The Reading Corner is a place where books of all genres are examined and reviewed. Comments, questions and disagreement are welcomed. Grab some coffee and a comfy chair and make yourself at home.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Android Karenina

I have never read Anna Karenina, but I'm beginning to be tempted. Russian literature can be a heavy undertaking, as my symbolism-laden senior year literature class could attest to. It took us several years to get through Crime & Punishment (or it felt like it, anyway), because we spent so much time analyzing everything that we had no real ability to just appreciate the literature.

Tolstoy is intimidating. Anna Karenina is a very large book. It's brick-sized. Brick-sized books frighten many readers. I had no intention of picking up any Russian literature this summer...

...but then I saw Android Karenina at my local library. Those of you who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and hey, anybody hear anything about the movie starring Natalie Portman? Can you say boo-yah!?) or Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters should grab a copy of this newest Ben H. Winters phenomenon, because it is great.

As the back of the book cover says, Android Karenina is set in an awesomer Russia.

The back of the book cover is not lying to you.

Fans of Winters, Russian literature, steampunk and/or robots would be remiss in not picking this up. It takes the Tolstoy, which is already classic, and pumps it up a notch. As a Star Wars fan and an avid reader, Android Karenina is a huge treat.

The best thing about Winters' mash-ups, as far as I'm concerned, is that they encourage readers to approach classic literature with an open mind. Yes, you get zombies and seamonsters and robots in the mix -but you're also getting the literature. The rich traditions of hundreds of years of writing are being more widely read (and besides, they're much more funny than the authors ever intended).

Even if the books aren't the pure literature of the original, they make a great read, and they get more reluctant readers interested in the writing. Android Karenina is no exception.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whiny Whiny People.

You know what I am really sick of hearing? People whine about self-publishing. I've ranted about Garrison Keillor's steaming pile of whine before, but apparently people still have not picked up on a few simple facts.

  • Self-publishing works for a growing number of writers and readers (so the people complaining about the poor readers! how will they ever be able to choose books! can seriously shut up. You're insulting readers -who know what they want, and will learn how to find it, when self-publishing outlets become as organized for readers as they are for writers)
  • Self-publishing is not going away. We live in an increasingly digital world. The ability of writers and readers to access books in seconds is not something people are going to give up, now that they have it. And there are more books available!
  • Self-publishing does not mean the books are bad (or "dreck" as one panicky Salon columnist called self-published work). I've said it before, and I will continue saying it until people realize it's true: not all self-published books are equal. Claiming that everything that is published belongs in the rejected slush pile as having been horrid, despicable, shallow and bad just alienates the great writers from working with you.
  • Self-publishing is a market. It's going to self-regulate. People are all panicked about the gatekeeper aspect of traditional publishing. Well, I'm sorry. Any "gatekeeper" who would allow something like Twilight to get published is hardly worth the name (and the claim that there are worse books that have been rejected changes nothing -a crap book is a crap book, and it got published. Someone on the marketing team is happy, while literature is sitting in a corner weeping. Claiming that the traditional industry is a bastion of literary prowess while self-publishing writers are all shoddy hacks is a lie, plain and simple.).
I also hate the claim that anyone who supports self-publishing must have been rejected from the traditional route and is looking for an easy way to get their book out there. First of all, I have been published in the traditional way (short stories are different than novels, but the rejection rate is still high), and I support self-publishing fully. I don't have any rejected manuscripts that I'm slapping out on a POD site, all bitter and angry about my rejections. My manuscripts aren't ready for publication, and any self-pubber with an ounce of sense has been through this process.

They have been through the marketing process, the design, the editing (and if they're smart, they hired somebody to help them with every step -and self-pubbers are very frequently very smart). The ones that aren't going through this rigorous cleaning, polishing and touting of their work aren't going to be successful. Just like in the "real" publishing world, if you put out crappy products, you get crappy results.

So quit your whining. Start making friends with the people who are driving the market forward and will be gaining even more momentum over the next decades. We're not going to forget the people who referred to self-publishing writers are producers of dreck. We'd like to work with people in the traditional industry and apply the expertise to this new market -but we're more than happy to leave you all behind as you cry about how technology is the devil and no one is writing anything good.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Recommendations

I love books. If you didn't know that already, you're probably on the wrong blog. I have a tattoo devoted to books (and someday will probably have another. It's true what they say about tattoos -they're addictive), and so many books that I can't find them all and occasionally end up the victim of a bookvalanche.

But I'm still looking for new things to read.

What I'm Reading Now

Right now I'm reading a great book called Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. I borrowed it from my grandma (she's awesome), and it's fascinating. As an American secularist, I am really interested in the history of the movement, and it's not something that gets much mainstream attention.

There's a lot more history (and humor) than I had even imagined. I was kind of thinking that Freethinkers might not have much to say (despite its 432 pages), because secularism isn't talked about all that often unless you're involved in some secular blog circles. The history of the movement and the individuals has been neglected. Freethinkers is like the history class I wish I could have had in school.

Susan Jacoby is an honest, open and funny writer. She's not bitter about the relative anonymity secularism has, only frustrated and sad. Some of the biggest secular figures of history never get even a whisper of a mention, but they had fascinating lives and often received national and international attention. Reading this book is like discovering old relatives I wish I'd been able to meet. There are fascinating people and events described.

If you have any interest at all in secular America, check it out. It's a great read.

Then What?

What would you recommend I start on next? I like juggling a few books at a time during the summer, and I will read almost anything.

What You Should Read

I would recommend trying something new this summer. Break out of your favorite genre and explore a new topic. If you usually read paranormal romance, try a book like Nudge, by Malcolm Gladwell. If your favorite books are science fiction, read some modern literature. Reading new things is one of the best ways to learn and expand your knowledge base -and who knows? Maybe you'll find a new favorite genre.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Characters

I have been absent for a while. I'm trying to get back on track with all of my writing, starting today, so if I don't post again every weekday this week, feel free to write me an angry letter.

What I want to write about today is characters, and most importantly, character appearance -as in, physical appearance.

Spare Me This Crap

I read a review of a book today, and the description of the characters made me gag. It was essentially that the good guys were all sexy, smart and sarcastic and the bad guys were all hideous, smart but with fatal flaws, and also kind of lame and petty. I haven't read the book, so I can't say if that's accurate...but I can tell you I will not be reading that book. Ever.

This is a book for adults, mind you. It's not a kid's book where good and evil are clearly defined and there is no nuance or gray area, so that kids can understand the morals. It's a book for grownups, who are supposed to be able to puzzle out the difference between good, evil and the questionable in between, or at least try.

Apparently the author of this book doesn't have enough faith in readers to give you any actual substance in characters. The good guys (and girls) are so good they even look good! And the bad guys are so wicked it warps their outsides and they're just fugly. Wow. Yawn.

Give Me More of Characters Like These

Now I'd like to look back at Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Sissy Hankshaw is a fox -she's a model, and she's tall, blond and slender. But she has massive (supermassive) thumbs. They're so jarring that they never even appear in the ads she's featured in. These thumbs are her defining physical characteristic, and they shape her destiny: she's a hitchhiker. It's what she is (mostly).

Sissy is still a complex character with wants and desires and depth, however. She is not reduced to one aspect of her physical appearance, and that's what makes her interesting. If Sissy was just a body attached to a pair of thumbs, ECGTB wouldn't have held my attention past the first three pages.

And another example: The Better Part of Darkness. Without giving away any spoilers, one of the main (and handsome) male characters' souls is replaced by that of a demon who purchased the rights to the body (seriously, it's a cool book. Check it out.). And yet, when this demon looks at the situation his host body was in, he doesn't run away from it. He's got this great new bod, a whole new lifetime to use it in, and he throws himself back into harm's way to help a woman and her daughter, despite the fact that he's a shady demon.

That's complex. That's confusing -do you hate him for taking over a main character's body? Or do you love him for helping? That is a real character. That adds value to the story. That's someone whose outward appearance may be attractive in the conventional way, but whose personality is their biggest quality.

Other Considerations

Books are escapism. Sometimes readers just need to escape into that fantasy of the perfect bod/perfect mate/perfect life for a while, and there's nothing wrong with providing that -sometimes. On the one hand, escapism is healthy. We need it, and it's nice. On the other hand, it also tends to promote specific cultural stereotypes about beauty and its effect on personality (for example: the smoking hot bitch, the cute but shy girl who gets the guy, the bad boy who just needs some love and is totally gorgeous, the square-jawed hero with a dark past, etc. I am bored just thinking about these characters).

I want to read about real people, not some character who always has the snappy one-liner, the long legs and the straight blond hair. Real people are clumsy or have freckles they hate or always nick their knees when shaving. Real people are drawn in shades of gray.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Homeward Bound

I've been absent from the blogosphere this week -I'm going home today, and packing, studying and generally being incredibly bored have taken up most of my time. That and watching seasons 3 and 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix (don't act like you didn't know I was a nerd. Next it's going to be True Blood.). However, I now find myself with nearly an hour to kill and no desire to start on season 5 right away.

Today I woke up grumpy, walked grumpily through the rainstorm from hell to get a breakfast that made me sick and then got a stress headache, which I decided (brilliantly) to compound with a latte (or a chai with a shot of espresso -I honestly do not remember). The stress headache went away, but the whole "I'm allergic to milk (etc)" thing is kicking me in the head and stomach simultaneously. It's a fun day to have a final exam I don't want to take!

I figured I should update with some bookish things, but to be totally honest, I don't have much to say (at least right now. I do have news, but I want to wait a couple of days so I don't jinx it somehow). I haven't been reading much (cue the guilt), but that should change once I get home and have nothing but free time (and possibly two summer jobs).

I'm still working my way through Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and I have to be honest -I like Jitterbug Perfume better. I love the characters in ECGTB (too lazy to type), they're interesting...but something about it is losing me. I think it's possibly that since I've been stuck in my dorm since last Friday with -quite literally -nothing I needed to work on, I want vicarious action. Not much is going on in ECGTB. Sissy is in a mental institution, and Robbins seems to be frolicking through lengthy descriptive and introspective passages. They're well written, and they're funny, but nothing is going on and I'm very bored with it.

In JP, the characters are after something. There is a driving force pushing the characters through life. There are desires, and conflicts. In ECGTB, that's almost totally lacking in all significant ways -and I'm almost halfway through the book. Even the tantalizing little tidbits about the Chink and the clockworks really aren't enough to keep me interested right now. I love Robbins' writing, I just think I picked a bad time to read this particular book. Thoughts?

While I psychoanalyze my reasons for wanting more action (hint: it's because I'm stuck in a dorm with nothing to do and I'm bored), I am going to refrain from whining about having to live in a dorm and be bored for almost a full week any further (it involves how gross other people are, and I don't have the stomach for it).

More books and booky talk soon, when I am less grouchy. :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Nerdery

I am having a severe case of geek flashback. The Scripps National Spelling Bee is today (and yesterday)! Right now I really wish I was at home so I could be watching it -this is the first and only time I have wished for a TV while at school.

As a two-time competitor in the Bee, watching all of those terrified kids takes me back to when I was standing on that stage, nervously misspelling theodicy to pronouncer Jacques Bailly (who won the Bee himself in 1980). This is true of all spellers: I constantly run into the word theodicy now.

I placed 47th in 2004. In 2003, I was 85th. I can't even put into words how much fun the Bee always was for me (even when I lost). Even now, I bring one of my two copies of Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary to school with me, and I use it regularly.

If you have some time to watch the Bee, it's on ESPN or ESPN3 and ABC as well. Even if you don't know how to spell the words, some of the kids' antics are hilarious, and it's always amazing to me to see how intelligent they are.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Got Books

More accurately, I got a stack of old literary journals and magazines. Yesterday was the last day of my nonfiction writing workshop, and our prof brought in a bunch of them to give away -her husband is a book reviewer and wanted to clean house.

I don't know if that means these are all copies that he didn't like, but if you put me in a room and say, "Free books, take as many as you like!" believe me when I say that I will. I got 4.

Have any of you heard of/read/submitted to/been published in any one of these? Let me know! I'm excited to dig into them and see what's what.

West Branch.

I got the poetry issue from Spring/Summer 2005.
First line of the first piece, called A Walking Fire by Josh Wallaert:
"Now a little fire in a wild field. Winter."

Pleiades.

I got the first issue of Volume 30, published in 2010.
First lines of the first piece, called Canto 23 by Mark Smith:
"Marcus, having exchanged the firemen's
asbestos suit he wore in Canto 22
for a jacket of polartec, was escorted
by his Indian guide to the shoreline"

The Greensboro Review.

I got Number 78, from Fall of 2005.
First lines of the first piece, called Necessity at Radmansgatan by Hildred Crill:
"We all rush
down the narrow stone stairway
to the trains or back up again"

Great River Review.

I got the Fall/Winter issue from 2005.
First line of the first piece, called Such Fire, by Lon Otto:
"I was thinking about Roy, which wasn't his real name but what he'd told me to use when I talked about him."
(I will admit that I picked up Great River Review because there is an author in it who shares one of my last names.)

I'm sure I'll be posting more about these as I go through them. What are your favorite literary magazines or journals? And have you submitted to mine? ;)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summer reading list

I am still constructing my list of books for this summer, personally. I want to revisit some old favorites, like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but I'm also looking forward to branching out into new territory. I have a week of vacation in NC coming up, and I'm already making lists of what I want to take with me.

I've been meaning to read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series for ages, and I'm hoping I can get started on that soon. There's also a new translation of The Arabian Nights out that I'm looking into snagging a copy of, as well.

One of my favorite things about summer is that I get to read all day if I really want to. Summer is perfect for lounging around outside with a new book, and I am so excited for it to finally be here! My summer break starts in almost exactly a week (give or take a few hours next Wednesday for finals), and I am going to dive right into a big pile of books (metaphorically speaking. Ow.).

What's on your summer reading list?

Sorry for the short post today -nothing new to report re: what I'm reading at the moment. I am reluctant to do anything at all because I have the end-of-the-school-year doldrums and all I really want to do is lay around and eat ice cream. 3 more days of class. I'll get through it. Maybe.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Jonah got me Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins -and what a book that is! It's funny, weird and complex. I read it over Winter Quarter, and I absolutely loved it. If you've never read it, go out and pick it up. About a week ago, I was in dire need of new books to read. In a fit of "end of school year" enthusiasm, I packed my books. All of them. I still have a week of classes left.

I called Jonah from the bookstore, crouched before a row of Tom Robbins books, asking for his advice on which one to pick up. There were a few he recommended, but we finally settled on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again -he has good taste in books. He got me Ubik by Philip K. Dick, too. He knows me too well. :)

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is, like Jitterbug Perfume, funny, weird and complex. There's the Countess -a man. There's Julian -a full-blooded Indian who paints watercolors and is subject to horrible fits of asthma. There's the Rubber Rose Ranch, which was overthrown by women, and where those women wrangle whooping cranes. And, of course, there is Sissy Hankshaw and her incredible thumbs. Sissy is a hitchhiker by nature, because of her enormous thumbs, and it is around her that the story revolves.

I'm not too far into the book just yet, because I had a 3-day interlude from reading (Memorial Day weekend consisted of canoeing, climbing and a huge number of naps), but I plan on getting back into it today. Robbins is too good to pass up.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath's only novel is next on my reading list. This is simply an anecdote to let you all know what a bookstore addict I am. I went out on Saturday morning to get a copy of the paper so I could finish a project I was working on. The student center where the papers usually are was closed for Memorial Day weekend, so I walked down to one of the many campus bookstores to look for a copy.

Bad idea.

15 minutes later, I left with the last copy of an an out-of-print limited edition version of The Bell Jar. I also remembered to get the paper.

Bookstores awaken my inner shopaholic. I cannot leave a bookstore without a book. Woe betide me (and my budget) if ever I get an ereader! I do at least read all of my purchases, so I wouldn't make purchases in vain...but my oh my would I make purchases. My wallet is cowering in terror right now.

Leaves & Flowers

Last but not least, I have announcement about Leaves & Flowers! Last night, I hired an assistant editor named Liz. She's going to be helping with promotion and some of the editing work for the journal. I am very excited to have her on board. She's on Twitter and runs a blog, and the Leaves & Flowers website always has updates and information. There will be a post about Liz up sometime later this week. Give her a shout and welcome her aboard!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Weekend Update

I will probably not be updating again this weekend, but I didn't want to leave you all with nothing. Check out this post on my literary journal's website to see some of the writing and art blogs I use for inspiration and information.

See you next week!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Self-Publishing

After my slightly feisty (okay, really feisty) post yesterday about Garrison Keillor's technophobia and elitism, I decided I should take a day to write about the self-publishing industry itself and what makes it so interesting and so challenging.

As someone who is heavily involved with the self-publishing scene, I am constantly trying to learn more about it. I'm always looking for solutions to problems I've had in the past and attempting to find the best possible way to produce my literary journal, Leaves & Flowers.

Self-publishing is an intense process for the writers who take it seriously. And these are the people I want to focus on.

Serious Self-Publishers

The people who are serious about self-publishing are the ones who are going to succeed.

Garrison Keillor -and anyone who knocks on self-publishing as a whole -assume that writers who self-publish simply find the first ebook website they can, slap an unpolished manuscript up onto it and flood the market with crap that nobody wants. That's simply not how it works.

The people who are serious about their writing -people who have written a number of books, perhaps published in the traditional way, have a degree in something related to writing, or are dedicated to and in love with their craft -are not going to just throw their novel up on a website without any planning.

While self-publishing and traditional publishing both have their challenges, self-publishing is just as difficult as going the "normal" route, and it has very unique challenges. The writer becomes much more than just a writer:
  • Editing falls on the writer's shoulders, unless she is willing to pay someone hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a professional edit. Many writers do opt for this, because a polished manuscript is essential for sales.
  • Designing the interior and exterior is also the writer's responsibility. For writers with no design experience, this can be a huge challenge as they experiment with different formats. The cover is one of the most important parts of selling a book online, because people do judge books by their cover -we all know it. Again, many writers choose to hire someone to do the designing for them, which is very expensive.
  • Finding a printer is the writer's responsibility. A self-publishing author cannot simply hand the manuscript over to a publisher and know that the publisher owns or works with a printing press. The writer must seek out the best quality printer -and sometimes reformat a book to fit their specifications. Printing self-published books is expensive, especially if you order multiple proof copies (for example: I ended up needing three separate proofs of the latest issue of Leaves & Flowers; each one cost me $15. $45 for one issue is a huge amount of money to a broke college student -for a professional writer, that number could rapidly get much, much larger).
  • Marketing and publicity are the responsibility of a writer. Many traditionally published writers are involved with their publicity -and many receive none at all -but in self-publishing, the risks are much greater. All of the marketing experience available to big publishers is unavailable to self-published authors, who are often working totally alone, promoting their books on Twitter, Facebook and other websites in order to create a fan base.
  • Self-published writers receive no advances, have no agents and often lack experience in the publishing field. It is a steep, steep learning curve.
Despite all of the things that hamper self-publishing authors, those of us who want to succeed in the path we have chosen make sure we know how to do so. There are classes, blogs, other writers, seminars, webinars, groups and even writers' guilds devoted solely to the self-publishing industry.

Those of us who choose to self-publish are not always in it because the manuscript "wasn't good enough" for a big publisher. And if it wasn't, it won't sell. Self-publishing, like traditional publishing, is a market. People who learn how to work the market effectively are going to succeed. They might not have a breakaway best-seller or a New York Times Book Review (yet!), but that's because this is a new market. It's just learning how to walk. Give it a few years, and it will be running faster than you can imagine.

I love it when I see authors who are willing to take the plunge and self-publish. It's risky, it's ballsy and it is more likely to fail. But it is also the up-and-comer, the next big thing. Getting in on it now and learning the ropes is an investment. Self-publishing is riding the new technology of ebooks and ereaders and the influx of self-publishing outlets in a way that the industry doesn't understand. And in the end, that's going to be their loss.

A Community of Writers

Those of us who self-publish form a very tight-knit community. People are more willing to interact, buy each others' books, promote one another and make friends. We play well with others, because taking the route of self-publishing requires you to engage with your community. Self-published authors can be cranky, argumentative and bitter, just like anybody, but on the whole, we are driven to help one another.

Traditionally published authors have a similar community, I'm sure, but it's always inspiring to me to see how much self-publishing authors are willing to do for one another. Building a fan base is part of succeeding, but it goes far beyond that in the self-publishing world: these writers build a community, too.

Conclusion

I have nattered on long enough for now. Self-publishing is a force to be reckoned with. It's like fire: if you learn how to use it and control it, you can make art. If you're just playing with it, which Garrison Keillor and his ilk assume is all we know how to do, you can be eaten alive. It's a challenge, and it's one that any serious writer should consider taking on.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Garrison Keillor: Technophobe

Garrison Keillor showed his true colors in his column in the Baltimore Sun. By falling into that ever-so-cliched and offensive trap of the big-name writer, he not only lost a fan in me, he also revealed even more about the problems with the industry. What did he do?

He bagged on about all of the evils and horrors of the rise of self-publishing. No, I am not kidding. He claims that when everyone can publish their own work, no one will ever read it, it will all be poor quality, the publishing industry is going down in flames and oh my god people can publish their own books!

He has perfectly illustrated the mindset that so irritated us youngsters when our grandparents chided us for wanting cars to go to school. "Back in the day," he says, "we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshiped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats." As though writers who go the self-publishing route have no love of language, no obsession with the telling of stories, no desire to succeed at all costs -and self-publishing, my friends, is costly.

He writes that 'back in his day,' authors had to work for their publishing deals -practically write in their own blood and sacrifice their children at the altar of the great god Literature. "Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries," he tells us. Nobody likes a martyr anyway, so I'm failing to see how that's a bad thing.

Additionally, the very fact that big names in the traditional industry whine about self-publishers as though we are out to get them and destroy literature is a huge contributor to the failure of that very industry. Instead of working with self-publishers and self-publishing outlets to help improve the quality of writing and the access of writers to editors (who Keillor clearly assumes are an endangered species), the publishing industry runs around flapping its hands and refusing to adjust to the new model of the writing world. Technology marches on, you guys. Get on board and make it work for you, or become obsolete. People once thought the pen would be the downfall of academia. While academia certainly has its issues, none of them are pen-related. Stop hand-flapping and learn about the technology before you bash it.

But let's get on to to the meat of my complaint:

Not all self-published authors are the same.

By tarring all self-pubs with the same brush (namely that self-pubs are ignorant of the market and the conventions of writing, lacking the sense of martyrdom Keillor says is required for a proper author, and clearly holding the idea that not having to go through the exact same process he did means that whatever a self-pubber produces is obviously going to be garbage), Keillor discredits thousands of authors -like my friend Renda, to name just one -who have worked their way into the market, fighting tooth and nail every step of the way.

Yes, there certainly are people out there who will write a book, slap it up on an ebook site with no editing, no design knowledge or marketing tools and sell very few copies, mostly to blood relatives. Maybe that's what some people want -to share a book, perhaps a family story, with, you know, family. Other authors will simply lack the knowledge to market and design a book, and they will fail. But that is not the entirety of the self-publishing market, although Keillor would desperately like you to believe that it is.

There certainly are quality control issues with self-publishing. It is entirely possible to miss something in the editing process. I have done it myself, much to my everlasting embarrassment. It's a steep, steep learning curve, this self-publishing thing. It's a lot harder than traditional publishing, because the individual is writer, agent, editor, marketer, designer, type-setter and publisher all in one -and it all comes out of the author's own pocket. With traditional publishing, you polish and polish and hire an agent and work with that person to navigate a deal, and then maybe do some of the marketing to help earn back the advance that self-publishing writers sure aren't going to get.

This technophobic attitude is infuriating, because it is narrow-minded and ignorant of what it actually means to self-publish. Writers who are serious about the process often hire an agency -like DuoLit, who also did a blog post about the hatred directed at self-publishing writers -to help them during the process. And it's expensive. Upwards of $2,000 for a single book. That's not something that a hobbyist is going to go for. To get the services you need to make a good, professional, well-edited book, you have to be serious about it.

And the people who aren't -the people Garrison Keillor assumes make up the entirety of the self-publishing world -won't get read. If they don't learn the skills they need, or pay someone to provide them with those skills or knowledge, then their book will sit in obscurity on a digital shelf, unsold. Rather like books produced by, oh, say, the traditional publishing industry that don't sell well because they're terrible (it happens, although Keillor would like us all to believe that every traditionally published book is a triumph of literary and philosophical prowess).

To be a self-published author -a good one -takes time, it takes skill, energy and dedication; this is something most authors who succeed at self-publishing have in spades. They simply chose to go a different route. And different, according to Keillor, is bad. Very bad indeed.

Keillor protests that he is not an elitist at a couple of points throughout the column. And yet, his attitude is unmistakable: Oh say it isn't so -the philistines can publish books now. Wherever are my smelling salts and fainting couch? Verily, it is the downfall of all things literary. Nothing good can come of this. We are your readers and your paycheck, Keillor, we of the self-publishing market, and we are not pleased to be so disparaged.

We are simply choosing to earn our literary keep in a way that allows us to ride the wave of technology. If you fear that, fine. Cling to the old, dying model and shake your fist at us dang kids as we ride by in our shiny new ebooks, continuing to tell stories and spread them to those who need and want them, just as real writers have always done.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Body Finder

Today I want to write about The Body Finder and the idea of showing, not telling. I can already hear some of you whining, "But we know about that! That's so basic!" Well, stick with me. It's clear that this is a lesson writers still need to learn, myself included.

Show-don't-tell (SDT from now on) is something I struggle with, because I have a desire to over-explain things. I like making sure my readers know precisely what I mean, probably because I am argumentative and prefer to cover all points as explicitly as possible. With a blog and in academic papers, that's not a bad policy.

In fiction (and creative non-fiction), that's a very bad policy indeed. It leaves you with sentences like, "He was angry -very angry." Excuse me while I grab a pillow and take a snooze on that sentence.

How about this one? "His hands were clenched so tight that little half-moon cuts showed up in his palms."

That is an angry fellow. I would be sitting up and paying attention if that sentence was used. Telling a reader that someone is experiencing X is so much less engaging than showing a reader how X is being experienced.

So, on to The Body Finder and how SDT is related.

I don't read a lot of YA. It's not really my go-to genre -it's not that I don't like it, but I'm definitely not the target demographic. I generally enjoy what YA books I do pick up, but it's not a genre I actively seek out.

That being said, I have a question for avid readers of YA: Is it common practice for many YA writers to use italics to show a reader that something is important -very important -throughout most of a book? I suspect that it's not, because the SDT rule holds true in all creative writing, YA included; I have a feeling that the italics issue might be limited to a few books, like The Body Finder.

I will elaborate on it, but my main point today is this: If you have to use italics to show strong emotion or denote importance, you're doing it wrong. (By "it" I mean writing).

Using italics seems to me to be the very essence of breaking the SDT rule: you are telling people that something is important by setting it apart from the rest of the font -not by giving readers any details as to why this something is significant. That's a problem in a couple of big ways.

  1. It's distracting. I use bold/italics on my blog for emphasis because this is largely fact- and opinion-based writing, and because I want to set main points apart from the rest of the text. It is intentionally distracting. In a novel, I don't want to be distracted from the flow of the writing -it needs to pull me in and keep me there because I'm too entranced to look away. Throwing in italics every few paragraphs is visually unappealing and breaks the flow of the writing.
  2. It's lazy. If, as a writer, you are using italics to show that something is meaningful, you need to take a good look at why that is. It's probably because you're not using enough sensory detail to make the reader understand without having to be told. It's way simpler to use italics to tell someone this sentence is significant, but in the end, you're not really saying anything.
Now, I will have to grant that my copy of The Body Finder is an uncorrected proof. It is entirely possible that this overuse of italics was corrected in the final (anyone who's read it, please let me know). However, my experience reading the book was almost ruined by it.

The Body Finder has the worst case of italics overload I've ever seen. At minimum, 1 out of every 3 pages (not including the fully italicized "interior" pages, which are italicized for a valid reason) has at least one use of italics on it. Visually, that's horrible. It also tells me, at a glance, that I am being told things and not shown them.

Take this sentence, for example: "She needed to see what was there." Okay -at this point in the story, the reader already knows that Violet has the ability to sense the 'echoes' of dead things. It's almost a compulsion for her to seek them out. But telling the reader that she needed to see something does not evoke the emotion of need -it's just a lame signifier that "ooh this is important so pay attention."

Bummer. I want to see more of Violet's struggle between her desire to find these things (people) and put them to rest, and her desire to be a normal teen. Telling me she needed something doesn't do that.

Once in a while, the use of italics can be pulled off and done well. In a book like The Body Finder, where it's used to replace emotive writing, however, it takes the story and cheapens its emotional color and its fire.

That is especially sad, because The Body Finder (apart from a few cliched characters and adverb overuse almost as bad as the italics abuse) is actually a very good story. The plot is captivating enough that I was able to deal with the italics...on my first reading. My first reading took me about two hours. My second reading took me two days, because I was so frustrated with the constant italics that I would put the book down, which is bad. (See how annoying it gets?)


Readers -what's your take on the SDT rule and italics? Do you use italics effectively in your own creative writing? If so, how? Am I being too harsh? Is italics abuse common in YA novels?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Inked, by Renda Dodge


Image Credit: Renda Dodge

My friend Renda Dodge, a two-time contributor to Leaves & Flowers and all around great writer, has just released the second edition of her novel Inked.

Some of you may remember my review of Inked from around the time of its initial release. I'll pick a few of the choice quotes, to refresh your memory and then bring in some new highlights:

First Review

Inked is about a young woman named Tori who has an undiagnosed personality disorder. She deals with it by getting a new tattoo every time there's a major shift in her life.

Tori is a fascinating character. She's rebellious, she's angry, she's scared -and she knows it, which makes the story even more interesting. Tori acknowledges her own faults throughout the story, but she's still too pissed off and frightened to allow herself much room for changing the parts of herself she doesn't like -not to say she doesn't, because she certainly does, but I got a feeling that Tori isn't ever going to totally break out of certain aspects of her personality (nor did I want her to).

Tori isn't a character I could see undergoing a traditional growth pattern in a novel -and that's definitely one of the strengths of the book; keeping Tori very much herself keeps the book human. This is not a hero story, this is a story of someone who is just a person trying to deal with their life and getting a little lost doing it. We've all been there in one way or another, and Tori reflects that back to the reader.

Updated Information

Some new things you might notice about Inked are the new cover, which is absolutely gorgeous, and it definitely adds a very visual element to the story. While I liked the abstract sort of approach to the first cover, the new cover is a picture of Tori herself, and that's great.

There are also some quotes on the book from reviewers, including one from yours truly, which makes me feel super important! :)

This second edition of Inked is a great-looking book. I encourage you to check out my initial review and buy a copy. Independent writers put a huge investment into their work, and Renda's work is totally deserving of your support. Inked is a great read, and it's not a book you will soon forget once you've picked it up.

Inked is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million for your purchasing pleasure.

Facebook and Damage Control

Too little, too late. I just wanted to write a brief recap on my decision to quit Facebook from a few weeks back before I do my big blog post today, which will be much more awesome than this one.

Facebook is now scrambling to scale back the invasive privacy changes made several weeks ago, responding only belatedly to the angry public outcry about it. I see several reasons for the delay in their response: They wanted to wait and see if the complaining would die down as it always has (and to some extent, I think this probably happened) and they wanted to get as much out of the changes they made before they were forced to address them. That's speculation on my part, but given what we know about how badly Facebook treats its users, probably not wholly inaccurate.

For me, these revisions to the policy are too little, and way too late. I deleted my Facebook account about two weeks after I quit using it. I didn't deactivate it, I full-on no-holds-barred no-resurrection deleted it.

And you know what I found out? Even when you go in and go through the process of deleting it, Facebook keeps it on there for another two weeks, as though I cannot be trusted with my own decision and choices regarding my information. Given all of the recent actions of Facebook, that shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. And it made me mad.

Any chance of reconciliation between us evaporated at that point, no matter what changes they eventually decided to make.

I was a loyal user of Facebook for several years. I liked it, for the most part. I could chat with my parents and get information from groups and friends without too much effort. But that took a back seat to my concerns about the unethical and sly behaviors of Facebook. Any changes they try to make now are just a further slap in the face to people who are still using it, because we all know they'll just try to pull something else in a few months.

Conclusions

Without Facebook, I am a much more productive individual. I've been blogging regularly, writing every weekday for Suite101, getting my schoolwork done more quickly and even engaging in new creative writing endeavors. Facebook wasn't a useful tool for me anymore, and when they tried to make money off of my information, that was all it took for me to be able to say buh-bye.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Internet Grammar for Writers

Today, I messed up my grammar on a comment on a blog post -I used "it's" instead of the possessive "its" and I am still embarrassed. I went back and added a comment to correct myself, but it's just one of those things where I wish I was flexible enough to kick my own face. I'll settle for blushing.

Bad internet grammar is one of those things that annoys me only peripherally anymore. I hate it, but I have slowly come to realize that going, "AAAAAH! Bad grammar -augh, die, die, die!" every time I see it is a) not constructive b) not going to fix anything and c) bad for my blood pressure. I'll certainly correct myself on those rare and awful instances when I do screw it up, but I'm not going to go out of my way to correct anyone else.

I don't know if that's necessarily right or not, however. Obviously if I appointed myself High Queen Internet Guerrilla Grammarian I would never get anything else done as long as I lived, and since I do have goals aside from being online all day, that's not feasible. What I don't know is how to constructively address it, because it is a problem, at least in my eyes.

One of my biggest frustrations is when I get on a blog -especially an author's blog -and read things like "summery" instead of "summary" and confusions of it's/its (guilty myself, I know, we'll get back to that), they're/there/their, you're/your, etc.

To me, that suggests that either this author is uneducated and doesn't know the grammar rules, or she's lazy and doesn't care. Neither option is going to make me rush out and buy this person's book, that's for sure.

With Twitter I am more forgiving -typos happen. They are so easy to make. But on a blog? You have time to review it. Checking over the writing even briefly takes so little time, and it can make a huge difference in the way a random reader and potential customer perceives you. Here is where we're getting back to my screw-up this morning. The difference between a blogger/commenter with a typo I can respect and one that I can't is whether or not they address it.

Obviously on a blog, if there aren't any errors, there's nothing to address -but what that does show is attention to detail and an effort in editing. In comments, a simple "Oops! I meant 'its' instead of 'it's'!" does the trick. Just letting a glaring error sit there is awful, at least to me. It encourages all of us to be lax with our writing and our attention to detail, and as a writer, that seems like a fate worse than death.

----

What do you think? Am I too much of a stickler on this issue? Are internet grammar mistakes forgivable and acceptable because of the relaxed format of the internet, or does our appearance as writers matter more?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife

This will be our last look at The Time Traveler's Wife, which I finished last night. And when I say I finished it, I mean I bawled my way through the last 20 pages or so.

I can't remember the last time a book made me actually cry, or if a book has ever made me cry so hard.

And that's a good thing!

The book is fantastic. It's realistic, it's emotional, it's incredibly well-constructed and it flows so nicely that you can get lost in it for hours and feel as though no time at all has passed. Clare and Henry are some of the best characters I have come across in quite some time.

And that's what I want to focus on for the rest of this post: Characters.

They're real people. I don't mean that literally, of course, but in a literary sense, they are so real they might as well be flesh and blood. They are flawed -deeply, secretly and at times embarrassingly flawed. They lie, they hurt each other, they fight and they make mistakes.

That is one of the golden parts of this book. Clare and Henry are more passionately in love -and in odder circumstance -than many other characters in modern novels, but their relationship is still as fraught as any other real life relationship. They have Henry's chrono-displacement to worry about, but they also have "normal" problems like trying to have a baby, dealing with a small living space, difficult family relationships, illness, silly little fights over who's going to vacuum (they hire a cleaning service).

Those are the things, as much as the oddity of Henry's condition, that readers are going to take away from this story. They are the things that make The Time Traveler's Wife such a powerful read.

Writers, we hear all the time that our characters must be believable, and that point hits home so clearly in this book. If Clare and Henry fit together easily all the time, or if their families were stereotypically normal -or predictably flawed -this book would not pack the punch that it does.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I will say this: even if the book had ended differently than it had, and it ends on an amazingly poignant note, I still would have cried. I still would have put it down feeling slightly dazed by the writing. I would still be looking very closely at my own writing for the emotional power I found here.

Questions

What were your perceptions of the characters in this book?
Writers, how do you achieve emotional complexity without detracting from your plot or goals?
What did you think of the rest of the book?

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Call for Books

Yesterday I embarked on an epic project. I pulled all of the books off of my two bookshelves (one is this cute metal contraption and the other a stack of big apple crates) in my (miniature) dorm room and put them in other boxes for transportation home. I tore down half of the cute metal contraption and put all of my canned food into the apple crates so it's not all sitting under my bed anymore. My room feels much larger.

The problem?

I'm not leaving for another 2 1/2 weeks and all my books are in boxes, except for The Time Traveler's Wife (which I am still really enjoying), Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death (because you just never know when you need some Wondermark) and the books I read to Jonah when we're driving places (because we are just that awesome).

Once I have finished The Time Traveler's Wife, I will have nothing new to write about for quite some time. I could regale you with tales of my 7-10 page essay on the relationship between swearing and censorship, but that's due on Monday, so we won't get much out of it.

No, what I really need are some book suggestions from you, my readers. The library here is composed primarily of older and largely academic books, but novels do pop up from time to time. If you suggest something, and I can get my hands on it, I'd love to read it.

Additionally, send me free online books or samples or magazines that you want to give exposure to! I would love to review some things I've never seen before, especially if they are totally wicked awesome. Hook me up. I'm all about spreading the love.


The only caveat to this is that I do have 3 final exams, one on June 7 and two on June 9. I might not be doing updates on those days or during the weekend right before them, depending on how much studying I have to do (odds are it won't be a terrible amount, but I am a pretty thorough student. Me no likey the bad grades.).

So there you have it! Load me up with some good things to read and talk about -the next couple of weeks will be fueled by you (or else I'll be scrambling to find things to discuss.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife and Magical Realism

I just started reading this book for the first time yesterday -I'm not even sure where I got it. I must have bought it during one of my crazed book-buying sessions. I've never seen the movie, and I'm not too far into the book yet, so I'm still just getting started. I'm certainly enjoying what I've read so far, though, and I'm looking forward to continuing.

One thing that did catch my eye was the idea of chrono-impairment as a genetic disorder. That raises some red flags for me. I'm a little wary of using science to justify magical realism occasionally, because I have seen it crash and burn and ruin books.

I'm all for magical realism -I think it's a fun genre and a good answer to fantasy, which can begin to come across as repetitive, stale or uniformly Tolkien-esque over time. However, using science to "explain" magic sort of takes away the magic part of it -that's basically what science does now: we use the scientific method to examine claims and better understand the world. It's the main reason there are no witch burnings in the developed world: we are at least skeptical and informed enough to know that magic is not actually real.

Magic is a great tool in a story that uses it well. It can definitely become a crutch, but well-written magic is just a lot of fun. However, combining modern science and magic can lead to a few problems, by:

-Destroying the mystery by over-explaining how said mystery occurs.
-Irritating scientifically literate readers by fudging the facts on certain scientific concepts (which is not always a problem, but can be really really annoying).
-Making the magic actually impossible by the rules of the universe or scientific explanations that have already been imposed by the author (I have seen this happen several times, and it will make me stop reading a book).

There has only been a very brief mention of the concept of chrono-impairment, and it looked like it's going to be well handled by the text, so I'm not too worried about it just yet. I can handle the intersection of magic and science if it's well done. I'm really hoping The Time Traveler's Wife lives up to my expectations.

What are your thoughts on magical realism and science+magic?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Importance of Language

This is going to be brief because I have an exam tomorrow, but I just came across an article description that really bothered me.

According to Yahoo!'s homepage, "Some contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' drop more than 100 pounds and even find love."
(Article here.)

I'm sorry, but what does that mean? Are they referencing a relationship that blossomed because of the show? I wouldn't know; I don't own a television and only watch Castle on Hulu. The wording seems to me to suggest that only people who are thin are able to find love.

Shouldn't we be beyond propagating this stereotype by now? It's unhealthy, especially for the young men and women who read that, whether they're overweight or not. It reinforces the idea that only thin people are beautiful people and only beautiful people can be in love. I realize that the people on that show are often dangerously and unhealthily obese and it's a good thing to be in shape, but the average reader of that remark gets another "ping" of positive reinforcement for the skinny stereotype.

I'm underweight (thanks to my university's dining policy) and I still find that comment to be extremely offensive and thoughtless.

What do you think? Innocent wording or potentially deliberate propagation of an unhealthy body image?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Truman Capote


Image credit: PBS

Truman Capote is probably best known (certainly by me) for writing the book Breakfast at Tiffany's, on which the movie is also based. However, Capote wrote more than a book about a high-class hooker: he also wrote In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel" that revolutionized the true crime genre and made it financially viable, popular and more interesting to the public.

In Cold Blood tells the story of the Clutter family, murdered in the middle of the night in a small rural town in Kansas. Capote follows the story from a background on the Clutters to the eventual discovery and execution of the killers.

What results is a mostly-true horror story of the motives, mistakes and history behind the Clutter murders. Capote's portrayal of the Clutter family is as sensitive as his portrayal of the two men who carried out the gruesome crime, and their disappointment with a robbery gone wrong.

Although Capote received some criticism for fudging the facts in In Cold Blood, a majority of the story is true. Interviews with relatives and neighbors of the Clutter family and the murderers themselves helped Capote paint a picture of a murder and a story that won't be forgotten, once read.

Capote himself was a fascinating person. He was born in 1924, raised by his elderly aunts and cousins, and eventually moved to New York. He was openly homosexual in a time when it was much less acceptable to be that open, but despite that and despite complaints about his frivolous and sometimes mean-spirited behavior, he became very popular among the New York elite for a time.

Although In Cold Blood was Capote's most famous nonfiction book, he did do other works in the genre, including one called Answered Prayers, which lost him many of his friends and his social standing because of the details it revealed about many people and the scandal it caused.

Capote died in 1984.


For more information, check out the PBS article about him -which I used as a resource for this piece -and this article in Salon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Waste

During my recent trip to D.C. as a chaperon for a group of eighth graders, I took a couple of books with me. One was Neil Gaiman's American Gods, about which I have already written at length. The other was a book I picked up on a whim at a sidewalk sale for a local bookstore.

Before I start talking about it, I'd like to make a note about myself: I am incapable of resisting sidewalk book sales. I had left class with a half hour to spare before my next one and every intention of getting myself a coffee, until I came upon the sale. Books were anywhere from 10-60% off, and half an hour later, I walked to class with three books and a calendar (and no coffee). I am also utterly unable to leave a bookstore without making a purchase.

Two of the books I picked up (and the calendar) were for my mom. The other was one that I picked up on a whim, because it spoke to an interest that has recently taken root (that's a pun and you'll see why soon; I am sorry): sustainable food and agriculture. I even wrote an article recently on permaculture greenhouses, and I'm working on creating a permaculture-type gardening scheme with my boyfriend. Mom has graciously said I can use a portion of the back yard to experiment, which is cool.

The book is called Waste, by an author named Tristram Stuart.

I will warn you right now that if you are not into being horrified and slightly ashamed of yourself, Waste is probably not for you. And yet if you were here in the room with me, I would insist that you read it and pass it along to your friends once you finished, because I think it's that important.

Waste is about the absolutely disgusting amount of food that is simply thrown away as garbage, all over the world. When you hear about starving people in far-flung portions of Africa and other impoverished areas of the world, there's often a sort of automatic assumption that there is simply not enough food to go around. No explanation or solution is ever offered in these cases -a request for money, perhaps, but no guarantee of anything actually resulting from it.

However, the food that is thrown away by people like me, and you, and most everyone we know, is enough to feed every hungry person on the planet several times over.

Think about that. Waste is absolutely a book that will make you think about that fact, in multiple ways. Stuart demonstrates a plethora of possible solutions for this global wasting of food that are not only relatively easy to accomplish, they don't even require that much sacrifice on the part of the average person, which should make the solutions an easy sell.

Reducing food waste would not only help feed people who otherwise cannot afford to eat, it would free up agricultural land for other purposes. Stuart goes through numerous options for how to deal with food waste, from South Korea's draconian legislation that makes it illegal to dispose of food in the garbage to using food waste to create biogas and feed livestock.

In addition to the shocking statistics about food waste Stuart presents (for example: for every carrot or potato eaten, 1 or more were discarded as esthetically imperfect and left to rot in a field or put in landfills), he's really quite a good writer. That can make all the difference in reading something like this. Stuart is able to blithely jump from raging about the wasteful practices of an industry to describing an individual with surprising empathy and some wonderfully evocative imagery.

Stuart was, himself, a freegan for a period of time -he lived almost entirely by rummaging through Dumpsters and trash bins outside of grocery stores and restaurants. A vast majority of the food thrown away by these places is perfectly edible and safe for human consumption -but it is simply discarded.

Waste is not an easy book to read from an emotional standpoint. I found myself getting swept up by Stuart's passionate writing, all while thoroughly enjoying the reading process. I was disappointed when I finished today, because I was totally engrossed in the topics he discusses. During and after my experience with Waste, I am taking a very serious look at my own eating habits. I've started being much more careful not to buy or put on my plate any more food than I can eat, and monitoring how much of anything I waste. I would absolutely recommend Waste to anyone with environmental interests or concern about the future of global food production.

In addition to that, there is a great documentary you can watch on YouTube about permaculture and the future of farming in the UK. The first of the 5 videos (roughly 10 minutes each) can be found here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like is, at times, too funny for words. At other times, I find myself squirming in discomfort when I recognize something in the book that is true of me (I am, after all, a White Person, according to the book). The book could be retitled Stuff Hipsters Like and still be pretty accurate -the book, although ostensibly about the Generic White Person, seems to be aimed at a pretty specific demographic of individuals (people from ages 20-35 or 40).

The writing is slyly funny at times, while at other times it seems as though one is being hit over the head with the..errrr...humor (yes, we get it, White People are responsible for colonialism, slavery and a number of other global ills, but that's not a joke that can smoothly be worked into every category of things White People like). At all points, the book tries -and usually succeeds -to engage the reader in its tongue-in-cheek style of humor.

Sentences like, "Did you know that if you are able to acquire a friend of every race then you are officially designated as the least racist person on earth?" have me laughing out loud every time I read the book. It is actually very clever, and it's a fun way to be able to laugh at White People and the lens through which White People are viewed (and how we sometimes actually act).

It's a quick, funny read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone in need of a (self-conscious) laugh.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Security Blanket Books

I have started thinking of some of my favorite books as my 'security blanket books.' These are books that I run to as I would run into the arms of an old friend I hadn't seen for years. I can allow myself to be totally absorbed in these books, because I am as familiar with the details and the story as though I have actually been to places like Aravis in A College of Magics, which I am currently reading for the eighth or ninth time.

These are the best kinds of books to have around when traveling, upset, sick or tired. When you are in any of these states, it's hard to let a new book really absorb you. If you're traveling, you have too much else going on to really get totally lost in an unfamiliar book -you're already in unfamiliar physical territory, so it's nice to find some familiar mental space. The same goes for when you're upset, sick or tired -your headspace is out of whack, and reading a new book is often a disaster, at least for me.

That's why I love having old books around, books I've read so many times I know the best lines by heart. Lots of my security blanket books have been around since I was 14 or 15. They're old pals.

A College of Magics is definitely one of those. It's a great fantasy/alternate history/steampunk-ish book with a great plot and very subtle writing. Sometimes even now, after I've read the book a dozen times, I find myself going, "Oh, that's what that meant!" I know I am a different reader each time I approach a book, which is why I am able to read and re-read and re-re-read without ever getting bored, but ACoM really does have something special and shifty about it.

It's a great book if you ever have a chance to pick it up.

What are your security blanket books?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Coraline" and "The Better Part of Darkness"

Yesterday, I read Coraline. I've seen the movie probably half a dozen times -it's a great, great movie. My boyfriend got it for me for my birthday. He spoils me. :)

I had never read the book, though, which I considered an egregious error on my part. I always try to read the book first. Plus, it's by Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favorite favorite favorite writers in the entire world. I could write an entire post about how great he is. Also, follow him on Twitter if you get the chance.

Coraline

It's short. I am not exaggerating when I say I finished the book in 45 minutes. I had 15 minutes to read before a couple of my classes, and I finished the rest of the book in the half hour before I went to sleep last night. It is a fast read, which is great if you need a book for a doctor's appointment wait or are looking for something that will suck you in but won't keep you from getting work done.

It's a really fun read. It's creepy, it's sweet, it's scary and it's well-crafted. I am an avid fan of well-written books, and Coraline totally fits that bill.

One of the things that surprised me was that the character Wybie -one of my favorite characters from the movie -is not in the book. Coraline is almost totally isolated for the entire book, which somehow adds to the psychological creepy-factor. Wybie helps divert some of that frightening feeling of the book just by his existence. In the book, Coraline is all on her own, and that is very intense.

If you're even a little bit interested in Gaiman's work, Coraline is a good place to start.


The Better Part of Darkness

This is a book I won a few months ago, but just now picked up. I've had a lot of academic and other reading sort of butt in between when I won it and when I decided to actually crack it open.

It was totally worth the wait, and I'm kicking myself for not tearing into this book earlier. I started it around 9:30 this morning, and after a solid hour of reading, I'm about 1/3 of the way through it. It is a kick-ass thriller/mystery/fantasy+science blend, and I cannot put it down.

It has a nearly pulpy feel at times, other times it almost delves into romance novel territory (the word "throbbing" was not used, but was absolutely implied) and above all it just a great romp through a world that has largely stopped making sense for Charlie, the main character. She's died and been brought back, she's divorced, she's trying to figure out who's dealing a deadly drug called ash -oh, and two parallel realms have been discovered, and their inhabitants have begun to live in our world.

This is one book that I'm really hoping has a sequel. There are a million places this story could go, and I am thoroughly enchanted.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Writing

I'm taking a nonfiction creative writing workshop this quarter. I haven't had a creative writing class since last spring, and that's been really hard. My creative drive kind of went pbbbbbtt as a result, which was really interesting, in several ways.

I Don't Like People

Amazing, but true. As a general rule, I am anti-social, misanthropic and live like a hermit. I stay in my (roommate-free) dorm room, and most of my associations are with people on Twitter (not Facebook, anymore). I am not a people person, a social butterfly or the life of the party.

I adore watching people, eavesdropping and generally being nosy, but put me in a group, and I clam up almost immediately.

However, it seems that I need to be uncomfortable to write. For whatever reason, it really helps me to be involved in a group where I am forced to write creatively and actually share my work. I've started feeling creative again, which is not something that writing for Demand Studios inspires (that just keeps money in the bank).

Group Work

Normally, I don't like group work. I find that working with other people generally loads responsibility onto one person (often me, because, let's face, I don't like failing). Workshops, however, are totally different. Everyone is responsible for their own work, and just listens to and comments on everyone else's. That's a great environment.

As much as I love Twitter (and trust me, I love Twitter), it's not the same environment as a workshop. The #amwriting hashtag is excellent for inspiration and connecting with other writers, but 140 characters doesn't give you much room for writing creatively, unless you write in haiku (which I've seen, and which is genuinely pretty neat).

Why Workshops are Great

Workshops are important for writers (and readers) for a couple of reasons.

  1. They force you to share your work, often out loud. It's impossible to overstate how helpful it can be to read your own work out loud, or hear someone else read it. The cadence in your head might not translate when read aloud -your syntax might be off, or your voice might not come through. Reading out loud helps you find rough spots in your writing.
  2. Working with other writers helps you develop your own writing. If you only ever read what you write or read published writers, you're going to notice the dichotomy between your rough drafts and a polished, published manuscript, and it will make you feel bad eventually -even if you don't realize it. Working with other writers helps you keep a good perspective on your own work. Everyone is constantly developing, and seeing other writers work through their frustration can help you work through yours.
  3. It's fun. Writers are solitary beasts by nature, and it's really nice to go to an environment where you're surrounded by similar beasts. Even if you contribute little to chit-chat or non-writing discussion, it's just enjoyable to be around people with the same inky passion.
  4. You can steal other people's ideas. Seriously. All great art is stolen, used and made new. Originality comes from putting your seal on something, not coming up with something no one has thought of before (because someone, somewhere has already thought of it).
Finding Local Groups

This can be hard, if not impossible. I'm lucky enough to be in a university setting and engaged in a major where I am required to take at least 3 workshops (one fiction, one non-fiction and one poetry). There are also on-campus writing groups and other writers I can meet up with when I get into a rut.

In a local setting, it can be really challenging to locate a group unless you know someone who's in it. Your best bet is to hit up the local library and any small indie coffee shops that may be in your area. Ask the librarians and baristas if there are any writing groups that meet and when. Check group postings on library and coffee shop bulletin boards for notices about groups.

If all else fails, start your own! Advertise it on Twitter, with your library and indie coffee shops, and get your friends and strangers involved. Starting your own group gives you a great amount of control over the direction and rules of the group, whatever they may be, which is often a good thing to have.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Leaves & Flowers

Some of you are familiar with my literary journal, Leaves & Flowers. I'm pleased to announce that the second issue was published today! It's a very gorgeous journal -this issue has artwork in addition to the cover art and a whole slew of great poetry and stories by a group of really great artists.

L&F also has its own blog, where you can check out feature posts on the writers and editors, and purchase a PDF copy of the first issue at a reduced price.

Check it out!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Catch-22

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and had to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."
-Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Originally titled Catch-18, Catch-22 is a book that everyone should read at least once. The phrase Catch-22 has essentially come to mean "damned if you do, damned if you don't," and that's basically the premise of the entire book. Everyone is trapped in their own little contradictory, absurd course of action, and no one quite knows how to get out of it.

I haven't read Catch-22 since high school, and I grabbed it on a whim while I was home last weekend. The book has a strange effect on me. I really resist picking it up, but once I have convinced myself to start reading, I'll knock out 50 or so pages at a clip. I'm about two-thirds finished.

One of the best parts about re-reading this book is noticing what I noticed on the first go-round. I underlined things I liked, made notes in the side (most of which were comparisons to books I'd read or films I'd watched for a class on existentialism. Has anyone seen Cool Hand Luke? If you've seen that and read Catch-22, you'll understand); this time, I am pausing at a lot of those moments and reflecting. I'm also noticing quite a lot more than I did the first time.

It's hard to overstate how good Heller's writing actually is. Most writers couldn't maintain this level of frustrated absurdity within a plot and not lose every single reader. In addition to how utterly annoying the events are -for the characters and the reader, by proxy -the book is extremely funny. I have laughed out loud almost every time I pick the book up to read it. Heller has humans to a T in the book.

The absurdity of life, bureaucracies, war and a number of other topics are all addressed by Catch-22 (often as a Catch-22). It's impossible to read the book and not be changed by it in a significant way.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Why I Gave Up Facebook




I don't know how many of you know -or care, really -about the new privacy changes Facebook has made (again), but you should. Link 1, Link 2 and Link 3.

The Rant

For those of you who don't want to read the links, I'll sum it up briefly: the new changes mean that if you "Like" (instead of "Become a Fan" of) pages and certain links, advertisers can store your information. Forever. Additionally, anything you "Like" that your friends "Like" or that they tag you in is also open to advertisers. Forever. Even if you set your privacy meter to "schizophrenic paranoia" like I have and make it so that your friends can't link to any of your personal information, it can still get out there. Pictures, notes, comments -advertisers now have essentially unlimited access to everything.

I have a problem with that. I realize that yes, it's the information age and there really is no privacy (Googling my name yields several hundred thousand results, most of them associated with my writing, blogging, past spelling bee shenanigans and other achievements). A dedicated stalker could find out whatever he wanted to know in about 5 minutes.

However, the whole premise of Facebook used to be that you made connections with the people you wanted to connect to, and no one else could have access to you if that's how you chose to operate. You can't find my Facebook account if you Google it, because I set my privacy settings that high. I put more personal info on Facebook than anywhere else on the internet, because frankly, Anonymous Internet People scare me, Corporate Advertising Schemes annoy me and I'm just not comfortable with having that much of my information out there.

Every application you allow access to your account -everything from quizzes to games to adorable bumper stickers -can now store and sell your information indefinitely.

So, a few days ago, I posted a notice stating that I would be leaving Facebook. This morning, I deleted almost all of my personal information from my account. I removed every single application from my account, and I logged out. I removed the quick-link-tab thing from my bookmarks bar. And I'm probably not going back. You may notice, and rightly, that I did not actually delete my account. I'm holding out. Perhaps Facebook will regain some integrity and stop selling its users information to advertisers. I'm not holding my breath.

What Does that Mean for You Readers?

It's actually a good thing. Now, the 2-ish hours I spent on Facebook every day can be devoted to something else. I had my first Pavlovian impulse to check Facebook about 15 minutes ago -the slight twitch of the wrist, heading for the slot where the link used to be. I was not working on anything, so why not check Facebook? It's what I have done for months. In between articles, homework, phone calls, online Scrabble games, I'd get on Facebook.

Now, I don't have that distraction. To satisfy the impulse of doing something for the sake of doing it, which is the main reason I used Facebook anymore, I wrote. I wrote this.

What I'm saying is, without Facebook, I'll be blogging more.

Every time I have an impulse to get on my account, I'm going to replace it with something constructive. Reading a chapter of a book. Writing another article. Working on my literary journal (which is going to be published soon, by the by -check out its blog). Working on the blog. Doing my homework, cleaning my room, editing my latest novel, organizing my bookshelves...you get the idea.

I am going to miss Facebook. I know that. But I'm hoping that it will be a positive change for me, for the blog, and in general.

Whether you choose to take a similar path is your decision -this wasn't meant to be persuasive. It is meant to make you think a little, though. What exactly do you use Facebook for? And is it worth having them sell your information to anyone who is willing to pay for it?

I'll be back soon with an actual update on books -the impulse to get on Facebook won't stay gone for long.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Carl Sagan




This is going to be a brief post -I've got quite a lot going on this weekend academically.

My wonderful boyfriend bought me a copy of Carl Sagan's book Cosmos, and wow. I have always loved reading about planets and outer space and that sort of thing, and Carl Sagan is the perfect author for that. His enthusiasm for knowledge is infectious, as is his deeply genuine pleasure in connecting with readers through his words.

Sagan died 14 years ago, and I'm just now discovering his writing, which is sad to me. I'm already a huge fan. I've bough his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it as well.

Sagan is the perfect author for the science dilettante. He gives the reader a huge amount of technical information in a simply eloquent way that makes it accessible to any reader, however basic their understanding of the actual science being discussed. Cosmos is a truly inspiring book for an examination of the worlds around us, and every time I read it, I get a thrill.

The Demon-Haunted World is slightly broader in its topics. It is a collection of essays based on the importance of science, which includes dispelling scientific myths. Sagan does so in his characteristically pleasant way. Even when he is writing about something that would be offensive to, say, a Biblical literalist, I think it would be impossible to actually be angry at him. He writes in such a calm, placid way that it's like reading a song.

I cannot recommend his books enough to anyone who has even the barest interest in the sciences.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth


It's a Latin phrase that means "Books have their own fates." I will probably be posting more pictures as it heals more, since there's still a bit of purple in the white ink.
The inspiration for the tattoo came from the excellent book "The Library at Night" by Alberto Manguel -check it out if you get the chance.

While I was home over break, my grandma came up to visit. She, my mom, my sister and I all had sushi (first time for Grandma!) and she brought books for both me and my little sister. Indicative of how well she knows us, she brought my sister religious devotionals and she brought me books that examine religion from historical and scientific perspectives.

She is one savvy lady.


I just finished reading "The Power of Myth" (PoM from now on) by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer. The whole book is a transcription of a series of conversations the two men had over a 24-hour period. Apparently there's a 6-hour PBS special out there somewhere from this period, too. I'm not sure whether I would be able to watch all 6 hours, but it would be worth a shot.

PoM is a really interesting book in a lot of ways. Joseph Campbell is obviously a brilliant man. He's very well read, and has a broad, deep understanding of the mythological significance of many religions and stories and cultural ideas from all over the world. Reading this transcription was fascinating -I would shoot through 60 pages over lunch and hardly notice.

Campbell was a professor, a lecturer, which accounts for his ability to hold an audience captive. I've never read anything he wrote, but if he writes as well as he speaks, I would say based on that alone I'd be willing to read it. He is engaging, able to draw connections between ideas at the drop of a hat and just excellent at thinking on his feet. I have no idea how much research or preparation he did specifically for this conversation, but Campbell's intelligence and understanding were nonetheless impressive.

I also like the central message of many of Campbell's views: follow your bliss. What a great sentiment, at its core. Do what makes you happy. I would add a caveat: Follow your bliss, but do no harm to others in seeking it.

All that being said, I did however stop at multiple points during the book and cry "Bullshit!" I realize the man understands way more than I do about world mythologies, but it seems like somewhere between being brilliant and reading myths, he forgot that most people don't think the way he does. Reading Campbell was, for me, like riding a train with sections of the track missing. I'm with him on this point, on the next point and for the next four or five points and then suddenly he's off the rails and I'm left clutching my head, wondering where the logic went.

Perhaps it's me, reading it from my atheistic perspective that I see a huge disconnect between saying myths are great metaphors while living in a world where people see those metaphors as being really literally true and using that as a justification for murder and hatred. It seems as though, in his academic worldview, Campbell neglects the millions of people who see myth as reality (and sometimes it seems like Campbell himself sees myths as being actually true -it's hard to know where the line is in his view, because he waffles quite a bit between arguing that myths are simply metaphors and that myths are actually true in some fundamentally literal way), and who would interpret his words as either a horrifying attack on their beliefs, or a justification of them.

For me, that made the book frustrating at times. Campbell argues a number of points about religious myths that, in their mythical metaphorical way, do a good job of telling a story -but he doesn't ever look beyond that at the faces of people who are saying, "These aren't stories, this is history." There's a huge gap between Campbell's interpretation of myth and the religious interpretation of myth that never gets addressed. It doesn't necessarily have to be addressed, and I'm not saying that majority rule makes one interpretation right as it's possible to interpret myths in about, oh, 6 billion different ways, but it makes the read irritating every now and again.

On the whole, though, PoM was an excellent introduction to Campbell's work. I'm hoping that, as I continue to explore his writing, I'm able to come across a place where he addresses the questions I had about his interpretations of myths vs. established religious dogma. More than that, though, I'm looking for more encouragement to seek out my bliss.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I have been absolutely terrible about sticking to my schedule. This past quarter -with the exception of my class on Shakespeare's comedies -turned me into an angry (angrier), embittered person, jaded with academia and loathing every minute I spend sitting alone in my room on campus (and that is a lot of minutes, seeing as I am for all intents and purposes a hermit). However, as of 3:30 or so tomorrow afternoon, this quarter will be complete. I will move on to bigger and better things, like taking a class on the history of the English language. I honestly cannot express how excited I am by that. People who know my history with spelling bees will understand. So next quarter should bring more updates, as I'm hoping my faith in the power of the educational system to actually teach me will be restored.

For right now, though, I have nothing of real interest to say -I have been doing very little aside from studying over the past several days, and my reading material is stretching a little thin. Next quarter should be better. :)

Perhaps I need to hire someone to beat me when I miss a blogging deadline...