Sunday, August 24, 2014

Top 10 Books that Influenced Me

I was tagged on Facebook to post a list of the top 10 books that influenced me. I love challenges like this, because it says a lot about where I am at the time, since there's always a slight variation (why can't it be 20 books? Then I could list ALL of them!)

Without further fanfare, here's the list, in no particular order:

1. FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury This book is brilliant and important- reading it when I was a teenager was the first time I truly realized how powerful the written word is in society and how much people want to restrict it and silence it.

2. Othello by William Shakespeare (I want to cheat and say THE COMPLETE WORKS) I had a very high reading level and a huge interest in Europe when I was growing up, so my grandmother’s neighbor suggested Shakespeare & gave me access to her attic library with a whole shelf just of Shakespeare. Even though I didn’t understand all of the richly layered prose and the intricacy of the word choice and the adult themes, I felt like I’d entered into a secret society based around these enormous leather-bound books full of stories that had been passed down through time. It was magical. I picked Othello, because the emotion is so raw and powerful, and Iago is, in my opinion, the best villain ever written.

3. THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry This book spoke to my heart so deeply. I read it in French first, and while the English book is just as powerful, something about reading it in the original language deepens the experience. The messages are so simple yet have so much truth in them. And the illustrations are the best.

4. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K.Rowling (since I had to pick one) I so envy those who got to grow up with Harry. Besides just loving the books, the series made me realize that “normal people” could get published and that I could write books I’d wanted to read growing up. I picked Book 5 because to see Harry so happy with Sirius and have him ripped away… it gutted me as a reader and as a writer, it taught me that you have to pull your characters to the lowest possible point and let them find their strength to move forward.

5. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Andersen This book saved me. Reading it gave me a voice too. I got to meet Laurie this year and tell her how much it meant to me and thank her for giving me “permission” to let go of what I’d been holding in and let the wounds completely heal.

6. AMERICAN GODS, by Neil Gaiman This wasn’t my first Gaiman, but it’s the one I turn to over and over, probably because of how much I identify with Shadow. For most of my life, I’ve felt very directionless, very much just existing in the world, being pushed from here to there, not being a part of the world around me and not being understood by the people in it. Like Shadow’s journey, mine has been paved with difficulty and heartbreak, and many times I didn’t think I’d make it out the other side. I’m still not where I want to be yet, and I guess that’s kind of the point. We’re always changing and adapting. That’s why this book speaks to me.

7. THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville This is a book I have pushed so many people to read. The dual timeline with events in the past tying into the future, is so well-done. I love how Neville mixes history and chess with the fight to possess this magical chessboard. Any story that takes place around the French Revolution is going to intrigue me, but Neville equally holds my attention when the story shifts to the 1970s. Such a great thriller, with two awesome female protagonists.

8. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck I read this in high school, and I remember being so captivated by the story. Part of it was Steinbeck, but part of it was my English teacher. We had to write a significant paper on the book, and I choose the use of color. It was fascinating, and the first time I truly got the point of literary analysis. The book also really spoke to me about looking beyond myself and into the situations of others.

9. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas, père Oh this book… Justice, faith, love, revenge… Such a powerful story with powerful themes. Is it any wonder I used elements of it for one of my own stories? As someone who always knew I wanted to study law, reading this in high school, with its discussion of justice and divine retribution, cemented that for me.

10. THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien This is one of the first books I remember reading that didn’t feel like a children’s book to me, so it made me feel very grown-up at the time. I dove into the world, and re-read it over and over again, like it was my own little secret dream-world.

I'd love to hear about your most influential books too!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What's On Your List?

Not much gets me on here to blog. With such limited time for writing, I feel like I should be spending all my time working on my fiction. But when Julie Murphy put out a call for bucket lists to celebrate the release of SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY (out TODAY!! Go Get It!!), I knew I had to participate. First of all, Julie is just awesome. Second, SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY is one of the best debuts I've ever read, and I'm just madly in love with the book. Lastly, I have a bit of an obsession with bucket lists. :)

I started making bucket lists when I was in elementary school, secretly writing about all the lofty ambitions I would accomplish and exotic places I would visit. In first grade, I'd pored through all the books in the classroom, so my teacher gave me a biography of Napoleon. That fueled an obsession with France that persists, as well as resulting in my first travel list, which was also my first somewhat realistic bucket list (i.e. the one that didn't have winning 3 Olympic gold medals and 3 Oscars).

From that list forward, there are certain items that pop up on almost every version of a bucket list I've ever made. I'm a big believer in writing things down if you want to make them happen, so perhaps it's no surprise that I have crossed quite a few "perennial" items off the list. I chose to share some of this "Ultimate List" to honor Alice, the main character in SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY.

1. Graduate from law school. DONE. Many people who meet me in a writing capacity are surprised when I tell them that I also practice law because I don't have the personality most people associate with lawyers. I've always loved law, but I prefer to stay behind the scenes & out of court.

A lot of hard work and tuition money went into the picture above.
2. Publish a book. This has been a goal ever since the first scribblings of stories in crayon, but I didn't seriously start writing fiction until November 2008. Since then, I've been working hard on improving my craft and learning about the industry. I've had two short stories published, and each sentence I write brings me one step closer to this goal. I haven't reached it yet, but I'm getting close.
My first published short story, in an anthology called UNDEAD IS NOT AN OPTION.
3. Visit and live in Paris. DONE. As I said, my obsession with France came early. I studied French in high school and college and fell even more in love (my undergraduate degree is actually in French). I finally visited for Paris for the first time in March of 1998, and I went back that summer to study. Unfortunately my financial aid for my program fell through, so I only stayed a month. But I was able to soak up the city and culture more than I ever would have had I sat in class all day.
This is Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It's so peaceful and full of beautiful monuments.
4. Study great art. ONGOING. I always like to keep a few things that can't be crossed off as a reminder to keep learning and keep striving for goals. Whether through museum visits, books, or courses, I'll be studying art for the rest of my life. I definitely have specific pieces I've crossed off my list (the Winged Nike of Samothrace, Boticelli's Birth of Venus, Van Gogh's Starry Night are a few), but there will always be many more I want to see.

This is Agapanthus by Claude Monet at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. It figures prominently in the Middle Grade book I'm revising.
5. Visit the Taj Mahal. I'm a bit obsessive about architecture, especially this building. I almost got to go during law school. My study abroad in India included a short trip to Agra to see the Taj, but because of safety concerns after September 11th, they had to cancel the program. Instead that summer, my favorite professor convinced me to come take a class with him in Durham, England. As sad as I was to miss out on the experience in India, I will never regret going to Durham. Some of my favorite memories were made during that trip. I spent three weeks prior to classes in London, parts of Italy, and Brussels, then a month in Durham with side trips to Edinburgh, Newcastle, Amsterdam, the North Yorkshire area, and back to London. Two experiences really stand out: traveling halfway across Northern England following Hadrian's Wall and riding with a Belgian couple from Menaggio Italy to Brussels via Switzerland, Luxembourg, France in one day.
This was the view walking to class each day that I would have missed if I hadn't gone to Durham.
As much as I still love my lists, my experiences with crossing items off have taught me a valuable lesson over and over: never get so married to your plans that you miss out on other experiences. Going "off script" often leads to the best stories!
In SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY, Alice creates an altogether different bucket list. Here's the description:
When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs. So she convinces her best friend to help her with a crazy bucket list that's as much about revenge as it is about hope. But just when Alice's scores are settled, she goes into remission, and now she must face the consequences of all she's said and done.
You can find the book at one of these sites or in your local bookstore.

Julie Murphy lives in North Texas with her husband who loves her, her dog who adores her, and her cat who tolerates her. When she's not writing or trying to catch stray cats, she works at an academic library. Side Effects May Vary is Julie's debut novel. Julie can best be found on her website (, tumblr (, or twitter (

Feel free to post your own bucket list and join in the fun!!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writing 'Bad': Lessons Learned from Breaking Bad

I've just finished watching the finale of Breaking Bad, and so many thoughts are swimming in my brain right now.  My friend Lynne Kelly is putting together a post on her blog with writing lessons from the show, so I thought I'd put together a few.


I am pretty confident I could do a dissertation on this show's genius. I know I annoy my friends talking about it and analyzing it, but it's such a great example of not holding back in your storytelling, using technique and craft to the fullest, and creating complex, layered characters who feel realistic even in very unreal situations.

My intention is to do a complete rewatch of the series over several months and analyze the technique and overarching plot to help develop my own technique, and I may post about some of that. But for now, here are some lessons I've learned from Breaking Bad that I hope to implement in my own writing:
  • You can still have a satisfying ending even if it's not "happy" as long as you wrap up the loose ends and keep it true to the characters and the storyline.
  • When a character is wronged, it's extremely satisfying to see him/her given the opportunity to choose whether to right the wrong or not, i.e. Jesse getting to go after Todd and having the option to take out Walt.
  • A central image or motif can really connect aspects of a story, especially if you're writing a series. The recurring connection to chemistry with references to elements of it ran through the story and reminded us that elements are volatile when combined incorrectly and put under pressure. The recurring theme of surveillance and being watched added to the tension and excitement, and its role became more and more sinister as the story went on.
  • Ask yourself "what if" but take it to the next level. BB constantly took things to places we didn't expect because the writers would continue to ask "what if" and pick something that still made sense in the story but was surprising to us.
  • Giving villains/antagonists something to humanize them makes for a more compelling story and can make them even scarier. Todd's lack of emotion made him disturbing, but his fixations on Walt and Lydia heightened that.
  • As your characters change, the way they exist in the world must change in more than just how they speak and think. After the things Jesse had seen and done, he couldn't go back to partying with Badger and Skinny Pete because he wasn't the same person. But he had to try it because he hadn't quite accepted that yet and had to realize it for himself.
  • Subtle and less subtle shifts in the way places and people are presented or details emphasized can show us a lot about what's going on in very subtle ways, even if we're not aware of it at the time. For example, Walt Jr. flipped back and forth between that name and Flynn when he wanted to distance himself from Walt, Marie always wears purple except in key moments on the show. This different identity through name and color is very clear with Walt's transformation back and forth between Walter White and Heisenberg in black. Shaving his head, he takes on the persona of Heisenberg. Even once he's recovered, he continues to put on that persona because he likes it. Stuck in the cabin in the woods, powerless to do anything, he tries to put on the persona again, but even that "bulletproof" persona can't help him at that point, riddled with cancer and alone. The thing that struck me the most in the last episode was how he looked like a shaggy version of the old Walt, putting that identity back on like a wolf in sheep's clothing to carry out his dirty work. If he'd shown up as Heisenberg, they would have seen him coming.
If you want to leave your own thoughts, feel free! I'd love to hear what others think about this amazing show and how it has helped their writing. Now I'm off to cry in a glass of wine and feel all the feels.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I just finished Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor, which is the second book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. If you know me in real life, you know that I loved the first book with a passion because I bugged everyone to read it!  So as excited as I was for book two, I waited to read it because I was scared I'd be disappointed. I'm happy to say that didn't happen. In fact, I actually like book two even more than book one!

I read the hardcover of Daughter of Smoke and Bone first, but for Days of Blood and Starlight I listened to the audiobook first. At times it was a little disorienting since the POV shifts a lot in this book, but I'm really glad I listened to the audio because it brought out the emotions of the characters and the subtext so much.

As in the first book, Laini Taylor does a fabulous job conveying setting. As I listened, I could close my eyes to a vivid picture of the surroundings. I loved learning more about both the angels and the chimera, as well as Karou and Akiva's struggles to reintegrate with their people.

In the first book, I fell in love with Karou and Akiva. In this book, I fell in love with the people who matter to them. I loved the lightness that Zuzana and Mik brought to the book, and Ziri won my heart. What we learn about what happened to Brimstone and Issa moved me, and Hazael and Liraz made me want to have them by my side.

I'm really looking forward to reading the hardcover now after listening to the audio. Unfortunately I will have to wait over a YEAR for book 3!!! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!