Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This Is So Cool!

Apparently, my daughter has been studying the US Civil War at school this quarter. Tonight the school put on a "literacy night" in which all the activities related to some aspect of the war. We looked at dioramas and she tried "shooting" with a rubber band, and we ate real hardtack one of the classes had baked. The evening wrapped up with the girls' choir singing a medley of Civil War-era songs. Overall, it was a pleasant evening.

The cool part came on the way home, though. Somehow, she got started telling me about a writing assignment she had (or was it maybe just something she's doing on her own?). She is writing a story about Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy. The story is action-packed. My daughter detailed what she has written up to now (with dialogue and everything), and then she outlined where she plans to take the story. She talked about trying to be historically accurate, and we decided handcuffs wouldn't work since Belle is going to use a soldier's sword to cut her bonds and be able to escape.

It was fun to listen to her. I already think she has a real talent for creating voice and mood (she takes great pride in her ability to write description). Tonight, though, she seemed to have a better concept of plot than ever before. And her Belle Boyd character is really a go-getter! : )

Maybe she'll be published some day....

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Quick Study in Creating Empathy

I was thinking some more about my post of the other day, and I wondered if perhaps I wasn't over-reacting a bit in thinking I was so disappointed by the ending of Page from a Tennessee Journal. I decided to do some examination of the area that seemed to be the major problem: my lack of investment in the characters' emotional lives. To do this, I thought it would be most appropriate to compare a scene from Page to a scene in a book with characters I did care about. I chose Ann Turnbull's Alice in Love and War, comparing Alice Newcombe and Page's Eula Mae McNaughton. There is a scene in each book in which each woman suspects that the man she loves and has devoted herself to may be less than faithful. Of course, it's not a perfect comparison; Eula Mae is the wife who is being wronged, while Alice is the "other woman." But I thought it would be as close as anything I could find, and I want to be fair.

Warning: This is going to be a LONG post because I need to quote some passages from the books to make the comparison.

Friday, November 18, 2011

I Feel Ripped Off

Reading is an act of investment. The reader puts his/her time and mental/emotional resources into a story, hoping in the end to get something - insight into life, historical knowledge, emotional satisfaction, maybe just simple entertainment and escape. When the payoff doesn't seem worth the investment, the result is disappointment. Trust me--it happened to me tonight. I finished Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard and my immediate reaction was, "Really?? I spent all those evenings reading this book and putting up with its flaws, and THAT'S how the story ends????"

(There will be multiple spoilers in this discussion, so if you don't want to know them, don't read any further.)

First, a quick summary. The story is set in Tennessee in 1913, when white farmers "hired" black sharecroppers to raise and harvest the tobacco crop. The story is told from the viewpoints of four characters -- Annalaura Welles and her husband, John (the sharecroppers), and Alex McNaughton (the farmer) and his wife, Eula May. When the story begins, John Welles has, by all appearances, abandoned Annalaura and their four children (he's actually gone to Nashville to try to earn enough money to buy their own land so they can get out of the sharecropping system). Annalaura is having a difficult time feeding the family, and she doesn't know how she and the children (all under the age of 12) are going to get in the tobacco crop. One day when Alex McNaughton is making his rounds to check on the sharecroppers, he sees Annalaura with her skirt hiked up as she works in the field, and he is overcome with lust for her. Eventually, she agrees to become his mistress in exchange for food (and, as it turns out, other items like shoes and toys) for her children. Annalaura quickly becomes pregnant, and near the end of her pregnancy, her husband John suddenly returns, setting off a crisis. John is determined to kill Alex, Alex is determined to either run John out of town or kill him, Annalaura delivers the baby prematurely, and it is too white to pass as the child of a black man. Alex, who is delighted to have a baby, gets Annalaura to promise to move in to his house as a hired girl, but when John comes to take her and his family away from Tennessee, she goes with him instead on a train headed to Chicago. In the last chapter of the book, John gives her a choice -- she can go to Chicago, where chances are pretty good that Alex can find her, or the family can get off the train in a town before they get to Chicago and start over. He will forgive her infidelity and raise Alex's baby as his own.  He goes back to his seat to allow her to make her decision.  And here's how the book ends:
Her hand began a slow slide down the page. A raised place in the paper stopped her. She eased her eyes open and stared down at the letters on the smoothed-out sheet [which is the train schedule]. Her answer had lain there all along. The pain in her heart eased. Choose, said John. Choose me, Alex had said. But she had a choice neither man had given her. Annalaura stroked Lottie's arm and settled into sleep, her mind at peace. All of her tomorrows belonged in only one set of hands -- her own.
SO WHAT DID SHE DECIDE? Is she going to Chicago? Is she getting off the train early? Is she going to accept John back in her life or is she going to hope Alex comes for her? Or...is she going to dump both men and start over on her own? I can't tell. I don't think I'm too dense to get it.  Or am I? Do you get it? If you do, please fill me in.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Can Handle the Truth! (or can I?)

Last week, I entered a query contest sponsored by a literary agent, mainly because she promised to respond to every query with her honest reaction (hence the name of the contest and of this blog post). I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some feedback, especially since she promised to respond to them all (which is quite rare, in my experience with querying). So today I got her response, and she said she would pass on my book. I can't say I was surprised, and I wasn't upset. Actually, I was rather encouraged, because her reason for rejecting my query didn't have anything to do with the writing.

But I do become discouraged when I think about what was her reason. Here it is in her own words:

I'm not sure how commercial a historical with a western feel will be for YA.

In other words, she doesn't think my story would sell enough copies that publishers would think it is worth the financial investment to publish it. If publishers are going to sell historical, it's probably going to be about royalty (think Tudors) or some high-profile historical event (like the Salem witch trials). She's not saying my book about early pioneers wouldn't sell at all, just that it wouldn't make enough money. So she's not going to waste her time trying to pitch it to editors (and getting no money for her effort) when she could be pitching another paranormal series of some kind for teens, which would be more likely to earn her 15 percent cut. Can't blame her for that, and I'm not bitter about it (really).

I'm not bitter, but I'm saddened a bit, as a reader as much as a writer. There's a piece of advice for writers that I see quoted frequently that says something to the effect of "write the book you would like to read. If you like it, there will be someone else who does." So that's what I've done - I wrote exactly the kind of thing I love to read. And now I hear from an agent that the kind of story I love to read isn't "commercial" enough, which means there will be less and less of it in the future.

With the end of the year coming up, I was thinking the other day about my year-end review of the books I've read in 2011. It struck me that there haven't been that many I've truly enjoyed. Let's see, off the top of my head I can think of three that I really got caught up in - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. Some of the others (including the one I'm reading right now, unfortunately) have been a real struggle to get through. I'm probably not going to make any friends here, but several of those I've struggled with (including the one I'm reading right now) have been self-published books. The problems I've come across are often things about the writing style that could have been taken care of with a good, tough editor - like the "sun-streaked hair" mentioned dozens of times in the romance novel I read last summer, or the sort of weird obsession with eye position in the book I'm currently reading (I'll talk about that another time). But self-published work usually doesn't get a pass through a good, tough editor. It's just too expensive to hire a freelance editor when you're probably going to barely make back enough to cover your basic costs (really, it is quite expensive - I've looked).

I guess my point is, if mainstream publishers aren't going to take a chance on historical fiction that falls outside of certain narrow parameters because it is too "niche," does that mean I'm going to be stuck reading work that is two or three drafts away from polished? That doesn't make me look forward to my future reading, to be perfectly honest. It also discourages me even more when I think that teens won't have choices to read good historical fiction. It's sort of like shopping for clothes when you are a "woman"; do women older than me really like those pantsuits with the big, gaudy, beaded flowers on the top, or do they buy them just because that's all that's available in their size? Do the majority of teens really want only vampire stories, or is that what they buy because it's what is in the bookstore? I don't know.

I guess I can comfort myself by remembering Ann Turnbull's next book in the Quaker series is supposed to be coming out next spring (I hope that's right), Nancy Dane has the last book in her Civil War series set to come out in 2012, and I haven't yet read the sequel to Chains. Those are things to look forward to. And I suppose I should quit being so picky and critical about everything I read. (But that sounds like settling.....)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaSSMo for Me!

Today marks the beginning of National Novel-Writing Month, in which people will attempt to write a 50,000-word novel. Because of my day job, I never really think seriously about trying, although every November 1, I rather longingly read through the posts of friends who are giving it a go. This year, though, I decided I am actually going to try to completely write something in this month - my chapter for the university's self-study report.

To me, this is an undertaking as massive as a 50,000-word novel, mainly because it's not going to be nearly as fun as getting to create characters and plot. Another intimidating factor is the sheer amount of research that has to go into creating this document - some of which I've been doing, some of which I am depending on other people to do. This chapter has to collate and, more importantly, evaluate where the university stands in terms of its support of the "acquisition, discovery, and application of knowledge."

Ugh. But you know what? I'd really (1000x) prefer to ruin this month by writing this report than be stuck doing it during my Christmas break.  So.....NaSSMo, here I go! Tonight, I will review my outline and see if there is at least one small section I can get started on without my research notes here at hand.

Maybe I should offer myself an incentive for getting the draft finished by Nov. 30.  Any ideas?