Monday, December 6, 2010

I Think This Was a Mistake.....

This is the last week of classes, and most of my students are working on their final assignments. In my advanced public speaking class, for example, the students are preparing for a debate over an issue of current public interest. Today, I had them meet in the university library so they could do research with their partners for the debate. I have some papers to grade, so I brought them along to work on while I sit here to be a resource if the students have any questions.

But I've made two mistakes.

First, I'm sitting by the big windows that look out over the campus mall. It's a beautiful winter day (as long as you are inside, ha ha) with a perfectly clear blue sky. I keep catching myself staring out at that blue sky or idly watching students walk from one building to another.

I also went to the juvenile fiction section of the library and checked out Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'm nearly to the "S" book on my A to Z challenge, and I've seen a lot of buzz about this book. I flipped it open and saw that it is written in short paragraphs with an easy-to-read voice; I know it's not going to take long to read it. How I would love to just curl into one of those fat, print chairs over there in front of the biggest window and just read for the rest of the afternoon.....

But, NO! Must....finish.....grading......

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Problem of Description

Sometimes I think reading blogs by agents and authors has ruined me as a reader.  I really began to wonder about this as I was reading Nancy Dane's latest book, A Long Way to Go, and I kept being distracted by her use of description.

I've read in numerous agent blogs that novels need to be trimmed so that nothing unnecessary to the plot is included.  For example, agent Mary Kole gives the following things that should be cut from a manuscript:
  • Anything that does not advance our understanding of a character
  • Anything that does not advance the plot or raise tension
  • Anything that doesn't reveal something new
  • Things that are just witty and clever, with no other purpose.
As I was reading Dane's book, I kept finding instances of things Mary Kole would have told her to take out of the manuscript. A lot of what I zeroed in on was description, like this one:
"Hidden in dusty-blue shadows, Elijah sat beneath a fragrant pine, watching a doe drink at the river's lapping edge. Fat-bellied with unborn fawn, she gazed warily around in the twilight and then dipped her muzzle into the water. He stared at the sunset and thought how much Cindy would enjoy the beauty of the sky awash with coral reflected on the rippling water."
Or this:
(this comes when they've broken the news to Granny that her son has been killed by Yankee bushwhackers) "Granny took two steps forward. Her voice shook. 'I kept shut fer Caleb's sake. But he's gone now. And thank God you can't hurt him no more!' Ned took her arm as she turned and sat back down. The bedroom door slammed when Viola rushed from the room. Into the silence came the distant hoot of an owl. (my emphasis) 'I'm fine, Ned,' assured Granny through tight lips."
It seems to me in both of those cases, the description has nothing to do with accomplishing any of those things Mary Kole outlined. In fact, the hoot of the owl is almost comical thrown into such a dramatically tense moment (actually, there's another one I can't find now that made me laugh out loud because it was so incongruous).

That's not to say every piece of description is meaningless. For example, this description helps establish the desperation of the situation when Cindy discovers her baby has been kidnapped:
"Cindy's heart pounded. She called and called. When she stopped to listen, a drumming woodpecker was the only sound echoing from the hills."
So, based on what I've learned by reading the blogs, most description should be left out of a book, unless it is directly contributing to plot or character.  But then I argue back with myself that my husband says he likes books that have a lot of description so he can picture the world where the story is taking place. He gives the example of the Shanara books by Terry Brooks (which I haven't read); he jokingly says the first two pages of the first Shanara book is all description.

I know that's what Nancy Dane is doing, trying to establish for readers the character of the world her characters live in. It's a beautiful part of the world, too, and I understand wanting to capture some of that beauty and work it into the story.  But it doesn't help with character, and it doesn't help with plot. Does "world-building" give enough justification to put so much in there?

That phrase, "world-building," made me think of Harry Potter, in which Rowling definitely built an alternative world to the one we are so familiar with. So I decided to check out what she did with Harry's first introduction to Hogwarts. Here's her first description of the castle:
"And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was a smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood."
That's all. She doesn't tell us if the castle is covered with moss, or if it has ten turrets, or if the stones are gray or brown. In the next chapter, she gives us a little more detail:
"She pulled the door wide. The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys' house in it. The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors."
More detail, but still accomplished in two sentences. Three pages later is the longest descriptive passage:
"Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting....The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight. Dotted here and there among the students, the ghosts shone misty silver. Mainly to avoid all the staring eyes, Harry looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars...It was hard to believe there was a ceiling there at all, and that the Great Hall didn't simply open on to the heavens."
To me, that feels right. So how's an aspiring writer to know how much description is too much? I like a couple of lines from Kole's post.
"Some things have very little happen in them but they're readable. That's okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. "Readability' is not what we're striving for, though...fill [your manuscript] with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you're writing isn't any of that...those are dead words anyway."
What do you think? How much description should a book have? Do you like description in books?

Monday, November 29, 2010

How Long Until July?

If nothing else, the Harry Potter series has forced on us the virtue of patience.  We would anxiously anticipate the release of a new book, devour the book in a day or less, and then have to wait another year (or more) for the release of the next one.  The same is true of the movies based on the books, although I think the wait between Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2 is going to be the most agonizing yet.

I've said before that I thought the first movie stuck a little too devotedly to its book, while others (like The Half-Blood Prince) seemed to wander a bit far from the original (not that I'm necessarily opposed to that, unlike my husband and son).  This latest movie stayed fairly close to the material in the book, and in some ways, I think it did an even better job with the storytelling than the book did.  I'm thinking specifically about the chapters in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione were wandering around the countryside trying to figure out how to find horcruxes.  In the book, those chapters (honestly) seemed to drag a little; in the movie, a handful of establishing shots (of some very different and very beautiful landscapes) accomplished what took lots of words in the books.  That allowed for more emphasis to fall on the characters, and I must say I am greatly impressed with the way these young actors brought out emotions.  I had never much liked Ron's character, in either the books or the movies, but Rupert Grint sort of changed my mind about Ron in this movie by giving him some depth I'd never considered.

Of course, I absolutely love Hermione, and this movie made me doubly appreciate just how invaluable she was to Harry during his mission (I want that beaded purse!). Emma Watson plays the character with a combination of a sort of grim understanding of what she's gotten into and a certain vulnerability that really shows what she's giving up to help Harry.  I guess that's what I liked best about this installment of the series. In the other movies, the actors are portraying what's on the page; in this movie, the actors are enriching what's on the page.  My husband has commented a couple of times on how well Jason Isaacs portrays a Lucius Malfoy who is fresh out of Azkaban; Lucius has lost a whole lot of his swagger, and Isaacs actually gives Lucius a slight tremble that really captures the essence of how his world, personal and public, has been turned upside down.  That's not an exception, either; David Yates seems to have pulled good performances out of everyone.

The action sequences were sufficiently thrilling, and the scary scenes were delightfully creepy.  But I think what I enjoyed most (being the English major geek I am) was watching these young characters take on the mantle of adulthood in a situation in which the stakes are impossibly high.  Story arc, you know.

The movie ends in just the right place, too.  When the credits started to roll, I wanted to stand and say, NO!!!! NOT YET!!!!!  July is so far away!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Good Role Model, in a Way I Didn't Expect

Our family hasn't yet been to see the new Harry Potter movie, believe it or not. We're planning to go tonight, but to settle my curiosity until then, I've been reading a few related articles.

I read one today that was an interview with Emma Watson, the lovely girl who grew up before our eyes as Hermione. The article was talking about how she has continued her education, unlike most of the other young stars of the series. One of the comments on the story pointed out that Miss Watson and Hermione were good role models for girls because they both value education, which the commentor pointed out was a major departure from how most girl main characters are portrayed in children's television (just watch some Disney channel shows if you don't believe it).

I thought that was a good point. But last night as I was watching the Half-Blood Prince on DVD with my daughter (to get ready, you know) I saw another good message Hermione sends - a girl can be friends with a guy without having a romantic thing with him. (I'm talking Harry, not Ron, here.)

One morning not long ago, the DJs on the radio station I listen to on my way to work where trying to decide if men and women can actually be just friends.  It surprised me how many people said no.  I suppose it shouldn't have.  In a lot of books and shows, if there is a man and a woman, they eventually will end up in a romantic relationship.  This is not only true of stories for adult viewers, but also for teens.  One of the shows my kids used to love to watch was Ned's Declassified, about a trio of middle school students, two boys and a girl.  At first Ned and Mose (the girl) were just best friends, but as the kids (and the show) got older, eventually they ended up dating each other.  I could probably think of other examples, but I'm lazy (and it's getting close to time to head to the movie!).

I'll admit I always wanted the same thing to happen with Harry and Hermione.  Alas, JK Rowling had other plans.  And yet, watching the movie last night, I decided it was a good thing for those two characters to not be romantic with each other. They can be close and share their problems and secrets without the baggage that comes with "being in love" with each other. It's nice to see that.  And one of the reviews I saw about the new movie says the friendship between the two characters comes across well.  Even though their relationship is not romantic, they love each other.  Nice. 

Can't wait to see it....

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This is not the Taylor Swift Fan Club, Really

I feel rather self-conscious about writing another post about Taylor Swift, but I discovered her latest song, "Mine," last week (it's only been #1 for nine weeks now, ha ha), and I just really admire the writing in that song.  In the course of two verses, three choruses, and a bridge, Swift manages to tell an entire story that conveys plot, backstory, character, and theme.  Oh, and it's pretty catchy to sing along to.

In terms of plot, there's nothing especially original about the song - girl meets boy, girl gets boy, girl nearly loses boy, girl keeps boy.  But there's an economy to what Swift includes in the story that keeps only the details needed to move the story along to its conclusion.  Although she doesn't specifically say what the demons in the backstory are, she gives us enough that we can guess ("Brace myself for the goodbye, cause it's all I've ever known") what are her "parents' mistakes."

Ok, maybe the main reason I like the song is the line in the chorus, "You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter."  I just think that phrase is put together so well.  It has the antithesis thing going for it, but it also seems to me to capture a real sense of the character who is narrating the story.  And there's nothing wasted in it - every word contributes.

If only I could write that well....

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's Bad, but It's Good

My Kindle died yesterday, unexpectedly.  I had plugged it in to recharge the battery, and when I went back to get it, the screen was completely dark, like it had been burned out or something.  The image looks like a negative and it's actually hard to read anything at all on it, even to tell if it's on or off.

Thank goodness it has a one-year warranty instead of 90 days like a lot of electronics (it is like five days over that 90-day period).  I dreaded trying to call Amazon and try to talk them into repairing or replacing it, but today after work I made myself do it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I explained the problem, and there was no conversation trying to find a way to say I did something wrong to mess up the device.  The guy simply confirmed my address and then said a new one should arrive Nov. 8.  I'm still a little shell-shocked, and I'm halfway convinced I didn't hear him right - I tend to have trouble hearing stuff on the phone, especially if the person talks softly or has much of an accent (and this person had both those characteristics).

I guess we'll see on Monday.  But if there's a new Kindle on my porch that afternoon, you can bet I'll leave some positive feedback somewhere on the Amazon site.

Friday, October 29, 2010

November's Just Around the Corner.....

For some of my friends, November means one thing - NaNoWriMo (for those of you who never heard of it, that's National Novel Writing Month). I've always thought it might be kind of fun to join them in trying to crank out a 50,000 word novel in just a month, but realistically, that's not going to happen while I'm teaching. I've been toying with the idea of trying to finish the last two chapters of my second WiP during the month, but .... inertia is hard to overcome!

Today, though, I came across a link to a different project for November - NaNoReaMo. YA author Natalie Whipple is going to read 3 books a week for a total of 12 during November. Depending on what the books are, that could be just as unrealistic for me as trying to write a novel during the month.  I was doing really well on my A-to-Z reading challenge until school started, but now I've stalled.  I just finished the "P" book, which leaves me only two months to try to get through 10 books (one of which was supposed to be Undaunted Courage - yikes!).

To write or to read???

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No Wonder She's So Popular

As I was washing the dishes tonight and listening to the mp3 player, Taylor Swift's song Fifteen came around in the shuffle.  Listening to the lyrics, I thought, "Now THERE'S someone who understands her target audience!"  Even though it's been many, many years since I was fifteen, I can still remember the awkward mix of uncertainty and bravado that she sings about.  Granted, she's not that far removed from that age, but to be able to verbalize the feelings the way she did is, I think, pretty remarkable.  How does a writer go back and remember what was important back then? I wish now I hadn't been so zealous about destroying all the evidence of my teen-aged dorkiness once I got into my twenties - it might have come in handy now that I'd like to write for young adults, ha ha.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How Far Should Realism Go?

Mary Kole had a thought-provoking post and discussion in the comments on her blog at this week about sex in YA novels. I was especially interested in it for a couple of reasons: first, because the feedback that accompanied an agent's rejection of my full manuscript included the comment, "You can put sex in YA novels" (which I hadn't); and second, because I missed sex in my most recent read, Glenn Vernam's Pioneer Breed.  (Gosh, I hate to keep being critical of that book since I liked it so much when I was a kid....)

Before I explain the above remarks, let me clarify my thoughts on sex in novels.  Most of the time, I cringe when I read explicit scenes, because they seem to be handled in one of two ways.  There are those that are sort of clinical in their descriptions, and those just seem creepy - I feel like I'm some kind of peeping tom spying on people when I shouldn't be. There was a scene from A Northern Light that left me feeling that way. A couple of months later, I'm still repelled by that scene (and maybe that was Donnelly's intention, but that's what pops into my mind first when I think of that book, and I really wish that wasn't true). The second approach to sex scenes seems to be to use euphemisms for everything and to make everything seem so highly passionate. Honestly, I am more embarrassed reading those scenes than the first kind. I never made it completely through a category romance novel because I just felt ridiculous.

I'm not trying to say there shouldn't be any sex scenes in books, even YA books. But for me, those scenes ought to play a key part in the plot. A good example of a sex scene that was needed in a book comes from Alice in Love and War. Sure, Turnbull could have chosen to skip over that part and say "Alice gave herself to Robin," but seeing Alice's feelings as she does it is crucial to understanding why she acts the way she does later in the book. A sex scene that I think wasn't important at all to the plot was in Jellicoe Road, when the two main characters sleep together after going to try to find the girl's mother (sad - I can't remember her name). Readers know the two of them are attracted to each other, but having them have sex adds nothing to that subplot, in my humble opinion.  It's sort of like the author shrugged and said, "well, you know it would happen, so I'll stick it in there to be realistic." That's not a good enough justification for me.

That thought brings me back to Pioneer Breed. I've summarized the plot before, but to save you the trouble of hunting up those posts, here's a quick synopsis: 17-year-old Rance has been orphaned by Indians and is trying to live alone on his parents' farm. One day while he's out hunting, he finds a 15-year-old girl (Tenny) who has been orphaned by an Indian attack, and he takes her to his house, where he nurses her through illness and gives her a place to live during the harsh Oregon winter.  He realizes he's going to have to take her to town when spring comes, and he's concerned that people may treat her badly because she's been living alone with him all winter.  He ends up solving the problem by deciding to marry her, a decision that comes as a huge revelation to him.

Until he decides to marry Tenny, Rance has shown no sexual awareness of her at all, not even when he was doctoring her with poultices on her chest and back.  Granted, he tried to be decent about it, which I guess shows some awareness of her as a woman. But it's never framed in those terms; instead it is just an example of the decency any young man who had been raised right in the mid-nineteenth century would exercise.  But I'm pretty sure males were the same then as they are now and as they were when David spied Bathsheba bathing from his rooftop. I'm not saying I wanted lasciviousness to run rampant in Rance's thoughts throughout the book - not at all.  But realistically, there would have been some struggle in the mind of even a decent young man, especially as the two of them begin to enjoy each other's company so much and to feel so cozy in the cabin together.  In my humble opinion, the thought that he could marry Tenny and be with her in every way would have occurred to him much sooner, realistically. 

One of the points that kept coming up again and again in the blog post was that teens expect realism. As Mary said,

Truth and authenticity are important in all children’s books, but in YA especially. No matter what you do, make sure it rings true to real life.

Teens are masters at sniffing out things that don't ring true. And they tend to be unforgiving of anything they label as "phony." I think Vernam's book would get that label today, unfortunately. I don't believe it was his intention to be preachy; I think he was just writing a "clean" book, and that meant leaving sex out completely. My question is, can a book be "clean" and still realistically portray the sexuality that all human beings possess, in its great variety of expressions?

That's not just a rhetorical question. It's one I've struggled with in writing my own novel. As the agent noted, there were no explicit sex scenes in my book, even though the main characters are married and it would be morally OK.  Yet there are enough references to sex in the book - anything from feeling desire to "fading to black" just before the characters do the deed - to make me wonder if what I've written would be considered "clean." I hope so, but if not, I hope it is at least realistic.  Actually, I guess it's more important to me to be realistic than to be squeaky "clean."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Reason I Love My Kindle

I'm stuck in a seemingly non-ending cycle of grading papers and prepping for classes (with an occasional meeting thrown into the mix), which leaves me no time to work on my own writing.  One day I had the brainstorm that I could use the text-to-speech feature of my Kindle to read my book to me during the only time when I'm not doing something else - on the drive back and forth to work, or when I'm on the road to pick up the kids from school or to go to a football game.

I had already taken advantage of the ability to have Amazon convert my Word file so I could put the most recent draft of my manuscript on my Kindle (which is cool enough in and of itself).  Listening to it on text-to-speech is a good tool, since I'm noticing some phrases I use too frequently that I never picked up on while reading.  It also seems to be helping me think through some continuity problems I thought I might have.

There are some humorous moments, too. For instance, I noticed the robotic female voice referring to one character as what sounded like "Stupid."  I listened more closely and realized that was the closest approximation the computer could come up with for the character's real name - "Stewpot."  The funniest thing, though, is when the computer encounters a sentence that ends with the word "Pa."  Every time, it reads that as "Pennsylvania."  It makes for some pretty amusing passages, believe me!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Concept vs. Execution

I first read Pioneer Breed by Glenn Vernam when I was a teenager. Although I couldn't remember the details of the story all these years later, I did remember it was about a young guy who rescued a girl from an Indian raid on her family and ended up marrying her. (I didn't even bother with a spoiler alert, because I figure no one's going to read this book anymore). When I was going through one of my "hungry for pioneer fiction" stages a while back, I thought of this book and hunted down a used copy.

Reading it these past few weeks has been a bit of a disappointment. But I came to realize it was not the story that I was disappointed in; it was the way the story was told.

First, the dialect drove me absolutely up the wall.

"That's a notion worth yokin' some thought to," he said. "Such a thing plumb got past me. But now't you mention it, I kin see how another winda would work to lighten up the whole place. And it would be no big chore to chop a hole in the bedroom wall. And fixin' up a clo'es rack for dryin' would be easy, too; skin some willa saplin's to put up atween a post an' them two big trees. Yes, sir, that's a prime idea."

Now, I live in a rural area in the South, and I've heard real people talk pretty close to that. But writing all of Rance's conversation (and a lot of his thoughts, too) in that hicky dialect at some point began to get in the way of understanding what he was saying. It was a distraction rather than a character-building attribute (which I'm sure is what the author intended).  In my own novel, I also wrote dialogue in the uneducated vernacular.  After reading this book and seeing how annoying the dialect was, I'm going back and removing every single "ain't" from the manuscript.  Sure, maybe the dialect is accurate, but when it gets in the way and takes the reader out of the story, it's not working.

A second thing that disappointed me was such heavy reliance on "telling" rather than "showing."  For example,

The ensuing weeks brought a growing sense of well-being to both of them. Returning health found Tenny ever more eager to be of help. Gone, she said, were the old days of drying dishes or preparing vegetables while swaddled up in the cherrywood rocker. Rance was forced to lay aside his anxious protestations as he watched her go on to more active things without harming herself. Almost before either of them fully realized it, their lives had settled into an unplanned division of labor. It was a comfortable feeling, needing no words of explanation. Tenny accepted her position as might a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore on some verdant isle. Yesterday was dead; tomorrow a blank. She could only accept today's blessings of life and security with a deep sense of obligation which time might help her to repay.

Again, I understand why the writer did this. He needed for some time to pass in the story. However, it's really lifeless. I read over those words without caring about Tenny at all. I can't help thinking how much more emotionally affecting that passage would have been had the writer showed us howTenny's new life affected her, rather than just telling us. I guess this new emphasis on "showing" is a change in writing style since the 1970's, when this book was written, and I definitely believe it is a change for the better.

One last thing - there was some clumsy characterization going on here. I thought if I read one more time about Rance pulling on his "straw-colored forelock" or having O, Susanna "come to his lips," I'd go nuts. We got it the first time or two; those are meant to be quirky little character habits. We don't have to be reminded over and over and over throughout the book!

It's a shame, really. I still like the premise of the story.  I wish it could be written in a more up-to-date, more engaging style. Hey, since you can't copyright ideas, only the expression of ideas, maybe I'll do it myself some day, ha ha.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This is How It's Supposed to Work

My daughter is very close to finishing the Hunger Games series.  When I saw her bring the first book home from school (at the suggestion of her language arts teacher), I wasn't so sure it was such a good idea for her to read it. I mean, she's only 11 (well, nearly 12), and those books have some pretty mature themes and some pretty graphic violence.  But I know making a big deal out of censoring something makes that something even more attractive, so I didn't tell her she couldn't read it. Instead, we've been talking about it some.

She's about to finish Mockingjay now (whipped through that series FAST!); in fact, she just read the part where (spoiler alert!) Prim is killed by the two-phase bomb that Gale came up with. As we were making pizzas for supper, we ended up having a conversation about war and how sometimes people who have nothing to do with the reasons for the war end up being the ones who suffer most.  She kept saying, "But why bomb children?" Not in an "I don't understand" way, but in a "I do understand, but I don't get it" kind of way - the same kind of reaction I have. 

It was a good opportunity to talk about something that probably never would have come up if not for her reading the book.  Granted, it's not a very happy thing to talk to an 11-year-old about, but the world's not a very happy place sometimes.  Maybe talking about it now can help innoculate her to the nastiness later so she can deal with it. 

It seems that being prepared makes a huge difference in how she responds to something.  I was really worried about how she would take Prim's death - they are basically the same age, you know, they both love cats.....Well, one day her brother (jokingly) said something about Prim dying (he hasn't even read the book), and I confirmed it, thinking someone had told him. They both looked at me in shock.  Then they wanted to know how it happened, but I wouldn't tell them.  I don't regret spilling the beans. I thought maybe if she knew it was going to happen, she could build the necessary defenses it would take to keep from being devastated by the death of her most beloved character.  It seems to have worked. She wasn't bawling over it.

Anyway, I guess I'm glad she's read the book.  But I'm more glad that I've read it so we could talk about the parts that bother her, and so I can put my own spin on those parts in helping to shape her ethical development.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Quality, Not Quantity

While wasting some time trying to avoid starting to grade speeches, I discovered that Elizabeth George Speare, one of my writing idols, apparently published only four books: Calico Captive, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Bronze Bow, and The Sign of the Beaver. Of those four, two were Newberry Award winners and another one was a Newberry Honor book and won the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction. Wouldn't it be fantastic to be so good that nearly everything you wrote was considered worthy of a major award?

Ok, enough procrastination - speeches await.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Think We Need the "Golden Mean" Here

In the previous post, I was complaining because Katniss in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay was so overwhelmed by her PTSD following two trips to the Hunger Games arena and playing a major role in a revolution. Well, the book I'm reading now  -- Pioneer Breed by Glenn Vernam -- swings too far in the opposite direction.

Pioneer Breed begins with the deaths of the main character's (Rance) parents at the hands of a group of rogue Indians.  Rance was an only child, so he has to deal with their deaths and with carrying on the life on their farm by himself. Later, he comes across another massacre scene while he's out hunting, and he finds the only survivor, a teen girl he calls Tenny. He takes her home and nurses her back to health.

While Katniss was wallowing in self-pity and emptiness, Rance seems unphased by the horrific events of his life. There are a couple of mentions of him being lonely and having a lump in his throat at the thought of his parents, but generally, he's pretty happy, especially once Tenny is around (more about that in a different post).  Here's about as depressed as Rance gets:

"No more did he have to work himself into drugged insensibility in order to find a sleep that was free of tortured misery; no more were his working days haunted by the double grave below the spring; no more was stark loneliness a grim specter staring over his shoulder. He need only think of Tenny to feel himself surrounded by comforting care and cheerful friendship, all the horrible emptiness of the past mercifully shunted aside."

Part of what is at issue here is "telling, not showing" as a writing style, and I'll have more to say about that in a later post. It may also be that since this book was published in 1972, there was not such an emphasis on realism. Stories seem to have a much more intimate approach now, putting readers right into the heads of the characters and letting us feel their emotions. I guess since I'm so used to that style now, this book just seems to gloss over the ugliness to the point of being almost funny.

There's got to be a middle ground between being numb with pain following trauma and being oblivious to the pain.....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Should a Girl Deal with It All?

I whipped through Mockingjay in two days (including time to feed the family, although I'll admit, I wasn't doing a very good job of that at the end). For the past couple of days now, I've been trying to decide what I think about it. I don't think I liked it that much, and I'm trying to understand why. Today while listening to a student's speech, I think I might have found the answer. 

The student was talking about having strength in the face of difficult circumstances. She said she has found that hiding is not the answer, that problems have to be faced. It occurred to me that Katniss was always hiding. I know she was suffering PTSD, and it's no wonder. No doubt, she's been through some horrifying experiences.  But as a literary character, I'd like to see her fight her way through the pain to salvage some sense of hope. (Spoiler!) In the epilogue to this series, Katniss has what could be labeled a happy life with Peeta, but she still seems detached from it and unable to fully trust in it and even to appreciate it. I don't expect that the character would suddenly "get over" all the awful things that happened, but it would be nice to see evidence that she's healing. That evidence wasn't there, at least not to me.

Am I being unfair? I thought of some other characters who have faced terrible circumstances and how they've come out of it. Most recently, Ophelia. I reckon having your father murdered by your secret husband, thinking you've been cast off by that husband, having to fake your own death to escape the threat of a poison-happy, evil king, and then learning your husband and your brother have killed each other would be about as traumatic as what Katniss went through. The interesting thing is that Ophelia did the same thing as Katniss - she hid and sank into depression. For Ophelia, this happened in the convent, and she was finally brought out of it by the friendship of Isabel and by finding a purpose in working as a healer for the nuns.  When Horatio shows up, she's well on her way to being able to put the events of her past behind her and face her life with hope. 

I also thought about Sarah in The Heretic's Daughter. Being imprisoned in a 17th-century jail for months and having your mother be hanged as a witch is pretty traumatic, I'd think. Yet at the end of the book, Sarah has found a degree of hope in preserving her family's story so it's not lost to the future generations.  I even remembered Patty from Summer of My German Soldier - physically, verbally, and psychologically abused by her parents, suffering the loss of her friend Anton, under suspicion of spying for being friends with Anton, sent to a detention center - still, that book ends with a note of hope.

Mockingjay didn't seem to have any hope at the end, just a weary, distrustful sense of acceptance.  Maybe I'm naive or weak to want hope at the end of the stories I read; after all, not everything in life has a hopeful ending. But I would argue that books are not life. They are stories that can help readers, among other things, find the silver lining in the gloomiest cloud. That doesn't mean I want a "Pollyanna" ending. I know I've used the quote from Elizabeth George Speare before, so I'll just paraphrase very loosely here, but at the end of a book I want to feel that the main character can stand up to his/her life and will be ok. Maybe he or she is not ok just yet, but he/she is on the road to being ok. The book can have a "sad" ending, but still have that little glimmer of hope that keeps the ending from being "bleak." Mockingjay was bleak.

(There's a really excellent one-star review on Amazon by a reader named Suzanne G, and the follow-up comments are good, too. The review does a more in-depth critique of Katniss' character and the failings in her relationships with the other characters.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's About Time....

Would you believe I've had my Kindle a month and haven't yet read a complete book on it? That's in part a function of going back to school and being dead dog tired when I go to bed (which is when I usually read). So far, I've used my Kindle in church (though I'm considering switching back to my old Bible since it's so hard to flip from place to place in the Kindle), I've used it to download a couple of books that I skimmed to help me prepare for classes (I'll read them later, really), and I've read part of a sample of a novel that a friend recommended (might get back to that one some day).

Well, that's about to change.  Since I finished Ophelia last night, I'm going to make my next book be something on the Kindle. I plan to download Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. I considered buying the hardback to complete the set for my son, but I think I won't at this point. I really want to see how the Kindle reading experience is for real reading, not passage-flipping or skimming.  I think it's about time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It's Hard to Follow the Original

I just finished Ophelia by Lisa Klein. I liked it well enough, but as I was reading, it struck me how hard it must be to try to write something that's based on someone else's work. Or even to write something based on historical fact, as A Northern Light was loosely based on the murder of Grace Brown (which was also the basis of Drieser's An American Tragedy).

Klein did well, in my opinion, of taking the sketchy character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's play and putting credible flesh on her.  Ophelia's tale blended reasonably well with Hamlet's tale, although at times I found myself thinking the timeline seemed sort of bizarre. Of course, it's hard to tell from Hamlet what amount of time expired between Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and the eventual gory fencing match. In re-reading the play, I thought it might have been a period of even weeks, which would be one reason Hamlet berates himself so for failing to carry out the revenge his father's ghost demands.  In Klein's book, everything seems to happen in a matter of days, or at most, a couple of weeks.  It strained my suspension of disbelief a little that all those events - from Shakespeare's original and from Klein's story - could have been compacted into such a brief time.

The thing that bothered me most, though, was the character of Hamlet in Klein's work. He was faithful to Shakespeare's conception of the character, no doubt. But it seemed to me that he was missing some soul. He just seemed sort of flat in Klein's re-telling.  In Shakespeare's play, I found Hamlet quite appealing (does that make me weird?) - he's witty, with a sharp and wicked sense of sarcasm that depends on word play and nuance of language (I guess I am weird, if that's what I found appealing!). He's passionate, and yet he's detached; he's paralyzed by indecision, and yet he acts forcefully. He's disdainful of women, and yet that disdain seems to spring from a deep sense of being let down by a woman who mattered.  I'm still not convinced he was mad; not to get into Shakespearan criticism here, but Hamlet seems to be the poster boy for what happens when one is re-active rather than proactive.  Anyway, his character was very much alive and vital in the play, in every sense of that word.

In Klein's book, Ophelia naturally was the strongest character, since we're seeing the story from her viewpoint. I'm ok with that. I liked what Klein did with her. But I was disappointed in Klein's Hamlet.  He just didn't seem exciting enough to inspire Ophelia to be so caught up in him. Maybe that's part of the point. Maybe Ophelia didn't really love Hamlet, but the idea of Hamlet - the handsome, witty prince who is forbidden to her. Lots of girls fall for the equivalent of Hamlet and overlook the Horatios who would be infinitely better for them. I suppose since Hamlet was going to be killed anyway - and we all knew THAT was going to happen - Klein didn't want to waste a lot of narrative energy on him.  Or maybe she was hesistant to develop him too much beyond what we already knew from Shakespeare - the perils of using someone else's well-known character.

Another peril exists in trying to speculate beyond the bounds of the original story. Klein's method of having Ophelia escape was definitely in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare's works. Once Ophelia was safely lodged in the nunnery, though, the story seemed to me to take a weird turn and sort of amble off on a side road filled with deep psychological and religious brambles that try to explicate the sources of all Ophelia's perceived failings at Elsinore.  Although it turned out ok, it was just "ok."

To get back to my original premise, it must be hard to take someone else's work and expand it (as Klein did) or link to it in your own story (as Donnelly did with A Northern Light). On the one hand (Klein), there's a risk that audiences won't agree with your interpretations of the original events and characters, and that they won't like your additions. On the other hand (Donnelly), there's the possibility that the original story will seem sort of "tacked on" without enough relevance to the story at hand (I really felt Donnelly could have told the story of A Northern Light without trying to drag Grace Brown back in every few chapters - the link seemed really contrived to me). It must be much harder than trying to create an original story, where you have complete control over everything.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Post - The Lightning Thief

This post is written by Lily, my 11-year-old daughter:

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a great series and I would recommend these books to everyone. In the first book Percy finds out that he is no normal mortal. He also finds his best friend isn’t human. Grover and Percy’s mother, Sally Jackson, lead Percy to a camp that is safe for him. At camp he meets his soon-to-be friend, Annabeth Chase. Soon after meeting her he gets a quest from the Oracle. In his quest he meets two gods, Ares and Hades. Read the book if you would like a story of friendship, fighting, mythology, and Grover.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shakespeare Is Wasted on the Young

That's not really what I think, but it made a catchy title. Well, maybe I did mean it a little, because I've been reading Hamlet recently and I'm finding that it is so much more enjoyable now than it was when I was reading it for my Shakespeare class in college.  I seem to remember back then that I had to consult the footnotes every other line or so just to understand what was being said. That makes it a little difficult to follow the flow of the action - especially when one might be a little distracted by his/her own Hamlet, ha ha.

Now it's much easier to grasp the meaning, even if I'm reading the Elizabethean phrases. (I do still occasionally have to consult the footnotes.) I'm also able to maintain a sense of the flow from night to night, and I'm finding I really enjoy it, even those philosophical flights of poetry that annoyed me back in the day. That Hamlet - what a witty scoundrel! I love his word plays. And I can sympathize with his feelings of frustration with himself when he can't seem to bring himself to do what he needs to do (although what he wants to do is a LOT darker than anything I ever want to do!).

I'm not advocating that high school English teachers should abandon their efforts to teach Shakespeare to teens. I do hope that those efforts are positive enough that the kids will be willing to do as I've done and revisit the Bard when they're older. I really hope teens' experiences won't turn them off Shakespeare forever.

One more thing I've appreciated now is the difference between reading one of Shakespeare's plays and seeing it performed. There's so much meaning that is conveyed in the acting rather than just the words. This may motivate me to seek out a film version of the play; any suggestions as to which would be best? I've seen the Mel Gibson version long ago, but Mel has a little taint on him right now, and there might be better versions, anyway.   

Friday, August 13, 2010

Yeah, I Read YA Fiction...and apparently a lot of other adults do, too

One of the most (slightly) embarrassing moments of my life was when I was interviewing for a teaching assistantship for my master's degree program. I was sitting in the office of one of the professors, surrounded by high-level academic books. He leaned back in his chair, made one of those little tents with his hands, and asked, "What do you read?" 

At that point, it would have been nice to be able to pull out the title of some high-level academic book or even one of the classic novels from my literature classes, but instead, I was honest and said, "Mainly children's books."

That answer didn't keep me from getting the assistantship, but I've always felt a little apologetic whenever I admit to my preference for young people's books.  But I guess I have nothing to be ashamed of, according to a recent article in the New York Times. The article says 47% of women aged 18-24 and 20% of women aged 35-44 buy and read YA books.  The article goes on to explain some of the appeal YA books have for older readers:

There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging.

Another of the experts quoted in the article says we middle-aged readers of YA books may be drawn to the "big type and short, plot-driven chapters" that make YA literature easier to read, since we are tired.

Ok, I'll admit it. I do like the fact that most YA books have shorter chapters and more focused plots and move along quickly. But I've decided that's not a sign of being intellectually shallow on my part. If I were reading Nancy Drew exclusively, maybe so.  But one thing I have really enjoyed about YA (and children's) novels are the deep ideas that lurk beneath the seemingly simple surface. I've read about gender issues and race issues and death and love and rebellion, among other things. I agree that maybe it is intellectually shallow of me to want to avoid some of the issues in adult novels, like child molestation and psychological torture (although there are YA novels that also deal with these issues, and I generally avoid those, as well - why make myself miserable?).

I suppose that's another reason I prefer YA literature - there's a sort of an innocent hopefulness to YA stories, or maybe it's a hopeful innocence. Either way, I like it. I like coming away from something I've read with a feeling that there is hope for the world, even if things don't work out the way I hoped they would.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kindle - Week One

You may recall that I've been debating for over a year about whether I want to buy a Kindle. Well, the debate was resolved last week when my husband got me one as a combination birthday present/payment for picking so many blueberries (his idea, not mine - I don't need to be paid).  After a week of owning one, I'm still debating the advantages of e-books.

Don't get me wrong; I can see a long-term love affair developing. It is so light! Forget the "experience" of holding a book. Holding the Kindle is so much more comfortable and natural. I like the notion of being able to have an entire library at my disposal in one neat little package. Reading off the screen is better than reading from a computer screen, and seems to be truly comparable to reading from a book. Of course, I haven't yet had the luxury of being able to spend hours at one sitting reading, so I can't say if I might get tired of reading from a screen.

One thing I love that I hadn't anticipated is the ability to upload personal documents. My boss sent a couple of articles faculty are supposed to read before our opening workshop in a week or two.  One was a pdf - I just plugged the Kindle in to the computer and dragged the file over like I would for any flash drive. The other article was a Word document, so I had to email it to Amazon for conversion, but I used the free service to email back to my Yahoo account, then dragged the file over. Done within 10 minutes.  Now, instead of being chained to my computer while reading these no-doubt thrilling documents or having to kill some trees to print them out, I can carry the documents with me and read bits of them while waiting for my daughter's orthodontic appointment or the Band Booster meeting. I'm wondering if this might be a tool I can use for grading papers.

Just as with any relationship, though, there are some little things that bother me. The first book I bought was the Bible, and I took the Kindle, not the physical Bible, to church this Sunday. Maybe it's just because I'm not yet used to the navigation of the Kindle, but I was so slow finding verses! In the book Bible, I could find a passage in seconds. With the Kindle, I miss being able to flip from passage to passage to inform what I'm reading at the time.  The second problem is that the battery ran out during church Wednesday night, and I was stuck without a Bible.  I guess I'm going to have to remember to treat the Kindle like my car - when the battery is down to a quarter-tank, refuel.

Another thing that nags at the back of my mind is how "selfish" Kindle is. If I buy a book on Kindle, it's available to only me, unless I am willing to share my sweet device, and I fear what would happen if I let my kids borrow it - I have found it to be very true that "You can't have anything nice if you have kids."  The plus side of all those books on the shelf is that they are there, visible, inviting. Just yesterday, my daughter was loitering in the room where I was working on stuff for school, and she suddenly said, "Anne of Green Gables! We saw that movie at school. It was good! I think I'll read this when I'm finished with The Red Pyramid." How can that happen if my library is hidden on a Kindle?

Finally, something that is bothersome but has nothing, really, to do with Kindle is that their Whispernet service is sort of iffy where I live. I've been able to connect to the store, but a couple of times the download of a book was interrupted because of loss of signal, I guess. I finally had to download the book on the computer and transfer it over.  One of the drawbacks of living in the boondocks.

Overall, I'm really pleased that my husband knocked me off the fence by getting me this gift. But I still haven't quite worked out how ebooks and paper books will interact in my world. I'm re-reading Hamlet to prepare me to read Ophelia by Lisa Klein, and rather than get a Kindle version of the play, I went to the shelf and pulled down my Complete Works of William Shakespeare from college days. You know, why buy a book I already have, blah, blah.  The first night, I propped open the 3-inch spine of the Complete Works so I could read in bed. Bits of a dead flower that must have commemorated something in college fell onto my face. My elbows and biceps gradually sagged as I made my way through the first scene.  Three nights in, my resolve is wavering. Does it really matter if I duplicate something in my library? For $.99, I can have Hamlet on my Kindle....

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Mixed Reaction

(Sorry, this will have lots of spoilers.)

Somewhere along the way, A Northern Light and I parted ways. At first, I loved it. The main character, Mattie, reminded me in many ways of my teen self. She loved words and writing, but her day-to-day life made it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to see how she could follow her dreams of studying literature and writing her stories. I liked the dilemma she was facing (and wrote about it in an earlier post). I liked the supporting characters of Weaver and Royal and Miss Willcox and Mattie's family.  I liked the slice-of-life glimpse into early 20th-century upstate New York, where the rich came to vacation in the mountains and the poor made a living by serving them.

But toward the end of the book, Jennifer Donnelly made several choices as a writer that I disagreed with and that left me with a bad taste in my mouth as far as this book is concerned. First, I think the turnaround of Emmie Hubbard was just too darn convenient. Emmie has been a -- well, I don't know what she has been. A victim? Royal's father has definitely been taking advantage of her for years. A prostitute? She's been accepting his "gifts" of the first, freshest milk, etc. for all those years. Whatever she is, she's definitely weak. I think Donnelly wants us to view her as a victim, but I can't see it entirely that way.  But, I digress - her turnaround.  At the end of the book, Weaver's mother has moved in with Emmie and, in the space of a week or so, has completely reformed Emmie, so that she is clean and respectable and able to provide for her children. I don't buy it. For one thing, if Weaver's mother has been living across the road from Emmie all these years (and it came as sort of a surprise to me when that was revealed at the end of the book), and if she's such a good influence, and if everyone in the area knew what was going on with Emmie and Royal's father, and if she thought Emmie was being wronged - then why didn't she do anything about it before???? I think it's because it ties in to something else that bothered me about the book - the way Donnelly wanted us to feel about Royal.

I'll admit I've changed my mind about having Mattie get together with Royal since my previous post. I really don't think they would be compatible. She is attracted to him because he's good-looking and because she thinks he is attracted to her, despite her plain and bookish self. She doesn't really care for him or have anything in common with him and isn't really interested in the things he cares about, so for them to marry would definitely be a mistake.

However, I think Donnelly wants to push all the blame for this failed relationship onto Royal. The reason he wants to marry Mattie is because he sees the opportunity to build a farm "empire." He doesn't love her or care about her interest in books. The two things that eventually make Mattie decide to dump him are that he is going to pay the back taxes on Emmie's land so he can have it (which means Emmie will be homeless) and that he brings Mattie a used cookbook for a birthday present. Although she doesn't say so, I imagine that Donnelly wants us to say, "The nerve of the guy!" and write him off as a jerk. Well, I refuse to do that.

What's wrong with Royal wanting to get Emmie's land? She hasn't been meeting her responsibilities for years, either for paying her taxes or for taking care of her kids (they regularly come to Mattie's family's house to eat). He wants to take the land and make it productive. Then add to that the fact that his father has been having a long-standing affair with Emmie, and Royal sees his chance to get her out of their lives. I totally understand his motivation, and don't see it as being particularly ignoble. Yet Donnelly wants us to see him as selfish and grasping, willing to turn a mother out on the streets. And she even has Weaver's mama step in and straighten Emmie out so Emmie's not a bad mother anymore. I just didn't like that whole bit.

Another thing I didn't like was making Royal into a jerk for giving Mattie the used cookbook for her birthday. When she sees the gift and knows it is a book, she gets her hopes up, only to have them dashed. The way it comes across in the story, that's the worst thing a guy can do - be so insensitive to his girl's feelings and so unaware of her desires. Like the "right" guy for a girl is going to be perfectly in tune with her and understand exactly what she wants. Come on. I bet most women out there have had a gift like the used cookbook. Maybe it's something you open and you think, "Why did he think I would like this??"  Or maybe it is a useful and totally impersonal household appliance. Yet the husband or boyfriend who gave the lame gift has enough other, good qualities that you'll let it pass. At least Royal thought about Mattie enough to remember her birthday.  He should get some points for that, instead of being turned into an insensitive lout. Let's face it - he's not the only problem in that relationship. Mattie didn't care about his dreams, either. She was thinking about Emily Dickinson instead of concentrating while he was talking about a new kind of corn.

As I said earlier, I don't have a problem with Mattie deciding she doesn't want to marry Royal, after all. That's actually a pretty good message for young women - don't marry the first guy who says you're pretty if you know you have nothing in common. What I didn't like was having Royal be villified for being that guy.

Finally, I didn't like having Mattie just leave at the end. All through the book, she's been so concerned about keeping the promise she made to her dying mother; at the end, she doesn't even think about that. She doesn't seem to care at all what will happen to her family, especially to Lou, the sister who seems to me to have some emotional problems following their mother's death.  Mattie's teacher once told her, "You are many things, Mattie Gokey, but selfish is not one of them." I disagree.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What's a 21st-Century Feminist to Do?

I'm really enjoying A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Really, really enjoying it. I'm so glad I had that moment of weakness in the bookstore that led to buying it.

I'm about halfway through, and I find myself with a bit of a dilemma. I predict that the main character, Mattie, is going to have a choice to make at the end. She loves words and writing and wants to go to college, something that not many young women in the early 20th century managed to do. On the other hand, she is being courted by Royal Loomis, and she is liking it.  However, I'm afraid those two paths for her future are, unfortunately, mutually exclusive. As Mattie said,

Miss Wilcox had books but no family. Minnie had a family now, but those babies would keep her from reading for a good long time. Some people, like my aunt Josie and Alvah Dunning the hermit, had neither love nor books. Nobody I knew had both.

Maybe I'll be wrong, and Mattie will get to be the person who has both. But somehow I don't think the ending will be that easy.  And that brings me to my dilemma: which do I think Mattie should choose, love or books?

I find myself really hoping she will get together with Royal. He offers her something she doesn't have in her own family - stability. Since Mattie's mother died, her family has really struggled financially, and her father is distant and angry all the time. Royal seems like a steady, hard working guy who would always provide for Mattie.  Even as I write that, a little voice in the back of my head keeps saying, "But he doesn't respect her love of learning. They don't have enough in common to have a good relationship." Probably so. I keep falling into that same old trap girls have fallen into for centuries: "OK, so he's not perfect now, but he'll learn to respect the things that matter to her." Uh-huh.

So, she rejects Royal and finds a way to go to college. That would be the more 21st-century thing to do. Who says a woman needs a relationship to define who she is? Mattie can be true to her self and to her talents and not let anything stand between her and her dreams. Though giving up her chance with Royal might be hard in the short run, she will probably eventually find love with someone who is more in tune with her intellectually.  If she married Royal, she would be stuck in a life of drudgery on his farm, and he shows some signs of being a little rigid in his attitudes. Why should she sacrifice her own dreams to live his dreams? I can't let the old romantic fairy tale of love cloud the reality of her life. She's better off without Royal.

Yet, the enlightened and liberated professional woman I like to pretend I am seems to be losing out at this point to the romantic reared on lots of "happily ever after" stories.

I don't know how it's going to turn out - and I am absolutely resisting the strong urge I feel to flip ahead and see!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Sharp Tongue or a Soft Answer

There's a saying on the marquee of a church that I pass frequently that reads, "A sharp tongue may cut your own throat." As I read The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, I couldn't help thinking of that saying, because apparently the main reason Martha Carrier was imprisoned and hanged as a witch was because she had a sharp tongue. 

Everyone, from family members to neighbors, was a target for that tongue. Most people probably just let it roll off their backs, labeling Martha as an unpleasant person you shouldn't cross. However, there were some who took her comments more personally, and, in an atmosphere charged with suspicion and fear, they saw their chance to make Martha pay for that sharp tongue.

Am I saying that Martha was wrong to speak her mind? Not necessarily. Her sister, Mary, who is portrayed as being as gentle as Martha is harsh, was also arrested and spent months in jail (though she wasn't hanged). And I'll admit - there are times when something negative really ought to be said. "I'm not going to let you lie and trick my son into marriage." "Your writing is not up to standard." "You're not getting enough done." "Yes, that dress makes you look fat." The trick is, how can we say those things without creating enemies, as Martha did?

When I used to teach interpersonal communication, one of the concepts I liked and emphasized in class was rhetorical sensitivity.  Put simply, rhetorical sensitivity is the ability to look at a situation and to shape a message to meet the needs of the speaker and the listener in a way that will meet those needs (as much as possible) and maintain a relationship. Martha's responses usually met her needs only. Maybe she didn't care about the relationship. I get that; there are a couple of people at work who really bug me, and I don't care if they like me or not. However, I understand that I'm going to have to live with these people. Even if I wish they would get another job, it's probably not going to happen. I have to work with them, and if I antagonize them, working with them is going to be all that much harder.

How much truer would that be in a frontier community? No one could be completely self-sufficient. Like it or not, Martha was part of a community, and when she refused to make herself a part, the community turned on her and her family.

It's sad. I don't think Martha was a bad person, and the characters she sparred with were pretty despicable.  But the circumstances gave them power, and one thing despicable people in power will do is dispose of their enemies.

There's a lot of wisdom in Proverbs 15:1 - "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger." (KJV)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Little Poetic License, I Suppose

The other night the kids and I watched Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. I have to admit, I'm not much of a movie watcher, and I got bored and wandered off to clean the dishes or something. Part of the problem may have been that it wasn't much like the Alice in Wonderland I remember from my youth. There were the basic characters, but the plot seemed entirely different. My son (who has read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) said the movie is Burton's take on what could have happened - in other words, a sequel that was never written.

This is not anything new. I remember hating Melissa Gilbert when I was a kid because of what that TV show did to the Little House book series, LOL. And as a student of literature and communication, I understand that a movie director is producing a different work than the original book, and that the director has a certain degree of poetic license to produce his/her work.  A faithful adaptation of a novel doesn't always satisfy; the first Harry Potter movie seemed a little too self-conscious about sticking close to the book, in my opinion. With a long book, a director simply has to leave some things out - who wants to sit for more than three hours watching a movie? (Well, I take that back - my husband has been known to sit and watch all three of the Lord of the Rings movies in one sitting - the extended versions).

Sometimes, the director does a great job capturing the "soul" of the book, even if there are significant changes from the book. The Lord of the Rings series is the best example. Although Shelob was in the second book, it made narrative sense to put her in the third movie. My husband and son were upset because there was no funeral for Dumbledore at the end of the Half-Blood Prince movie. I'm suspending judgment on that, thinking that may be the place where the first half of the last Harry Potter movie will start. If so, I think that's a reasonable use of poetic license.

What I do have a problem with are movies that give only lip service to the original work. One clear example is Stuart Little. Ugh, I hate that movie! There's very little in that movie that comes from the book. In fact, it almost seems like the people who produced this movie weren't all that interested in the story in the book; all they wanted was the character, the mouse who lived with a human family. And even with that, they significantly changed Stuart's character from a dapper mouse in a tiny suit (see Garth Williams' rendition above) to a more casual "skater" mouse.

So what? So, my daughter sees no need to read Stuart Little; she's "seen the movie, Mom!" 

We're going to nip that attitude in the bud...she saw an ad for the Beezus and Ramona movie and asked to go see it. I said, "You have to read the book first." Next thing I know, there she is, curled up on the couch reading it. Yes.....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Kids Are So Delightful

Last night, I noticed my daughter was once again reading The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for the third time (this year), and I made some typical motherly comment to the effect of she needs to expand her reading horizons instead of reading the same thing over and over.  Her brother, ever eager to pile on when someone points out a flaw in his sister, immediately agreed. Before I knew what had happened, they had made a pact to create a reading list for each other - 10 books to be completed this summer.

The lists themselves are pretty telling as to the kids' personalities.  Lily's list for Roger has The Two Princesses of Bamarre, of course, as well as Fairest, Princess Academy, Dealing with get the drift.  Lots of princesses.  Roger's list for Lily reads like a syllabus for a course in the epic adventure -- The Lightning Thief, The Hobbit, Eragon, Redwall, etc. 

Lily started The Lightning Thief immediately, and it was such fun to hear her laughing out loud at some parts. She loves it. In fact, she's almost finished it tonight, and she asked Roger if she can suspend the reading list so she can read the rest of the series.  So the project was a success.

Roger read Fairest last night and had started on The Two Princesses of Bamarre (that kid can devour books, let me tell you). This morning, he reported that neither book had a main character worthy of the title "protagonist," (not his words) because they are "weak" (his word). Of course I couldn't let that pass without comment. Come to find out, he considers them weak because they aren't like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or even Eoweyn (forgive the spelling - it's late, and I'm too lazy to go look it up). That provided the perfect opportunity for a little gender role discussion and to point out that men's ways of being strong aren't the only valid strengths. He at least pretended to listen, ha ha.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Brave New World" for Readers, or More of the Same, Just Different?

In perusing blogs this week, I came across a link to this article by Laura Miller in Salon in which she contends that once self-publishing really takes off, readers are going to find out how awful it is to have to read through the slush pile.  She says, in part

You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is....It seriously messes with your head to read slush....In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours.
Miller seemed to think that readers are going to have to start plowing through a lot of slush in order to find anything good to read. My question is, how is that any different, really, than what I'm doing now? (Note: I'm not going to lay the negative connotations on the word "slush" that she puts on it. In the remainder of this post, "slush" will simply mean a LOT of something.)

Let's say I'm searching for something new to read. First, I have options of where to look - my own bookshelves, the library, a bookstore, an online book seller. Then I have a huge number of books to go through in order to find THE one I'm going to read. Part of the process involves eliminating what I don't want to read.  When I walk into a bookstore, I don't even bother walking through the sections that contain genres I don't care about. I go straight to those parts of the store that I believe will have books in my area of interest and my favorite genre. Then I start scanning covers and titles. Thinking about my trip a week or so ago (when I ended up buying the two books), I sorted the books in my mind without ever picking them up. If there was a vampire (or vampire-looking sort of being), or if the title seemed sort of trendy or angst-ridden, I didn't give it another glance. I zeroed in on those books that seemed to have some link to something historical.  I'll admit I also looked more closely at books with titles that started with "N," "O," and "P," since I'm at that point in the A-Z reading challenge.  My point is, going through the slush wasn't a time-consuming, mind-numbing process. I already have filters in place that help me wade through the slush, and I bet you do, too.

What happened when a title or cover art caught my eye and seemed to meet the conditions of my filters? I read the back cover blurb to get an idea of what the plot might be and who the characters are. It actually annoys me when the back cover is devoted to testimonials about the author's work; at that decision point, I don't want to know what someone else says about the author - I want to know about the story.  If the blurb passed the test, I usually flipped the book open to a couple of different points in the middle and read a couple of sentences, or a paragraph, or even a full page or two. The more I read on those random drop-ins for the book, the more likely I was to buy the book.  If the writing at some random point seems not so good, I assume there are going to be other problems, especially if the writing is not so good at multiple random points.  On the other hand, if the voice catches me right away (as it did with Ophelia), it's a done deal - I'm buying the book.

I guess I don't understand why Miller thinks having more self-published books is going to change the way people choose their books. We all have our rubrics for making choices, and those rubrics are going to apply, regardless of the number of possible choices available. I prefer not to read science fiction, so it doesn't make any difference to me whether there are 5 new science fiction books out there or 50,000. I'm going to be looking at historical fiction. If there are 50,000 new historical fiction books, I will sort them by looking for books about a particular time period.  I'm hoping the loosening of control on publishing will give me some more choice; I'm tired of having most of the limited few historical fiction books published each year focus on a limited range of historical time periods and famous figures (anyway, that's how it seems).

Unlike Miller, I'm not going to assume that anything published by some alternative to commercial publishing is "dreck." Sure, I agree that poor writing is painful to read. Believe me, I have suffered my share of pain through reading student papers!! I've also suffered some of that pain reading self-published novels. But I've read some self-published and small-press works that were pretty good and could have been really good with some more editing. I was willing to forgive their flaws because their characters were so likeable or because I got caught up in the story and wanted to know what happened. In the end, it's not who published the book; it's where the story takes me.

I say, bring on this brave new world! People won't give up and quit reading (as Miller seems to contend). Readers will continue to forge their way through the deluge of new work the way they always have - using whatever means have served them well in the past.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Not the Best for a Bedtime Read

The only time of day I really have a chance to read is when I go to bed. Unless the book is dull or I'm unusually tired, this usually works well. However, I'm thinking as I read The Heretic's Daughter that I may need to change my habit temporarily.

Every night when I read some of this book, my sleep is what I would call "disturbed." My daughter asked if that meant I'm having bad dreams. No, not dreams. But not peaceful sleep either. I think the problem is that I am so aware that something bad is going to happen (I haven't read ahead yet, but let's face it - we all know the Salem witch trials don't turn out well....) that my mind is trying to work it all out, even as I'm sleeping. 

It probably also has a lot to do with Kent's skill in evoking mood. At one point last night, I was reading about the clandestine trip Sarah and her baby sister make to an aunt's house to avoid the pox. As I read Kent's description of the cold night, I could picture it -- no, I could feel it.  Kent seems to be very good at creating sort of a sense of doom through the narrator's voice. As much as I am enjoying the book, part of me also cringes away from it. I don't know that I'm going to enjoy reading about the cruelty humans can inflict on each other, especially from the victims' viewpoint.  But reading is meant to stretch our worlds, right? Not just keep us comfortable.....

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Don't Take an Alcoholic to a Liquor Store, and You Don't Take Me to a Bookstore

This was the week when I make the "sacrifice" to take my son to brass camp in another town (1.5 hrs away) so he can hang out with other brass players and get to work with a professional, touring tuba player. While he's doing that from 9-3, I'm hanging out at the big public library. Some sacrifice, huh?

This particular library has a little bookstore of used and discarded books, and I ended up buying a couple of books for my daughter to read.  I'm trying to get her to move past the Warriors series. It's not that I think anything is wrong with that series, but when she starts re-reading the same books over and over, I'd like for her to discover some of the other wonderful characters and stories that are out there. The two books were Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech and Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. She has taken Chasing Vermeer to her bedroom, so maybe she's going to actually read it. If she does, I'm going to try to get her to be a guest blogger.

So, I could justify that little incident of addiction by saying I did it for my daughter. But what happened yesterday has no such easy justification - it was all for selfish reasons!  After I picked up my son from his camp, we had three hours to kill before the camp's final concert. Eventually, we ended up at a chain bookstore (he suggested it! It's really not my fault, ha ha!). I meandered around for a while, waiting for him and idly looking at the science fiction and history for something that might make a good Father's Day gift for my husband.  Somehow I ended up in the teen section, and that's when it happened - all my willpower and self-control broke down.

At first, I was bemoaning (as usual) the glut of vampires and dark magic books that make up the teen section, and then I began to idly look for an "N" book for my A-Z reading challenge (see how innocent temptation appears at first?!). My intention was to find a title and then look for it in the local library.  But then I found A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. I was interested in the blurb, especially when I found that the book is set in 1906 and ties in with Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (one of those things I read a portion of as an English major years ago in college).  But I was able to put it back on the shelf and move on.

Then I saw Ophelia  by Lisa Klein, and I was doomed.  I've been interested in Ophelia since I found it browsing in one of those other "killing time" sessions spent in a bookstore. This time, though, I opened it and read a little, and I was hooked. It's not in the local library. I could probably get it on interlibrary loan, it was, so convenient.

There's probably a name for the psychological mechanism that worked on me. I probably could have resisted if there had been only one book. But to find TWO books that intrigued me, TWO books that didn't have any connections to vampires and do have some connection to history...let's face it, I didn't have a chance!

I have a wonderful summer of reading ahead of me!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Writing and Golf (or, What to Do, What to Do)

(This should be read in a matter-of-fact, non-whiny voice. It is not a pity party.)

I am about this close to calling it quits with trying to get published. And probably not for the reasons you would anticipate. I've been reading some agent blogs lately, and yeah, the numbers are staggeringly discouraging. One agent said he gets about 15,000 queries per year and takes on 3-5 new clients. But that's not what has discouraged me.  One agent answered my question about the future of historical fiction honestly by saying, "I won't lie. It's tough." I appreciate her straight answer, and although it's a discouraging answer for me, both as a writer and as a reader, that's not what has discouraged me.

Here's the discouraging part: I've been reading the comments left on those blogs, too, most of which are left by aspiring writers. And there are three attitudes that I'm picking up on that, if they are representative of "the game," just turn me off.  First, some people are just rude. It makes me think of what I learned about life in elementary school - some people try to make themselves look good (or in the case of these comments, clever or "with it" or saavy about the world of publishing) by belittling others in replies to those others' comments. I don't know why I'm surprised by that; aspiring writers are a microcosm of the rest of society, and there's a percentage of people in any field who are that way.

Second, I don't like the constant self-promotion (or promotion of one's work, I guess). I know in this competitive environment it's really important to get the word out. And I know that if you don't toot your own horn, no one else is going to do it. But some commentors manage to work in a discussion of their plot or characters no matter what the original topic of the post is.

Finally, and this one bothers me most, no one seems to be listening to anyone else. There may be 100+ comments, but most of them are discrete responses to the original post. Only occasionally does something like a conversation get going. Maybe I misunderstand the purpose of comments and am thinking of something that is more like a forum or discussion board. But I sometimes think the internet has made it all too easy for each of us to have our say without paying any attention to what someone else is saying. 

So....back to my original contention, that I think I might quit. I'm not a competitive person. I don't want to have to engage in those sorts of behaviors to "succeed."  I don't want to be famous. The only reason I started writing was because I wanted to tell the story. Somewhere along the way, I began to think writing was only worthwhile if it "paid off." I felt too guilty about spending time at the computer instead of playing with my kids or washing dishes if there wasn't going to be a product that could bring in something as return on investment. But you know something? I bet there are millions of golfers who spend lots of time on the golf course but never expect to play professionally. They do it because it is relaxing and enjoyable. Why can't I feel the same way about my writing?

Maybe I should put my story on the Kindle store for 99 cents and be done with it!

(The thing that makes me reluctant to do that, though, is that I might lose the drive to improve the story. If I had put my book out there when I first finished it two/three years ago, it would have been flabby compared to what it is today, when I'm trying to edit it into a form strong enough to attract an agent's attention. But then again, maybe I'm editing the thing to death. I just know that when I go back after a couple of weeks and read the chapters I've trimmed 500 words out of, I realize those chapters are MUCH better than before. It's pretty amazing how virile the language can be when every word is forced to carry a major load!)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My First Failure of the Year

I decided last night that I just can't do it. Read The Mysterious Benedict Society, that is. At least not now. I've read about four chapters and I just can't get into it, although my son assures me the pace picks up. But every night after about two pages, my eyes are rolling shut, the book is wobbling around, and I fear some night it's going to hit me in the face. This is a thick book. If I can only read two pages a night, it's going to take ALL summer! And this particular book is not what I want to spend all summer reading.

The fact that one of my good friends sent a copy of The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent surely couldn't have anything to do with my decision......

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Disappointment of Unfufilled Potential

I'm still plugging along with my A-Z reading challenge. I had reached "L," which was supposed to be Twain's Life on the Mississippi. But a couple of weeks ago when I was at the library with my kids, I saw an "L" book on the shelf that intrigued me - The Lace Dowry by Andrea Cheng. The story is about a young Hungarian girl whose mother had decided to commission a handmade lace tablecloth as a dowry.  According to the book cover, the conflict of the story centers around whether the mother and daughter who are working on the lace will be able to complete it, and the main character's attempts to help them be able to do it.

I was drawn to the idea of reading about a different culture that I don't know a lot about, and the book was set in 1933, which meant it is historical fiction. So, although I am actually eager to read Life on the Mississippi, I decided to suspend it in favor of The Lace Dowry.  While I'm not going to say that decision was a mistake, I will admit I was disappointed in The Lace Dowry.

The main problem is that it was so sketchy. It started off all right, setting up the character of Juli as a girl more interested in reading and in science than in getting things lined up for an acceptable marriage. The conflict between Juli and her mother is also set up; her mother is going to force Juli to go along with the dowry idea and with taking dancing lessons.  Finally, we get to meet Roza and her mother, who will be making the lace. We discover that lace-making is tedious and hard on the eyes, and that both Roza and her mother are suffering from eye strain.

All of that is a decent setup for a plot. But this book just doesn't deliver. (Spoilers ahead!) About halfway through the book, we are told that Roza's mother has gone blind and they aren't going to be able to finish the lace. At that point, Juli's mother sort of loses it. She gets a job and seems to be pulling away from Juli. Juli cooks up a plan to get jeweler's glasses that will help Roza and her mother be able to finish the lace. She lies to her parents and buys the glasses, but when she goes to Halas (the country town) alone to deliver them, no one is at Roza's house. So Juli takes the glasses and sticks them in a drawer. After talking to her father, Juli begins to see her mother in a different light and tries to make up with her. That seemed to have turned out to be the main plot - that Juli and her mother, though different, would come to peace with each other.  But then in the last chapter, Roza suddenly shows up at Juli's door with the completed lace, Juli gives Roza the glasses, the end.

After reading that, you may be wondering what my problem is. Sounds reasonable as a storyline, right? But it has so many holes and things that come together by what seems to be very convenient circumstances. For one thing, if Juli's future is so important to her mother that she's willing to invest a lot of money is a very expensive dowry, why does she suddenly just give up on trying to "improve" Juli once the dowry is in jeopardy? Is Juli worth something only if she can make a good marriage?  How did Roza (an uneducated country girl) find her way to Juli's apartment in Budapest? What happened about the lie Juli told her parents - they find out, they are mad, and then suddenly that's just dropped. But worst of all is the timing of the dowry showing up and the gift of the glasses. 

My understanding of how a plot should work is that the main character should be the one who effects the key change that happens. That's not to say that other forces -- possibly very powerful forces -- aren't at work as well.  But in order for the main character to be worthy of his/her status as the protagonist, he/she has to make some kind of decision that sets something in motion.  If outside forces create all the circumstances that shape the character's life, then he/she is passive. We as readers are denied the satisfaction of believing actions DO make a difference and that people CAN influence what happens in their lives - and isn't that part of the reason we read, to escape from the stuff we can't control in our own lives?  That's why we love Harry Potter - with everything against him, Harry still struggles on and manages to change his world for the better. I'm sure you can think of multitudes of other characters doing the same.

Given that theory, Juli should have been the one who made it possible for Roza and her mother to finish the lace. She should have had to make a real sacrifice to get the glasses (possibly the short-term sacrifice of having her parents be angry at her), and she should have delivered them at a point when the future of the lace was teetering on uncertainty. But as it turned out, Juli's efforts to get the glasses were for nothing. She lied to her parents and made a trip to Halas on her own, only to end up stuffing the glasses in a drawer. Roza finished the lace anyway, and then when Juli gives her the glasses, to me it felt like an afterthought: "Oh, yeah, I got these for you."

That's not the only thing I was disappointed about with the book (the writing style was rather stark and barren, I thought), but that's all I'm going to elaborate on since it's getting late and everyone else has gone to bed.  I just think it's a shame that a story that could have been fulfilling ended up leaving me wanting so much more.