Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #107 Best Book of the Month

You know, I've been doing Road Trip Wednesday for a few months now, and I have always had a very difficult time with the 'what's the best book you've read this month' question.  I've skipped it, I've evaded it, because for me the meaning of 'best book,' doesn't mean the least bad of books, but the number one book of all the ones I enjoyed.

(I should probably write out the semantics for this, where if the denotation of [[thoroughly enjoyed book]] is empty, then [[best book]] must be empty.  But I won't.)

But finally, November!

For book club we read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I found readable and okay, but not excellent or satisfying.  And then I read Medicus by Ruth Downie.

This was an excellent book.  It was hilarious, complex, intriguing.  I loved all the characters: Ruso, Tilla, Chloe.  The setting was awesome, visually and socially compelling.  Roman Britain is a really cool place, and Downie brought it to life with the perfect details.  But the plot, oh my, the plot is what keeps those pages turning and turning.  (And for all the FYAers, I found this incredibly swoonworthy, an 8 at least.)

Basically, I can't recommend it enough.  Check it out!

Friday, November 25, 2011

What YA Fantasy Means to Me...

A particular famous author once said, after reading a short story of mine, that some people just have YA voices.  After about a year of struggling to write a dark, gritty adult novel (which, in the end, was probably a thriller, only I had never read any thrillers, so I had no idea how they worked), and another year of being depressed about not wanting to write, I decided to write a book that I would like to read.  To do this, I made a list of all my favorite books, which quickly started to trend toward fantasy books with children as the main characters.  Why was I trying to write literary fiction (and failing) I wondered, when that wasn't what I enjoyed reading.

I had been a fantasy reader as a child: Edgar Eager, Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones.  But when I had finished the Juveniles and wanted something new with a little more meat and depth than the latest Choose Your Own Adventure, I peered into the adult fantasy section and didn't find anything that matched up at all with the books I had read before.  I read Xanth, because it was funny, and did occasionally have an interesting idea, and I adored the On a Pale Horse series, even though I was not entirely prepared for the rape and death and sticky adult situations that I found there.  But I wasn't interested in epic tales about a farmboy with a destiny, or in stories where a culture's sexual mores is the obsessive focus of the author.

Then I found Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett was everything I was looking for as a young adult reader.  All of my favorite J-Fantasy authors had been smart and genre-savvy.  They wrote stories about stories.  They made jokes aimed at readers.  They used fairytales and classic adventure stories as jumping off points to tell wonderful stories of their own.  They were stories written by people who loved books for people who loved books.  And Terry Pratchett was the same.  He wrote books about ideas, with stories, and humor, and intertexts and worldbuilding that brought the ideas to life (sometimes as anthropomorphic personifications.)

Pratchett doesn't write adult fiction or young adult fiction.  He writes fiction, though never without a core of truth.  And honestly, though Edgar Eager and Patricia Wrede and Diana Wynne Jones may have 'young adult voices,' or even juvenile-type voices (probably not DWJ, who has an incredible range of writing styles that vary from J to Adult without ever losing their content), I think all of these authors are writing the same genre: smart fiction.

For me, YA fantasy is what I read when I was a young adult, what I still read and adore.  It isn't distinguished by dragons and princesses or by wizards and elves.  It is marked by the simple quality of being a story about an idea, and pulling it off like a kick-ass champ.  A story without an idea, without a core quality of meaning, isn't YA fantasy for me.  It's some sort of angel-romance, or necromancy-adventure-thriller hybrid.

Now, some of you might be thinking, seriously?  Your definition of YA fantasy is absurd.  It is neither YA, as its usually defined, nor does it fit any sort of definition of fantasy.  (It's non-compositional!  Sorry, linguist joke.)  But I don't think that's true.

Okay, these days YA is defined as 'from the perspective of a person of the ages 15-18 ± 1 year, depending.  But that's the publisher's perspective.  For a librarian, the person in the trenches, interacting with the readers, a YA book is a book middle-school and high-school aged kids will want to read.  Although everyone touts the self-absorption of young people, not everyone wants to read about themselves (or the prettier, whiter version of themselves).  Some of them want to use reading to encounter something new and amazing.  Isn't that a decent definition of YA, something a young-adult would want to read?

And of course, fantasy is caricatured as one of two things, either a Tolkein-derivative (which tend to give Tolkein a bad name, since he was doing something strange and astonishing and new with the oldest stories), or a paranormal (i.e. a murder mystery where people can be sexier than normal humans).  Is this fair?  Of course not.  But when arguing for the purpose of fantasy, I've often heard it said, that it's a place where you can explore ideas without the arbitrary constraints of realism.  So that's my definition of fantasy, an exploration of ideas that has relinquished arbitrary constraints such as no magic, no dragons, no gods.  But it needs to ask the questions "What is magic?  What are dragons?  What are gods?" then it's fantasy.

As this has become a saga, and although I could go on about how this is the type of book I want to write, but it's a lot harder than I thought it would be, etc, etc. instead I'm going to bring up The Book Cellar's YA/MG Fantasy Reading Challenge.  The goal is to read 10 fantasies released in 2012, and review them.  Note well, that I will be reading and reviewing with the goal of finding books that fit my definition of YA Fantasy, and that should, therefore, be awesome.  I'm excited and ready to get started!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advice on writing from... Psychologists?

First of all, THIS is a brilliant and inspired paper about a psychology experiment on writing.  The author, Bob Boice, challenges the pervasive notion of creative geniuses being wildly manic and deeply struggling, tearing their hair, vituperating their work, producing page after page in a flood of productivity.  Or, as he calls it "creative illness."

For Boice there are three 'goals' of the act of writing.  1) Productivity, 2) Creativity, and 3) Mental Health.  To examine these things and their relationships with each other, he set up an experiment where he evaluated two groups of young professors, all of whom were required to write and publish to keep their jobs.  One group had a moderate writing style.  They would sit down to write regularly about three times a week, never work for more than ninety minutes, and make use of plans and outlines.  The second group followed the binge-writing model.  They had more irregular writing habits, but when writing would often stay for up to twelve hours, and not so frequently use plans and outlines.

Shall we guess how these people ranked in their productivity, creativity and mental health?  For productivity, slow and steady wins the race.  The moderate but regular pace was able to produce more pages of quality high enough to be published.  Th binge writing pace was not high enough to produce the work required to keep their jobs.

In creativity, the regular writers had more ideas that were relevant to their work.  They also could get to work more quickly and not have to reacquaint themselves with their projects.  The binge writers did not think about their work in the off-hours, and were therefore less engaged and less usefully creative.

Mental health had the most distressing results of all.  Moderate writers would feel positive before they wrote, positive after they wrote, and positive for the next few days as well.  Binge writers would feel negative and apprehensive before a writing session.  Then during it they would report instances of euphoria as well as make faces indicating annoyance and frustration.  It would take a little while to come down, and then they would drop into unremitting depression a day or two afterwards.

As Boice sums up in his conclusion, a lot of his results are supported by advice in all those books on writing by writers.  It is supported by the story of Joseph Conrad.  (If you read any section in this paper, read the little narrative of Conrad's life and writings).  It is supported by the comments of Dickens on his own work.  His results are good advice.

So, what is the advice we can take from this interesting study?

1) Try to write regularly.  If you don't have time to sit down and write every day, take a little time, while doing other things, to think about your project.  Meditate on it.  Enjoy it.  The next time you sit down, the ideas will be fresh and percolating in your head.

2) Word counts are probably not the way to go.  Neither, though, is time limits.  Sit down when you are scheduled to sit down, and think about your project, even if you just doodle stick figures of your characters.  If you get tired, stop working, do something else.  Your best, most productive work, isn't going to be twelve hours a day.  Do not be ashamed to stop working.

3) Outlines and plans are 'on-task work.'  If the writing isn't coming, do something else that's on task.  Then use your outlines.  (Not slavishly, as Lois McMaster Bujold says: "The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.")  Creativity takes time.

4) Relax.
I mean, seriously.  Relax.  If this article shows anything it's that people who stress themselves out about their writing don't write as well.  This is kind of obvious.  It's the same on tests.  If you're really stressed about a test, it's harder to study and harder to focus when you're actually doing it.  If you go in there confident and positive, you're more likely to do well.  If you enjoy writing, not to the euphoric stage, but are generally happy about having gotten a chance to sit down and write at all, you'll be more productive, and less inclined to mania and depression.

So yay!  Four solid, experimentally supported pieces of advice to help you with your writing.  Write on! Don't succumb to creative illness.  Be like Dickens.  For him, writing was something that could help him through stressful times in his life, it didn't cause stressful times in his life.  And Dickens' productivity and creativity are, honestly, some of the most impressive ever to have existed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book. I expected to like this book. And honestly, for the first 200 or so pages of it, I really did. It had all the elements of a good story, an engaging main character: I loved Karou's pettiness. I didn't love her unearthly beauty. (Too many beautiful people with no other descriptors, well it's kind of boring. I figured it was a sign of her supernatural origin, but still, boring.) awesome setting: Prague! I want to go to Prague, and Marrakesh. Well developed side characters: Zuzana was really the best character in the book. She was great, and I loved Issa, and the scholar ridden by a fallen angel. Even when Akiva showed up and started being cringe-inducingly stalkerish, I was good, I was happy.

And then Laini Taylor takes a gamble, and she bets it all on one of the primary fantasy mistakes, and she loses every point she gained previously.

It's the same mistake that Libba Bray made in a Great and Terrible Beauty. It's a common mistake, and it shows a lack of understanding of the genre. The Marbury Lens, no matter how angry it made me, did not make this mistake, and that was why it was effective. There is one primary rule of writing 'two world fantasy' and it is simple.

Rule 1: If your story takes place in two realms, one magical and one unmagical, the magical one must be just as real, just as well described, as visually stunning, as emotionally gripping as your unmagical world.

If this rule is broken, you are no longer writing fantasy.

Laini Taylor has an artistic mind. She has designed a world with two moons, with a caged city, with creatures of every look and shape and size, and every glimpse of it that we get in the first 200pgs is alluring and exciting. And then the wishbone breaks, and we are treated to everything we've waited for, the world, the power, the romance, and it's all empty.

Let's go back through the list at the beginning. An engaging main character: well, no. Karou is gone, and Madrigal, who replaces her, is a stock Cinderella, whining about how no one understands her because she's beautiful, when in truth, she has been incessantly cruel and aloof because she does not understand the prejudice in her own society. (The prejudice itself is unnerving. The idea that a rebelling slave society would want to look more like their former masters is nauseating. If they were just an underclass sure, but they're murdering each other. The wolfier the better. Animal is beautiful! Issa seemed to understand this. Why doesn't anyone else? Maybe Taylor is trying to suggest that Madrigal does, but the fact that she is of high human aspect makes it ring with the overtones of a white person going to a black person and saying "I know you're starving and your life sucks, but you have to stay true to who you are. Even though it would be easier to get a job and save your family, you shouldn't even think about maybe wanting to be white. Your identity is more important than your life.")

Awesome setting: rooftop, road, scaffold, dungeon, glade. The visuals have all disappeared. Maybe Madrigal isn't an artist, but she isn't blind. All we get is the dress, and honestly, a pretty dress is a pretty dress. It's not interesting.

Well developed side characters: Nope. Chiro is a cipher. Wolfie-boy is a caricature. But honestly, even the main characters are poorly developed in this section.

Romance: Well, no, actually. Even in this world Akiva and Madrigal are just soulmates. They don't have a particular reason to like each other. They never fall in love. Akiva is just Madrigal's 'essential penis'. Ah well.

If I had beta-read this book, I would have said, 'okay, those last couple chapters in the other world, they need to be cut. Make the wishbone memories a dark and tangled flashback. Build the emotions, cut the dancing, cut the Thiago backstory, since it's not really that interesting. The truth is, allowing an enemy spy into your city and between your legs is being a traitor. Her execution is well deserved. Make it Karou who's experiencing it, not Madrigal. Don't give the game away. Revenants, sure, great. Magic is pain, fine. Leave the mystery, evoke the suffering.

I read a lot of reviews that said 'the last 150 pages sealed the deal for me. They took an okay book and made it great.' So I was expecting more. My friends who also read the book for the book club were also stunned by the thinness of the fantasy world. But we are all savvy YA fantasy readers. We don't read YA Contemps and angel books. So yeah, we have high standards. If you're new to the 'two world' genre, then maybe you'll be impressed by Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I formalized Rule 1 when I was a kid, and Laini Taylor left me cold.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #105

I have to say that actually, I had pretty decent book selections in my English classes.  I pretty much liked every book I was assigned to read.  (Catcher in the Rye, not so much, sorry K Peacock, and The Scarlet Letter was kind of deadly).  My hugest issue was that it took SO LONG for us to finish a book because they assigned a chapter a week, even in honors classes, that by the time we reached the end, I had forgotten the beginning.

So basically, I think there's room for plenty more:
The Greengage Summer, Rumer Godden - murder and maturity
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
Regeneration, Pat Barker
Bellweather, Connie Willis - Kids need this one
Poetry by Yates, ee cummings, Dickenson, Matthew Arnold
Plays and Musicals by David Mamet, Sondheim, Oscar Wilde

For middle school - Only You Can Save Mankind, Terry Pratchett; Kidnapped RL Stevenson; Captain Blood, Sabatini; Ivanhoe, Scott; A Connecticut Yankee, Twain.
I would do a segment on international mystery novels, with everyone reading a mystery from a different country/region and then making projects comparing them.
Let them do Ovid, stories from the Heike, the Ramayana, the ones with a lot of blood and honor.  I'd do a project on Joseph Campbell and let them write their own hero myth.

Basically, I think the most important thing you can learn in English is how to laugh out loud when you're reading, how to yell and cry and be engaged with books that are just honestly good books, not ones that people say are classics, but the ones people read because they love.  You should be able to get enough out of language that you can say, oh yeah, I love Shakespeare, he's hilarious, because you're good enough at reading that you get all the jokes.  English class should be an opportunity, not a punishment.  And students should be allowed to ask for the kind of stories they want to read, and be given stories that they'll enjoy, but might not have found on their own.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Underlying Meaning of NaNoWriMo

So on the YA Highway weekly roundup there've been a lot of anti-NaNo posts.  And honestly, I don't really care one way or another about it.  It's just a crazy thing that took off.  But I think jumping down too hard on one side or the other is missing the point.  NaNo works really well for some writing styles and not others.

Style's NaNo is good for:

The Perfectionist - Have you ever written chapter 1, then re-written it, then re-written it, then written it again, and then finally realized that it hasn't gotten any better?
A lot of times, if you don't know where you're going, you have no idea what you need to do to revise something to improve it.  And sometimes you can't know where you're going until you've gotten there.

The Wannabe - "I could write a novel."  "Then why don't you?"

Unfortunately, both of these styles are a lot more visible from the outside, and sometimes you feel a little vindictive when you suggest NaNo to these people.  Maybe this time they'll actually write something instead of offering the same chapter for critique over and over again, or maybe they'll realize that actually they don't have what it takes.

But vindictiveness is not what NaNo is supposed to be about.

Styles of writing NaNo is bad for:

The Thinker - Do you contemplate between chapters?  Do you consider your work and still manage to pick up the next section and make progress?  Then fine.  DON'T DO NANO!  If you have a writing style that works for you, then don't mess it up just because everyone else is doing it.  It's like cheating on a test that you've already studied for and can ace.  WTF?

The Cocky Barstard - Unfortunately, this style of writer often comes in the same body as the Wannabe.  "I could write a novel.  Look, I did.  Revision?  Why revision?  I'm awesome."  This is where the big December slushpiles come from.

One of the problems with NaNo is that it started as something for writers with problems and became some sort of self-help cult for the common man.  I often think of Ratatouille here, "Anyone can cook, but not anyone should cook."  Yes, this is the villain's line, but in the end, he had it right.  The ability to be a great artist can appear anywhere.  It's not genetic, it's not even environmental.  Yes, sometimes having a great sense of smell helps, but the one thing you really need to do is care.  Do you love food, do you love art, do you love books?  Do you have a vision that you want to share?  Are you willing to work your ass off?  Are you willing to learn?  To take your lumps and bear up under criticism?  To realize that the world is really never ready for art, but sometimes art is ready for the world?

Underlyingly, NaNo isn't about speed, it isn't even about completion.  It's about overcoming the obstacles we put in our own way, the mental obstacles.  Anne Lamott says, "write shitty first drafts."  She also says, sometimes you lie down on the floor and sob and can't bear it any longer, but then you get up and you get back to work, the work of revision.

So yeah, if you think it will be good for you, do NaNo.  But remember that it's just one step on your path to writerly-enlightenment, one step on a path of incalculable length.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #104

This week's topic:
What are your writing and publishing superpowers (drafting? beta-reading? writing queries? plotting? character creation? etc.) -- and what's your kryptonite?

Look at my favorite superheroes -->
(Maybe it would be a little more of a favorite if that lead guy with the dumbass hood was replaced by his wife, or Ro, or really anyone.  Ignore that.)

What I like about the X-Men is that they are a team.  The Justice League, sure, they work together to battle intergalactic threats, but they really don't need the help most of the time.  They can get by on their own.  Supes, he's got flight, and x-ray vision, and super strength and whatever else you can think of.  Bats, he's got technology and stealth and little boy sidekicks in colorful underpants, and let's not forget Alfred (really, Alfred, I want that).  But the X-men each have one, maybe two, superpowers at the most, and that's a lot more realistic.

My writing superpower is actually a pretty awesome one.  I can get words on the page.
I'm pretty fast, not super fast, but speedy.  I'm dedicated, most days.  But if I sit down and focus, I can write.  And sometimes, I can write a lot.

But that's where the superhero team comes in.  The writing's on the page.  Now I need the other superheroes to swoop down with their awesome critiquing powers, and send me back out the door, armed and ready to fight the beast of a manuscript.  Maybe this is my book, the eponymous monthly magazine about my adventures, and I've always been a bit of a loner, but the X-Men don't let each other go it alone (ignoring truth for the sake of metaphor here).  When I need them, I can count on them to bring their support: Beast's tech, Emma's mind reading, Kitty's stealth.  And the calvary will help me blow all that kryptonite away.

There is always a lot of kryptonite.  I love my plots, but they're not always... coherent.  I love my characters, but someone needs to tell me if they're being whiny lazy brats and should get going and do something.  And sometimes I need a Charles Xavier type to look stern and say 'I know you can be better.  Do not fear your powers.  Truly attempt to exploit every ounce of skill you possess.'

Because the real kryptonite?  (To paraphrase/bastardize the words of JF Kennedy...)

The only real kryptonite is fear.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #102

What kind of writing coach do you need? When you have to coach friends, what kind of coach are you?

(Having spent the last few hours working through revisions, I've come to the conclusion that my mom is the best writing coach ever.  You never really know what you need unless you have it and it's working, and thankfully, it's working so much better than before.)

Build half, not half-ass

The kind of writing coach I need is someone who tells me that I am a good writer, and also tells me that my writing, as it is now, is not proof of this fact.

I can be better.  I can work harder.  I have inestimable potential.  And yes, I can half-ass it and still produce something enjoyable, but it's not as good as it could be, and it's worth it to do everything I can to make it that good.  So get to it!

As a writing coach what I try to do, first of all, is respect my friend's story.  I want to respect what they're trying to do, support them in doing it (because keeping those boys running laps is the hardest part), and try and figure out what sort of advice will be the most useful for them.

Mostly I seem deal with people who want to write, but have trouble finishing a story.  With them, I just cheer.  99% of learning to write is doing it, and if they finish one story, the next one will be easier.  With more advanced writers, I try to offer concrete tips and techniques that might help out in certain cases.  Maybe just pointing out the problem would be better, but offering a possible solution, even if it's not the best, might spark other ideas for fix-its in the author's mind.  So why not?

All I can do is hope that I help.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Oh November...

It is the first of November, and as I was paying my rent, I noticed, that it's one of those palindromic days : 11/1/11, which I will take as a good omen for my plans for this month.  November is NaNo month, and yet it is the most painful month ever to actually get writing done.  Also, as I am in the middle of the muddle of revisions, it's pretty obvious that starting a new project, no matter how alluring and enticing, is a BAD IDEA.

However, there's another option:  NaNoReviseMo!
As I am only about 20,000 words into the revisions of a 70,000 word novel, I am perfectly set up to propose a NaNo-style plan of attack.  3000 words a day, I will attack them, revise them, progress fiercely towards the end!

So this November - it's princess month for me.