Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Cycle is composed of novels that each transform the ones that came before; they illuminate corners of the world we hadn’t fully seen, and unlock bits of the map we have been waiting to explore. 

Maggie Stiefvater has called Blue Lily, Lily Bluethe third installment of The Raven Cycle, a book about mirrors and the story is full of them. Previous books have used parallels and foils, but this one repeating use of characters acting as reflections/distortions for each other. For example Aglionby student Henry Cho, who in a specific scene illuminates how far Gansey has outwardly come from the President Cellphone character Blue first met in The Raven Boys. Reading Lily Blue, Blue Lily is playing a game of spot the difference without having to worry that the book is going to lose itself in trying to be "clever."

Stiefvater is a smart writer. Her series rewards close readers and welcomes revisitation. What other books might treat as revelations, these books treat as confidences; it is as if we have become good enough friends with the characters that they feel comfortable sharing what we only saw in glimpses when they thought we weren’t looking. These are real, imperfect people.

Adam Parrish and I do not always get along; I always understand his character's motivations but I don't always agree with the actions that result from them. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the novel where I feel like Adam gets his shit together. There's been an arc trajectory happening since his decision in The Raven Boys, and it felt like this book was natural conclusion to where that was headed. I can feel proud of him for stepping up in the way I could feel proud of Ronan at the end of The Dream Thieves.

No relationship in this series is simplistic; it's one of the many things that makes these books so captivating. As the characters grow, their dynamics also evolve and change. That should be a given for any series, but there's a natural progression to the pacing of Stiefvater's writing that is refreshing. These shifts in character and growth happening subtly, layer upon layer, until they form the shape of individual growing up. They become someone they were always going to be. (There’s a scene involving Blue and Ronan where after reading it, I stopped and thought that couldn’t have happened two books ago. I highly recommend rereading The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves before reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue.)

Another of her feats of wonder is how Stiefvater continues to juggle all of the subtly moving parts while adding new characters. Some of them are names or shadows that have been skirting the edges of things in the previous events, which results in no one in this book reading like they shouldn’t be there.

I have to call out the delightfully antagonistic Colin and Piper Greenwood. They present a darker mirror of Dean Allen and Maura Sargent, and perhaps that is why I found Colin and Piper much easier to like than Kavinsky (who was Ronan’s mirror in The Dream Thieves.) 

I loved every chapter the Greenwoods were in, despite the fact that I’m convinced they don’t even like each other that much. I'll take interesting and well-developed characters over “likeable” ones every time. While I feel that I know certain characters better than others by the end of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, there is not a character in this series that I don’t find interesting.

Reading The Raven Cycle is the delight and frustration and excitement and anguish of searching for something as grand as a Dead Welsh King. When something is that big, you may not find it. You may not get the answer you wanted. But in the looking, you might an answer that you needed. That is part of what keeps the series buoyant even when it often features weighty issues like anxiety, abuse, and betrayal. The story balances itself, again and again, going as down into the darkness as it needs to then climbing upwards again to daylight. (Structurally speaking, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is both the tightest and the most ambitious of the books so far.)

Perhaps I should not feel as hopeful at the end as I did, but hope is what makes Blue Lily, Lily Blue belong to Blue Sargent. She’s one of the few characters who consistently has her head on right; she is the one actively seeking to be optimistic without being unrealistic. I enjoyed learning why, and what drives her. Blue at her best isn't just a Page of Cups; she’s an entire ocean of hope. This book brims with it—which is not to say that it's lacking terrible things or all hell isn’t going to break loose in the next book. But we can be like Blue and actively choose to believe the future is going to be better.

Whatever waits in that final book, I will love it. Even when these books don’t do what I expect—and that’s that often, actually—they always give me what I need. I love them very much, and I can't wait to talk about this new one with you.

Thank you to Scholastic Canada, who allowed me to read Blue Lily, Lily Blue early. It should be available in stores by November 1st.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mapping routes to legitimacy

Earlier this week an author announced her first book publication anniversary, and I realized I've been involved in the YA blogging community in some capacity or another for at least seven years. In blogger time I am old as the sun. I have seen stars be born and die.

We had the argument about YA versus Adult Literary Fiction seven years ago. (And every year since.) Writing an impassioned defence of YA is a rite of passage. Congratulations, a whole new class of you are now graduates.

This is not a defence of YA, if you were wondering. This is a commencement address from an alumni.

I often get asked how I got my job in the way that authors get asked how they got published—it's a request for a map to the treasure chest, a walkthrough to completing the game of legitimacy.

Everyone asks the question hoping for a how-to answer. I can't give you one. The inspiring response as to why is because there is only the map you are creating. The more honest response is when you're standing in the centre, it's hard to remember how far out that treeline was.

But I can tell you what years and years in the publicity forest of YA has helped me understand.

The purpose of enjoying something is not to try to convince people who don't enjoy it that they're wrong. Enjoy the thing you enjoy—unless it is serial murder or cannibalism or oppression or violating boundaries or other illegal acts—and understand the value you ascribe to something is not diminished or threatened by what people who aren't you think.

Value—the kind we give to favourite stories and our interests—is a subjective thing. It's fire within us. White-hot in a place between our ribs. And if it dims, flickers, because someone else doesn't feel it... that is a fault within our ability to tend the flame.

When you understand that—when someone puts it in words that penetrate your skull and defeat your ego, then it's an easy logic leap to understand bookselling isn't about you. It's about the reader to whom you are selling. Empathy is the greatest superpower a bookseller can have, and you get more of it from consuming more stories about people who aren't you.

This is the secret to surviving as a bookseller and blogger and person who engages in the business of publishing: There's a a book for every reader, and there's a reader for every book.

Your favourite book is a story someone else didn't enjoy. And that doesn't matter, and it shouldn't affect your ability to get what you need from stories in whatever medium you choose to get them.

Stories are stories are stories. You are the one who gives them value and meaning and names them important to you. When you can grasp this concept—hold it securely in your mind—your hands are free for more important battles.

My battle is against the misconception that there are stories whose audience is everyone and stories whose audience is no one. I fight by helping people find the stories they want. That's the guiding star I use. That's the map I've been making. You're welcome to it. Or you're welcome to make your own.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

It's easiest to describe Maggie Stiefvater's SINNER as a story about sharp-edged love. A story about the wolves who live in our heads and hearts let loose in the fantasy that is Los Angeles. It’s a song of summer and being in love and running from the fall; it sounds like Overdose by LittleDaylight, Prime by Allie X, and Pompeii by Bastille.

Well, actually, it sounds most like this.

I fell in love with SINNER when I read its opening line of “I am a werewolf in L.A.” Ok, that’s not entirely true. I have loved SINNER through the playlist that is its pulse from before I even knew what this book was.

Now that I’m finished reading and can talk about it? SINNER is everything I wanted. It is funny, and smart, and sexy, and in places devastatingly honest. It knows how to put on a show, and it doesn’t feel it has to play nice with your expectations. It has music and cars and kissing and LA sunsets.

Maybe you know Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpeper from Stiefvater’s previous trilogy of Shiver, Linger, and Forever. Cole and Isabel are two complicated people with an equally complicated relationship. But you don't need to know them to read SINNER. You'll meet them again, and watch their struggle to maintain that relationship when neither of them believe themselves easy people to love.

But SINNER is more than just the love story of Cole and Isabel. It's about the love the people in their lives have for them, whether they see/understand/appreciate it or not. It is the ever-present devotion of Sofia to Isabel. The steady quiet Leon offers to Cole. The way Jeremy knows when to make peace and when to stand aside. How the connections people make result in them being better than they would've been alone.

It's also about loving a place even if it's not always easy to live there. SINNER captured Los Angeles—not only in tactile details—it has the intangible sense of being these people in that city. The hopeful and the hopeless; all their maniac highs and their desperate lows.

At the frantic, racing heart of this magnificent book is a story about addiction to people and places and things. Walking that razor edge between love and obsession. But it is also a story about being more than just the wanting. And I adored every page of it, even the ones that cut as I held them.

I wish I could’ve given this book to a younger me, oscillating between anger and joy and sadness and hope in that city of sinners while most of the people she knew were building their lives somewhere else. I wish she could've read what Isabel says about making connections in LA and felt understood. Maybe she would've made more of an effort to make connections sooner. Maybe.

I know you will not read the same book I read when you read SINNER, because you are not me. But if you are also someone who needs this book, I hope it finds you. I hope it helps you feel understood, too.

While I do not want to spoil anything for you, SINNER is one of the few books that is honest about how the biggest epiphanies we have are often over simple things. Those realizations irrevocably change us, but they don't radically alter the world around us.

There are so many in SINNER. I want to mention this one: We are not always who we think we are; we are not who everyone else thinks we are, and we are not only that constantly shifting space between the two where we keep the parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge or are afraid to share.

Knowing this doesn't stop love from being difficult for some of us—but it makes it so you understand the struggle is worth it. Even sharp-edged things have a way to hold them; you just have to want to learn how.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The care and feeding of new ideas

Starting a new project is a strange thing, a thing like dreaming. You don't know where the idea is going to come from—it might be something you see, or hear, or read, or is said. It may even start as a joke, but it sticks around. And you have to feed it, because it's so hungry and it needs to grow. It wants attention, it wants inspiration—before it starves.

I don't get a lot of ideas. Well, that's not true. I do, but they're often force-directed at other things. Things that aren't stories. Sometimes I get ideas that people think are great, but to me they're only jokes on Twitter. I can't spend the amount of time it takes to write a draft with something that's a punchline.

I have ideas that I only manage to do something with years later—they're slow cooking. It's not that I can't churn out quick-serve commercial ideas, it's that I don't find them interesting.

I start with a playlist for audio atmosphere and a pinboard for images/places, because I can't write it if I don't know who is in it and what it feels like. That comes before the plot. Even when it's something that starts with the concept/action. It's still about the people in it and the world/circumstances that made them that way. 

I've been playing with something over the past week, week and a half. Yesterday, I sat to try and put it on paper—capture it in a pitch or a synopsis or something before it escapes and then realized I couldn't. Not yet. I don't have a plot, because that's always what comes last and it's always what I struggle with the most.

But that's ok. It's still hungry, and I'm still feeding it, and I can't get frustrated that it doesn't want to talk to me with its mouth full.

Here is the song that it first devoured:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hello, world. I feel obligated to blog because I haven't done so in the past month.

What have you been doing, Chandra?

Working. Traveling. Revising the Magpie Book. Having an existential crisis. Working. Going on a writing retreat. Revising Something That Isn't The Magpie Book. Working. Trying not to be that person. Revising some more. Working. Having another existential crisis. Reading my new favourite book. Wondering if I'm any good at writing at all and having another existential crisis. Realizing I'm just exhausted from working and revising. Listening to a lot of music. Going for brunch. Failing to not be that person. Feeling bad for being that person. Promising to go for more brunch. Enjoying the sun. Fighting off a migraine. Wondering why everyone is incapable of using common sense. Tea. Coffee. Sugar. More music. Getting enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep. Feeling itchy and impatient for spring like there's something pacing in my head and my heart. Making jokes on Twitter. Launching an Indigo Teen Tumblr. Making a lot of jokes about wolves eating the sun. Because there is sometimes a wolf pacing in my head and my heart. Not talking to people. Talking to people. Promising to get more sleep.

Not necessarily in that order.

That seems like a lot.

Yes, world. When I have not been busy feeling the magnetic pull of depression that goes double-strength in winter, I have been fighting it with standing dates with friends on Saturdays and using up my vacation days.

It is cold again today, but at least it doesn't look like it and there's sun streaming in through the windows at long last and I have music to keep me company.

I told a friend that I expect nothing less than excellence with my words. Well, I implied we both did which might've been overstepping but I was making a clever-serious-joke-observation reply. Because that is the person I get in the winter, sharp and defensive against the grey overhead; restless against the cold. Unable to shrug things off, because when presented with the choice to care or not care I gotta care whenever I can manage it because it's that much harder to do so.

So missteps between someone else's joke and my inability to find it funny at the time happen. When I moved to Toronto, I came from living with people who knew how to tell when something was wrong and so I never had to ask for help. They offered comfort—sometimes intrusively—when they saw I needed it.

I got a text from my mother about a week and a half ago, to let me know that they'd taken Nero, the family dog, into the vet. Nero had been listless when I was home in February compared to when I'd been there in December. The one day he'd snapped at me—not seem to know who I was—and I was told that it happened to other family members, too.

He was 15 and all but blind, he could barely hear and his sense of smell was going, too. He was spry most days, and loved, and seemed to have a good life. But he hadn't been feeling well, and when my mom took him into the vet, they told her he had Kidney disease. The tests showed it was pretty serious and the vets recommended putting him down.

So that happened and I don't know if I've really processed it yet. I probably won't until the next time I go home and he's not there.

The thing about pets is they never let you feel lonely. It's harder to be lonely in the winter.

And excellence is damn hard to maintain. There's a lot of work left before the Magpie book will be ready for others to look at, because my process is to write a rough draft and then completely rewrite the manuscript at least once before anyone else sees it.

But the teeth-bearing snarl is creeping into my undertone and I feel the prickly under the skin need to create warning—is that inspiration's manifestation—and so back into the forest we go.

I am on Twitter if you need me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The wars we fight, the battles we win

I finished a draft on last Friday of something I'd been writing for over a year. That's a victory in itself, but it doesn't express the entirety of the hard-won battle it represents. I hadn't—previous to this draft—completed a work of fiction in over two years. Actually, it was headed to a count of three. I'm not supposed to tell you that, because it isn't sexy or marketable.

There is a prevalence of a toxic belief that if you do what you love, then the doing of it isn't work and therefore somehow easier. Your reward should be the enjoyment of it and the ease of obtaining this enjoyment, as so many others struggle day to day to find it amid the challenges and demands of their own lives. If you aren't enjoying this thing you profess to love or if it's difficult... well, maybe you just don't love it enough.

Writing is words on a page. Anyone can put words on a page. Most of us do it on a day to day basis. But good, coherent, purposeful story-telling? That takes time and commitment and a lot of energy.

I used to believe that my unquestioning love would mean the transmogrification of writing into a career. It would just happen if I did the work and trusted in it. Well, it hasn't. Certainly not in any way that I could've foreseen or with any kind of permanency.

We don't talk about failure. We are so superstitious about giving it an invitation into our lives. But failure gives perspective on things, clarification about the turning of gears our own and otherwise, that prepares us to continue the complex operations of accomplishment. Sometimes the gears turn so slow we might think they've stopped. Sometimes they do stop. But that doesn't mean they won't turn again.

I almost threw this draft out at 78,000 words. That's about 12,000 from where I finally put it to rest. On the surface, I was tired of its seeming endlessness. But in truth, I was tired of feeling like I couldn't love it enough to make the writing of it easy. If I didn't love it, then how could anyone else?

It is incredibly ironic to seek wish-fulfilment over drafting a manuscript with a subplot theme about the necessity of Doing The Work; perhaps subconsciously that irony is what got me to the end. Or maybe it was being able to look around and see other people living through the struggle. Reaching the other side. And not responding with "oh, you just need to love it more." It was more comforting to have people say "yeah, it's fucking hard, but keep at it."

Love is part of what we do, but not giving up is an act of discipline. Enjoyment alone doesn't keep you committed when things aren't fun. I want to know other people have doubts and struggle, because that gives me motivation to keep fighting.

If things were easy, I would have very little interest in doing them. But there's the struggle that leaves you feeling invigorated and the struggle that beats you down. For me writing is both—sometimes at once. We have a complex relationship, we always have, and to be fair... I'm not sure it was always a healthy one. But I remain hopeful that I'm rebuilding it into one that is.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Love to the past, hello from the future

Oh, 2014, you've got that new year smell. I know because I peeked, took one of the corners off the cellophane, as I scheduled tweets for tomorrow at work. (Spoiler: I am paid to be a time-traveller who sends messages to the future from the past that you will see in the present.) 2014 is pristine white, undisturbed snow and the stillness of a morning with just the right pink to the sky and sharpness to the air. It is hope, and I love hope because it encourages me to be kind.

I have come to offer a caution: Do not invoke the be magnificent resolution lightly, dear ones. It is the resolution that asks you to become magnificent in ways you weren't before, to struggle and grow and change or get pushed into doing so. My not so public theme for this year was to be lightened, to have the burdens of things removed, and as a result from about April through to December, it felt like the rug was constantly being pulled out from under me. That the things I would not let go, would not walk away from, were removed by force.

Because that's what I asked, and we get what we go looking for.

But I think back on this year, and I realize it's not all bad. It's all perspective, as any year—any thing—is. I did not finish a manuscript and start another, because that's not what this year was really about. That phrase, that utterance, came from when I was 26 and someone asked me what my plan for life was. I was going to finish a book, and then I was going to write another one.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that alone isn't a plan. It won't pay the rent. It will leave me fulfilled and healthy and better able to deal with the day to days that get the rent paid. I said this year that I wanted to become serious about seeing Social Media as a career and not just something I did while waiting for publishing to happen. In July, I got thrown head first into it. There was over two months this summer, nearly ten weeks, when it was just me. Thankfully, it's not just me anymore. As I think about where I started at the beginning of this year and where I am now, I was—am—will continue to be—magnificent. Not without sacrifice and compromise, not without a ridiculous amount of stress, and not without the love and support of my family and friends.

But we did it. I realized while I was home for Christmas that this year was about staying. About creating the space and the foundation and not giving up, when it would've have been much easier to do so. Last year was the year to surrender; this year was the year to fight.

And this year was about learning where writing fits in my life, why I do it, and to believe again that being good at something does carry the responsibility to do good things with it. I have not finished a manuscript, but I have 72,000 words and they're serviceable. Some of them are good. A few are stupendous. I will have a finished manuscript next year, when I am ready to have one.

Remember this in the waning light of 2014: That this was the moment consciously imbued with the significance of decision. This was the recognition of the accomplishments of 2013. The wow that mists out into that new year, breaks its silence, and starts the clock ticking.

Hello, 2014. Let's be magnificent.