, but on the second, I got a response eerily similar to what I'd read on Goodreads:
"The book is incredible, but brutal."
I asked, "Emotionally brutal, or does it describe physically brutal events?"
The answer I got: "Yes."
I spent a few more days debating whether I should read a book with such a frightening universal epithet. In the end, I caved. I was really doomed from the moment I opened Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I loved Karou and Zuzana and Akiva and Issa and all the rest. I missed them, which may sound crazy to non-readers, but it's an all too familiar feeling to booklovers. I missed Harry and Ron and Hermione like crazy when I finished Book VII of that series, and every time I finish one of my own books (there have been three to date) I have missed my characters to an even greater degree, more like mourning than missing. The point is, I missed Karou and the gang, and I decided I would rather endure this vague "brutality" than never read about them again. And to put the nail in the coffin: Vroman's had the book on sale.

The Dreaded Scene
While reading reviews for Days of Blood and Starlight, I had come across a warning similar to the one at the top of this post. The review following the disclaimer described an incident in the book in which the villain attempts to rape the main character, Karou. The review stated that the villain did not succeed, which was pivotal in my decision to read the book. I do not like to read about rape. That  sounds stupid, because what kind of maniac does like to read about rape? What I mean is that if I read about sexual abuse, I will stay up at night thinking about it, then fall asleep only to have nightmares. I am sensitive, to put it lightly. I knew I would be upset by even an attempted rape, so as a defense mechanism, I skipped ahead and read that scene first. It was rough, but I could handle it, and once I knew I could handle it, I felt confident reading from the beginning.

Yesterday afternoon was the point at which I reached the dreaded scene after reading from the beginning, and it was interesting seeing how I felt about it the second time around. The first time, I had only one question: Will this give me nightmares? The answer was a soft no. But the second time around, I processed the scene in the context of the entire novel, and it bothered me a lot less than I expected. Here's why:

It wasn't a trope.
The MC's thoughts during the scene rang truer than many similar scenes I have read. The way she realized what was happening, her revulsion (to say the least), her promise to herself that she would never stop fighting, and her ultimate defeat of her attacker. Even though she stopped him (and thank goodness), it wasn't one of those "girl power!" moments where the would-be-rape was set up just so it could be avoided and the MC could seem heroic. I've read those, and they ring false because they usually end with the MC kicking the downed villain, proclaiming something along the lines of, "Take that!" Nobody would blame an almost-victim for kicking their attacker, but my point is this: Attempted abuse is upsetting and not easily forgotten. Karou did not claim victory after she killed her attacker. She was shaking violently and crying and had to mentally scream at herself to do things just to summon the will to do them. That rang true.

On a side note, I'm also grateful this wasn't the worst type of almost-rape scene, which is the kind when the girl is almost raped but the "hero", who up to that point had been completely lame, saves her just in time. I hate those scenes, and not just because it removes power from the woman and puts it into the hands of the two men, making her a ball in their game rather than a player herself. It's also not because I think women should save themselves; stop the abuse by any means, for god's sake. I hate these scenes because they are written solely so that the "hero" could look heroic. It's weak, weak writing. If you want your hero to look heroic, make him a hero who acts, not just a "hero" who reacts. That's what these rape-preventing heroes are: They are reactors, and they are praised as heroes because they save the women they love from a terrible fate. But here's what pisses me off about that: Of course they saved her! She's the woman they love! You want to make him a real hero? Have him stop an attack against a woman he doesn't know, someone who's ugly or kind of a bitch, someone he himself would never love. That's a hero. The wannabe heroes who get there just in time are tropes, and destructive ones at that.

Days of Blood & Starlight
Why It Worked
Now back to the dreaded scene in Laini Taylor's book. The second reason I was unexpectedly un-bothered by this scene was a testament to Taylor's incredible writing and the subject of this post:  
The scene felt inevitable.
The way she had written the MC and villain, it felt unavoidable that their characters would ultimately clash in this exact scene. And that got me thinking about all the books that readers get up in arms about. I won't name them because I'm not looking to hurt anyone's feelings, but in all of the disappointing books I could think of, the author failed because the interactions between characters - usually at the end of the book - did not feel inevitable. Bad writing creates interactions that feel artificial or forced, like the author thought of a plot first and then tried to tailor characters to make it happen.

The villain in Days of Blood and Starlight was wounded by the MC rejecting him in the past. He was a control-freak who was used to getting his way, and he was temperamental, AND he was egotistical to the max. He had a thing about controlling the MC that we saw in dozens of scenes before the dreaded one. We knew his temper flared if he even thought she might oppose him, so when, in the chapter preceding the dreaded scene, the MC stood up to him in front of everyone he knew, it was clear. The engine lights were on and the train was hurtling down the tracks with broken brakes. After the MC stood up to the villain in such a powerful way, I would have cried "False!" if he didn't do what he did, because what he did was the natural conclusion of his character. He'd been written so well up to that point that I knew he was incapable of any other reaction.

The Writing Lesson
I thought about how this idea of inevitable plot relates to my own writing, and I realized, happily, that I'm not in a bad position. I have always written characters first and plot second, probably as a result of four years of college in which my professors praised authors for doing just that. My plots are the natural conclusions of my characters interacting in the settings I put them. However, I do have something to work on, and that is communicating to the reader how the major points in my plots are inevitable.

Here's an infuriatingly vague example: In the book I'm revising, my villain does something terrible to one of my other characters. To any normal (i.e., non-maniacal) reader, it should be clear that the villain in this situation is 100% in the wrong. However, in order to show how his actions were inevitable, I need to actually look at things from his perspective. How would he justify his actions? Obviously he thought he was right to do what he did, but I need to make the reader see that. I need to show the reader what the victimized character did to "provoke" the villain, even if his response to the perceived provocation is irrational and cruel. If I don't do this, the villain's actions may seem arbitrary, and an arbitrary plot is the opposite of an inevitable one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I spied...

Well, hello, hello, blogosphere! It's been a while, and life's been busy on my end. My little sister is getting married, I'm planning the bachelorette party (with a literary bent - more to come on that later), CHRISTMAS (enough said), and some effort at personal growth, i.e., my empathy organ overreacts to everything and the effect can be debilitating, so I'm trying to get on top of that.

Last weekend, Derek and I took a last-minute trip down to San Diego. He had to be there for a day for work, so we dropped the pug at the kennel and headed down the night before to avoid driving at the crack of dawn the next morning. We made it just in time to freeze our butts off running to the outdoor hot-tub at the hotel, take a leisurely walk back once we were thoroughly overheated, and crash in bed.

The next morning, Derek headed off to his meeting and I did my weird wife-on-quasi-vacation thing: I got coffee at a little place I like in Point Loma, took a windy walk around Shelter Island, checked out of the hotel, and proceeded to find things to occupy myself for the rest of the day. Of course, the first thing I did was drive to Birch Aquarium. It's not Monterey, but it's a lovely little place, beautifully maintained with tons of exhibits dedicated to local sea life. I snapped dozens of pictures on my phone, but the best ones are included below with a cutesy bent I hope you'll forgive.

I spied, with my little eye, at Birch Aquarium...
(roughly top left to bottom right)

All photos © Danielle Behr 2013
An exhibit I had all to myself
A sea cucumber doing gymnastics (1)
A jellyfish nursery
A fish with huge teeth next to a shark with none (2)
Chestnut cowries cute enough to eat
A giant sea bass that could swallow my arm whole
Surfers braving frigid temperatures
Rockfishes as big as my hand
One of the strangest jokes natural selection ever played
A wolf eel who had her babies (3)

(1) Suspended between two rocks, center of photo
(2) The shark in the foreground is a leopard shark, and it actually does have teeth (see pics here) but there are no recorded incidents of leopard sharks biting people. On the other hand, while I don't know how often fish like the California Sheephead in the background actually bite people, they do have mouthfuls of chompers that give me nightmares (click here 
or here to see, if you dare).
(3) When I saw this couple last September, they looked like this:

All photos © Danielle Behr 2013