Book Recommendation: Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

A Western fairy tale meets an Indian-inspired culture in Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2010. In this story, two sisters receive two very different gifts from a goddess, and through their journeys, they must discover the faults within themselves and how to use their gifts.

Toads and diamonds quote-Naghali_s snake messengers

Summary

Diribani and her family suffer from poverty, but that all changes when Diribani helps an old beggar woman at the well. The snake goddess Naghali-ji blesses Diribani so flowers and jewels fall from her lips with every word she speaks. But when Diribani’s stepsister, Tana, visits the well, she receives a very different gift of having snakes and toads fall from her mouth.

“Revenge, greed, necessity: Any could be your undoing. Only think. One of the gems you spout so casually would secure an ambitious man’s future.”

So begins the journeys of the two sisters as Diribani travels with a prince and Tana hides from the cruel governor of their province. Religions clash and hearts are broken as the two sisters try to understand how the goddess wants them to use their gifts, though they soon learn things they never imagined about themselves. This is a great book for readers who like fairy tale retellings and different cultures.

“Beauty wasn’t in this body, crusted with filth and sores. It wasn’t even in the paintings Diribani had created, dry pigments arranged on flat paper. It was in life itself: the boldness of daffodils, the sweetness of violets, the resolution of diamond. Like Tana’s resolution, Tana’s priceless mix of cleverness, loyalty, and strength. Diribani had lost her way, so she would be guided by her sister’s example.”

Book Group Questions

  1. How were both Diribani’s and Tana’s gifts blessings? How were they curses?
  2. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Heather Tomlinson said that she invented the two religions in this novel, though she did use elements from several actual religions. Discuss the similarities and differences between the actual religions and those seen in this story. Also discuss how religions can clash with each other.
  3. Diribani had the unspoken wish for beauty while Tana’s unspoken wish was to keep her family safe. How did the gifts they received reflect these wishes? What did the sisters learn about these wishes by the end of the book?
  4. Compare this story to the original fairy tale, “The Fairies” by Charles Perrault. What are the similarities and differences?

What Studio C Taught Me About Writing Humor

With the prank-fest of April Fool’s Day approaching, I’ve decided to talk about how to write humor. Creating laugh-out-loud jokes, funny scenes, and amusing characters can actually be very difficult because humor is subjective. What makes one person chuckle can make another raise an eyebrow. However, I have seen successful reoccurring patterns of humor in BYUtv’s sketch-comedy show, Studio C, and I will cover some of these patterns today.

Writing humor-what studio c taught me

Combine Two Unlike Things

Whether it is a baby who is your college roommate or a video gamer who saves the world, combining two unlike people or circumstances can create humor. Under normal circumstances, these two things would not be in the same room, but because they are, they present unique, amusing situations. For an example, see a pregnant woman working as a spy in the sketch below:

Exaggeration

Exaggeration appears in most of the comedic patterns I will discuss, but it can be a category all on its own. Try to see how far you can exaggerate situations in order to obtain the most optimal funny effect. How intense can organic food eaters get? How can a mall turn into a battleground as seen in the sketch below:

Misunderstandings

Having a misunderstanding is a huge element in most romantic comedies. Lack of communication, double meanings, and other circumstances keep the characters thinking differently about certain things while the audience (who knows both sides of the story) laughs as they watch the misunderstanding get more and more precarious. See how a young man organizing his wedding misunderstands a funeral planner in the sketch below:

Slapstick

One of the simplest, most basic forms of humor is that of slapstick comedy a.k.a. physical injury and abuse. Unless you are writing for children (who find this form of humor hilarious), I would advise against falling back on slapstick too much because it is too easy and not as satisfying as other forms of humor. However, as you can see from the Scott Sterling sketch below, it does have its merits:

Take the Familiar and Add a Twist

Though humor is subjective, there are situations most people can relate to such as visiting the doctor, going to school, or learning to drive a car. By adding an unexpected twist to a familiar situation, you can make laugh-out-loud moments as we see the familiar become hilarious. Take the sketch below, where we watch the world of dating through the lens of a nature documentary:

Book Review: How to Become a Pirate Hunter by Marty Reeder

If you like books about destiny, pirates, and adventures on the high seas, then How to Become a Pirate Hunter may be for you. This book was written by Marty Reeder and published by Cedar Fort Publishing. Though I felt the style and approach to this story could use improvement, the concept is certainly interesting and unique.

how to become a pirate hunter image via cedar fort
Image via Cedar Fort Publishing

“You are just as talented as anyone else out there. You just haven’t been in the right circumstances to prove it.”

Summary

As long as Eric can remember, he has been useless. With no real talents or abilities, he just floats aimlessly through life. But that all changes when he meets Charlotte. She can see people’s natural-born abilities, and she tells Eric that he is meant to become a pirate hunter. After a little time traveling, Charlotte gives Eric the opportunity to test out his pirate hunting skills. But when Eric takes on the dreaded Willard Twins, he may have met his match.

“He found himself in an area and time period unfamiliar to him. He faced hostile foes not only in the sea, but also back at land in the forms of Governor Rose and Captain Bellview. All this . . . and Eric did not even have his driver’s license yet.”

Review—3 Stars

I received a digital copy of How to Become a Pirate Hunter from Cedar Fort Publishing in exchange for my honest review.

I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed with this book. A time traveling pirate hunter is a great concept, but I felt the approach and style was lacking. For one, Eric’s character did not go through a development process. He started out feeling useless and unconfident, but when he traveled to the past, he instantly became an intelligent, self-assured leader. This change happened in a blink, and I didn’t buy it. Plus this book is about how to become a pirate hunter, and we didn’t even get to see that process.

 “And now that I’ve spent this time with you, I am more convinced than ever. No matter what you were born to do. No matter what you have accomplished here, or what you think you haven’t. You are special, Eric. You really are. Not because of your talent. Because of you.”

Additionally, the point of view kept throwing me off because the third-person limited kept jumping into others’ perspectives. This omniscient/limited mix felt sloppy, especially when it explored the thoughts of minor, unimportant characters. This point of view also contributed to a whole lot of telling rather than showing. The constant telling of what happened and what everyone thought about it made everything seem too obvious.

Eric also lacked a lot of potential internal conflict, and when this conflict did appear, it was after long intervals of nothing at all. There also could have been a lot more conflict had he experienced failures with pirate hunting early on rather than amazing successes. And he didn’t even consider the effect this whole experience might have had on his future and his family until the end of the book. Though I liked the concept of the story and its villain, overall I felt it needed some work.

To see more reviews of How to Become a Pirate Hunter, check it out on Goodreads, Amazon, or its Cedar Fort blog tour page.

Book Review: Unexpected Love by Heather Chapman, Mandi Ellsworth, Paula Kremser, & Ashtyn Newbold

You can read sweet, clean romances about marriages of convenience when you check out Unexpected Love published by Cedar Fort Publishing and written by Heather Chapman, Mandi Ellsworth, Paula Kremser, and Ashtyn Newbold. This book shares four romance novellas which show how love can grow in the most unexpected places.

Unexpected love image via Cedar Fort
Image via Cedar Fort Publishing

“He just had to get married and keep his wife alive. Sounded simple enough.”

Summary

In past eras, women were often forced into marriages of convenience due to extenuating circumstances. However, some of these people still managed to find great love within these marriages. Unexpected Love shares four such stories. A man eager for a rich inheritance grows to love his wife and her small cottage. Two people marry to save their young charges and form a loving family. A spunky, beautiful woman running from criminals marries a law man who doesn’t know the first thing about being married to her. And a scarred woman brings out the goodness and love of an angry, unhappy blind man.

“Smile. Life is an obligatory gift. We may not always like it, but we must make do with what we are given.”

Review—4.5 Stars

I received a digital copy of Unexpected Love from Cedar Fort Publishing in exchange for my honest review.

I loved the sweet, tender, and varied stories this book shared. I was especially pleased to see that not every story was based in the regency era, which helped change up the romance genre a bit. In “First Comes Marriage,” I liked the many dilemmas the characters had to maneuver around and I constantly worried about whether they would really fall in love or not. In “Beauty and the Beholder,” I enjoyed seeing Fanny and Percy’s relationship in all stages of its development and hearing their witty banter.

 “I have learned that there is a good, kind, and honest person within each of us. We only need the right people to unearth them.”

As for “Ashbrook Abbey,” I felt the transformation of the characters was a bit choppy and it would have worked better with less exposition in the beginning. “The Price of Her Heart” had a weak beginning and ending, but it had a fantastic middle and a spunky protagonist. Overall, this anthology shared feel-good stories, memorable characters, and tender, enduring loves.

To see more reviews of Unexpected Love, check it out on Goodreads, Amazon, and its Cedar Fort blog tour page.

Writing Prompts: The St. Patrick’s Day Edition

For many of us, St. Patrick’s Day is an excuse to pretend to be Irish and abuse others with pinches. But between wearing your green and helping the kids set up leprechaun traps, take a few minutes to celebrate the holiday by writing. Here are a few St. Patty’s Day writing prompts all about leprechauns, pots of gold, and pinching people.

St. Patty's Day Writing Prompts

  1. On top of losing her wallet and car keys, Danielle forgot to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. What does she do to try to avoid getting pinched black and blue by all of her coworkers?
  2. Leprechaun Seamus O’Sullivan’s pot of gold has been stolen. How does he get it back?
  3. Allie lives an average life until she finds a four-leaf clover. Her wish comes true . . . but in the worst way possible.
  4. A leprechaun actually falls for a kindergartener’s leprechaun trap. What does he do when the child finds him?
  5. Saint Patrick gets transported to the future and sees how the world celebrates a holiday in honor of him. How does he react?

Do you have more ideas for St. Patty’s Day writing prompts? If so, then share them in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Book Recommendation: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

Fairy tales, Romanian folklore, and enchanted frogs come together in Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier which was published by Knopf in 2007. In this retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a young woman must accept change in her life as she travels from her world to the fairies’ Dancing Glade in the Other Kingdom.

wildwood-dancing-quote-secrets-the-other-kingdom

Summary

For many years now, Jena has traveled to another world at every full moon with her four sisters and her enchanted frog, Gogu. They dance in the Other Kingdom with the strange, beautiful fairy folk and return to their own world every morning. But things begin to change when the Night People join the Dancing Glade and when Jena’s father leaves her in charge of their home and business.

“I’ve always believed we should try to put bad things behind us—not to forget them, but to learn from them and make the best use of that learning in our lives. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t blame Draguta or the folk of the forest. It’s your life—the only one who can live it is you.”

Jena’s perfectly ordered world spirals out of control when her older sister falls in love with one of the Night People, when her cousin takes control of her home, and when tensions rise between the people of the valley and the wildwood folk. As Jena tries to help those she loves, she finds that she may have to seek aid from the wildwood witch, Draguta.

“What we ask of you is simply the recognition of change, Jena. Yours is a world of constant change. You must learn to change, too. You spend a great deal of time worrying about others: trying to put their lives right, trying to shape your world as you believe it should be. You must learn to trust your instincts, or you are doomed to spend your life blinding by duty while beside you a wondrous tree sprouts and springs up and buds and blooms, and your heart takes no comfort from it, for you cannot raise your eyes to see it.”

Book Group Questions

  1. Jena struggles to control all of the changes that occur in her life and that of her sisters’. How does her need for control dissipate by the end of the book? How does she learn to let go and change?
  2. Looking back on the book, what were some of the clues given that showed that Gogu was actually Costi?
  3. How much of Cezar’s anger do you believe was fueled at himself?
  4. Examine the tenuous relationship of the villagers from the “real” world and the folk of the wildwood. How is this relationship balanced, and how does it get unbalanced?

How to Write Great Descriptions

Great descriptions in writing can really draw readers into the story and make them see the world and characters. However, bad descriptions or excess descriptions can bore readers and make them shut the book before finishing it. If you want to keep your readers reading, then here are a few tips on writing vivid descriptions that help readers feel like they live in the story.

writing-good-descriptions-pencil-flowers

Avoid Too Much

I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but sometimes I want to resurrect J.R.R. Tolkien from the dead and ask him if it was really necessary to know about the location and nature of every other rock, tree, and trail in Middle Earth. Try to avoid excess description. A good way to do this is by asking yourself if you really need to describe something in detail. Is it really important to the story? Remember that the readers can fill in a lot of holes themselves.

Metaphor, Personification, and Everything Else You Learned in Your High School English Class

Using metaphors, personification, and other writing techniques can not only make description more interesting to read, but it can really help to pull your readers into the story. Here is an excellent example of personification from the beginning of Chapter 3 in William Ritter’s book Ghostly Echoes:

The afternoon air was thick and hot as Jackaby and I left Augur Lane and made our way into the center of town. I had been introduced to a snow-swept New Fiddleham earlier that year, a New Fiddleham where baroque buildings glistened with frost and chilly winds whispered through alleyways. With the summer sun now beating down on cobblestones, the city did not whisper so much as it panted heavily, its breath humid and cloying.

Be Specific

Don’t be vague about the object, place, or person you describe. Providing specific details can help the reader create specific, vivid images in their head. Instead of flowers, say tulips. Instead of red, say maroon. You should also try using other sense besides sight in order to create a more evocative description.

Avoid Infodumps

What’s a sure way to lose a reader? Writing five pages of description in a row. Unless you’re describing something really cool, like a dragon, readers will probably get bored. Don’t infodump a lot of description at once; try to spread it out between dialogue and action.

Think Through Your Characters

Different people see things in different ways, and utilizing these differences can make for unique descriptions. How does your main character see the world around him or her? How does a clockmaker’s description of the rapid beating of his heart compare to a surfer’s description?  What does a jock think about a math teacher in comparison to the chess nerd’s thoughts? The possibilities are endless.

Writing Prompts: The Valentine’s Day Edition

Ahhh, Single Awaren—ahem, I mean Valentine’s Day. Okay, to be honest, I call it that-sappy-pink-and-red-holiday under my breath, but in my heart, I’m a bit of a romantic for falling in love, chocolate candies, bouquets of roses, and true love’s kiss. This Valentine’s Day, between cuddling with your special someone or being single and aware of it, try to fit in some writing time with these Valentine’s writing prompts about love, singlehood, and those sappy pink-and-red hearts.

roses-make-great-bookmarks-valentines-day-writing-prompts

  1. A lonely, single woman gets love advice from the ghosts of Valentine’s past, present, and future.
  2. Desperate to find love on Valentine’s Day, your main character hires a mysterious matchmaker for help.
  3. Cupid makes a mistake with his love-inspiring arrows and mixes up couples, Midsummer Night’s Dream style. How does he fix this problem?
  4. Lilly’s fiancé breaks off their engagement the morning of Valentine’s Day, of all days. What does she do the rest of the day to show that she can handle being single yet again.
  5. Derek takes pride in being single every Valentine’s Day. Tell us about the special lady who manages to change his mind.
  6. Alianna meets a magical stranger who steals her heart, in both a figurative sense and a literal one. How does she get her heart back?

Do you have more ideas for Valentine’s Day/Single Awareness Day writing prompts? If so, share them in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

The Do’s And Don’ts Of Submitting Short Stories

For those of you who don’t know, I volunteer as a First Reader for Deep Magic, an e-zine that publishes clean fantasy and science-fiction short stories. Last night, I had the opportunity to do a Facebook Live Chat for Deep Magic in which I talked about being a First Reader and shared some of my favorite stories we’ve published. I also discussed some of the common mistakes I’ve seen writers make when submitting short stories to Deep Magic. Here are a few of the tips and tricks I mentioned for aspiring writers to be aware of if they submit stories to Deep Magic or any other magazine or writing contest.

keyboard-dos-and-donts-of-short-story-submissions

1—Read The Submission Guidelines: This seems fairly obvious, but I have seen several writers submit stories that were not in compliance with the submission guidelines. You need to make sure your story is the correct length, has the right content, and fits the genre of the magazine.

2—Make Sure Your Grammar Is Right: Some writers believe they don’t need to focus on grammar because the magazine will have an editor to fix their mistakes. While this is true, a story with lots of bad grammar tells us that if you don’t care about the punctuation and spelling, then you probably don’t care if the story is actually well done either. Read your story out loud or have someone check it before submission so you can catch most grammatical errors.

3—Tell A Good Story: This will ultimately be your best tool in getting published. In order to help you tell the best story possible, I will share two of the biggest problems I see with short story submissions:

  • The Beginning: You need to make the action rise in your story as soon as possible. While full-length novels are able to dally about a bit, short stories don’t really have that luxury. If I’ve read half of the story and nothing has really happened to make the action rise yet, then I will be bored. You need to engage readers as soon as possible with interesting characters, a tricky conflict, etc.
  • The End: Many short stories I’ve seen submitted to Deep Magic end without a real ending. I believe the writers think this is dramatic, but in reality it leaves me confused and unsatisfied. If I am going to spend the time reading the entire story, then you can’t leave me disappointed with unanswered questions and no resolution.

4—Perserverance: Unfortunately, because of the amount of submissions received and the amount of publishing space available, Deep Magic and magazines everywhere have to reject most of the submissions. So why do you even bother trying if you are most likely to be rejected? Because rejection is part of being a writer, and it gives you the opportunity to try again. You can rework your story or write a new one entirely. Try again and again, and you will probably get rejected again and again, but your writing will continue to improve through this process and eventually your stories will start getting accepted.

Book Review: Dating Never Works . . . Until It Does By Zack Oates

Typically I review fiction books, but I decided that I really needed to read this dating guide and apply its lessons to my own life. Dating Never Works . . . Until It Does is written by Zack Oates and published by Cedar Fort Publishing. This book has a lot of humor that makes it an enjoyable read, and it shares a lot of insights that will make you rethink how you date.

dating-never-works-until-it-does-blog-tour-image-via-cedar-fort
Image via Cedar Fort Publishing.

“I believe that two people can fall madly in love and sift that fairy-tale feeling up through the raging sands of reality to settle on top as a polished stone of true joy, where the ‘happily ever after’ will be something two mortals are working towards and not a finished product.”

Summary

Dating can be fun. Dating can be hard. Dating can feel like a repeated failure. Zack Oates knows this, having gone on over a thousand dates and having blogged about them. Oates shares 100 lessons about dating that he gained from his experiences. He covers dating fundamentals, how to deal with the friend zone, what women want men to know (and vice versa), attraction, breaking up, marriage, and much more.

“Just remember, someone rejecting you doesn’t say anything about you, it just means that the match isn’t good. Like root beer and soy sauce. Both are great, but not together. And that’s okay. You’ll find your vanilla ice cream or your rice soon enough.”

Book Review—4.5 Stars

I received a digital copy of Dating Never Works . . . Until It Does from Cedar Fort Publishing in exchange for my honest review.

This fun dating guide has lots of great humor and insights. Oates’ running commentary throughout it made me laugh, and his many lessons and advice made me think. He really does an excellent job at explaining the do’s and don’ts of dating, and his fun, interesting writing style ensured that I was never bored.

“Don’t stop trying to be better . . . but be honest. Because I promise, you will be loved; but the problem is when people fall in love with what you want them to think you are. Let them get to know and fall in love with you . . . as you are.”

Though Oates gave many humorous, interesting analogies, I’ll admit that there were a few sections in the book that were muddled and left me confused. However, that may be just a result of me being a clueless dater. Overall, Oates provided plenty of excellent examples, advice, and tips on good dating. I especially liked his conclusion as well as the several great dating activities he suggested afterwards.

To see more reviews of Dating Never Works . . . Until It Does, check it out on Goodreads, Amazon, or its Cedar Fort blog tour page.