Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Review: The Tearling Trilogy

*Note: This is a review of books I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I picked up The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen on a whim at my local bookstore.  It had a pretty cover, and the blurb on the back sounded like one of those fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in the past but probably wouldn’t reread ever again.

That was the first time Johansen turned my assumptions upside down.

The book begins with an armed guard fetching the 19-year-old Kelsea, the queen ascendant, from her foster parents’ cottage in the woods to take her to the Keep for her coronation.  Sounds traditional enough – a hidden heir, a medieval-ish setting, mysterious circumstances and vague dangers.  But the Tearling, Kelsea’s struggling kingdom, is anything but traditional.

I have to review the Queen of the Tearling trilogy as a whole because it operates best that way.  A coworker of mine saw me reading the first book at work, freaked out, loaned me the sequel, and graciously let me read her copy of the final book (once she was done with it, of course) when it came out.  She pointed out that the first book works mainly to set up the world, nothing truly exceptional (I thought it was well-written, but so are many traditional fantasy books).  It’s the second book and its use of magic and time that break new ground in fantasy worldbuilding.  Discovering the true nature of the Crossing that brought settlers to the Tearling was just so great, even in a genre that tends toward sudden twists (and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading Johansen’s work by giving my much less wonderful paraphrase here).

The Tearling trilogy consistently challenges conventions of the fantasy genre, setting readers up to anticipate tropes and not really mind it, because we like the characters and would appreciate them anyway – then taking a sharp left turn and refusing to fulfill those tropes.  For instance, the identity of Kelsea’s father is a longstanding mystery throughout the three books, with any number of powerful, immortal, or badass candidates available.  Then it turns out to be someone who died in the first book, someone with a hamartia, someone who was not special beyond being dear to his friends.  But it doesn’t fall flat, because in every instance of these unexpected twists, major or minor, Johansen stays true to the integrity of the world she’s created.

One of the things I appreciate most about this world is its strong women.  From Kelsea herself to her adversary the anonymous Red Queen to the kickass bodyguard of the Tearling’s founder, there is no dearth of women wielding power here – and diverse kinds of power too.  There are several survivors of domestic abuse.  There are physical fighters.  There are intelligent teachers who strive to pass on knowledge.  But Johansen’s world does not lack shallow, weak, or cruel women either.  There are women who turn bitter from their trauma, and women to whom remarkable things do not come naturally.  There are women who have no idea what they want, and women consumed by their desires.  Kelsea in particular walks a thin line, observing and even living in others’ stories (more on that in a minute) while she tries to decide how to harness or quash her own great temper.

Seeing so many different women be allowed to live out so many different endings and populate the world just as truthfully as the men made this a welcome addition to my bookshelf.  Whereas other novels I’ve read, however well-intentioned or well-executed, can tend toward only one or two main female characters with the rest being mere props (e.g., the Badass Freedom Fighter, the Moody Mysterious Maven, the Unexpectedly Tech-Smart Plain One), in my opinion, the majority of Johansen’s female characters were given the kind of detailed attention that transforms characters into people.

I think honestly it was the characters that made me fall in love with these books, and Johansen’s loyalty to and respect for those characters’ authenticity that made the whole trilogy so enjoyable. The third book is a masterful conclusion, sweeping readers up and hurtling along toward an ending that will probably be nearly as polarizing as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.  If you enjoy any type of fantasy, I highly, highly recommend all three books (in order, of course).

The Queen of the Tearling – 4/5 stars

The Invasion of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

The Fate of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

Review: What We See When We Read

This book is blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, or a dream where you suddenly became lucid and realized it was a dream, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is a little like that.  Many of us readers claim to have mental movies of our favorite stories that played in our heads when we followed the written adventures.  We know these beloved characters like our own friends, like our own family.  Of course we can picture them!

But Mendelsund asks what their noses look like, and suddenly you concentrate too hard and the character suddenly becomes bits and pieces of specific description connected only by the hazy assumptions you make.

The book is as much a visual experience as it is a text, which is appropriate, considering Mendelsund sets out to challenge our concept of “seeing” when we read.  His text is creatively arranged on the pages, switching from black-on-white to white-on-black.  Some pages are blank.  Some have only one word.  Some squish the words together to literally illustrate his point about accumulating evidence about a mental picture as we progress through a book.  Illustrators’ interpretations of famous characters peer out from the book, sometimes half-hidden by more of Mendelsund’s words, or even by the descriptions from their own novels.

Reading anything else after spending a little time on one of Mendelsund’s chapters is like lucid dreaming.  You become very aware of the process your brain is going through to construct a mental image of the things represented only by printed characters on a page (or screen).  “Of course she has blonde hair, he said so, but what are her eyes like?” you think to yourself.  Mendelsund doesn’t just deal with physical characteristics either; he points out how the way we “see” characters changes depending on their actions as well.  Personally, I realized I had some placeholder characters in my head, a set of generic faces and figures that stand in and receive customization the more I get to know a character.

Even settings, which seem so obvious – it’s the background of all the action, of course I know what it looks like! – are revealed to be blurry at best, with a few stark details jumping out because they are motifs, or murder weapons, or somehow important to the plot.  My visions of Versailles (I’m currently reading America’s First Daughter and they’re in Paris right now) suddenly look like Impressionist paintings with a few photographs cut and pasted on by a two-year-old.

But it’s still magical that my brain can even construct that much out of symbols printed on paper.

Like any book that asks you to think about thinking, this is not something to tackle right before bed, or before you have to really use your brain for anything else.  But as a reader, and as someone who love to spread that love of reading around, I think it’s a process worth examining – and subsequently marveling at.  Because after all, Mendelsund only points out yet another reason that reading is amazing.

Review: The French Executioner

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Very few people cheer at the mention of Anne Boleyn.  At least, few people in the crowd at the conference dinner I was attending, where the panel of writers had just been asked, “Who is your favorite character in history, fictional or real?”  One author replied, “Anne Boleyn,” to which I responded with a quiet-ish “Whoo!”  I earned some weird looks, but apparently I also caught the attention of the author, C.C. Humphreys.  After dinner when I went to purchase a copy of his book and get it signed, he said, “Weren’t you the one who cheered when I mentioned Anne Boleyn?”

I grinned.  “She’s just so fascinating!  If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, it would be her.”

So we chatted about the enigmatic queen for a few minutes, he signed my book “In honor of Anne,” and I went home.

And devoured the book in two days.

The book follows Jean, the titular French executioner, as he struggles to carry out his promise to Anne to bury her six-fingered hand at a certain crossroads in France.  The queen asks him to do this to prevent her powers from being used by her enemies, and enemies there certainly seem to be: an archbishop and his cronies chase Jean and his group of misfits (including a Viking!) all over Europe in their efforts to capture the hand and harness its power.

Now, as I told Mr. Humphreys, I am captivated by Anne Boleyn.  I have read everything from Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII, and she remains one of my favorite historical figures to examine and wonder about.  The impressive thing about The French Executioner was that, even though it takes place after Anne’s beheading, I found an entirely unique characterization of her.  Humphreys presents an Anne who even her executioner willingly recognizes and idolizes as his queen, but she’s not the manipulative, political strategist seen in other interpretations.  Nor is she an innocent, necessarily, a mere pawn in her father’s schemes.  Humphreys’ Anne, with her concern for keeping her power from being used for evil, is somewhere in between, and even though you know she has to die, and even though there are hints of something dark in her, you regret it.  You wish it didn’t have to be this way.

This connection to the characters is not limited to Anne.  Jean is conflicted about becoming a sort of accidental leader when he’s always followed orders himself.  His friends, mostly mercenary soldiers, must consistently decide whether or not Jean’s mission still aligns with their own interests.

On occasion, this devotion to characters leads the plot to some questionable places.  Conflicts from the core group’s past surface only long enough to send them on the next leg of their journey, then conveniently sink back into oblivion. I wished Humphreys would spend some of his excellently written descriptions on further developing the characters I was already rooting for, rather than presenting us with yet another obstacle standing between them and Anne’s hand.  The supernatural elements I believed – Humphreys has an incredible knack for the eerie and otherworldly – but some of the sidebar missions just felt like a stretch no matter how much I enjoyed reading them.  The characters drive the book, so that even when they somehow end up rowing on a ship for a while (honestly it seemed like Humphreys just had fun writing a sea battle) you still want things to turn out well for them.

In fact, the characters (and a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn!) made me so happy that despite the plot’s shortcomings, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.


Who’s your favorite historical figure to read about?  Have you read a great book about them that renewed your interest?  Do you think characters should drive the plot, or vice versa?  Let me know in the comments!