Thursday, December 22, 2011

Late, late, late accountability

You might think that by not posting a Tuesday Post of Accountability on Tuesday indicates that I was somehow slacking off. And you might think, because I'm posting an accountability post on a Thursday, that I am somehow trying to justify said slacking off.

To this I say: Nuh-uh.

1. I have written short story words. Not many. But they are written.

2. I have typed critique notes into my rough draft of The Line. (Which I'm waaaay excited to get to work on again in January, by the way! It's one of those: I KNOW HOW TO FIX IT! I KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT SUPER SHINY! kind of moments.)

Something funny (as in interesting to only me) I noticed while typing in notes: I doubled the book's size during NaNo. Prior to NaNo (which means about five months or so of writing) I had 48,300 words. During NaNo I wrote another 50,400 words. I know, that's a lot of words, huh? *patting self on back*

Now to turn that into 100K worth of usable words, yes? And, due to the epic scale of this particular story, I've got another 50K to go. Oh yeah, this is gonna be an awesome dystopia. And 'Awesome Dystopia' might be an oxymoron...but only until you see what I've done.

...or it might remain an oxymoron. We'll see. I'm excited about it. Right now that's what counts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

More Reading, Less Reading: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

So, I'm tired of reading. That didn't take long. Finished Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman and Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella. At this pace, I will not hit anything except burnout.

Plus, I wanna write. And this whole reading thing gets in the way.

So I'm gonna write. I've got some short stories to rough-draft up.

Still reading, just not feeling very hopeful that I'll finish where I wanted to finish. Ah well, can't win 'em all, right? (That's a lie, you really can win them all. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, me included.)

What'd you guys do? Is this holiday season kicking your butt, or are you owning it?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Survey Says!: An Article of Awesomeness from The Paris Review

I'm starting to love Twitter like no other. If you follow the right people, you find some really fascinating material, like this article by Sarah Funke Butler from The Paris Review. The rundown: A sixteen year old student wrote a 'survey' on symbolism and sent it out to 150 well-known authors (like our very own July-August mentor, Jack Kerouac, as well as luminaries like Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Ray Bradbury).

The odd thing is that these authors responded. I guess writers just can't keep quiet about their craft, huh? They keep blogs and tweet and stuff nowadays. =)

Check it out. There's actual archival scans of the letters.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability.

I am not accountable.

I am reading.

Four books down so far in JenRidReadMo: Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas; The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta; The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff; and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre.

Yes, I'm behind.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin' on a Buddy!: Ajay Ramachandran Poetry Published by Midtown

Great news! My buddy Ajay Ramachandran, who comments early and often on anything Virginia Woolf or P.G. Wodehouse (our very special mentors from earlier this year), has had a a wonderful poem publish by Midtown: A Journal of Writing and Fine Arts.

"Achebe to Zwiren"

Please go check it out - it's well worth it. Bookophiles will adore it, and those who followed the Woolf and Wodehouse discussions will find it particularly impressive. Ajay knows what he's talking about! Congratulations, Ajay!

Time to clear the stack:JenRidReadMo

Last month, as you guys know, was National Novel Writing Month. Millions of writers across the country set pen to paper/fingers to keyboard in order to write an entire novel in a month. Which is a crazy idea, when you get right down to it.

Partly to recover from this last bout of ridiculousness, and partly because I set myself the challenge of reading 80 books this year, I will be reading a book a day until the end of the year.

I'm dubbing this challenge: JenRidReadMo. (Jenny's Ridiculous Reading Month)

Why? I'm sure my friend John is asking (because he's always the one looking at me like I've lost my mind when I say "I'm gonna do this [fill in random thought]!").

My Reasons:
Palate cleansing. Post NaNo, I find I need a break from writing. I'm still working on a couple things, and by working I mean fiddling and getting nothing accomplished. And reading will help reboot the system.

Well filling. During NaNo my brain stopped working correctly. I didn't entirely lose the vision of my novel, but it definitely got blurred around the edges. I need fuel to kick the ol' imagination back in gear. Right now I feel like I have nothing to pull from. Time to chill and gather my brilliant thoughts again.

Because I wanna. Like NaNo, JenRidReadMo, is a challenge. I'd like to say that I did it. And I don't mean 35 books in one month, I'm referring to the goal I set back way early in the year - which I already missed because my original insane goal was 100. My previous years (according to Goodreads stats) I've managed about 30 books a year. I don't want to set it back again - that feels like failing and I don't like to fail. So this is an area where I'd like to push myself.

*****
And a quick shout out to Deniz - who is doing her own removal of her teetering to-read pile.

READERS UNITE!!!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does it Take?

Newbery Medal winners are generally destined for a long shelf life, heaps of attention from libraries, teachers, and parents, and are often deserving of the lauds and acclaims.


What does it take to write a Newbery Medal winner?

Well, you can take a peek at the criteria here. But I’m also going to break down said criteria in relation to our mentor’s own Newbery winning novel: The Graveyard Book.

According to the Association for Library Service to Children’s website, committee members need to consider the following criteria when looking at a potential Newbery book:

1. Interpretation of the theme or concept.
The theme or concept isn’t assigned – this element speaks toward the question: Did the writer creatively and consistently interpret their own themes/concepts? Well, I’d have to say that The Graveyard Book, in its exploration of death, violence, friendship, and family did a whopping good job of it. I personally think it’s one of the more creative and well-executed ideas I’ve come across in a while.

So you have to have some kind of meaning integral to your story. What are you trying to get kids to think about? How is that shown in your work?

2. Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.
A thumb-and-half up on this one. There’s an awkward ‘Interlude’ in the middle of the book that doesn’t really explain much…and in fact left me a bit confused for a few pages after…then there was the weird cave/tomb raiding bout toward the end…but considering the handling of the graveyard scenes, the presentation of time passing, I think that Gaiman did a decent job.

You have to make sense. And The Graveyard Book is also full of historical references - all of which seemed pretty darned accurate to me. I think this is important because when kids read - and to a lesser extent adults - the accuracy of information is necessary. What if this is the only book a kid reads on this subject? Or what if it's the first thing they've ever read on this subject and you flub up? Are you willing to take responsibility for a kids saying that Pluto is a planet still? In front of the whole class?

3. Development of a plot.
There definitely is a plot.

Please, please, please. For kids - give them a story! (This doesn't apply to poetry, which can also win Newbery Medals.)

4. Delineation of characters.
Each character played their roles well. I never got lost as to who was who (even with a strange passel of Mad Jacks popping up). I think that here is where Gaiman would’ve impressed the committee. Even the side characters have interesting contributions to the storyline – an accused witch without a headstone, a man buried beside his first and second wives…yeah, poor, poor dude, right?

I could see these characters clearly in my head. I loved how they worked together (plot-wise). Make sure your characters are distinct and that they have reasons for doing what they do - it helps individuate them.

5. Delineation of a setting.
And here is where I think Gaiman won. No one could beat this setting. Hogwarts is probably the only thing that could ever come close.

Make your setting count. Details. Rules. Metaphor. Setting can elevate your story to all kinds of heights.

6. Appropriateness of Style.
While I’d be a little concerned for kids younger than middle school grasping everything Gaiman throws in here, it’s still definitely a kids’ book. The illustrations added a child-element that was helpful to the overall feel, I think. (Considering, however, that illustrations can only be considered when they hurt a book, I think it was a gamble! But it worked, so the book wasn’t penalized.)

Make sure kids can read the book. Don't through million dollar words in there (without definitions). Don't start quoting obscure historical events (again without explanations). This is not an opportunity to explore feminism in the late twentieth century via dissertation. Tell a story in the way a kid would want to read/hear a story.

Have you got what it takes?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

British authors must have some kind of secret to writing scrappy orphan stories.

Not being opposed to books that start with a creepy man breaking into a house, murdering the family who lives there, and being thwarted by an infant and his ghost protectors...I thought this was a great book. The opening is certainly dark, but I can't imagine a coming-of-age-in-a-graveyard book opening with sunshine and happy little gnomes.

The creative concepts in this book really caught my attention. How would one raise a living child in a graveyard? If the ghosts can't leave, how do you get food? How do you educate the kid? How do you teach him to protect himself? How do you make friends? The answers Gaiman comes up with are soooo very interesting. Plus, it's all a very interesting take on the ultimate human question: What happens when you die?

Nobody Owens, Bod, is one of those characters that you want to cheer for. He works hard to do what's right, whether it's getting a headstone for the dead who long to be remembered or defending his fellow students from the classroom bullies. When he's told that he is kept in the graveyard for his own protection, Bod's reaction is to say that it's the man Jack, the man who killed his family, who should be protected - from Bod.

I love a can-do attitude.

The good news is life in the graveyard carries a story a long way. The only problem I had with the story was the reasoning - the 'why' - of the man Jack's assault on Bod's family was explained away in a sentence or two very close to the end of the book. The bad guys just seemed too simplistic, which was disappointing after so much mystery had been built around their 'society'. With the well-explained good guys balanced against the less-explained bad guys, the weight of the story shifted strangely, if that makes sense.

All in all, though, it's pretty darn good. I'd recommend it for middle school and up - and not because the opening is dark (which it is, no lie) but because there are a multitude of literary and historical references that I'm not sure younger readers would appreciate. There'd be a lot of blank stares unless there's an adult around to explain.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind - they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I'm a Winner!: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It's Tuesday again folks. And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!
And there's one big thing I've done in the last week:

I WON NANOWRIMO!!!!!!!!!!!!

50,000 total new words for my work in progress in the last month!!!!!

*crowd cheers*

So, about equals about 10,000 new words on my work in progress for the week.

That's really probably enough, isn't it?

And I'm not alone. Crossing the finish line with me: my good dear friend Deb and my good dear spouse Shane.

A big hearty congratulations to everyone who wrote this past month. And to everyone who is still punching those keys: STOP READING RIGHT NOW AND GET TO WORK.

It was a great experience and now I shall list what I have learned:

1. Having someone to write with is a good thing. Early on in the month I was gonna throw in the towel. Then Shane got a fire lit under his own typing fingers and sped past me. In one day he banged out 7,000 words, made me feel like a total bum, and therefore I kicked my own ass to keep up. Because, really, I should not get beaten by people with full time jobs. If they can do it, I can do it. No excuses.

He still kept ahead of me throughout the month. *Jenny's carrot*

Until I saw the magical '40,000' on the bottom of my Word screen. After that I was not stopping, I wasn't slowing down for anyone and ditched everyone and everything to end NaNo early on Sunday. I was beyond thrilled.  

So it served to prove that, all too often, I'm the person in my own way.

2. I need a sketch pad or something where I can sketch out floor plans, ground plans, street maps, or whatever. The idea for this had already been in the back of my head because of an Umberto Eco essay in Confessions of a Young Novelist. I don't have the book in front of me, but Eco talks about how he added dialogue because a set of stairs in The Name of the Rose was long and the characters should be talking all the way down. Basically, he was so aware of space and location that he had his characters behave accordingly.

I think I need to do that -- and the point was brought home to me via my writer's group on Sunday. Basically, the end section of Part I is confused. There's a lot of action, but no one knows where anyone else is in relation to the whole. Part of that is me not having a clear idea of where or what I want my characters to be doing.  I also forgot where I put the kitchen. And the home office.

This is stuff you need to know, ya know?

3. Writing is a reward in itself. Yesterday, when I had nothing I had to write, I still had a million and one things I wanted to get down on paper. I actually stopped myself because my well is really really really dry at the moment. It was energizing to get all that stuff down, but I need to get my bearings a little bit.

Today I'm going to continue work on a short story, but I'm going to take it nice and slow.

How are you guys recovering? Revving up for the holidays?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.


A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated."

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too - the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn't real darkness. It's like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Marathons, Sheep, and Conclusions: A Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I've done this week:

1. And still NaNoWriMo. This past Saturday I participated in a marathon with Shane and Deb via the Pikes Peak Writers. It was strangely quiet in the big room. Partly because I forgot my headphones and partly because the big ol' room was empty except for me, my buds, and two other folks who were pushing through.

However, I'm over 35K words now.

Sure, some of those words include 'sheep' - a flock of which I did not see coming - but it's a fun ride, nonetheless.

2. Conclusions come to:

Take December off. MUST have a break. Plus I've got to read a whole bunch of books if I'm gonna hit my 80 book goal.

Then, in January (yep, I'm coming to some New Years Resolutions/Goals), finish the Line as quickly as possible. After that, start revising short stories - thus beginning 2012 as *drumroll* THE YEAR OF VAST REVISIONS!!!

Yep, next year I'm dedicating to revision mode. I have so many projects in various states of completion that next year will be dedicated to finishing. Polishing. Making pretty.

Next resolution: make a concerted effort to not talk about selling. Always in the back of my mind is the idea of selling the story. Getting it out there - and while that is still a priority - the writing and revision are to be made The Priority. So often the talk on the blogosphere revolves around selling and the publishing world and how hard everything is, or what options there are. 

I'm telling myself to get over it. Work on the work. If you do what you're supposed to do (tell an interesting story and write it well), I really believe the other stuff will fall in line.

Has NaNo brought things into greater clarity for you? Whadja do this week?




Sunday, November 20, 2011

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin' on a Buddy: Iver Arnegard in High Contrast Review

Wahoo! My wonderful friend and mentorish-writing buddy, Iver Arnegard, has just had his short story "Made of Land or Water" published in the High Contrast Review.

Definitely check it out if you've got a second. It's worth it.

Congratualtions to Iver, who took time out of his crazed teaching schedule to talk to my writing group last month. So, not only is he a talented writer, but he's an all around nice guy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Multi-Creatives: David Keplinger's By and By: The Copybook Songs of Isaac P. Anderson

A lot of writers I know do multiple creative things: needlepoint, ceramics, jewelry making, theatre, art, dance, music. There's a certain attractiveness to this. Because, always, creativity breeds creativity. Through experimentation people find what they want to say, and then, through even more creative exploration, discover the way to say it.

Every now and then, these various artistic bits merge, developing into something new and very interesting.

I have had the great opportunity to study with a poet by the name of David Keplinger (you guys may have heard me mention his name around here before). I've heard him read his poetry at many different venues.

But, I've probably heard him sing in bars, or around campfires, more. Cuz that's just how we roll.

Now I've just learned that David has combined his poetical sense and his musical inspirations to cut an album based on his great-great-grandfather's poems. I was so absolutely tickled by this that I had to let you guys know, so you can check it out. It's a really moving tribute to his family, but I think the historical notes, the creative expression, and the folksy style are inspiring too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Your Slip is Showing: A Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

1. Um, yeah. NaNoWriMo is still going on. I'm not sure what week we're in now. Week six? Week twelve? Feels like it's been going on forever, and I'm slightly behind and in catch-it-up mode at the moment. It's been this interesting see-saw bit: one day I'm up, the next day I'm down. I can't seem to get ahead...which, I won't lie, would be really, really nice.

One thing that's funny about writing at a quick pace and not caring about what you put down (which isn't entirely true, I just can't not care about what I put down) is that your tangents/flaws/habits show themselves in a very exposing manner.

For example, I am an em-dash kinda chick. There is nothing like those double dashes to emphasize the parenthetical talky talk I like to emphasize. I'm sure this is especially annoying to the reader.

Also, I love the word that. And that is really helpful when you're trying to up word counts. Any time a hang-up is overuse of words, NaNoWriMo blesses you.

I'm not the only one to notice this phenomenon either. Shane is also participating in NaNo and he has discovered his penchant for overusing metaphors has resulted in sometimes three or four metaphors for one thing. (His word count is ahead of mine...perhaps I should embrace the power of long metaphors.)

Ah, to have your slip showing....

2. Reading. I have done some of it during this NaNo thing. However, I've also not finished reading anything. I'm halfway through a bunch of non-fiction, and only one novel.

I'm finding reading novels frustrates me as I try to pound out my own novel for NaNo. The novels remind me of how much I need to revise my em-dashed mess for it to be any kind of readable. Then all I want to do is revise. But no! I must hold back. I have plans! I have a schedule! I must write the dunderheadedness now! (See? NaNo also exposes your use of whacked-out words like dunderheadedness. I actually used the word nefariousness in my WIP. This is how it goes....)  


How're you guys doing?


Friday, November 11, 2011

Domesticity: A Fictional Photo Essay (An Experiment)



A mix of chemicals is required to wake, bitter-granule reminders of some forgotten, formerly memorable sensation.













The day continues, each hour folding one into the next. You are told the work is important.












There is no way to organize your thoughts in a respectful manner.




You push through, but maybe there is an edge of resentment. A little piece that knows: the work is important -













but your heart won't break if you go elsewhere.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As informative as this book is, I'm still not 100% sure how to poison a person and get away with it...so I guess the "Handbook" isn't as handy as it's cracked up to be....

However, if you wanna know all about hunting bad guys with beakers and bunson burners in 1920s/1930s New York you will not find a better book anywhere than this one. I LOVED it.

Blum has an excellent way of guiding the reader through a multitude of areas that can get confusing in their 'high-context'-ness. Stuff like history if you're not familiar with the era or place; stuff like chemistry in any form; stuff like political science all get enough attention so, as a reader, you don't get lost lost and you're not bored to tears either. It's a fine balance and she handles it swimmingly.

This book also handles the intricately knotted tendrils of chemistry, crime, politics, and psychology in the best possible way. Cause and consequence - including the ever-irritating law of unintended consequences - are beautifully illustrated.

My favorite portions of the book were the sections that handled Prohibition's effects:

"So it was that as Prohibition moved toward reality - Wyoming had become the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment on January 16, 1919 - Gettler and his small staff returned to the idea that wood alcohol was about to increase in popularity. THe Eighteenth Amendment, now that it had attained full ratification, was scheduled to go into effect in 1920. Already, though, the medical examiner's office was charting a rise in alcohol poisoning, as New Yorkers hurried to find alternative supplies."
We're always looking for alternative supplies, aren't we?

The increase in drinking deaths, the government participation in poisoning its citizens (the government officials defending themselves with the all-too-common blustering defense: "They broke the law, they deserve to die!"...as if *abiding the law* and *life* have ever been synonymous), and the necessity of capturing real violent criminals (the kind who poison dozens of bakery patrons), all helped drive Charles Norris, New York's first medical examiner, and his crew to work round-the-clock to discover the make-ups of several poisons.

It's a great read. Really quick, to the point, and guarunteed to up your answer quotient on Jeopardy!. But, even more than that, I think that way Blum interweaves all of the seemingly disparate elements of the Prohibition period is helpful as a medium for looking at today's issues of concern like the economy, oil, immigration, and the reactions to Wall Street. These things, like the issues pressing in the 1930s, do not exist in a vacuum - and a good many of the problems Blum touches upon (corporation oversight, for example) are still with us today. I really think this is an entertaining and important book.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Voices in Your Head: Writing Group Issue #1 with some help from Ursula K LeGuin

At my last writers group meeting - we meet the last Sunday of every month - a disturbing trend came to light:

One of the group members said that she would not be submitting for a while because she was hearing the other members' voices in her head.

This probably would not have raised the little hairs on the back of my neck except for the fact that this was the second person I'd heard say those exact words in the space of a few months. That may sound like a long time, but in the space of critique meetings, that's twice in ten get-togethers. Which isn't much.

I admit to a certain amount of Really? in my own thoughts. Because I have no real issue distinguishing which pieces of criticism I want to take (what I need to take may be a totally different thing...there I go, happily ignoring stuff that might be necessary...), I had a very hard time even understanding what these writers were talking about. I don't hear people when I write. I barely hear them when I edit. I write down the critiques that are compatible with my vision of the piece and ignore the rest. Well, that's just ducky for me, right?

But that kind of attitude is just not helpful for writers who are experiencing this.

So in the past week or so, I've tried to imagine what it is they are experiencing. And my imagination, I confess, did not help me that much.

Mostly I felt like an intolerable bully who had helped pummel these writers into blockage. I found myself angry with these writers. I found myself being irritated that these writers "couldn't figure it out." Harsh? Oh yes. I was not thinking nicely.

While all of this was going on in my brain - which couldn't put itself in someone else's shoes (an experience which added to my frustration because, dammit, aren't writers supposed to be the ones who can go into everyone's shoes and walk around a while?) - I picked up a book that had been on my shelf a while: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin.

As I was flipping through the book, I noticed Appendix 1: The Peer Group Workshop. Seeing as how this subject was on my mind, I flipped to the appendix and read all the way through the section. I found some things my group does right: we're all at about the same skill level so there's no inequality really; we read and mark up over time (we have a month to read and work on each other's manuscripts); we all speak up at the meetings; and we have just the right number of people.

Then I realized the other rules that LeGuin recommends in this appendix are rules designed to keep writers from 'hearing voices.'

1. LeGuin recommends: "The author of the story under discussion is SILENT." We are not silent. The authors can talk, ask questions, explain what they meant. LeGuin argues that silence is necessary because "It's almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticised not to be on the defense, eager to explain, answer, point out" so instead, the writer should focus on listening. By staying silent, "You won't be busy mentally preparing what you're going to say in answer, because you can't answer. All you can do is hear. You can hear what people got from your piece, what they think needs some work, what they misunderstood and understood, disliked and liked about it. And that's what you're there for."

While, on the surface staying silent seems like a writer is just gonna sit there and take it while the Voices keep going - what really happens is you hear your own voice much clearer. By not being able to respond, you draw your own conclusions about what the readers are saying. You have to know what it was you wanted to say. You have to know what you wanted them to feel. And you can just listen and see if they got that or not.

However, the author gaining anything from staying silent depends very much on the standard the critiquers are held to...which brings me to:

2. LeGuin recommends:

"Each critique should be:
Brief.
Strictly in turn.
Without interruption from anyone else."

Oh dear.

This is where our group totally falls apart. No lie. There's rambling, interruptions, debates, suggestions, correction, deletions, philosophy, styles, quotes, diatribes, reading recommendations, movie recommendations, music recommendations, and on and on and on. It's a chaotic discussion and generally there are two or three voices dominating the conversation. (Yes, one of the loudest is me.)

After I read LeGuin's rules from critiquing, and after I thought about the suggestions, corrections, recommendations, etc. I suddenly understood where the voices were coming from.

As a group, we don't shut up. No freakin' wonder our compatriots are brain-fizzled.

Each group has to decide for itself how it wants to run and what ways work the best for them, while not alienating members. Not everyone works the same and, after my soul-searching this week, I'm going to think more on it and then discuss with the group whether or not we need to revise our ground rules and how we would like to it if we go forward with new rules.

I'm still sorting out my own emotional component in the matter, because a great deal of how the group currently runs is based on organic development - a lot of the way we do things were attempts to make it 'more fair.' And then, I still wonder, if the writers who hear the shouting and debating while they write are going to be any better if the critiques are kept under more control? Or will brief, to the point critiques be enough to set the voices off anyway?

But I do think that LeGuin's ground rules will figure heavily in my thought process.

Anyone out there in a real-life or online workshop/group experience the hearing of voices? Any ideas on how to keep a meeting balanced?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: NaNo NaNo NaNo

It's Tuesday! Time to sound off on all the great and wonderful things we have accomplished.

Here's what I did:

1. NaNo.

2. NaNo.

3. NaNo.

And that's about it. Luckily, I'm right on pace (as of yesterday...now I need to do today's word count. It just never ends!)

However, I have a funny - okay, not really funny - story about being on pace because I wasn't until Sunday. I only had about 3,000 words on Saturday...which was minus quite a bit. Still, I wasn't as behind as Shane, spouse extraoridinaire, who determined that though he had only 1,000ish written, he was gonna catch up. By the end of Saturday he'd thrown down 7,000 words.

Watching him and feeling like a complete slacker, I banged out another 3,000ish on Saturday too (I wasn't about to get beat down in my own house). Then on Sunday he walloped another 3,000 and I caught up with the remaining 4,000 I needed.

Yesterday we both wrote what we were supposed to because trying to catch up (which you CAN do, people, with a lot of pain...a lot of pain...but you CAN!) hurt.

Yeah, so that was my week. How're you guys holding in there?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Random Post of Awesome!

Yay! My new flash fiction piece "Judas Slouches Through Jerusalem" is out at The Medulla Review! Big thanks are due to the editors. Your work is appreciated.

So, if you've got a quirky little story that has something to say, this is probably the market for you. Check it out.

Thusday Reviews!: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss FinchThe Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

***SPOILER WARNING***
For me, the setting was the most interesting part of this graphic novel: underground London. The subterranean rooms offered a unique framework for the already-freakish elements of a circus. That the ringmaster, guides, and performers were all take-offs of traditional horror monsters made it feel like something entertainers would consider throwing together for a special Halloween performance.

With such a set-up setting, I anticipated a little more horrifying-ness. But, It opens with the three central characters meditating on the missing Miss Finch while eating sushi...which doesn't strike me as a stressful opening. The comfort and expense of a sushi restaurant tells the reader/observer flat-out that this isn't an Immediate Situation. Yet, when you get to the end, you realize that the disappearance happened a few minutes earlier...kinda cuts the tension in half pretty quick.

As it's presented, there's no real emotional attachment to the disappearing Miss Finch (we don't even get her real name). She is presented as cold, not fun, proper, English, and basically as someone they're stuck with for the evening. Miss Finch critiques the whole underground freak circus as being in 'questionable taste'. Yet, when the opportunity for her to fulfill her wish ("I wish with all my heart that there were some [sabertooth cats] left today. But there aren't")comes, it slips into Mantasy World. Half-naked, Miss Finch -- up until that point a scientific, academic woman -- comes out with a couple sabertooth cats that try to eat an old lady. Then she disappears, still half-naked, off into the 'sunrise' with the cats.

So, yeah, some things didn't quite work for me.

What did work:

I was entertained by the three central characters. They were sarcastic and world-weary and hard to impress. Lots of snide little comments: "Jonathan had originally become famous hosting an evening talk show...he's the same person whether the camera is on or off, which is not always true of television folk." I enjoy that.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo GO! and Tuesday Post of Accountability

So it's Tuesday, but it's a special Tuesday: the first day of November. Last year I did not participate in NaNoWriMo, and actually I've never participated. UNTIL NOW!

To add a literary notch on my belt, I'm going for it this month and will keep you posted on my progress...maybe...I could be writing....

For those of you who are going for it as well, here is a very interesting list of things that may or may not help you on your way to 50K words, via GalleyCat.

All right, now that we know what next week should hold (namely a lot of words), let's look at what I managed to get done last week:

1. Typed up the officially official end of Part I. And that decided me that I'm not gonna handwrite-then-type my NaNo project because, damn, typing in 13,000 words in one day (How do you spend your Saturdays?) was a lot of work and it didn't feel very good. Though, I'm a slower typer so this could bite me. Look for changes through the month. I tried to pace the writing so that the last four or five days of the month could be used for typing should I need to handwrite - which means more painful word count stints on the days I write, regardless of how I do it, but there it is.

2. I fiddled with/edited a short story that still isn't done. Since I'd finished the first part of the novel, I was tired of writing flat-out. However, that didn't translate to good editing time either. I got halfway, and it's better than it was, but I'm still not at the end yet. And that means it'll be at least a month before I get back to it...though I've slotted December for reading ONLY because November is gonna sting.

3. Had my writing group on Sunday, and that was a verrrry interesting meeting for me, because it brought up a lot of issues that writers have in writing groups. Yesterday I decided that I'll do some bloggy segments on the "group think" kind of stuff. Because there are some rewards and pitfalls to be aware of and I don't think writers talk about these things very often. Look for those!

But, in the meantime...it's time to get to work. Leave a quick note about your own amazing accomplishments this last week and then get back to work yourself!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the first story of this book, "Murder in the Dark," and when I was finished I turned to my husband, shoved the book in his hand, told him to read it and then he was to tell me HOW DID SHE DO THAT?

He didn't really have an answer but his comment defined what I thought of the rest of the book: "It's written with the confidence of someone who knows she can hit a homerun every time."

Confidence oozes through every one of these pieces.

Least faves (because they just seemed a little too forced - and I wish I had a better word for that sensation, but that's the best I've got!):
"Gertrude Talks Back": Queen Gertrude gives Hamlet her opinion on her current and former husbands. Fine. But the tone somehow seemed dismissive - and the character of Gertrude never seemed dismissive in the play - which is doubly odd considering the information she is giving her 'priggish' son. And, this may seem an odd critique, but I think the white space between the paragraphs doesn't do the story any favors. It gives it a fragmented feeling and I think that a piece riffing on Shakespeare would work better within the play framework - perhaps shaping the monologue in a block form like Hamlet's own speeches would have allowed the words to have more impact instead of making the reader adjust both the form and the words.

"Poppies: Three Variations": While this is probably the most complex exercise, it reads just like that: an exercise. She riffs on a verse about poppies by John McCrae by using the same words of that verse, in the same order, to tell three different stories. The first words of McCrae's verse is 'in Flanders' and all three mini-stories have with 'in' followed somewhere by 'Flanders' followed somewhere by the next word in the verse. It's a good way to stretch the literary muscle, but it's like watching someone work out - we admire their physique but prefer not to see the huffing and puffing and sweat that go along with it. Just give me the calendar, ya know?

The stories that I absolutely adore are the ones that have a satirical bite to them.

"Simmering": Oh! My FAVORITE by far. (I know, it's unfair to choose favorites, but there you have it, anyway.) It's all about what happens when men take over the kitchen. Go get this book and read that story.

"Murder in the Dark": It set the tone for the rest of the book. Is the author just trying to manipulate the reader throughout (I'm totally okay with the way Atwood manipulates, by the way), is she just a magician showing nothing of reality? Puts the power with the writer...so I think my writerly friends will enjoy this a lot...as well as readers who like to figure out the trick. I still haven't....

"Happy Endings": A choose-your-own adventure marriage!

Atwood also illustrated the collection, and some are as provocative as the stories - which are also dominated by the bits and pieces of male and female anatomy. Interwoven among the stories is the question of objectifying the body: "Making a Man," "Alien Territory," "Dance of the Lepers," and "Good Bones" hit on the question in a more direct way...but it's everywhere.

Well worth reading - and it won't take that long either.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Margaret Atwood Inspired Short

Intro: In September I participated in the Colorado Springs Writing Marathon. I'd just finished reading Atwood's Good Bones and Simple Murders (reviewed tomorrow) and really, really wanted to try something small and twisty like the stories in that book. The following is the result:

The Crayon
It's robin-egg blue and hidden behind a potted plant. The boy who left it behind used it to draw clouds on his napkin at the restaurant. The napkin sky was white, and the clouds robin-egg blue. He liked his picture because it was different from real life - where sticky sweet smells meant beer instead of cotton candy. His backward drawing was brighter, because white skies let in more light than blue skies. You just needed blue clouds for a bit of shade here and there, like polka-dots. Before he left the restaurant, he managed to grab hold of his napkin with its imaginary sky, but he lost the crayon, which was found later, by a writer looking for inspiration and she wrote about the boy and his cloud.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Twitter and the Part I Smackdown: Tuesday Post of Accountability

It's Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Ah, it was a glorious week of progress!

1. Finished Part I of The Line on Saturday! Yes! I actually got to write "End Part I." So that's about 50,000 words finished all together. (Yes, I realize Part I is long, almost a novel in and of itself. However, you can't write big, sprawling epics and have short little lead-ups. How boring.)

2. That isn't enough for you?

3. Joined Twitter. (And one day I think I'll even understand what the heck's going on.) If you wanna follow me and my mini-steals then just clickity-click the link or the button to your right below my picture. 

4. Last, but certainly not least, I heard that my flash fiction piece "Judas Slouches Through Jerusalem" will be published by The Medulla Review. I'll post the direct link to the story next Tuesday (because that's publication day!).



Monday, October 24, 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep Time!

This year, I'm doing it. Last year I did not. Last year, I didn't even try it because I was in the middle of big project that I didn't want to interrupt.

This year, I can write an entire section of my current novel in one month - a section with its own beginning middle end.

Yep! It's National Novel Writing Month!

Well, not yet. Soon. Starting November 1st, writers around the world will be participating in a the mad writing frenzy that is NaNoWriMo. Before we start though, I thought I'd share some NaNo linkage for those of you getting dusted off and prepped:

1. The official NaNo website. Here you can meet up with the other folks in your region who are just as crazy as you. At the very least sign up so you can get the pep talks - the pep talking crew looks pretty good this year!

2. The illustrious Nathan Bransford had a very smart series of posts last year about the pre-work for NaNo. Here are the Boot Camps:
Day One
Day Two
Day Three

3. And...if you're in Colorado Springs, I've hunted down the NaNo write-in events for my writer's group, The Under Ground Writing Project - and you can check out our calendar if you're looking for places and times to meet up with the other crazies! I'd also like to give a shout out to the Pikes Peak Writers who are hosting the lion's share!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mostly National Book Award Linkage for Your Friday!

Okay, so first, the National Book Awards were announced. Congrats to everyone who made the cut. Unfortunately, in a bungling bungle to beat all bungles, they informed super-duper Young Adult writer Lauren Myracle that she was shortlisted...and then she was asked to withdraw:

"Her [Myracle's] book "Shine" was among the first five finalists announced live before an audience and radio broadcast in Oregon on Oct. 12; later that day, a sixth book, "Chime" by Franny Billingsley, was added to the list.


In explaining the addition of "Chime," National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum said, "We made a mistake, there was a miscommunication." That "Chime" and "Shine" sound similar was not explicitly stated but may have been a factor."~The Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2011

(Note the apologetic note at the top of the announcements. $5,000 dollars is being donated in Myracle's name to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. And if you'd like to donate as well, I would urge you to do so.)

As you can imagine, that irritated not a small amount of people. Here is Lauren Myracle's own reaction via Vanity Fair (it's beautiful, if you click no other link here, click that one). Libba Bray rushed to a passionate defense of Lauren Myracle's dignity. Super Agent Janet Reid makes a very compelling argument for how we should show our support for Myracle: buy her book.

But that's not all for the National Book Awards. Laura Miller over at Salon asks: Are they even relevent? And NPR asks What does the National Book Award really mean?

Plus, just because I love Stephen King - here's his acceptance 2003 acceptance speech for National Book Foundation's Medal for his Distiguished Contribution to American Letters Award.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday Reviews: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars...it's a first of series and, while beautifully written (because Atwood just does that) I found that I could put the book down a little too easily. So I started it a couple months ago and just now finished.

The Main Idea
Snowman (known in the life-before-the-plague-hit as Jimmy) is trying to survive in a post-human world with a bunch of genetically mutated 'humans' known as the Children of Crake. Food is short, Snowman's resources even shorter, and he is carrying the burden of guilt for his part/non-part in the plague that damned the human race.

The bulk of the novel is dedicated to Snowman's background and how the world has become the shithole that it is: genetically spliced "pigoons" and "rakunks" trying to eat him, threats of infection from bug bites or cuts are very, very real, there's a distinct shortage of alcohol, and for all intents and purposes, he's alone.

The Neat-o Stuff
Atwood has a superb gift for creating a futuristic world that sounds witty and real and disturbing. I didn't think twice about a website called Hottots - a site dedicated to child pornography. Or a cosmetic/self-help corporation compound called RejoovenEsense. Or a coffee company called Happicuppa. These things felt silly enough to be exactly what a marketer would come up with to sell an idea to the public.

Then there are the animals that get spliced together. Rakunks are racoons spliced with skunks and apparently they make interesting pets....

Her ultimate creations, of course, are the Children of Crake. I'm very curious to see how these guys evolve...because they have been designed by Crake: a genius who tried to eliminate certain things like emotion, and disease, and hierarchies in the Children's genetic code. His experiments seem to have worked so far. But now this group is out in this post-plague world with only Snowman to guide them (assuming they need guiding). This is only the first book in the series, but I'm betting they have more human flaws than Crake would've wanted...after all, they were created by a flawed human being.

The Less Neat-o Stuff
Why I give this book only 3.5 stars in real life:

Like I said, it was a little too easy to put down.

Snowman is interesting and flawed. He's a shitty situation. I definitely had sympathy for him. However, the background information that builds the world is done in flashbacks that stretch on for quite a while. There's a situation with his mother, he's got a couple daddy issues, his best friend (Crake) is a budding science whiz who will eventually destroy the world, and his the love-of-his-life, Oryx, is a former child porn victim. Yes, this information is important - but the parent sections felt more navel-gazing because Snowman wasn't really in control at that point.

The story gets waaaay more interesting later (and definitely less put-down-able) in the last third, where Snowman/Jimmy is all grown up, participating in the marketing scheme that'll destroy the world. Plus, the flashbacks coincide with his present life - and he has to escape some devious pigoons, figure out how to fix his damaged foot, and sort out what the hell he's gonna do for the rest of his life (however long or short that may be).

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In Related Margaret Atwood News...

Atwood's new book on science fiction/speculative fiction In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is out and about!

For an excerpt:  From the National Post - "Margaret Atwood: Utopias in fiction and their failed real-life counterparts"


What Do Chapter Titles Reveal About Your Book (Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake)

I'm not a writer who titles her chapters - though I've considered it for various projects, including my WiP. J.K. Rowling titled all chapters in the Harry Potter series, Neil Gaiman titled his chapters in The Graveyard Book, and there's a whole host of other authors who title their chapters. It's something I think we grow up with because, well, most books that title chapters are children's books. (Ever notice that?)

In Oryx and Crake (heads up!: totally not a kid's book!) the chapters have titles and I think it works because 1.) the titles don't give much away, and 2.)actually serve to intrigue the reader who has nothing else to go on.

Regarding 1.):
Atwood's titles do not give away anything.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, Rowling actually titles a chapter "The Half-Blood Prince." It's like a glaring neon sign to tell readers Skip to here if you don't want the mystery! I know, it's not like she says who the Half-Blood Prince is, but still.

Atwood's chapter titles tend to be one word, and a regular word at that - so it tells you absolutely nothing.

Examples include: "Mango" "Hammer" "Purring"

Titles like these require the writer to explain, through the story, what the hell the significance is.

Admittedly, Oryx and Crake is the first in the series and my previous HP example was the sixth in the series - so there's a certain level of tension going into that new book. Year of the Flood, which I do not have in front of me at present, could have some questionable-give-away-the-story chapter titles.

Regarding 2.):
Atwood's titles are intriguing.

Sprinkled among the seemingly innocuous titles like "Garage" are the more creative bits that Atwood made up and the story is going to have to explain.

Stuff like "Pleebcrawl" "Sveltana" and "Brainfizz." These things mean absolutely nothing, but are interesting words in and of themselves. What do they mean? How are they important?

The juxtaposition of weirdness to normal is intriguing as well. How do you get from "Hike" to "RejoovenEsense"? The promise of the titles leads the reader - even with no other information from the story itself.

To me the table of contents reads like a writing exercise in and of itself. You know - the one the writing teacher always throws at you: "Write a story containing the words perfume, honor roll, and sandwich."

Only Atwood's words seem like way more fun to play with.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reading, Writing; Writing, Reading: Tuesday Post of Accountability

The writing
There was far less actual writing this past week, and definitely more thinking about writing. Here's what I thought:

"I'm almost done with Part I! I'm almost done with Part I!"

Here's what I did:

False started the last Part I chapter about four times. First, I started it at the wrong time with the wrong character. Then I started it with just the wrong character. Then I started at the wrong time with the right character. Then I got the right character in the right place at the right time and got five pages in before realizing -

I needed to change the trajectory of the chapter!

...Which was actually pretty exciting because now there's gonna be a lot more action instead of navel-gazing. However, it did make me re-think how I was going to handle the opening chapters of Part II. In a good way because now the characters have something I was trying to force on them before: motivation. I think this adjustment will feel more natural. (And, since I'm sort of cheating and doing Part II as my NaNo, it also gives me a lot to chew on for 50,000 words.)

All this thinking, however, led to small amounts of physical words-on-paper. Ah well. I just need to finish one chapter this month anyway.

The reading
As I was telling my friend Ali just last night: I've read about far too many bodily extremities this past week.

First up: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Awesome story.

Annnd also filled with genetically modified humans whose genitalia turn, um, blue when they're ready to get-it-on. Which was fun, but probably just a little too much information after I'd been exposed to

Second up: Rebellion of the Beasts; or, the Ass is Dead, Long Live the Ass by Leigh Hunt.  Written in 1825, you'd think it'd be safe from any kind of extremity mention. Not so. In this pre-Animal Farm send up of monarchy, the animals of the world have rebelled and put a donkey on the throne. Fine.

But, in his description of ridiculous, frivolous royal-court manners...Hunt has a lengthy description of the fine art that is ass-kissing. Literally. Apparently it is a great honor to lick the donkey king's tail. And, apparently, the closer you're allowed to lick near the 'root', the higher-up in society you are.

Gross.

So, there you have my week of writing (very little) and my week of reading (too much of a good thing).

What were you guys up to? Hopefully it was a much more wholesome week all around for you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 Interview

The author of Norwegian Wood has a new novel out, a nod to George Orwell's 1984, called 1Q84. I came across this interview and he makes a lot of interesting points, about being a writer and about being a person - my favorite being that you have to know what you love:

"So, even though I was an only kid, I could be happy because I knew what I loved. Those three things haven't changed from my childhood. I know what I love, still, now. That's a confidence. If you don't know what you love, you are lost."~Haruki Murakami in an interview with the Guardian's Emma Brockes

Another point he makes that resonated with me is a writer must be physically and mentally strong:

"Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It's a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it's literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel."~Haruki Murakami in an interview with the Guardian's Emma Brockes

Definitely go check it out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!

I almost forgot another Tuesday! Looks like I don't want to be held too accountable....=)

Here's what I managed to finish:

1. Another chapter of The Line! Woo-hoo. I busted this one out pretty fast and it's the happy sorrow of having a draft finished...but knowing that I'm gonna hafta do the whole thing over again. It might even be in the wrong order. Partway through I caught myself thinking that "this chapter probably belongs two chapters ahead of where it is." I could be totally wrong on that. I'm kinda rushing the next chapter too because I'm so freakin' close to the end of Part I! (That's about 50,000 words for anyone who is counting besides me.)

2. Fiddled with the short stories. Still not done. Just fiddling.

3. Realized that there really, really, really is no new thing under the sun. I'm currently reading Writing With Intent by Margaret Atwood. In this book of essays there's a section on The Handmaid's Tale. Handmaid, as I'm sure you know, is a dystopian novel, which is what I'm working on, so I was interested in seeing what Atwood had to say on the subject of writing a dystopian piece.

Turns out, she had a lot to say - and it's all stuff I was already thinking. It was kind of freaky. I could have written the essay if I had anything near Atwood's skill at expression. To give you a clue of how close our thought processes are on the subject, we were both similarly inspired by a quote from our Pilgrim predecessors: "We shall be as a city upon a hill; a light to all nations." I discovered this quote via Sarah Vowell's Wordy Shipmates. I'm sure that Atwood was familiar with President Reagan's speeches regarding the "shining city on the hill" - a riff on the Pilgrim's mission statement, since Handmaid was written in the 80s.

Dammit! I thought I was being at least kind of original. (Our approaches are vastly different, of course, but still - to have someone else articulate your thought process is an odd thing indeed.)

4. I've also started doing revisions to Part I in my head.  I think that the structure is there, now I just want to go back and add in the polish-type structure touches. (Pretty, sentence level revisions can wait until later. You know, the get-rid-of-passive voice crap. Save it for the end.)

How're you guys doing?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writerly Linkage for Your Friday

How intellectual property affects you: Borders customer database will be merged with Barnes and Noble's database. Here's the word from William Lynch, CEO of BN.

If you didn't know this already, just be aware that in UK it is the tail-end of Children's Book Week. If you're a teacher/librarian, there are no funds for physical packets of activities, but there are resources on the website. And, a side bit of good news for authors of children's books: they still make money. Don't worry: kids books aren't just for kids anymore.

In award news. Congrats to the Giller shortlisters. (Don't know what the Giller is? Check it out.)And speaking of awards...here's why Americans are apparently short-sighted jerks who will never win the Nobel. If that sounded short-sighted and jerky of me, my apologies. There are some interesting points in the article that I think are closely related to the idea of way-too-preachy novels by our great novelists. In a more generous spirit, I offer hearty congratulations to Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet who just won the Nobel.

And, finally: While it might not seem like writing news, it is. Nathan Bransford says Don't Be a Jerk. Sure, you might think you're being 'honest' in those reviews you're writing...but if you want Dan Brown's agent, or whoever, you'd best not insult their work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Progress is Slow, but Inevitable: Tuesday Post of Accountability!

All right, here's what I've done in the last couple weeks (since I missed last week - Bad Me!)

1. Finished a couple chapters of The Line. Now, last week I totally slacked off and managed to do a whole lot of nothing. My goal for September was to write 100 pages (count 'em) and I managed 60. At first I was all:

"Man! I'm 40 pages off of my goal. That's a lot."

then I talked myself down a bit and was like:

"I wrote 40 pages over what I managed to write in August. That's a lot."

It's all a matter of perspective. Progress was made, so I shouldn't bitch and moan too much. Plus, I'm right at the end of Part I. That means I'm in the fun writing stage known as: Jacking My Characters Up. The sadistic part of all writers loves this stage.

I'm also upping my ante for Nano. I realize that you're supposed to write something new, that you don't really care about, but I want Bigger Word Count. I want to have a rough draft of The Line finished by the end of February - and that's closer than even I think it is....

2. Started two short stories, which I'm really digging. Again, I'm off my goal because I wanted to have one short story done every two weeks. Since I'm halfway through both stories, I guess I'm not technically off my goal that much...especially if I finish both of them in the next couple weeks. It feels good to be working on somehing that can be finished fairly quickly. The work on the novel sometimes feels like a neverending task and it's good to have work in 'different states of repair'.

3. Joined a book group on Goodreads. Our first book is The Count of Monte Cristo. I dig the group. They have these giant books broken up in weekly, totally doable chunks. Since they're all going at the same pace, I feel like I can handle some of these big novels.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thursday Reviews: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


If McDonalds ruled the world: it would look like this book.

Or, rather, if Nike owned the world.

The Low-Down Dirty:
Welcome to the not-so-far-away future, where everyone is identified by the company they work for. Hence, our trigger-man (in every sense of the word, sort of) is Hack Nike. Hack Nike works for John Nike and John Nike. **No, that wasn't a typo. There are two John Nikes in this book. One is prettier than the other.** John Nike has decided that the greatest marketing scheme of all time includes shooting ten teenagers to make the new shoe, the Nike Mercury, that much cooler and desireable. The Johns ask Hack to handle it.

But Hack's not very good at this and outsources to the Police, who in turn outsource to the NRA -- who kill fourteen teenagers instead.

Now Hack is being hunted by the Government: Jennifer Government.

How it Works:
Barry has pulled off a fast-moving, sometimes confusing feat of how-not-to-run-the-world. Considering the world-wide scope of this story, it's amazing the characters come together as well as they do.

You've got unemployed people (a.k.a. 'entrepeneurs') working on computer viruses to sell to the highest bidder. You've got a government that can't prosecute criminals unless the victims agree to pay for said prosecution. You've got ambitious corporate-ladder climbers that make the Enron assholes look like pansies. It's an exciting set-up for things to go wrong.

The most interesting parts are the people who somehow grow a conscience out of this whole debacle, and there are a surprising amount of them, which bodes well for humanity. Just be prepared, as a reader to keep a mental list of the cast of characters because Barry doesn't slow down to let you catch up. If you lose a person, you're outta luck for a little while until you can get your bearings.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Late Post of Accountability

It's Wednesday! Which really means not much except: get through it.

However, even though I'm not keeping up with the mentor posting and, instead, am focusing on my own writing...means I still need to keep up with the posts of accountability.

So, here's what I've done since posting last:

1. Three chapters of The Line. Which included a re-examination of my structure and I decided to speed things up a little bit. So I upped the timeline. Which had the added bonus of making it more exciting for me to write, and I hope that translates to more excitement (not more confusion) for the reader.

I aim to be finished with Part One by mid-next-month.

2. Started a new short story. Since I'm not blogging as often, I've decided to use that extra time toward mastering the short story - or, at least, writing a few. My goal is one short story every two weeks. I'm defining one short story as the following: A.) A rough draft of something totally new or B.) A full edit of a short story that leads to a finished story.

I'm not totally beating myself up if I miss that, though. Novel first!

3. Sent out six submissiosns. Yay! Fingers crossed.

Anybody else do anything interesting/productive?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Difficult Decision!

Hey guys, I'm afraid that this'll be my last post for a while. I do have a few already scheduled to go up down the line...but after some heavy consideration, I've decided that I need to spend more time on my writerly writing.

As you can imagine, following up on the mentors and reading/researching, etc. takes a lot of time and energy. While I'm learning a lot, I have discovered that most of my time has been going to writing about writing instead of doing the writing. So, I'm going to pause the blog and revisit how it's structured...but that could be a while.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this stuff! I hope that your writing endeavors are richly rewarded!

Now get to work.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hang-up Awareness

After an interesting bout during a critique meeting, a few of my writers group buddies and I discussed our hang-ups in fiction. Basically, we asked ourselves: during a critique is there anything that you, personally, cannot get past or overlook in another writer's submission – and it’s an entirely personal reaction, not something like comma-use or story structure or anything ‘writerly.’

For example, my hang-up is the treatment of women in a story. I have next to zero tolerance for what has been termed ‘Mantasy’ because a lot of the elements of this type of fiction treat women in a questionable manner. For example, rape is often utilized in some manner in the unpublished works I’ve seen – often negatively, but rape will still show up in there somewhere. Because this is such a damaging life-altering event in any woman’s life (I hope to heaven it never happens to any readers here!) I hate seeing it used as anything even remotely erotic.


That’s an extreme example, but my hang-up shows up in smaller ways too. If a story doesn’t represent a balanced woman’s perspective I have a difficult time overlooking it. Sure, not all stories need a balanced perspective – but I really think that Of Mice and Men would’ve benefitted a little. (See? It’s a matter of personal taste.)

Anyway, reading The Handmaid’s Tale I realized something else: I’m also irritated when men are not treated in a well-rounded fashion.

As a woman, I had some strong reactions to this book. The dehumanized portraits of women reduced to a color or a duty. The lack of choice. The fear, the threats, the loss. I felt all of it, so two-hundred and ten points to Atwood for that. But something was bothering me throughout the story and I finally realized that it was the men.

So this Handmaid’s Tale society is male-dominated. The dudes are in charge – which just takes it back a hundred years or so and is not a monstrous stretch of the imagination (woe be the day!). And this is where I hit the flaw in the story: men were in charge for centuries prior to this one. They have a certain amount of logic and dominating capability. In fact, when it comes down to dudes "defending" themselves against women, their “claim” is that they are more “rational” and “logical” rather than “emotional” and “passionate” like the chicks. While I don’t think guys are more rational than women, by any means, I do think that a dominating group has certain rationales that drive it.

In Tale, the rationale for the Handmaids is that they have proven themselves in The Time Before as capable breeders. All of them have had children. The Commanders (dudes in charge) want kids. But the Commanders are stuck with their Wives, have negotiated certain rights and responsibilities with said Wives, and the Wives – some of them – are not able to have children. Therefore the Handmaids are brought into the Commander’s homes and assume getting-knocked-up duties.

Now, here’s my issue: the Commanders are in charge. They have certain requirements – namely children. Sure, they negotiated with the Wives prior to the takeover of the world, but now the world is taken over…why still negotiate with the women who aren’t adding to the quantity of children? Of course, it’s the men themselves that are probably responsible for the infertility…but that didn’t stop Henry VIII. Wouldn’t they start the rules for multiple wives, especially if they’re using Biblical precedent?

Like I said – this is my hang-up. There’s no way that Atwood could’ve made that choice, because that would’ve upset the balance of the story - in fact, it would've changed the story entirely - and there’s so much that is interesting already in Handmaid’s Tale. But I think that’s the key to creating a good story: the writer has to create a more interesting idea in order to help the reader past their own prejudices/biases/hang-ups.

It does make me wonder how much of our hang-ups make it into our own writing.

What are your hang-ups? Do you think that your hang-ups extend from your reading/critiquing into your writing? How can you spot it without it being pointed out by, say, your writing group?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Plum Island (John Corey, #1)Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Ah...sarcastic narrators. This book's got one.
"I gripped my right ear and twisted, which is how I tune out idiots."
Unfortunately, it's apparent that everyone except John Corey (our fearless, convalescing-from-getting-shot-on-the-job narrator/hero) is an idiot. I sorta wish that his ear had been turned off for some larger chunks of the book -- because the reader has to wade through a lot of red herrings and schtuff to get to the meat of the book.

For example, getting a tour of Plum Island, the spot where world-threatening viruses are studied and possibly stolen, shouldn't be so long and tedious. For an example of that: there are numerous mentions of the ospreys -- but don't get all excited. It's not a clue. Apparently the bird has nothing more to do with the story than a narrative motif, which doesn't quite come off for me. The tour of Plum Island takes 100 pages and by the time you reach the end, witty repartee like
"I had to ask, 'But is the female screwworm fulfilled?'

'She must be,' Zollner replied. 'She never mates again.'

Beth offered, 'There's another way to look at that.'"
is just a little frustrating. You want INFORMATION, not wit, by that point.

That being said, the characters are certainly likeable (you know, except for the ones you're not supposed to like.)


And even the false leads are intriguing. Pirate treasure, virus hunting, international intrigue, historical implications, etc. You just can't get much better than that. The whole thing is an adventurer's wet dream. It's fun to go and figure stuff out along with Corey -- though the turn might be a little to easy to catch. I mean, I got the gist before they left Plum Island...which might explain why a lot of the copious detail felt, well, copious.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability! Writing! Yeah!

Ah, Tuesday. Time to be held accountable.

Here's what I was up to:

1. Writing. Woo-whee! Finished a chapter and am half through another, for a grand total of twenty-odd pages this past week. Since I figured out the schedule that I need to be on, I've been sticking to it pretty consistently. Of course, I only figured it out last week...so let's see how long I stick to it, yeah?

Another reason I think I've been so productive is that I've figured out not to try too much new. A certain pattern has emerged on the projects I finish and, if that's how I'm finishing, then that's what I need to do, right?

So, my process (my real process, as I figure out every time...so remind me next time I try something too different): hand-write in the cheap notebooks that are so plentiful this time of year - because they're cheap I don't have an ounce of guilt about what should or should not go in them, which plagues me for some reason with the nicer notebooks/journals. Then edit as I type it in later.

Another weird thing I've noticed: when I'm working on a big project I like to use one writing utensil - whether pencil or pen - until said utensil runs out (either the pencil is so short it's awkward to hold, or until the pen runs out of ink). Seems strange to the outside world, I'm sure, but I think I use these as measuring sticks. If I ever feel I'm not making progress...I can just look at the length of my pencil, or my pen will suddenly refuse to write another word. Then I have the distinct triumphant feeling of: Ha! I beat that one!

2. Finished reading some books that I've been monkeying around with. On Goodreads I entered 100 books as my reading goal this year, so when I plotted my writing goals I plotted my reading goals as well. Turns out that I was a tad smidgen too ambitious. So I've revised to eighty books and I've actually scheduled out how much time I'll need to read said books to hit my goal by the end of the year.

Shane looked at me and said "You're a little intense."

Well, writing and reading are pretty much my thing, so it doesn't feel like work. I want to be an expert and all....

3. Learned to pity English teachers (well, actually, all teachers). I'm from a family of teachers, and my husband is one. He's just taken on a job at, basically, a Talented and Gifted charter school that can get kind of intense. He had stacks of stuff to grade this weekend - drafts of paragraphs that he had to mark up and get back to the kids by today. I had mercy on him and helped edit...though I don't know how helpful I was with the rubric schtuff. I'm sure he wasn't the only teacher grading on Labor Day, so let me give a shout-out to my teacher people: I LOVE YOU! YOUR STUDENTS LOVE YOU! KEEP IT UP!!!