The Boy Who Lived and Changed my Life

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor Yamile Saied Méndez!

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling was published 20 years ago. I was eighteen, still living in Argentina, and although I’ve always been a reading addict, I wouldn’t find Harry Potter for a few more years.

Oh, how I would’ve loved to have read this magical story before I arrived at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a long way from my home at the other end of the world, in Rosario, Argentina. I could’ve used Harry’s perspective at arriving at a new place that was all I’d always dreamed of. Like Harry, I met some of my very best friends to this day that first Spring/Summer. I didn’t have to fight giant spiders or the Dark Lord, although I faced loneliness and homesickness, and in the winter, the pervasive presence of an old familiar companion, depression, my real life dementors.

Although it might sound cliché, I kept the dementors at bay thanks to the love of my friends, a wonderful boy who’d become my husband a little later, and the support of my family. When I met Harry, the world was a-frenzy with the arrival of Goblet of Fire. It was the summer of 2000, and I was awaiting the arrival of my first baby, my son Julián.

My husband and I lived in North Carolina very close to his sister’s family. Her kids lent me the first three volumes of the series so I could catch up before Goblet’s release day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the opening page changed my life. I didn’t stop reading, devouring each page until I reached the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. Happily, I joined the world as I waited for Goblet of Fire, which I devoured the night I bought it. My husband worked nights, and reading all night and sleeping during the day fit our lifestyle, even after our baby was born. There was an excruciating three year wait until Order of the Phoenix came out. During those three years, I read the four first volumes carefully, analyzing every word. I listened to Jim Dale’s audiobook adaptation, and to this day, I judge every audiobook by the Jim Dale standard. There are a few close seconds who are my favorite readers, but none like him.

I became involved in online forums like The Leaky Cauldron, and I loved discussing the books with strangers who loved Harry and gang as much as I did.

But during those three years I didn’t only read Harry Potter. I started reading for pleasure again. I fell in love with kidlit. I realized that because I grew up in another continent, my ignorance in terms of beloved American kids’ classics was abysmal. I set out to remedy this immediately. I’m still going strong at it. I found Max from Where the Wild Things Are, all the Margaret Brown books, Anne with an E, and everything else I could get my hands on. I took my baby to the library’s story time mainly for me. I needed my weekly haul of books. I started writing.

When Order of the Phoenix came out, we were living in Puerto Rico, out in the island (as the Puerto Ricans say), and I couldn’t go to the midnight release party. Amazon didn’t send me my pre-order copy until A WHOLE week had passed since the release day. I vowed that never again would I trust the postal service or online orders. For Half-Blood Prince, I already had three little potterheads to keep me company. I told them Harry’s story trying not to spoil it for them, especially for my son Julián who literally knew about Harry since he was in utero.

And for the release of Deathly Hallows, my dear, amazing, adoring husband took the family to London and Scotland, to wait for the book in “the” holy land. After touring the Balmoral hotel and different castles, we waited in line at the Waterstone in Edinburg. That night, my little Julián painstakingly read the book next to me, but he finally fell asleep, his pudy hand still holding a wand. A year later, when his reading skills were off the charts, he read Deathly Hallows in twenty hours. He was seven years old. He’s been re-reading Harry every year ever since. He’s also a voracious reader like me.

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Harry Potter is the reason I fell in love with kidlit. I read it; I write it nonstop. My stories are not like J. K Rowling’s, not at all, and that’s okay. Harry and his world have followed me all over the world throughout the years, and it’s not a coincidence that when I was at my MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (my real life Hogwarts, hands down), my class chose The Harried Plotters as the class name as it’s the tradition in the school. For our graduation, my classmates and I got Mischief Managed tattoos, and we raised our wands in victory (this is one of the perks of attending a writing for children program :p).

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Harry gave me magic, and I love the characters and this world because like Dumbledore told Harry, even if it’s all happening in my mind, it doesn’t mean it’s not real, right?

What book has changed your life?

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

We ALL Need Superheroes

There has been much buzz lately about the blockbuster hit Wonder Woman, and I have to agree with those that say the buzz is for a GOOD reason. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that there was so much about this movie that hit my heartstrings and made me ponder many things, long after I left the movie theater. A week and a half later, and I’m still processing and enjoying the message and the story, and I can tell you this: Wonder Woman gave me hope about multiple things both personal and on a large-scale, at a time when I think I needed her.

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(^ When you just HAD to snap a picture of an epic scene because you thought you might need it for later).

One more thought has been rattling around in my brain about Wonder Woman, and it involves the pre-viewing buzz. Prior to seeing this movie, I did my best to stay away from spoilers and so really had no idea what to expect — except for the fact that this was a superhero story, which I typically enjoy (non-spoilers note: it is so much more than that). However, I had seen more than a few times on social media that people were urging all of their friends to take their daughters to see this movie. I was invited by a group of women to go see it a few days after I’d already seen it. As I reflect upon my own viewing of the movie, I completely understand this sentiment. Wonder Woman fought for so much, for her loved ones, for herself, and for humanity. I understood the call to take daughters to see this movie because as a woman, I was very inspired.

However, I did not take any of my daughters with me to this movie.

Okay, so I don’t have any daughters. But I went with my husband and two young sons (ages 6 and 10). We had planned to take the kids to see a movie that day, but our sons chose Captain Underpants. Nothing personal against the briefs-wearing caped crusader, but my husband and I wound up arguing (yes, literally arguing) over who would be the *cough* unlucky person to go to see Captain Underpants because he’d taken them to see Trolls, and I’d taken them to see The Secret Life of Pets, and honestly, neither of us wanted to go see this movie that day. My husband then said to the boys, “We aren’t going to see Captain Underpants today. But maybe we should all go see Wonder Woman. Because you know — your mom is a Wonder Woman.” ❤  *cue heartmelt*

I waited for the counter-argument. I waited for one of my sons to say, “But that’s a movie for girls. But we want Captain Underpants!” There was none of that, and aside from one brief pout from the youngest one, we went and saw Wonder Woman. And my boys, husband, and I all loved it. My boys especially loved seeing Princess Diana as a little girl, they loved how funny and determined Diana Prince was as an adult, and perhaps most of all, they loved how kickass Wonder Woman was.

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Here are some direct quotes of what my boys had to say today (about a week and a half after we saw it as a family):

“I liked how Wonder Woman could do all of those cool things, like jump this huge distance and land on a building, and how surprised she was that she could even do it.” *makes flying noises*

“I liked when she tried to blend in and how she was trying on normal clothes but wanted to make sure she could fight in them.” *kicks and punches the air*

“I liked the part when she was figuring out things about people and our world for the first time.” 

“I liked her as a little girl when she was learning how to fight, just like I do karate.” *does awesome karate moves*

“There are too many cool things to say them all, Mom.” 

Wonder Woman is a story for everyone, you see, not just for daughters and sisters and mothers and female friends. Men and boys need to see kickass women as much as women and girls need to see kickass women. One way we can empathize with people from all walks of life is to experience their stories — and this applies to readers and writers of stories as well. When I was younger, I loved Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. I read (and reread) Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t when I was in elementary school (and asked my mom tons of questions about each, which she frankly answered, bless her heart). My oldest son is an avid reader, and while his current favorite series is Tyler Whitesides’ The Janitors, he also loved Judy Moody.

If only we could live long enough to read and write ALL the books. Writers often talk about the need for writing and reading diversely. Usually we mean writing about groups that aren’t widely represented in stories, and this post and others explain why writing diversely is so very crucial for our readers to understand different perspectives. Yet as authors, our books may be categorized and marketed as girl’s books or boy’s books, as women’s fiction, men’s fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, multicultural fiction, and so on (I’ve even seen the category “men’s adventure fiction” pop up somewhere). These designations are primarily for marketing toward target audiences, as these stories depict women’s life experiences, or the experiences of LGBTQIA+ characters, or the singular experience of a man’s adventure, I suppose. But as a reader and writer, there is great value in crossing those bridges and experiencing (through reading) and representing (through writing) a wide variety of struggles and triumphs, just as my sons experienced the struggles and triumphs of Princess Diana / Diana Prince / Wonder Woman and now have an even broader perspective about certain things. And okay, I’m not going to lie when I say my heart melted when my 6 yo hugged me and told me that I’m like Wonder Woman (he didn’t tell me why, but that’s for him to decide).

When I was a teenager, I read my dad’s Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz paperbacks, and I enjoyed them (Ken Follett’s “men’s adventures” were some of my favorites, TBH). But my dad also had his Danielle Steele paperbacks that filled up an entire shelf on his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and I read a lot of those as well. I still remember the day when he gestured to his personal collection and told me that I could read anything I wanted to because I could be anything I wanted to someday.

Maybe even a superhero.

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HelenHelen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager (and this post explains why). An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romance-suspense LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

Tales From the “Staff Picks” Shelf

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I’m a huge fan of the “Staff Picks” shelf at my local library. Whenever I go, I always make sure to see what’s new and being recommended, and I usually will come home with a book by author I’m unfamiliar with, or even a genre I don’t normally read. And while I’m all for gathering reading recommendations from trusted friends and family, I’ve personally had great success by trusting the suggestions from this particular shelf.

For instance, I had heard of Jim Butcher and Brad Meltzer before, but it wasn’t until I saw their books on the “Staff Pick” shelf one day that I decided to give them a try. And I’m glad I did, because I found two authors in two wildly different genres (urban fantasy and political thriller, respectively) that I came to enjoy.

Some of my happiest finds on the “Staff Picks” shelf, however, have come from books and authors who I was completely unaware of beforehand. In those moments, I judged the book by its cover, and rolled the dice. It is some of those treasures I’d like to share today. These are some of the books and authors I always refer people to now when they ask me who they should try reading.

First on my list is A. Lee Martinez. I came across one of his books years ago, and became such a fan that I read his entire back catalog inside of two months. Lee writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror comedy in the style of Douglas Adams with a little Terry Pratchett thrown in for good measure. All of his books are stand alone stories, and feature memorable characters in richly detailed settings, with smart dialogue. I always try to steer folks towards Martinez, and among the books I would recommend trying are:

  • Too Many Curses. Nessy, a short and furry kobold, is the caretaker of the castle of Margle the Horrendous, an evil wizard who transforms his victims into various accursed forms and keeps them in his castle. His collection ranges from a roomful of sentient suits of armor, to something known only as The Thing Which Should Not Be, to a nurgax, which bears a striking resemblance to a one-eyed, one horned, flying purple people-eater. When Margle suddenly dies, Nessy finds herself faced with keeping the castle from descending into chaos.
  • Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest. It’s hard enough to be a teenage girl, and being half Minotaur doesn’t help Helen’s social life any. To break a curse placed by an angry old god, Helen and her friend Troy must embark on a road trip down Route 66 through an enchanted America, pursued by a biker gang of Orcs. This story turns the classic Greek myths on their heads with hilarious results.
  • The Last Adventure of Constance Verity. All Constance Verity’s parents wanted for their baby girl was for her to live a life of adventure. Their wish was granted by a fairy godmother, and from the age of seven, Connie has saved the world (and other worlds) so many times that she’s lost count. After twenty-eight years of one adventure after another, she’s bored and longing for a peaceful, ordinary life. But saving the world is her destiny, and the forces behind her particular affliction for adventure aren’t so eager to have her stop.

I grabbed Andrew Fox’s The Good Humor Man off the shelf based off the cover art—which shows a pair of futuristic police boots crushing some Cheetos—and the subtitle: Or, Calorie 3501. The story is set in a dystopian future where junk food has been outlawed, and “Good Humor Men”—so called for their use of re-appropriated ice cream trucks—prowl the city looking for anyone who is eating unhealthily. All forms of junk food are summarily destroyed, and offenders are thrown in jail. In this health conscious world, fat is equated with evil, and a cultish religion has emerged where parishioners worship liposuction. Louis, a former liposuction surgeon turned Good Humor Man, begins to question his vocation when a raid on contraband cheese turns deadly. Can the jar of fat Louis’ father secretly removed from Elvis Presley decades earlier hold the key to saving all of humanity?

(I would also recommend Fox’s Fat White Vampire Blues, which takes the sexy vampire mythos and tosses it out the window. Jules Duchon is a vampire in New Orleans, but is morbidly obese because Americans are so high in cholesterol. There’s nothing sexy or sparkly about Jules, who has to work at night as a cab driver to earn a living.)

I chose The Fictional Man by Al Ewing because I needed something to read on a flight. As it turned out, this book became the highlight of my entire trip. Set in an alternate present where cloning is commonplace, nearly all actors in Hollywood are “Fictionals,” or genetically engineered copies of their fictional counterparts in stories. Thus, there are multiple copies of Sherlock Holmes running around, for instance. It’s the highest hope of all writers to have their characters immortalized as a real life Fictional. Niles is a struggling pulp novelist with writer’s block who is tasked with writing a film adaptation of a trashy spy novel. The deeper Niles gets into the story within the story within the story, the more layers unfold, and the more the truth is revealed to be stranger than fiction.

Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under The Egg was a book I wouldn’t ordinarily have read. It’s a middle grade novel, a genre that doesn’t usually spark my interest. But I was feeling adventurous one day, and looking for something different. What I found was a smart story about a young girl in New York who goes on a National Treasure-style hunt across the city to solve a mystery that may just save her whole family. This book was a refreshing reminder to me not to be afraid to venture outside the safe and familiar genres I normally read, and that a good story is a good story, regardless of genre.

I hope you might give some of these authors and books a try like I did, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. I also hope that no matter what genre you prefer to read, you occasionally step outside that genre and read something you wouldn’t ordinarily. Even if you never become a die hard fan of a different genre, the experience can serve to broaden your perspective and flex your imaginative muscles a little. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see what picks are being recommended for me this week. Happy reading!

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Well-Rounded Readers Make Well-Rounded Writers

I’m pretty sure you all know the importance, as writers, of reading books within the genres you write, yes? Obviously, this is a given. How are you to know the trends and meet the expectations of your genre’s audience if you aren’t also a member of your genre’s audience?

By reading within your genre, you learn which tropes to include, and which tropes to avoid. You learn your genre’s average pacing and plot structure, what’s been done and what hasn’t, and how to skirt that line between providing unique characters and a unique plot, while still adhering to the qualities and characteristics of your particular genre that will keep readers coming back for more.

But there’s something to be said for reading outside your genre as well. I used to be timid about doing this. For the longest time, I nearly exclusively read SFF books because that’s what I was drawn to. That’s why I chose to write within that genre, after all. I love SFF. I can relate to it, and at the same time, it transports me away from normal, everyday life.

Lately, however, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more widely. And you know what? Not only have I found that I enjoy a much larger selection of stories than I thought I would, my writing has improved as well. Tremendously. I know it’s improved, because I now find myself looking at my characters differently, and being more creative about the situations I put them in, as well as how I have them react to those situations. I’ve also honed my writing voice more—with different genres comes different ways of wording things, and my exposure to this is coming out in my own style of writing.

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As mentioned above, I mostly write SFF. More specifically, I write urban and contemporary fantasy. However, so far this year, I’ve read mysteries, historical fiction, magical realism, contemporary romance, and dark, twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. Each one of these books has influenced my writing for the better.

Mystery has helped me figure out what information I should (and shouldn’t) reveal to the reader, and when. Historical fiction has taught me the importance of understanding the socio-political landscape in which my characters have been placed. Magical realism has influenced me to slow down during certain moments throughout my stories and really focus on the sensory details, drawing the reader into my character’s experience as far as I can. Contemporary romance has been a terrific study on the push and pull that takes place in character relationships, and how to add delicious tension. And thrillers with unreliable narrators have helped to remind me that every character is the hero within their own story, and they’re all going to want to portray themselves that way, whether their portrayal is accurate or not.

I have books in other genres waiting on my to-be-read list as well. Horror, for instance. And comedy. And I read plenty of non-fiction as well.

“Wait . . . non-fiction? You mean besides books about writing?”

Heck yes, you should read non-fiction! And not just for story research, either. Right now, for instance, I’m reading (well, actually listening to) a book about the quirky ways in which the brain works.* How is that helpful? Well, in understanding how the human brain works, I can better understand why my characters do what they do. I’ve also been reading biographies, which make great character studies, books on time-management, which are helpful for managing my writing life, and of course (since I have a degree in the subject) history books. History is the ultimate plot bunny source, let me tell you. Even if you’re writing a contemporary book, or a book set in the future.

So I challenge you now, if you’re hesitant about reading outside your writing genre, to go do exactly that. Ask trusted friends for recommendations, scroll through Goodreads, or take yourself down to your local library or bookstore and walk past your favorite shelves, over to new, unexplored territory. You can thank me later. No, seriously, after you’re done reading. Pretend I’m not here. I don’t want to interrupt you.

. . . Puts finger to lips and tiptoes away. . . .

 

*THE IDIOT BRAIN, by Dean Burnett
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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Writers as Readers

Okay, so I’m a self-proclaimed non-fiction disliker. I won’t use the word “hate” because that’s so strong, and I *have* read some non-fiction in my life. Maybe not by choice, but still. UNBROKEN was pretty good — I listened to most of it on a long car trip. 😉

So I don’t read a lot of non-fiction in general, and that extends most definitely to writing craft books. Sometimes I feel like a real hack at this writing gig because I don’t think I’ve ever read a craft volume the entire way through.

No, self-editing books and the like don’t appeal to me. I read fiction–almost exclusively in the genres I write in. I do this for a couple of reasons:

1. I like to read fiction in genres I write in! It’s fun. Pleasurable. I love seeing what creative ideas other authors have. I like losing myself in a good story.

At the same time, I try to learn lessons from the books I read. I usually pay close attention to how fast I’m reading the novel and my feelings toward what’s happening.

I find myself asking questions like:

  • What has the author done well with the protagonist?
  • What could the author do to make him/her better?
  • Why don’t I like what just happened in the plot?
  • If I were writing this book, what would I have done here? Why would I do that instead of what the author did?
  • Am I skimming? Why or why not?
  • Is there a clear midpoint moment I can identify after finishing the book?

So I analyze the story as a whole, paying close attention to characters and plot points and story structure. I also like to examine the story on a writing level.

So I consider (among other things):

  • What verbs has the author used in a unique way?
  • Which words did I see in this novel I haven’t used in my own writing?
  • Are there overused words/phrases/comparisons? How can I avoid using those in my own writing?
  • What does this author do particularly well that I can attempt to emulate? Why do I like what they’ve done so much? What about it appeals to me as a reader?

2. I like seeing what’s being done in the genre I’m writing. I like being able to see what’s being published now, and pushing myself to come up with something just as good (or better) for my own stories.

I think reading is an important learning tool for authors. I know sometimes we’re a little too critical of the books we read, but if we can use books we love and books we don’t to help ourselves write better plotted stories, more memorable characters, and craft those novels with excellent words, reading critically isn’t bad.

What do you think? Do you read in the same genre you write? Why or why not?

Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romances, SECOND CHANCE RANCH and THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM are Amazon bestsellers and are available now.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebook, twitter, and her blog.