Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I bet, after my manifesto last week, you didn't expect me to review a book that I, at least, would call YA literary fiction. Well, I that's what I'm doing. I read literary fiction. I read anything: historical, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, adventure, biographies, cookbooks...I've actually followed people because I hadn't finished reading their shirts.

I like stories about the highs and lows of human life, wherever that is. I don't like this weird postmodern push in literary fiction to write a story without a "threshold," a moment where the protagonist either chooses something or is in a situation he/she can't come back from, or an epiphany, where this moment in a protagonist's life matters for some reason. Some stories now are trying to be boring - their word, actually, not mine. They're trying to present, in beautiful language, a slice of a character's life where nothing happens. The person does and thinks what he/she always does or thinks. No change. No reason for this part of the character's life to be immortalized in fiction. I want to read things and feel like there's a point to it, not that I just spent the last hour of my life reading a piece that gave me nothing, as a reader, and felt more like the writer showing off how well he/she can write. The worst, for me, is when it's clear the writer doesn't care what the reader wants in a story. Two people create a work of fiction: the writer and the reader. I think writers have a responsibility to honor the reader with their work.

John Green, I think, does this. His writing is beautiful. Really, A+ on lovely language. The voice of his main character in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, is very interesting to read and sounds like a defined, real person. If nothing else, read this book to learn how to use language like a pro. Descriptions are elegantly written without exhausting words and Green manages to handle talking about kids with cancer beautifully.

That was another thing I liked about this book. It doesn't feel too cliche. I think one of the reasons I list to sci-fi/fantasy writing is because a writer can easily write about death and dying and other really weighty issues without sounding sappy or angry. The story can be about the characters more than the issue without feeling like it needs to pay homage to some overruling message. (I like messages, and I think they should be there, but I think they should be second to the story and characters.) Green, in this novel, writes a story about teens dying of cancer without making them sound like saints, like some do, and he also doesn't swing too far to the other side, describing death in the most graphic terms possible to deliberately avoid the sappy, saintly cancer story. Green does a good job showing the situation from the perspective of people who are trying to come to terms with dying young and potentially unremembered.

The book is charming because the characters feel real and their reactions to death feel real, not overly emotional or fictionalized. However, I don't think this book is perfect. The characters Hazel and Augustus don't feel like teenagers. They feel too intelligent, to philosophical, too mature to be teenagers. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I kept seeing them as young adults in my mind and didn't exactly feel the urgency of teens sick with cancer, and I didn't sense the importance of the kind of things that would be important to teens. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading the characters and thought they were interesting. I can buy two very smart teens, though it may be pushing it that these two very smart teens found each other so easily. And the romance was so smooth. It felt forced, just a little.

The thing I didn't like about the book (really, the only thing) was that I felt like a message was getting pushed on me. I've already said I don't like it when a story is all about the message, and I don't think Green is writing a philosophy on dying and remembering the dead disguised as a YA novel. However, I could take a pen and circle on the page places where I can see Green's ideas coming out. It felt in some ways like Green was using his characters, his very smart teenaged characters, to say what he wanted to say, not necessarily what they would say in the situation. It's usually gracefully done, but the story isn't as "first place" as I would have liked it to be. I think the message would come out even if these characters weren't sitting around, playing video games and talking about very deep things all the time.

I know. The characters are concerned with death and dying. They are more likely to think about matters like this than the average teen. But still. Something feels a little false in this, a little too authorial. Just a little. Green is a master composer, crafting language into music that can carry you away to the place he wants to take you. There's a lot to be said, good things, about this book. I just don't like feeling preached to by my literature.

And now I'm going to get roasted for saying something negative about this book. I know a lot of people love it, and there's a lot to love. Read it. It's good. But I don't give books Brownie Points because they are sad. Some books are terrible but end in a death that is so dripping with emotion the readers sob and think that means the novel was well-written. I don't. In fact, I've never cried reading a book. Could be a cold heart, or maybe an analytic mind. Green's book is well-written, but it didn't give me what I was looking for, not everything. So I wrote for you my honest opinion. Take it as you will. But read the book. It's good writing.

Maybe read it over Thanksgiving. Or read whatever you like. Just have a happy holiday, and eat way more than you should. It's the American way.

Monday, November 18, 2013

In Defense of Genre

Recently, I've been reading The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer. Awesome book, by the way. Nancy Farmer is a spectacular writer. It's the sequel to her novel The House of the Scorpion, a science fiction set in a future time when clones are created to provide spare parts for aging drug lords. The protagonist, a clone named Matt, encounters a lot of hatred because in this world, "filthy clones" are unnatural and therefore considered worse than cockroaches. Even though he is intelligent and capable, he is considered lesser, much lesser, than human.

I'm not going to review the book now, though it is awesome and you should read it. I'm saying this because I feel like genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, is the "filthy clone" of the literary world. It doesn't seem to matter how well-crafted, how poetic, how inspiring and full of meaning a genre text is; the common belief seems to be that the best genre fiction is worse than the average literary fiction.

This debate is not new. It has been scratching at the soft part of my neck for a long time. It just sliced deeper, though, this week, when this NYT article came out, talking about why Mormons can't seem to write good literature. And then this response, which makes some good points but still annoyed me. Why? Because both articles automatically assume that anything genre is not good literature. (I would like to point out that if you look up a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a significant number are genre. Depending on your list, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is there. Card is a Mormon, and a genre fiction writer.)

Some definitions: genre is any kind of fiction that has clear conventions. We're talking science fiction, fantasy, romance, action/adventure, mystery, horror, thriller, historical, there's not much left over for the literary genre. Literary is a genre. It has conventions too. These tend to be dense and poetic writing, a focus on character over plot, lots of character interiority, subtext and ambiguity. Personally, the literary fiction I've read also seem to include a lot of pessimism about the human condition, and nothing ever seems to get done.

As a Mormon and a genre fiction writer, I would like to make my defense. I can't speak for all Mormons, but I can speak for myself. First, I think deciding one genre is better than another is arrogance of the worst kind. It's like saying swimming is inherently better than running or cake is just always better than pie. Different skills, different requirements. Genre writing, especially speculative genres like sci-fi and fantasy, require worldbuilding far beyond the level required in literary. Literary has its own necessary skills. Do not discount genres just because they aren't what you like.

That's what it comes down to. What we like. I have been called a sell-out for writing fantasy. I've been told I'm wasting (even prostituting) my talents. No. Just no. I write fantasy because I read fantasy. It's what I like. I read literary as well, but it doesn't rock my world. I have found more meaning in fantasy than in literary and that's fine. It's my style. Others may feel differently and that's also fine. But it would be selling out if I gave up what excites me and makes me want to become a better writer for the approval of a few intellectuals. I'm not doing this for money or fame. I'm doing this for me.

That said, I think all writers have the dream of their art lasting through the ages. I think we want fame and money and eternity. Or at the very least, I think we want to get read. And the truth is, genre fiction lasts. Mythology? Genre. Fairy tales? Genre. The Odyssey and Robin Hood and King Arthur and most of Shakespeare? All genre, and they've lasted for a long time. The human condition seems to crave enchantment and adventure, and while postmodern literary is in vogue right now (it hasn't always been), genre seems to be eternal.

As a Mormon, I believe there are stories that matter more than others. I think there is truth we don't remember but can recognize when it is shown to us. The Hero's Cycle, so popular in fantasy, is one. It resembles closely, to me, the LDS Plan of Salvation. I believe we existed before we were born, and what's more, we chose to come, even knowing that life would be hard, which it is. In terms of fantasy, we were offered a quest, and we took it. To me, that means we are all, every last human, so much more than we think we are. We are brave, we are heroes. We just forgot it. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, "We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget." That moment may be awful, but it is also glorious.

I refuse to write mundane matters for people who are not mundane. I won't write about people who are passive and acted upon for people who are capable of acting and changing their circumstances. I refuse to write pessimism and nihilism and stories where characters strive but nothing they do matter, and they have an epiphany that they are not important. Invoking the popular genre character the Doctor, I'd say, "I have never met anyone who wasn't important." Life is too hard to spread anything but hope.

Does my desire to write hope mean that I am sticking my fingers in my ears and singing to myself when evil and pain tries to get my attention? No. I recognize the darkness. I use it. My characters go through so much pain before they succeed in the end. I've put my characters through heartbreak, loss, rage, guilt, sorrow, physical pain, self-doubt, conflict with loved ones, etc. I make them stare into the darkness around them and inside them. Everything they might do in a literary work. I can take it to extremes because fantasy buffers the suffering, it seems. It's not real. Neither is any other kind of fiction, but still.

The difference is I don't spend much time in my characters' heads regarding their struggles. I try to show the struggle externally. A character makes a mistake that costs the life of a person he cares about. So instead of thinking about for twenty pages, he mourns for a little and then picks up a sword and goes to war. Filled with guilt, he does what he can to fix the problem he created and try, as best he can, to make up for what he'd done. His actions tell more about him than his thoughts would. My characters are ragged and weary when they finish their adventure. They don't always get what they want, but they succeed. Because that's life.

As for the belief that anyone with a happy childhood and life can't write great fiction, I say no one has had a happy childhood. Some are worse than others, yes, some much worse. But take a moment and consider what it was like to grow up. The first time you encountered death, the first time you saw your parents cry or fight or get really angry. A moment you got left somewhere or lost and thought you were abandoned. Everything is new and therefore dire to a child. Even if the home is happy, growing up is hard. Elementary school is hard, trying to learn things you're no good at. Middle school, with its cliques and bullying, is hard. High school, finding one's identity, is hard. Flannery O'Connor said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." It's true. The situations may be different, but the feelings are there, and they are real. Writers can draw on the pain of being left for ten minutes at the mall just as well as they can draw on being abandoned by a parent. Pain is real for everyone regardless of circumstance. Life is hard, but we can do it. We were not set up to fail.

Yes, maybe I'm overly optimistic like my Mormon brothers and sisters in deciding to use my writing to spread hope. But if books are meant to be read, then they carry messages. And what better message than hope? Without it, what are we good for? A couple years ago, I lost my hope. The future I thought was right for me was slipping away, leaving a landscape of darkness in front of me. The possibility of having to work at Wal-Mart in a job I hated and having to live in my parents' house became real and terrifying to me. I doubted everything, my talents, my plans, my worthiness. I felt like the heavens were toying with me, and I grabbed onto my faith like driftwood in a flood.

But there is a God, and he did care. That semester I was taking a class on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and reading The Lord of the Rings. Genre fiction. But that fantasy touched me more than a realistic literary piece could. It spoke of hope. I read about Frodo and Sam walking into Mordor, literally the Dark Land, with no combat experience or hope of returning. Yet they kept going. This speech from The Two Towers film spoke directly to me:

If the story had been about a real or realistic person encountering nasty ordeals, I would have felt guilty about how much despair I felt about my own circumstances. They were not dire to anyone but me; no one would use them in fiction of any kind. But because LOTR is fantasy and I would never, could never, have to carry the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it, I felt no pressure to compare my situation to it. I just adopted the story as my own. If they could do what they did, I could also step into the darkness, hold on, and keep going in my smaller problems. So I did, and my hope came back.

Why do I write fantasy? Because it arms people. "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed," says G.K. Chesterton. Stories have power, and I think craft and good writing is important in helping those stories shine out. It doesn't matter what they are. I can write in the literary style, and I intend to. But my stories will have magic. And even though I will drag my characters through dirt laced with sharp rocks, even though I will smash everything they care about and make them pick up the pieces, they will triumph. Because through their pain, they will become what I want them to be.

Craft and good writing is important in any genre, and I think it is arrogance to say that one genre doesn't have it because of what it is. As a writer, I prefer writing fantasy. I intend to use all my skills in writing it, even the ones necessary for fantasy specifically. Worldbuilding, for one. Because I can do anything, I have to set rules and stick to them. If my character is about to die and I'd have to change the rules of the world to save him/her, I can't. I have to revise a lot or let the character go. It takes a lot of self-discipline and understanding what makes a good story to write good fantasy. I might not want the character to die, but it might be what the story needs.

People are going to continue to read fantasy and I feel no guilt in supplying it. It's what I want to write. I am not going to stop doing what I love just because people look down their noses at me, though I'd wish they'd stop. They'll go cross-eyed. But people deserve to have good fantasy. Well-written, with lovely language and strong craft. Characters who feel real and readers can relate to. Plots that make sense and follow their own logic. I'm getting an MFA to learn how to do this well in anything I write.

If I can, I'd like to write layers. Subtext. The best fantasies I've read are excellent stories for those looking for a good story, but they, like onions and ogres, have layers. Think Holes. Think The Lord of the Rings. Think A Wrinkle in Time. They are all good stories, but if you think that's all they are, I'd have to respectfully say you're wrong. A good fantasy allows deeper diving. Symbols. Meaning. Subtext. It doesn't have to be clear enough to articulate, but it can be clear enough to feel. That's why I think the best fantasy lasts, because it, like Shakespeare's plays, speak to many different people about many different things. It's clear enough to understand. I don't think that's a bad thing.

Sometimes confusing and obscure is just confusing and obscure. What good is something if no one can read it? It's showing off, and is good for the writer but no one else. Popular could mean bad, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't try to figure out what about fantasy (and other genres) so appeals to people. It might tell us something about what it means to be human, and isn't that the goal of every kind of fiction?

This has been a long post. I'm just so sick of being told that, essentially, no matter how much I hone my craft, I will never be as good as the literary fiction writers. No. Stop it. Write your stories and let me write mine. Appreciate beauty in all its forms. And stop trying to name who of today's writers will and won't be considered great. Give it 300 years, and then let's talk.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween

Today is October 31st, and you know what that means. People watching! Okay, so candy and pumpkins and costumes too, but it is yet early in the day and the best I can do is sit here in my costume no one gets (is Clara Oswin Oswald that obscure?) and watch out the window at the other students passing by in their costumes. It's more fun than it probably should be. I like Halloween because it's interesting to see who comes as what and how awesome their costumes look. So, here's a list of what I've seen so far today:

- The Doctor (11), both male and female
- The Doctor (4), male
- Aang
- A Kyoshi Warrior
- Dr. Horrible
- The Magic School Bus (functional, will take you where you want to go)
- The Men in Black
- Batman
- Superman
- Spider-Man
- Steampunk figures of all kinds
- The Knights of the Round Table, without horses but with a servant and coconuts
- Snow White
- Little Bo Peep
- Flynn Rider
- Rapunzel
- Jack Frost
- Various Harry Potter characters
- An Asian farmer
- Two Russians
- Charlie from "Lost"
- Finn the Human
- The fandoms (3 girls dressed as "Doctor Who," "Sherlock," and "Supernatural." They wore colors, clothes and motifs from the shows. I ran after them, but lost them.)
- Waldo
- Velma
- Carmen Sandiego
- The Dread Pirate Roberts
- Inigo Montoya
- Hard-core leather-clad bikers
- Peter Pan
- Buddy the Elf
- Gandalf
- A banana
- A gorilla
- A Stormtrooper
- A Jedi
- A character from "TRON"
- Rosie the Riveter
- A zombie
- A French girl
- Link

That's all I can think of now, and I'm sure I will continue to see awesome costumes as the day progresses. Last year I saw an excellent Zuko costume at a late-night Halloween party. Anyway, looking over this list, I'm starting to think that Halloween is becoming a holiday where you can let your geek flag fly. So many fandom characters. So many.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A "Huh" Moment

The thesis is moving well, and I've started dreaming about my characters. The climax in in full swing and I'm not sure I'm handling it well (that's what revision is for, right?) but the characters keep surprising me and they feel real. Hence the dreaming; I don't usually dream of my characters until they become real enough that I can't control them anymore. IT'S ALIVE!

Anyway, I workshopped the first story of my thesis last week and I've been looking over comments. One of the compliments I got - and yes, there was plenty of criticism; I'm working on it - was that I'm good at setting. A classmate commented that in this piece and another story I wrote the setting felt real. Nebraska feels like Nebraska and Alaska feels like Alaska. I've gotten this comment before about other works. I've been told that my stories make people feel like they're there. They see and smell and feel what that location looks and smells and feels like.

This was weird to me. I don't practice setting like I practice pacing (my weakest skill) and character (the most important skill, to me). But I don't think it's inherent. I've traveled a lot, but that doesn't necessarily translate to the written word. I thought about it, and I think I know why this is working.

I'm a fantasy writer. I need to be able to build a world and then inhabit it. I need to be able to describe everything in a fictional world, from the smells of the food to the feel of the rocks and wood, to how the people speak. I need to be able to sit in my world and watch. This is translating to stories I write in the real world; I sit and watch the people in my memories of these places, in the facts I read about them, in the pictures I look up. I worldbuild the real world.


I bet I'm not alone. I bet other fantasy writers are also finding setting easy or more colorful than expected. I hope so; that means that there is a technical benefit to writing speculative fiction. Worldbuilding translates well to any kind of writing. You can bet I'm going to teach my creative writing students worldbuilding.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thesis Rush

It's been a busy week, but I'm still going to try to post weekly. This may be a short post today. First off, I finished reading the novel Yesterday Again by Barry Lyga, the third book in the Archvillain series, and it was awesome. It was a good example of the ending being both unexpected but inevitable - I didn't see it coming, but once it came, it made sense. It changed the entire dynamic of the book, made it more serious and changed the direction. I like it, and I hope the series continues because I SO want to keep reading.

The reason the week's been so busy is due, primarily, to the fact that my master's thesis proposal is filed and now I need to focus my energy on writing the thesis. I got a start in September, but stopped for a while to focus on the prospectus. Now that's done and I need to get back to the thesis.

Not much to say on this, other than I'm working hard to write at least 1,000 words a day (about an hour's work, on an average day. I type fast), which means that on days I revise I need to make sure I'm still adding 1,000 words total, even after deleting some work. It can get long. But I'm happy with the direction of the plot right now, the pacing (sort of), and what my characters are doing.

The trouble is, my protagonist is evolving and I'm not sure what to do with it. When I started writing her, the biggest obstacle I thought she'd need to overcome would be external. I thought she'd need to manage her relationships with people and eventually escape from danger. Physical danger. Now, she's showing me that her greatest vulnerabilities are internal. She's haunted by her past to the point that it is speaking to her, preventing her from healing and moving on. It's good, I like it when my characters take over and show themselves for who they are, but it's going to cause some knotty problems later when I try to revise.

I'll keep you posted on writing developments and publishing. Nothing conclusive to say there, but I can tell you that I think it's going well.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

After My Vacation, Superheroes

I didn't really go on vacation. I just haven't posted in a while. I'm neck-deep in the semester and am trying to teach 1 1/3 classes (it makes sense, I promise) and stay on top of my own while finishing my thesis prospectus AND get a move on with my thesis. I hit writer's block with it, and it doesn't help when my fiction workshop takes a short story I wrote and asks that it become a novel.

Okay, that was flattering, I'll admit. But now I'm thinking about this story when I should be thinking about my thesis. And I am, thinking about my thesis, I mean. I'm just not anxious to work on it because I think I've got some serious revision ahead of me. Ah, who am I kidding, it's not going to be that bad. I'm just lazy and impulsive. The new idea involves superheroes, though.

Without giving too much away (my story, my idea, MINE, PRECIOUS!), my story features superheroes. I look at the superhero genre in a new way, one that apparently doesn't come to mind. The short story undermines some expected tropes of superhero-ness, and my class liked that. They also want a novel, which made me think in terms of novel, and now, guess what, the story has metamorphosed into a novel. I'm worried about keeping up the fresh view of superheroes.

I figure that in order to keep undermining and twisting superhero cliches I need to know them. So, today, I am using my blog as prewriting and am going to list superhero cliches so I know them and can undermine them...NOW:

- Colorful costumes and masks
- Love interest is not a superhero and often not all that bright
- Many villains per one hero
- Heroes use brawn, villains use brains, brains lose
- Superheroes are young, fit, and beautiful
- Superheroes are created through accidents, an act of fate
- Superheroes are noble and selfless
- Technology is very advanced and not well understood
- Things fall from space. A lot. With ghastly consequences.
- Scientists are prone to test experiments on themselves
- Lab accidents happen all the time
- People are always falling from buildings
- Heroes live in a big city
- Superheroes always seem to mutate/get powers that are helpful and don't cause medical trouble
- Superheroes work for newspapers, are scientists, or are independently wealthy
- Hero backstory often contains some traumatic event that caused hero to fight for justice (or revenge, or whatever)
- Secret identity remains hidden to the world at all times (not even families know)

That's all I can come up with now. If you have any other superhero cliches I'm not thinking of, I'd be very grateful if you could tell me in the comments.

Also, anyone else watching "Agents of SHIELD"? I greatly enjoy it!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Back on the Market

It's a week after "The Email," and I am doing much better, thank you for asking. (Read last week's post if you want the full story.) I'm still picking up the pieces, but my mood is improved and I am moving on. I have queried 4 agents and 1 publisher with The Shifting, so we'll see what happens with that. I am officially back on the market.

Writers like analogies because, well, we're writers and analogies to us are like gold thread to an embroiderer or wildflowers to a gardener: they add spice to the work. One analogy I've heard about sending work out is that it is like dating, falling in love, and marrying. Big, scary analogy, I know. But it fits.

Querying publishers and agents is a lot like the first stage of dating. You contact multiple people at once with a brief introduction and a plea for attention. You ask these people to spend some time on you. And most of them say no. Now, that may mean that they think you are bad and creepy and not worth their time, but much more likely it means that they already have someone who has what you're offering or they're not looking for what you have. Read through this. It applies to both querying and dating. And if you know you're good, remember that there are a hundred reasons you won't get tapped.

But then you do get tapped, and you start looking a little more closely. You present more of your work, and you start looking into the publisher/agent. Is this someone you can see yourself working with for an extended period of time? Maybe it doesn't work out, and there's a breakup. Maybe, though, it does. You edit. You work together, and you create beautiful books that you send into the world.

This analogy is really all I have to say this week. I'm "dating" again and I'll keep you posted on any developments. (Following this analogy, what happened to me and my publisher may be comparable to the first wedding scene in Jane Eyre, except that there wasn't a preexisting problem and no one wronged anyone.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Dream Deferred

I'm sorry I haven't posted for a couple weeks. I really am trying to get into the habit of writing every week. I'm even sorrier that I am posting now to bring bad news.

I got an email yesterday from my publisher that they are shutting down and thus my novel, The Shifting, is not going to be published. All rights revert back to me, so legally I am free and clear to start shopping it out to publishers and agents, but still, I'm back at square one with one year wasted. I don't know where or how to start again.

Honestly, I'm not doing too well right now. I'm hurt and angry and extremely disappointed and looking to blame someone. I don't blame my publisher, because bad business happens and it's not like they were trying to hurt me. So the blame is landing back on my own head: I should have farmed out the book to bigger publishers or found an agent. I should have sent other things out so the year wouldn't have been wasted. I should never have gotten my hopes up, because I should have known happiness couldn't last as long as it did without a huge fall coming.

This is a downer post, I know. But it's my blog and I have to talk about how I feel. This is worse, to me, than rejection. Rejection means "work harder and try again." Rejection means "we don't have space for your work here, but try something else later," if you're lucky. Rejection is a bump in the road. What I have here is a stalled car on the wrong road, and now I need to figure out how to fix it and find my way to where I should be.

The hardest thing about this is that I had a glimpse - a glimpse - of my dream coming true. I've wanted to be a writer since I was 11. Since then, I've wanted to see my work printed. Having a novel published was my big dream since before I had the skills to make it happen. And then, on one miraculous day, it happened. For one year I saw my dreams coming true, and now suddenly it's gone. I feel like Cinderella might if, while sitting in rags and weeping, she had her fairy godmother come to her, only to disappear again. I wonder if it would have been better if I never had my hopes up at all. It feels like too much, right now, to ask for another miracle, a permanent one this time.

I don't know how many people read this blog, but if you're reading it and know of any publishers or agents who might be interested in my work, feel free to leave me a tip. I need all the help I can get right now.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writer Quotes

So, it's been a slow week, writing-wise. I did start work on my thesis novel, and that's going well enough, but there's not enough there to comment on yet. Suffice it to say, I understand my main character well, so that's good. At least, well enough to stop myself twice because "she wouldn't act like that."

I've also learned that I have become so used to rejection letters that when one says, "Thank you for sending us your work. Unfortunately, we have no place for it in our magazine. Please remember us in the future," I feel all warm and tingly because that means THEY LIKED IT! They just couldn't use it.

Because it's a slow week, I decided to list a bunch of fun writing quotes I found lately, both funny and inspiring.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
—George Orwell

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

"Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet."

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”
—Peter Handke

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King

"The cure for mixed metaphors, I have always found, is for the patient to be obliged to draw a picture of the result."

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
—May Sarton

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
—Ernest Hemingway

"Only a mediocre writer is always at his best."

"Writers don't get mad. They just write you into their next novel (as the victim)."

"If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing."

 And last but not least,

"I write fiction. What's your superpower?"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why Editors Matter (or, How I Lost 3 Hours of My Life That I'll Never Get Back)

Sorry it's been so long since my last post. If you must know, I was out of town, visiting  Yellowstone Park with my family and geeking out the whole time because Yellowstone is where the climax of The Shifting takes place. It was so cool to look around and see where Sarah and Thomas and Ryan ran and hid and fought, even though none of that actually happened and the book isn't even out yet. Still, I felt kind of cool and sort of powerful. I wonder if that's how authors feel when their books become movies: like they have the power to create things, or in my case, at least reappropriate them for their own purposes.

This is the location, as it looked to where I stood. It's Geyser Hill. Old Faithful is off to the side, to the right. This is where my heroes fight evil at the end. Um, is it okay if I take a few minutes to hyperventilate like a fangirl?

I'm back. Now, to the main message of this post. I normally try not to come on here and bash books. I like to take good books and talk about what makes them good. But today I am going to talk about a book I think may be the worst book I've ever read: The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer. Yes, that Chris Colfer. I thought about withholding the name out of respect for the author (I don't like insulting books), but you should be warned. I grabbed the book because I mistakenly thought it was written by Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl books, which I love. (Eoin Colfer does have a new book, so my mistake, I think, is understandable.)

After realizing my mistake, I decided to read the book anyway. The title was intriguing, and I wanted to prove a point to myself. I have a bias against celebrities (read, actors and musicians) who decide to write novels. This is why: some people think that because they can take a pencil and scribble out a coherent phrase it means they can write a novel. Writing takes more than the ability to string words together. There is a certain craft to it. A writer has to consider character development, pacing, stakes, audience, poetry of language, etc., etc. I'm annoyed by people who think what I do is easy.

The biggest reason I'm annoyed by celebrity writers is because while I and other no-name writers have to beg and plead and bend over backwards for years to get our books published, people who already have a name can get anything published, because the publishers already know they can sell those books. A little bitter of me, yes, but I don't like thinking of all those people who are good writers who nonetheless aren't getting published.

Anyway, I know I have a bias, so I decided to give Colfer the benefit of the doubt and read the book. It could be good. I was wrong. From the first twenty pages, I could see the pacing was off. The story didn't truly begin until page 60, and even then I wasn't sure why I should care. Throughout the book, I never engaged with the characters enough to feel urgency in their quest. There were also logical problems, like the heroes having a knife (and using it), and soon after getting caught in a net and NOT thinking to use the knife to cut themselves free. On top of that, there were sentences like "Her lips wrinkled and looked me up and down." Her lips did WHAT now?

Now I feel like a bad person. I'm sorry. There were good points in the book. The story had some very imaginative elements, and I saw some word play that was pretty good. The good parts, however, drowned in the mediocre storytelling and straight-up painful to read moments.

I'm not bashing the author here, although it sounds like I am. Every writer produces a load of junk before writing his or her first good novel. I have a novel I wrote in high school that no one will ever see. Ever. It's cliche and didactic and poorly written and everything I've learned to move away from. But we all write one of these. Well, most of us do. I won't speak for the literary giants among us. I call it my "apprenticeship novel", and while, at the time, I wanted it published because it was awesome (HAH!), I'm very, very grateful that it wasn't.

Which brings me to my main point. I'm not here to insult the author of this book. I'm here to insult his editor. This book should never have been published as it was. It needed a lot of work. Not taking the time to improve this book just because the name would sell any old garbage was a disservice to the writer. I can tell you, I'm not going to be reading any of Colfer's future publications.

I was blessed to work with an excellent editor who told me everything that was wrong with my novel, and while it hurt to hear, he was right. The story is much better now for his help. I've come to see the collaboration between author and editor as a team effort; both are trying to produce the best possible work. Publishers and editors also should work as gatekeepers, preventing bad books from hitting the market either by rejecting them or by helping the writers improve them.

So, I'm angry over this book, but not so much at the writer. I remember the thrill of completing my first novel. It's hard not to print out a zillion copies and send them to everyone you know, plus a hundred publishers. It's the publisher I'm mad at, because even celebrities should want to produce work they can be proud of, and careful editing helps with that. If Colfer rejected his editor's help, well, that's another thing, though I think the book should still not have been published.

And yes, the bias against celebrity writers is still very much intact, more's the pity.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Backburner is Cooked

Hey, everyone. This is my 100th post! Hooray!

So, for those new to the party, I've been working on this middle grade novel about a preteen thief-for-hire named Jeremy Wilderson for about a year. That doesn't sound like that long, but I write fast and a middle grade novel isn't very long. Besides, this story is basically my idea of playing while I write. It's been my backburner project, the one I work on when I want to keep writing but don't want to manage the more complex plots and characters of my other works. But, in any case, the backburner has finally been finished and is in the stages of reading/revising. I decided to get a jump on the next stage (sending/rejecting) by writing the query letter. You may read the meat of it below, though I cut out the parts about me as a writer and some info on the length/genre of the book:

Sixth grade isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s harder (though a lot more fun) on the wrong side of the law.

Eleven-year-old Jeremy Wilderson is not a thief; he is his middle school’s one and only retrieval specialist. Confiscated cell phones, stolen lunch money—he’ll discretely retrieve it before the last bell rings. Business is good, and if it weren’t for the meddling of preteen private investigator Becca Mills and the fact the Jeremy has gotten so good at retrieving that his work has become boring, he’d be happier than a gym teacher on dodgeball day.

But a new job shatters Jeremy’s comfortable lifestyle. Now, thanks to Jeremy, the master key to the schools’ lockers is in the hands of an aspiring crime kingpin who doesn’t exactly have Jeremy’s strong moral character. Jeremy must retrieve the key before not even combination locks can protect his classmates’ belongings. It’s too big a job for one crime fighter, and there’s only one person Jeremy knows will want the key returned as much as he does: Becca Mills.

Lockers are being robbed, the teachers are looking for the culprit, and Jeremy’s only ally is the girl who has been trying to nab him all year. If Jeremy isn’t careful, he’ll end up in detention until his high school graduation.

This is still only a rough draft of the query, so suggestions would be great. I hope, though, that it expresses the plot and voice of the book well enough to represent it to agents and publishers.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Roster of Fandoms

It has been suggested to me, by my roommate, that I ought to list the fandoms I belong to. This is probably a good idea, since it may allow me to quantify how bad my problem is. I'm defining "fandom" as the group of fans who follow a particular movie, book series, or TV show, who think about it and talk about it when not watching/reading, speculate on character and plot subtext, and write fanfiction. Fandoms make their favorite stories part of their lives. They may even come up with a cool name to designate themselves.

Anyway, here is my list:

Fandoms in which I am a full, card-carrying member:

The Whovians (Doctor Who)
The Sherlockians (Sherlock)
The Merlin Fandom
The Psych-Os (Psych)
The Browncoats (Firefly)
The Potterheads (Harry Potter)
The Avatards (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Legend of Korra)
The Janeites (Jane Austen)
The Tolkien Fandom
The Avengers Fandom
The Leverage Fandom
The Star Wars (Episodes 4-6) Fandom
The Olympians (Percy Jackson)
Disney/Disney Princess Fandom
The Tributes (Hunger Games)
Pixar Fandom
Divergent Fandom
Chronicles of Narnia Fandom

Fandoms to which I do not belong, but am at least fluent in their language (whether or not I plan to join):

Bronies/Pegasisters (My Little Pony)
Once Upon a Time Fandom
Delirium Fandom
MSTies (Mystery Science Theater 3000)
Trekkies (Star Trek)
The Downton Abbey Fandom (Note: I may become a full member soon)
The Legend of Zelda Fandom
Twihards (Twilight)
The Brotherhood (Game of Thrones)
The Supernatural Fandom
The Portal Fandom
Big Bang Theory Fandom
Pokemon Fandom
Batman Fandom
Battlestar Galactica Fandom

Things that aren't really fandoms (yet) but should be, and if they were, I'd belong to them:

How to Train Your Dragon "Fandom" (Books along with movie; no one reads the books)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs "Fandom"
Rise of the Guardians "Fandom"
Spider-Man "Fandom"

Anything based on any of my favorite books by my favorite writers (Ally Carter, E.D. Baker, Jessica Day George, Orson Scott Card, Brandon Mull, Lois Lowry, Diana Wynne Jones, Bruce Coville, and Margaret Peterson Haddix, to name a few).

Anything based of anything I've written, because it would be nice to no longer be alone in geeking out over my plots and characters. Sadly, I may have a few years (or decades) before this even becomes possible.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Silence is Golden

So, yes, I want to be a writer, which means I plan on using words. A lot. In fact, I usually have a hard time shutting up. That said, I am very fond of films, short and feature-length, that rely on things other than words to tell the story. Pictures, footage, music...anything but actual words.

I think Pixar does a great job at this. In Brave, the mother doesn't speak for most of the film, and the brothers don't at all. But you have no doubt what their personalities are like, and I wouldn't call any of them weak characters. Likewise, the film Wall-E is one of my favorites because Pixar used very little dialogue to tell their story, but you still end up emotionally attached to the characters. Their shorts, of course, almost never use words and are always spectacular. And, can anyone forget that short montage in Up! where you see Carl and Ellie's lives pass by? I know people who have cried at that scene.

In keeping with my topic, I'm going to shut up now. Enjoy these videos.

Feel free to comment on other mainly word-free stories you love. Could be picture books, video games, or even musical score.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brain Melting, Mind Palace Crumbling

I'm nearing the end of writing a term paper, so my brain is not functioning enough to write a real, in-depth blog post. My paper is about the role of John Watson in modern-day adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, such as Sherlock and Elementary. I'm saying that Watson's character is the protagonist, not Sherlock, and Watson has a character arc in both series that defines what character traits he has. I'm saying Watson is a round character, not a flat narrator like he traditionally his, and I'm saying that rounding out makes Sherlock a round character as well. I have spent the last couple of days doing very close "reading" of a couple of TV shows and writing a 12 page paper on them, so my head wants nothing more than to rest on a pillow and shut down for a little bit. But, alas, miles to go before I sleep.

My mind does not have it in it to write something special. Sorry. But, as you've come all this way, here are some videos to entertain you. Why did I choose these? Because reasons.

Sherlock scenes, set to Imagine Dragons's "Radioactive" (with a few spoilers for those who haven't finished the two seasons):

Followed by Doctor Who/The Proclaimers awesomeness:

And exactly what it's like to be in the Doctor Who fandom:

Last, but not least, the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, because Tolkien is awesome and so is this.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Adaptation, My Old Friend

I feel like my posts are getting later and later in the week. If that puts you off, I'm sorry. I'll work on getting it together earlier. Summer has a way of making things slide.

This past week I finished a novel (yay!). It's the Jeremy Wilderson story I may have mentioned once or twice, about an eleven-year-old thief for hire. Anyway, it's in the reading-and-revision process now, which means I ought to start working on a query letter for it. I'll write that and see if I can't post it on this blog for all to read. Also, I found my name listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. There's not much there, but apparently I'm not authorized to read my biography. Go figure.

I've talked about film adaptation before, but I want to revisit it since I've read some articles on adaptation.One of the articles outlined the different values adaptation has and its troubles. It's not easy for a movie to have a lot of fidelity to the book, as each reader brings some of his or her own experience to the reading. The Harry Potter movies are a good example of this, as almost everyone I know had problems with one scene, setting, character or other because they it wasn't "like in the book." Maybe it was, just not your version.

I generally have no problem with film adaptations of my favorite books as I've made my peace with the idea that no movie can be perfectly faithful to the book. The fact that I love How to Train Your Dragon is evidence of this, as it is nothing like the book. I tend to see film adaptations as essays written about a work, highlighting some aspects and downplaying others to convey the filmmaker's meaning. It's obvious in different adaptations of Shakespeare plays when this is going on.

However, there are some adaptations I don't like. May I get an enthusiastic, agreeing nod for The Last Airbender? Every fan of the TV show I've spoken to either hates that adaptation or refuses to admit it exists. Yet it's closer to the book than HTTYD and that movie is popular, even among those of use who have read the book. Why is this?

Two reasons, I think. One, according to the aforementioned articles, film adaptations are successful if they stay true to the spirit of the original text, if not the details. HTTYD feels like the books, with its dry humor and tension between the loud, brash Viking way of doing things and Hiccup's new, quieter, yet clever methods. The dynamics between Hiccup and his father, Hiccup and his tribe, and Hiccup and Toothless are still there. Even though many details were different (Toothless, in the books, is tiny, literally toothless, and red and green), I recognized the characters and the story.

The Last Airbender, on the other hand, I felt lacked this kind of integrity. Yes, it had many of the same events and characters. However, the characters seemed very different than the ones from the TV show, and the vibe was different. The TV show had a youthful feel, full of jokes and playfulness. The serious moments seemed more serious because of the juxtaposition of the battles and deep wisdom to the bad one-liners and sarcasm. While we're on the subject, Sokka is a good example of how the characters changed: the self-proclaimed "meat and sarcasm guy" did not, in the movie, eat much meat or use, well, ANY sarcasm. It's not in his new personality. Watching this movie, I did not recognize the characters and I did not recognize the themes of friendship, family, and coming-of-age I saw in the TV show.

Also, the closer an adaptation is in events to the original text, the easier it is to see the differences and the greater the tension they cause. That could have contributed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: Young Sherlock Holmes

I've realized that when I have to make a rule that whenever I go to the library I can only check out as many books as I return, I may have a problem. That said, I have been finding a lot of good books at the library recently. I read book 10 of the How to Train Your Dragon series and then got upset when I realized there's going to be another book and I have to wait to find out how it all ends. Brandon Sanderson came to the library (score!) and I bought his new book The Rithmatist and had him sign it while I asked him how to be a fantasy writer in an MFA program (double score!). He told me to stick to my guns, and I intend to do so.

Okay, so another book that I found that I got really excited about is Death Cloud by Andrew Lane. It's about a 14-year-old Sherlock Holmes staying with his aunt and uncle over the holidays while his brother Mycroft takes care of the family and his father is away in India. Although Sherlock thinks his holiday is going to be dull, he gets caught up in two mysterious murders.

Get this: this book is the first in a series that is the first teen series ENDORSED by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate. This is legit.

So, my review. I loved it. Sherlock isn't as cold and calculating as we know him as an adult, and he's not as good a detective as you'd expect. This threw me off a little when I first started reading, but when I thought about it, it made sense. As a teenager, Sherlock wouldn't have the experience or knowledge that would make him the world's only consulting detective. But you see the seeds of it. He's good a deducing things about the world around him, he turns to logic when in danger, and he's overly fond of being clever.

I can see why the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate would endorse it. Lane did a great job of piecing together Sherlock's past, or what could have been Sherlock's past, from the clues in the books. Reading about this clever, nosy, yet somewhat socially inept boy, I could see him growing into the Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. It fit.

I also enjoyed Sherlock's mentor, Amyus Crowe. Crowe is a tutor hired for Sherlock by Mycroft, but Crowe teaches more than math and Latin. He teaches Sherlock how to think, how to track someone, how to hide in plain sight...all the skills Sherlock uses later in life. And, if I'm being completely honest, I like that Crowe is American. National pride coming out here.

So, I recommend it, especially if you like Sherlock Holmes. Don't expect the unruffled detective, though, and don't expect Sherlock to have all the answers. Not yet. But as a fan, I enjoyed catching all the little references and nods to Arthur Conan Doyle's works. I'm looking forward to reading Book 2, Rebel Fire.

If you like catching nods and references to literary works, try reading Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Charles Dickens, Sweeney Todd, and of course, Dodger himself, all wrapped up in an intrigue. Good stuff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thoughts of the Week

If you were looking for logic on the internet today, this isn't the post for you. Well, not if you're looking for coherent, uniting logic; I am hoping for some interior logic. But if you're like me and enjoy Doctor Who and therefore have no problem slipping into the rules of an imagined world, you should do fine. I just accumulated a lot of wandering thoughts and musings this week, and thought I'd use my blog as a receptacle for them.

First off, I love getting comments on this blog and want to address the comment I got on last week's post. I think "Lawful Evil" as it has been defined can be the most irritating bad guy, as long as they also fall under the description of "can't argue with stupid." So, basically, I agree with the comment. I think Lawful Evil could become Lawful Good in some scenarios, when shown the error of their ways. But the pigheaded evildoers who refuse to change their perspective for anything and punish anyone who defies their worldview are SO irritating because we the readers know the truth, and honestly, we all know what it feels like to be in an argument where we know we're right but our respected opponents will not bend. ARGH!

Which makes me wonder, do the Lawful Evil characters feel the same way? Do they think they're clearly right and those foolish lawbreakers are stubbornly refusing to bend? Might make an interesting character one day, this villain right here.

My favorite blog to write is this one, but my favorite blog to read is Heather Dixon's StoryMonster. I don't know her (though, based on her blog posts, I would love to meet her), so this isn't a plug. Just a reference to anyone who reads my blog that there's another one worth looking into. Posts are funny, well-written, and just straight-up delightful. It's a bit addicting.

It amazes me that people actually read my blog. Which reminds me, in case you didn't know, my novel The Shifting is getting published. Tell your friends. Read an excerpt of my story at the link right HERE (January 2013 Emerald Sky). Tell your friends to read my excerpt. Yes, this is what is known as shameless self-promotion.

Sometimes I feel like the purpose of my education is to slowly shorten the list of movies I can watch with friends without turning into an analyzing monster. I recently watched Megamind and I spent half the movie writing a mental paper on how it undercuts the traditional tropes of the superhero genre and the other half telling myself, "Shut up and just watch the movie." This actually happens a lot.

Started a steampunk unit in my class this term. I enjoy steampunk, but had never given much thought to the actual intellectual movement behind the aesthetic. After learning about it, I might turn steampunk. I could get behind the ideas of individuality and do-it-yourselfness. Class made me want to go out and buy gears and rivets to make something mechanical and awesome all by myself. Too bad I don't know how to build things. Yet.

Movies I can't watch in a group anymore (to date) thanks to the steampunk unit: Disney's Atlantis, The Prestige, Sherlock Holmes (RDJ version), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Treasure Planet. Though most of these were iffy to begin with since Joss Whedon worked on Atlantis and The Prestige already had some wonderful elements of the genre of the fantastic and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is my literary geek-dreams come to life and...stop it. Stop it now.

For those who enjoy steampunk, I recommend The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello. Short video that reminds me of Jules Verne stories mixed with Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." It's a bit dark at times, but interesting.

None of these thoughts merited a full-length blog post. I'm glad I did this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Most Hated Woman Ever

Oh, yeah.

This post is brought to you by a conversation I had with several friends about Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge from the Harry Potter books. If you're anything like me, you read the meme above and nodded enthusiastically. Isn't that interesting? She's not a Dark Lord, not the big villain of the books, but watching her go down brought a sweet joy that Voldemort's death didn't. Why is that?

So, here I go, speculating. Why was Umbridge so much worse than Voldemort? My first thought is this: we have no guarantee she'll lose. The whole structure of the Harry Potter books tells us that Voldemort is going to lose to Harry, eventually. We know the outcome there. But, as Umbridge is a minor character (relatively), she might just get away with it. And that offends my sense of justice.

But get away with what? Ooh, boy, where do I start? Sadistic punishments, power-hungry take-over of Hogwarts, nasty poison personality...all of which make me hate her. But I've read villains who've done this, and worse, and I don't loathe them. For me, the reason Umbridge is so intolerable is because she is COMPLETELY BACKED UP BY THE LAW.

Umbridge has the Ministry on her side; they support her fascist regime at Hogwarts. Voldemort, on the other hand, is an outlaw. Umbridge is worse, I think, because we, the readers, know that Harry is right about Voldemort's return, but he has no power to fight back as Umbridge gives him creepy detentions ("I must not tell lies", anyone?), prevents real preparation to fight the Dark Arts, and even withholds Quidditch, Harry's favorite activity, from him. No one, not Harry, not Dumbledore, and not the other professors can challenge Umbridge without getting attacked themselves. They are powerless for so long, and we, as the readers, chafe against those limitations.

Maybe that's why the Weasley twins become our kings when they fly off like bosses.

I guess the lesson to take from Rowling's excellent character creation here is to legitimize the bad guy. If the bad guy is fighting for the "good" side and the law supports them, they can do whatever they want, and the reader's sense of justice is offended without any promise of punishment.

At least, until the centaurs arrive.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How to Speak Geek: Part 2

I meant to post yesterday, but I had a lesson in being a grownup instead. And this morning, I could have posted, but I started reading book 10 of the How to Train Your Dragon series, the book I thought would be the last of the series. I was wrong; there's at least one more. So while I am flying on the awesome that is that series, I am now anxious to read more and unable to do so.

I've been doing a lot of reading in the past few weeks, so I decided to do what I meant to do earlier for this post: help the non-geeks understand how to speak to the bookworms out there. I realize that the books I will discuss have been made into movies: I don't care. I'm going to write about the books. So there.

Harry Potter
  • Neville Longbottom. Who knew, right? 
  • "Always" is the most romantic word in the English language. 
  • NEVER call someone a mudblood. The proper term is "muggle-born."
  • Professor McGonagall is much sassier than you'd first think.
  • An understanding of astronomy is a big plus in understanding characters, particularly the Black family:
    • Bellatrix: "female warrior", star in Orion
    • Sirius: the "dog star", brightest star in Canus Major and in fact in the whole night sky
    • Regalus: "king", star in Leo
    • Andromeda: a galaxy
    • Also know: Arcturus, Cygnus, Draco, Scorpius, Pollux
  • Despite what the movies may protray, Peeves exists. Also, Dobby stole the gillyweed for Harry and told him about the second task of the Triwizard tournament.
  • The sweetest things in the world can be found in Honeydukes.
  • Fred and George Weasley are rock stars. Not literally, but understand: they are awesome. Be careful mentioning these two, though, to a sensitive Harry Potter fan who has finished book 7.
  • Dolores Umbridge = the devil. No Dark Lord can inspire such righteous wrath in a reader as this pink-cardiganed witch.
  • He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or You-Know-Who.
  • Gilderoy Lockhart. More than just a pretty know what, no. Just the pretty face. No competence at all.
  • SPEW forever!
  • SPOILERS: Harry does die, but he comes back. Ron and Hermione get together. Voldemort dies. Snape was a good guy.
  • Words to know: horcrux, Elder wand, Expelliarmus, Dark Mark, Quidditch, Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Ministry of Magic, Death Eater, various incantations, various candy names, various magical creatures...why don't we just end the list now?
The Lord of the Rings
  • Samwise Gamgee. See note above for Neville. Amazing character who, according to Tolkien, was the hero of the book. Only character to handle the One Ring and absolutely turn away from the temptation.
  • Po-tat-oes. Boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew. (From movie, not book. Sorry, but I had to.)
  • Faramir is Boromir's brother, and does not ever succumb to the temptation for the Ring.
  • Just when you think the story is over, there's the Scouring of the Shire.
  • Wow, the hobbits take their sweet time leaving the Shire.
  • Tom Bombadil.
  • Bill the pony.
  • Gollum and Smeagol are the same thing, but not really. Gollum is the creature the Ring created (think "golem") and Smeagol is who he was before he was corrupted.
  • Tolkien really likes to write songs and poetry.
  • Elvish is a legit language with mechanics and conjugations and everything. You can learn it. "Lasto" means "Listen", in the imperative.
  • Gandalf is one of the Maiar, the angels in Tolkien's mythology.
  • Glorfindel, the elf that takes Frodo to Rivendell, once fought a Balrog, died defeating it, and came back to life. Foreshadowing, much?
  • "Fool of a Took!"
  • Boromir does not say, "One does not simply walk into Mordor."
  • Just when you think Gandalf the Grey can't get any cooler, he becomes Gandalf the White.
  • Denethor = worst father ever. Flaming psycho.
  • Words to know: Ent, Orc, Mordor, One Ring, Sauron, Isengard, Ranger, hobbit, elf, dwarf, Gondor, Rivendell, Isildur's Bane.
The Hunger Games
  • Haymitch is the man. So is Cinna.
  • Avoxes are people who have had their tongues cut out. Not mentioned in the movie.
  • No one likes the ending of Mockingjay, though reasons vary. Mine is that the ending felt so rushed, with too much happening before I could feel any emotional connection.
  • This is a book about children fighting to the death. I realize that's well-known, but I thought it should be emphasized.
  • Peeta's leg gets amputated, and Katniss loses hearing in one ear.
  • Katniss has trouble pretending to love Peeta.
  • Gale is one angry young man.
  • Madge Undersee is a friend of Katniss's. She's the one who gives Katniss her mockingjay pin.
  • The mutts look like dead tributes.
  • President Snow smells of blood and roses.
  • The idea behind the games is similar to Rome's "bread and circuses" and modern reality shows.
  • SPOILERS: Primrose, Katniss's sister, dies in the last book. So all of this has been kind of pointless.
  • Words to know: Avox, tribute, district, District 13, District 12, muttation, tracker-jacker, Girl on Fire, Panem.
Hope this is a good start. Naturally, I can't list everything you should know, but this should get you started just fine. Maybe I'll return to books geeks like to read and talk about someday, but for now, I'm going to get back to reading. I have a lot to read, some for run and some for class. I finished reading a Jack-the-Ripper style novel for a class, and while everyone talked about how scary it was, I was fine. Just fine. Not scared at all. Maybe that in and of itself should scare me.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Storyteller's Soundtrack

First off, let me say that, as an addendum to last week's post, I went and saw Iron Man 3 today and it was awesome! Not what I expected, but better. I highly recommend it, and if you go, make sure you stay and watch through the credits. The scene at the end is worth the wait. It's about as good as the shwarma scene after The Avengers.

So, this week I've been thinking a lot about music and how it impacts storytelling. I recently rewatched How to Train Your Dragon and commented to a friend on how awesome the music is. I mentioned that, while revising the climax of The Shifting (soon to be published!), I listened to the HTTYD soundtrack. The music made everything I read over sound epic, which was flattering but not the best emotional stimulation for critical revision.

I've heard a few writers comment that they've listened to music while writing to help them get into the scene or the character's mind. I've done it, and I think they're right in doing it: the right kind of music really helps me understand my characters and feel the story's tone better than if I hadn't. That said, listening to the wrong music really detracts and I get stuck. Right now I'm working, a bit idly, on a middle grade novel about an eleven-year-old thief. I'm listening to a lot of Radio Disney, teen pop of other venues, and high-adventure techno. When my playlist skips to showtunes or Celtic music, I lose the feel.

So yes, I have a soundtrack for almost everything I write. I'm addicted to music, and can't imagine spending hours of my life in silence, though at times I shut down the music to focus on a tricky part. But the music bolsters my emotions. Here's the soundtrack (in case you were wondering) for The Shifting:

How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron soundtrack
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Broadway) soundtrack
"Watch Me Shine"  - Joanna Pacitti
"Ordinary" - Train
"I'm Alive" - Next to Normal
"Desert Rose" - Sting
"Where Are You Going" - Dave Matthews Band
"Caledonia" - Celtic Thunder
"It's the End of the World As We Know It" - R.E.M.
"How Far We've Come" - Matchbox Twenty
"How to Save a Life" - The Fray
"Crazy" - Seal
"Do You Believe in Magic?" - The Lovin' Spoonful
"Disease" - Matchbox Twenty
"Unwell" - Matchbox Twenty
"This One's For the Girls" - Martina McBride
"Move Along" - The All-American Rejects
"Through Heaven's Eyes" - The Prince of Egypt
"What Makes You Different" - Backstreet Boys
"Innocent" - Taylor Swift
"Defying Gravity" - Wicked

Naturally, this is not a comprehensive list of songs I used. But these were some of the ones I gravitated to as I wrote. Why? Well, I'll let you figure that out on your own. The book isn't out yet, but you can read an excerpt here, in my publisher's online magazine.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Super Stories

In case you're new to this blog, I'm a total geek when it comes to superhero stories. It's one of the signs that I will never be a true high-brow writer. But, that's okay, because I'll be ridiculously happy and people may even read my stuff. Sorry, that was a low blow to the high-brow writers. So, let's go back to where I started: I love superhero stories.

Over the weekend, I watched the new Spider-Man movie and several cartoon episodes, also Spider-Man. As I write I am listening to "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog", brought on by a middle-grade book titled "The Mad Mask" by Barry Lyga, sequel to "Archvillian", a book about a twelve-year-old who gets superpowers and uses them to fight against Might Mike, a superpowered alien boy who saves the day. Think Superman on this one. It's quite a fun book, and I love the antihero Kyle (aka, the Azure Avenger/Blue Freak). Lyga did a great job creating a character who is flawed and takes a little too well to the whole "supervillian" thing, but still is a good person who saves people from real danger without ever receiving glory for it.

I'm not the only superhero geek in the world. Marvel has ten new movies planned, at least, since the success of The Avengers and the lead-up-to-The Avengers movies. Superheroes have hit a stride recently, and while I am not complaining (there are more people to talk to about geek things! Yay!), I also wonder why.

Here are my thoughts: superhero stories have some things in common, regardless of origin story or costume color. Things like hidden identity, humanities of science, good/evil, nature of good and evil, secrets, and, to refer to the book I recently read, not receiving glory. That last one might be one of the reasons I like Spider-Man so much: the news is out to get him, and he looks like a flake to his friends, but still he saves NY.

I think it's interesting that while superhero stories are on the rise, dystopian stories are also big money-makers. What does that say? What's the link? I think that, as a people, right now we are interested in the ramifications of science and in human nature.

Superhero stories usually have crazy science, and I think we kind of love that about them. But science almost never has reliable consequences. Nine times out of ten, it's a scientific accident that gives the hero his/her power, especially in the Marvel universe. Then, the bad guys are almost always mad scientists, making death rays and hovercrafts while the hero relies on physical force - which bugs me, but that's a post for another day. But I think this speaks to human anxiety about new technology. We root for the guy who punches out the skinny genius and crushes his laser gun like a dried leaf.

Today, technology and science are rocketing forward, faster, perhaps, than human ability to use it wisely. Dystopian stories show what happens when that science is put to evil use. Perhaps superhero stories are popular because they show the human triumph over science, or complicate the issue enough to show how science can be used for good. Steve Rogers became Captain America through careful, calculated science, for example.

In relation to this, I think human nature is a big deal too. Who cares how much technology we build, if we use it all wisely? But we don't. As soon as some marvel is built (Ha! See what I did there?), someone figures out how to abuse it. Dystopians are built on this. We figure out how to keep track of criminal activity, we can now track all human activity and suddenly Big Brother is watching. Dystopians deal with the dark side of human nature. The weak, the oppressive, the cruel.

Superhero stories deal with the same, of course. But they also show the powerful side of humanity. The strong, the kind, the self-sacrificing. When it's so easy to see the evil and corrupt in the world - just open a newspaper - it makes sense that we would be drawn to the good, even if that good is fictional. Superheroes save the world because it is the right thing to do. With the exception of Tony Stark, they do it anonymously. They often have to make the decision between what is right and what is easy, and put their own desires aside for the greater good.

Lately, the superhero films have depicted their protagonists as human, with human fears and flaws. Gone are the days where Superman never doubted himself or Batman never wavered. I like this. I think it reinforces what we want to believe: that everybody, as self-doubting or flawed as they might be, has the potential to step up and become the hero. Maybe I read and watch too many superhero stories, but this rings true for me.

At least, it's something to think about.