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 Kidlit.com 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.