Who Will It Be?

About Me

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I am a native North Dakotan, a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a YA writer. My first book, The Predicteds, is due out from Sourcebooks Fire in September. I'm represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. When I'm not writing or teaching writing, I'm an avid reader and an enthusiastic listener of podcasts (especially podcasts about books). I'm a fan of taking long walks on sunny days, browsing through the library on Saturday afternoons, and watching embarrassingly bad TV at any time. My favorite color is lunch.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Which I’m an Idiot

I just learned that a flash mob is not a mob of naked people. I’m not sure where I came up with that definition, but that’s what I thought.
Imagine my surprise when I found out the students at the college where I teach participated in a flash mob. I was concerned because it was cold that day! When nobody disrobed, I figured that either a) they did it wrong, or b) my definition was way off.
Turns out that “b” is the correct answer.
Please enjoy this video of fully clothed people dancing to Lady Gaga in the courtyard of our very lovely college.

Where Do Writing Ideas Come From?

So a lot of people ask writers where the ideas come from. I can’t speak for all writers, but for me, the ideas—the good ones, the ones I want to pursue—come from questions I can’t answer. Everything springs forth from there.
My first novel, The Predicteds, is due out in September, and I’ve been reading some bloggers and Goodreads folks who are wondering what it’s about. I’ll post more about that later. For right now, there’s just a tag line: What if your boyfriend was destined to commit murder? That’s not the original question I had when I started, but it morphed into that, eventually.
My original questions went something like this: What if you knew someone was going to end up a murderer?  What would you do? Could you change that person? Could you change yourself?
The questions arose from a tragedy that happened here in Salt Lake City a few years ago. A high-school student walked into a mall and opened fire on a crowd of shoppers. It was a tragedy unlike any Salt Lake has known, yet it was hardly unusual. It seems like every time we turn around, there’s another shooting somewhere in the U.S. that looks just like this one.
The Predicteds isn’t about a mall shooting. It’s not even about murder  or crime really. It’s about what makes us who we are. Are we born into our destiny? Or do we make one for ourselves?

Monday, April 4, 2011

I Give This Topic Two Stars (Or Maybe Twenty-Seven)

I’m a big Goodreads user; I would not even consider reading a book before I put it on my virtual currently-reading shelf. I set reading goals and meticulously keep track of what I’ve read and what I liked (or disliked) about my books. And keeping track of everything is really easy with Goodreads. (In the olden days, I had to chisel my notes on a slate tablet).
The problem with Goodreads, though, is that it wants me to publicly rate my books. That stresses me out.  When I rate a book, I do it to remind myself how I felt about that book at that particular time. It’s not a commentary on the book itself necessarily.
 Lots of perfectly great books just don’t resonate with me when I read them the first time; likewise, I often love an unpopular book just because it was the right book at the right time. But online starring systems seem to suggest that however many stars a book has is indicative of the book’s merit. Prep, a book by Curtis Sittenfeld, only received 3.27 stars. That’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it at least three times. I’d give it more than five stars if I could; I think it’s pretty masterfully done, and I can so relate to the neurotic main character.  
The opposite happens too. Sometimes I hate books that everybody else loves. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has 3.93 stars (even though more than 2500 people have given it only one star.) Count me a hater. Too many descriptions of coffee and sandwiches. Too many sex-starved women throwing themselves at a protagonist who has little to offer, save for coffee and sandwiches.
But even though  I rated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo two stars, that doesn’t mean it’s a two-star book. I just didn’t like it. For one, I’m not a huge fan of crime novels, and I really hate graphic descriptions of violence. Second, I read it while I was in Europe last spring, and my attention was quite divided. Third, I think there was something lost in the translation, and I just couldn’t appreciate what we were presented in English
I get that our responses to books—especially fiction—are very personal responses. So it pains me to click on the little stars, especially if I’m going to give a book only one or two of the measly buggers. If I only give a book one star, will I make the author (or fans of the author) feel bad? Will they understand that my one star simply means that it wasn’t the right book for me? Will it impact sales of the book?

The other problem with stars is that I change my mind about books. I adored Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the first time I read it. I loved it the second time. By the third time, I demoted it to just plain “liked it a lot.” I don’t think the book got worse; I just changed. And the context in which I read it changed. Conversely, I couldn’t make it through The Good Earth when I first tried reading it in grad school. I finally read the whole thing a few years ago, and I thought it was incredible. I know a lot of people hated Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but I loved it. Part of the reason, I think, is that I read it right after I had foot surgery this fall. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t sleep, so I had long uninterrupted hours of reading time. It’s the kind of book that requires big reading gulps. I think if I had read in sips, I would not have had the same positive response. No number of stars could convey all of that.
All of this rambling was prompted by a book I just finished that I hated. Most readers loved it, but I thought it was really poorly written. Everything about it just rubbed me wrong way: the characters, the plot, the writing. If I had rated it, I would’ve given it one star. But I didn’t rate it because I don’t think any book deserves to be a one-star book. Every book speaks to someone, even if it didn’t work for me.
For all of these reasons, I'm hereby boycotting the star system. I just can't label books like that. It feels too much like a beauty pageant. Why should I make my books parade around in bathing suits while I give them arbitrary ratings? It's just plain wrong.

No more stars.
(Unless I can't help myself.)