June 24, 2011

Book & Board Game Match-Up: The Maze Runner and Ricochet Robots

The Book (by James Dashner): When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.  Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.  Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers.  Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind. --Amazon Product Description

The Game (from Rio Grande): This game is less of a game and more of a puzzle, which explains why there's such an odd number of players possible. There's a four-piece modular board that forms a large room with walls spread around the board. There are also color-coded targets on boards. Placed on top of the surface are four robots. The idea for each turn/puzzle is to get the like-colored robot to randomly selected target. The trick is that once a robot starts moving, it will continue to move until a wall or another robot stops it. Therefore, players are seeking a sequence of moves for the robots which will enable them to move the required robot to the target in the fewest moves. --Amazon Product description

Both of these are all about the puzzle.  In The Maze Runner, we watch Thomas struggle with what's really going on, digesting clues, trying to shove a square peg in a round hole to make sense of the deadly world he's trapped in.  Ricochet Robots leaves me with a similar feeling of terror (in a good way).  My brain sweats, my eyes narrow, and I find route after route to the target that just doesn't quite work -- until there's that satisfactory light bulb moment.

The Maze Runner is the kind of book I could sit and read in an evening, or if I'm swamped, one tense chapter at a time.  James Dashner does an excellent job of laying clues and making them memorable without making them obvious.  One of my favorite features of Ricochet Robots is likewise how flexible it is to fit my gaming needs.  You can play it with as many people as you can fit around a table, making it perfect for large gatherings.  Since the puzzles happen in rounds and there's a nice catch-up mechanism, it's also not a game-loss situation to cut out to change a diaper or stop a toddler from fixing his own eggs.  It's also easy to just play a few puzzles, if time is scarce, or to keep going if it's not.

In short, if you want to work your brain, whether you have hours or just a few minutes to sneak in a chapter or a puzzle, The Maze Runner or Ricochet Robots is an excellent choice. 

Shifting Gears

I've noticed that there's a nice crossover of book enthusiasts and game board enthusiasts.  That kernel has me thinking: what board games are like which books?  It'd be nice to have someone say, "If you like Settlers of Catan, you should try reading _____," or "If you loved reading The Hunger Games, you should play _____."

I enjoy blogging about writing, too,  so I'm going to try an experiment.  On the first Wednesday of the month, I'll do a longer blog post about a writing topic, instead of the short-post series I've been doing.  On the remaining Wednesdays, I'll blog about book and board game match ups. I'm also tempted to blog about cooking on the last Wednesdays, but I think writing, boardgames, and books is probably enough (cooking is another one of my loves; I got a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens last November, so I even have a gold star to my name of this account).

June 22, 2011

Critiquing and Descriptivism

This week's Critique Secret (#5) isn't really a secret: critiquing can help you improve your manuscript.  Here's the how:

1. Critiquing takes the stress out of guesswork.  If five people tell me an ending falls flat or a line was confusing, then I know something is wrong.

2. Critiquers see things I can't.  I can set a manuscript aside, but I can't divorce myself from stuff I know.  In a story I once had a character adding tempter to clay.  I knew this mean adding something (in this case, sand) to increase the plasticity of the clay.  Readers all all told me the character had anger management issues.  Oops.

3. A good critiquer will also point out the great stuff: moments that made them laugh, a paragraph that flowed perfectly, the chapter ending that really worked as a cliffhanger.  Sometimes knowing what to keep is just as important as knowing what to toss.

I recently listened to today's The Appendix (a great podcast), where Robison Wells talks about how the advice of his critique group once ruined a book.  He learned a lot about writing, but molding the book to every suggestion turned it to putty.  When I'm using feedback, I try to figure out what's descriptive (describing a problem) or prescriptive (telling me how to fix it).  Examples!

Exhibit A: "The character's motivations confused me.  The point-of-view feels distant, and I'm just not sure what she wants."  This is descriptive, the critiquer relaying things they felt while reading.

Exhibit B: "You should describe the POV character at the top of the page so we know she's a zombie, then tell us she just wants brains so this scene makes sense."  This is prescriptive, with the critiquer telling the author how they would write the story.  It's still valuable -- the author could read between the lines and understand that there are muddled motivations afoot -- but this may or may not be the right way to fix it.

Critiquing can turn the story I'm trying to tell into the best, clearest version of itself.  I usually let comments sit for a week, digesting, before revising.  After the edits, it's always satisfying to lean back and know that the story is better than it was before -- and better than it could have been without another pair of eyes.

June 15, 2011

Critiquing and the Conventional Advice

Once upon a time, I had it drummed into my head that  description = sleeping readers.  To avoiding sleeping-reader-syndrome, I mercilessly cut.  Predictably enough, come critique time, I heard over and over that the story needed more description.   

I'd misunderstood the advice.  Meaningless, long-winded description is boring.  Description that leaves clues, enhances the pace, ups stakes, and roots the reader in the setting -- that's good stuff.  If you want some examples of cool critiquing, check out the Real Life Diagnosis posts on Janice Hardy's blog (my favorite one's here).  I'd heard "show, don't tell" a thousand times, but I didn't understand it until I saw Janice pick apart a manuscript.

That's this week's Critique Secret #4: Getting critiqued can improve everything you write by helping interpret the conventional advice.  Without context, conventional advice is often vague at best.  While examples can (and should!) come from lots of reading, there's nothing quite like having someone look at your writing and point out an infodump, or a page that needs some description to make it come to life.  

June 10, 2011

The Dark Lord of Derkholm

Been a busy day!  My review for Dianna Wynn Jones' The Dark Lord of Derkholm is up at Bookshop Talk.

Guest Post

I'm over at Gem State Writers today, talking about experimentation, fudge, and exposition.  Gem State Writers have a great blog, and I'm excited they let me be part of it today.

June 8, 2011

Critiquing and Self-Interest

     Maybe I'm biased.  I spent two years reading slush -- reading stories that were brilliant, almost brilliant, and others in need of some tender loving care.  Reading and critiquing buckets of fiction was an amazing education.  Consequently, I continue to read and critique fiction (I think I actually read more unpublished fiction than not).  Here's why:

  1. Critiquing showed me common pitfalls to avoid.  If I read something and wrinkled my nose, I knew I didn't want to duplicate that.  Some of the pet peeves I hear agents and authors talk about make perfect sense after reading so many stories (reflective surfaces for description, anyone?).
  2. Critiquing showed me my strengths.  Some aspects of writing came easy to me, others didn't.  When I read only published works, I'd assume that everyone found X easy, and that the fact I struggled with Y wasn't normal.  Truth is, all writers seem to come to this with strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Critiquing showed me my weaknesses.  On the flip side, if I read something with lyrical description, I'd pause and think Wow, I need to learn how to do that.  Discovering what works and what doesn't in a manuscript gave me ideas on how to improve my own writing.

      Which brings us to Critique Secret #3: Critiquing others is really a self-interested endeavor.  It helps you, too.  If you don't have a slush pile to volunteer at, sign up for Critters.  Every week, you'll have the opportunity to critique a number of stories, help others out, and strengthen your own writing skills.

June 1, 2011

Critiquing and Indigestion

     Some people are terrified of critiquing.  Yes, I've heard the horror stories of critique groups populated by brain-sucking zombies and I've gotten a few off-the-wall critiques myself, but I'm still much more likely to grin than lose my lunch when I send out something for critiques.  Why?   

  1. I'm only risking a bruised ego.  No one e-mails the whole world and tells them to block me if they didn't like my story and ultimately, I'm the one editing my manuscript.  If someone thinks the story needs carnivorous were-hobbits, I don't have to throw them in if I disagree (more on how to utilize critiques and give useful ones in later posts).
  2. The critiquers, if they're other writers, are just as scared.  Like anything else, critiquing is a skill, but that empathy usually encourages constructive comments (check out this article: It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It).  If I get a critique by someone who isn't constructive -- merely shredding everything or only giving vague praise -- I can refer to #1 of this list, kindly thank them, and make new critiquing friends.
  3. No one expects my manuscript to be perfect.  If it was, why would I need a critique?
  4. Critiquing lets me take my book or story and turn it into a better version of itself.  I don't have to hit my head on the desk twenty times, asking myself if a scene is working or not.  If it's working, great!  If it's not, I have a better idea how to fix it.  Scariness - Frustration = Net Excitement.  Promise.

      That's Critique Secret #2: Critiquing needs be no scarier than indigestion.  That said, I have a suggestions.  Once upon a time I took a writing class from Brandon Sanderson.  He split us into writing groups and told us we all had to write something new during the span of the class, first chapter due next week.  I shrugged and got to work.
      Looking back, this was a stroke of brilliance and not just because it taught me the importance of critique groups.  A brand new project doesn't have years of heart strings tied around it.  No one cries over the manuscript and wails that it's their baby (I'm still not sure how a large stack of paper gets mistaken for an infant -- my children are easily cuter and messier than paper).  
      If critiquing sounds terrifying, send something new, something less emotional to the sharks.  Once the thought doesn't send chimichanga burning waves of panic up your esophagus, pull the magnum opus out and turn on the surgeon's light.  It'll be better for it.