Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

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^That is a beautiful cover, no? I am filled with cover envy just staring at it.

After enjoying The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves I couldn’t wait to read the latest book in this series. Blue Lily, Lily Blue returns us to the world of Henrietta and all its mysterious supernatural happenings. As always the setting feels alive and real, a character in itself.

I am continually impressed with how this series develops all the main characters, who showed their complexity early on and reveal more with each instalment. While some may resemble the typical YA fiction archetypes of “sweet boy”, “bad boy” and “feisty girl”, they reach far beyond these and have become very much themselves. The real-world problems they face in addition to their supernatural adventures lend an authenticity to the story and setting.

This series began with a world of more subtle magic, the type you might encounter in the household of a tarot-reading psychic living in a rambling house on a country road. The magic has grown through the books however, and is more overt than ever in Blue Lily. While it does serve its purpose, it may make some readers feel as if they’ve left the world of the series’ beginning behind, and leave them feeling displaced. However anyone who enjoyed the fantasy elements in The Dream Thieves should be able to appreciate them in this book as well.

Like both earlier books, this book introduces a new set of antagonists. While the villains in this series have provided entertainment, I believe the most intriguing “villain” is that which has remained in place throughout the series: the internal conflicts of the characters. I hope to see these take center stage in the final instalment, which I’m sure will be a bittersweet read as it brings this great series to a close.

Revisiting early inspirations, or looking at Harry Potter through my new writer’s lens

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So as you may have guessed from the title, I want to talk about everyone’s favorite boy wizard Harry Potter, or, more specifically, my feelings as a writer after re-reading the Harry Potter books for the first time in a number of years.

My decision to do this came about after my sister and I happened upon a HP movie marathon playing on tv. While watching bits of the Hollywood-enhanced version of the series, I began to think about the books themselves, and how long it had been since I’d read them, particularly the earlier ones. The last time I had read a Harry Potter book was in 2007 when Deathly Hallows was released. I was nineteen, on my way home from a two-month stint in India, searching eagerly for the book on the shelves of a bookstore in the airport of Doha, Qatar. The store did not disappoint, and by the time I arrived back in Canada I had nearly finished the story of Harry forever.

Looking back I wonder why, after spending so much time obsessing over these stories as a teen and preteen, I never revisited the books in my early- or mid-twenties. Maybe I thought the movies, still being released, were enough. Maybe I thought I was Too Old For That Now. Several weeks ago I recall asking my sister, “Were they really that good, or did it just seem that way because we were kids?” My sister revealed a faith greater than mine when she answered immediately, “They were. They really were.”

Having experienced the full series again myself I can say with conviction that I agree.

People have claimed JK Rowling got lucky, that her series’ popularity was a result of chance or marketing or the Teenage Hive Mind or all three. I don’t believe it. I now have the terrifying, hair-rippingly stressful, amazing and wonderful experience of writing my own YA fantasy novel, and looking through that lens I can only say that Ms. Rowling did something very few authors could manage. She held a story and a universe together beautifully over the course of seven books, which I can only imagine involved an absurd and painstaking amount of planning, plotting and re-working. She created something both kids and adults could enjoy, sometimes for the same reasons, sometimes completely different ones.

So what does this experience mean to me as a writer? It’s insanely intimidating, for one thing–while I know it’s not healthy to compare my work to that of other authors, in this case it’s hard not to have thoughts like “Holy CRAP, I’ll never compete with that in a million years”. But it’s also inspiring to me as a writer in a way very few things are. Just the knowledge that something so vast and intricate can exist makes me feel motivated to do better, to work harder and strive to get closer to that point of awesomeness, whether or not I could ever reach it. Before my little Harry venture I was experiencing, if not Writer’s Block, at least a serious bout of Writer’s Frustration; I felt my ideas were lacking or that I lacked the skill to pull them off. I’m not completely free of those thoughts now, I doubt I’ll ever be, but I feel much readier to return to my current work in progress, and to continue in my effort to get my completed manuscript out into the world. Harry had a hard journey to publication, and maybe I will, too, but I’m no longer afraid of that journey.

Jury is still out on the destination.

On kick-butt heroines and fixation on “active” characters

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I want to talk about something that might be controversial. Or not. I actually suspect not, because I’ve seen others say/ write similar things enough times. There’s been plenty of talk about Strong Female Characters, and the problems of placing too much emphasis on the “strength” of these characters, including this well known essay. Still, I want to revisit how these hypothetically awesome characters can occasionally swerve around the bend of Not-So-Awesome and arrive in the valley of Cheesy and Contrived. (P.S., no disrespect to Lady Sif. I just love that pic of her like my own child.)

I’d like to touch on (again) the realm of online book reviews, and common complaints I see readers making about YA heroines.

One of these complaints is that heroines are too “passive”.

I get it, you guys, I do. It can be frustrating reading about a character who refuses to take control of her situation. But I worry when our fixation on character action comes at the expense of the story. I worry when it makes writers so determined to write an “active” character we have our heroine kick and punch and scream when doing so is completely illogical, and would probably get her killed in real life.

I want to read about someone who would survive in real life, without the writer’s magic hand to shield her.

For this reason, it’s my goal to have my characters act when they should, and back off and stay quiet when they should. I want them to be smart, to think with their heads instead of their fists. I want them to be true survivors, not Strong Female Characters. And if they occasionally act rashly or do something stupid, I want the narrative to acknowledge their mistake by creating real consequences, not rewarding those rash decisions as “strength”.

That’s my goal as a writer. I’m sure I’ll sometimes fail to meet it completely, but I’ll always keep it in mind. And I hope my eventual readers won’t see my characters as passive, but as girls they’d want to have their back.

I know I do.

The literary agent hunt (and other woes)

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Soo…you guys may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for some time. I’ve missed blogging here (and reading your lovely comments!) but I’m glad I took the time away to focus more fully on my writing. I feel like I accomplished a lot in the past months– I shared my manuscript with my first awesome beta readers, and I drafted and began revising the manuscript’s sequel, which I am excited about even though it’s in super early stages.

I also began the hunt for a literary agent.

Anyone who’s done this or is doing this can probably guess how I am feeling now. Does it ever seem like no matter how much advice you get on your query letter, no matter how often you re-revise your first ten pages, the rejections keep coming? I know it’s the same for all new authors and there is no use in getting discouraged. But yeah, it is hard some days, even for the natural-born optimist that is me.

I have learned a few things in the process, however, which in my benevolence I will share with you now. ~ ~ *Drumroll* ~ ~

This website has an awesome query critiques board where you can post your query letter and get feedback. If you are feeling wise, you can also give feedback to other authors. You should probably take every bit of advice with a grain of salt, since not everyone on the board is a professional or necessarily knows what they’re talking about. Some are newbies like I was, and some of the advice given by different posters will be contradictory. Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic resource and a great way for writers to help one another. Because seriously, if we can’t help each other out, who will?

Another piece of advice, which I have heard from published authors, is not to make the agent search your whole life. Send a few queries and then wait a while. Focus on other things, other stories you want to write, whatever. After a while, if the first queries haven’t proven successful, send a few more. Expect the search to take months and months, and value the time that leaves to continue tweaking your manuscript and making the story its best self.

I once heard a successful writer say that young authors should cherish our anonymity, because it’s the best gift we’ll ever have. This idea may seem laughable to those of us hungry for publication, but I’ve found I truly do value this time, and the chance it offers to write without being beholden to deadlines or other Professional Writer commitments. I know things will change once I am published, that the outside voices will become louder, so I value the quiet of the present.

In defense of the selfish heroine

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Selfishness. What is it, exactly?

I have been pondering this lately. If you read this blog last year before I went on an extended hiatus, you may recall that I spend a lot of time reading book reviews. Not because I want to buy the book being reviewed (although sometimes I do) but because I want to see what thoughts other readers have on books in the genre I write, and what they view as being the most common pitfalls of that genre, so I can hopefully avoid them. I find it helpful for other reasons too, but that’s the short explanation.

Anyway. The point I am getting to is this: I have noticed a trend, in many reviews, of young adult heroines being labeled “selfish”. The implication behind the label is always the same–that her selfishness lowers her worth as a character, and the worth of the story. But why is that? And why are we readers so quick to judge these characters as selfish? To what kind of standard are we holding them, if we so often find their level of selflessness wanting?

I think it’s natural to want our protagonists to show some degree of selflessness. They are protagonists, after all; they are supposed to be aspirational. (Btw, I am speaking in generalities. Of course not all authors or readers wish their heroes and heroines to be admirable people, but many do, especially in YA.) However, when I see the words “selfish” and “self-centred” applied in so many reviews to so many widely divergent heroines, I have to wonder if something is going on in the reviewers’ minds they don’t realize. Why is it that, of all the reasons one could pick to dislike a character, selfishness is the one that comes up so often? Why do we want our heroines to be endlessly selfless creatures? Why is this something we expect of young women?

I’m sure the reasons are far more complex than I could ever delve into here. However, I believe it primarily comes down to this: Girls and women, according to society’s rules, are not supposed to put ourselves first. We are supposed to put someone else first. That person may be a boyfriend, or a family member, or a friend. It may be a box of kittens. It may be a town full of people who need to be saved from a herd of dragons. No matter the context, our own needs and wants can never come first.

This is not something we should accept, either as readers or as writers. I firmly believe that a little selfishness is a good thing. If a YA heroine can put herself first now and then, maybe the story’s young readers will see that they, too, can put themselves first sometimes, rather than feeling they have to exist solely to please others. And that’s a good thing.