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8 posts from November 2010

November 29, 2010

Reading Update: More YA Binge, Plus Dragons!

Well, I thought I was done with the YA bingeing, but then I dared to take a peek into The Hunger Games (shoulda known better; the 40-teen waiting list for the book at the library mighta tipped me off) and got totally and completely hooked. Then I peeked into Vampire Academy, expecting it to be stoopid, and got totally and completely hooked again. The only possible thing that coulda peeled me away from Vampire Academy was another Temeraire book and ... lo and behold, one had come out during the summer and I had totally missed it!

The long T-day weekend didn't help (I have tomorrow off, too.) So I gulped the following down and will do another group post, describing and reviewing each in five sentences or less. Ergo (HERE BE SPOILERS):

  1. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games: A 16-year-old girl living in the coal-mining colony of a future, post-apocalyptic America becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games, an annual reality-TV-show-cum-minotauran-tribute the colonies must pay to the dictatorial regime in the city. Each colony must give up a 12-18-year-old boy and girl each year to compete in a to-the-death contest which only one of the tributes can win, or survive. Because she learned to hunt to feed her starving family, she turns out to be an excellent contestant, but finds herself torn between her desire to survive, and her need to not let the competition steal her soul. This was an amazing example of influence -- as opposed to Eragonian derivation -- with notes of "The Lottery," Greek heroic epic, "Survivor," Jarhead, and, yes, even Twilight (are you team Peeta or team Gale?) Totally addictive and very rewarding.
  2. Suzanne Collins Catching Fire: Believe it or not, the previous, near-perfect narrative, actually gets better. The second book in the trilogy isn't as perfectly structured, but introduces much more complexity, as Katniss and Peeta, her co-winner of the Hunger Games, have to pretend to be in love while they travel the country on a press junket, or else risk their families' lives. But Katniss seems to inspire rebellion wherever she goes; she's become an unwitting folk hero to the oppressed people of the outer colonies, who have begun to rise up.
  3. Suzanne Collins Mockingjay: The inevitable conclusion to the trilogy is almost unbelievably good -- unbelievable in that it improves on the previous two, and manages to make a satisfying ending to the whole. Katniss is now in the stronghold of the rebel district, and wondering if she hasn't gone from one dictatorship to another. They're at war, and Katniss is being forced, again, to be a media figurehead for the rebel forces, followed everywhere by cameras, and prodded to make rousing speeches. I won't hint at the conclusion, only to say it's the only thing that could happen. The palpable weariness and trauma of the characters, after so many reversals and tragedies, brings the spirit of this book down low; but it's realistic, and necessary, to make the series' point. Definitely the best YA I've read this year.
  4. Richelle Mead Vampire Academy
  5. Richelle Mead Frostbite
  6. Richelle Mead Shadow Kiss
  7. Richelle Mead Blood Promise (I'm gonna do all of these together): In this world, there are living vampires (Moroi) -- who marry and have kids, and are tall and thin, and have good reflexes, and drink blood and are weakened by the sun --  undead vampires (Strigoi) -- who are made, either from Moroi who kill someone by drinking their blood (Moroi don't kill, only feed a little at a time,) or from humans or Dhampirs, the usual way -- and Dhampirs, half-human, half-Moroi mixes, stronger than the Moroi, who act as their guardians. The protag is a Dhampir girl who is bonded to a Moroi princess, able to read her thoughts and know where she is at all times. Unlike many series, this one grows more complex as it goes along, with our protag learning slowly along the way to question their way of life and her near-subjugation. There's also a romance, and a love triangle, and not a little Buffy-style narrative-slicing thrown in. Character-building and clear logic are weak, but the series is more than just riding the twilit wave; recommended.
  8. Naomi Novik Tongues of Serpents: Captain Laurence of the aerial corps, and his Chinese Celestial dragon Temeraire, have been stripped of their military standing and transported for life to Australia, for their treason during the Napoleonic Wars. While trying to make themselves useful by building a road, they find that one of the dragon eggs they were sent out with to start a new covert in New South Wales has been stolen; the book follows their adventure across the entire continent in pursuit of the stolen eggs. A bit of a disappointment, this is the first Temeraire book to not match the quality and excitement of the others: unlike all of the previous novels -- in which Temeraire and Laurence have to perform important tasks which then turn out to be game-changing -- in this one, their task, to save the egg, is of relatively little importance to their immediate, and very little to their broader, world, and the game-changer at the end is inevitable and not brought about or influenced by anything they have done. In this one, they, although constantly active and experiencing things, are essentially passive, and the world they are moving through is curiously flat: uninformed, unlike all their previous worlds, by a complex political and cultural background. I hope her next one spends a little more time in Australia and picks up the slack of this one.

November 24, 2010

Exploratory Phase of Writing

When I teach writing, I'm constantly trying to get my students comfortable with the concept of exploratory writing. This is a part of the generative phase of writing, where you're producing a body of text which will become the subject of the other half of writing: revision.

Exploratory writing is where all your plans have broken down or been fulfilled; you've written whatever parts of the story you intended to write and now have to move forward without plans. Or else, if you're an obsessive outliner, you've tried to fulfill your plans, but the sketchy story you had in your head doesn't work out so well when you try to make rounded characters perform it. Or you're writing an unplanned story entirely, inspired by some sort of trigger or idea, and you're letting it unspool organically. Whatever way, you're in unmapped territory, and you don't know where you're going in the immediate future, and you don't know what will, much less what should, happen now.

This is a moment where you have to just let yourself go. You can't start making new plans. You can do research to make you more comfortable with the situation, but there comes a moment when you have to break off the research and just write. And that writing has to be open and experimental, because, as we just noted, you don't know what has to happen.

What happens for me in this phase is that I wander all over the place. I see a shiny thing, and I hare off in that direction, talk about it for a while, examine it, then eventually lose interest or turn it into something else. I'll see another shiny thing, and run off after that, often in exactly the opposite direction, and do what I need to with that. I let my interest level determine my course. Often an idea will lead me to the logical next idea, but the logical next idea isn't as interesting as the original idea. When I get bored, I stop going in that direction and head off in another one.

The goal of all of this is to hit the fire lode, the vein of liquid heat that consumes your conscious mind and takes you off in the right direction, the direction that will make your story amazing for you to write and for your readers to read. You don't always hit the motherlode. Sometimes you only find, so to speak, placer nuggest of fire, and you have to build your story around small, bright moments, knowing that this is a "good" story, but not a "brilliant" one -- by your own standards, that is. ;)

You can see it in my story "Vacation," where the first part of the story is told in short episodes that explore the new world, and the protagonist's relationship to it. This is all exploratory, and originally included a lot more exploratory stuff: how the women in this new world recreate government, how the media changes, etc. But once I hit the scene on the basketball court where the young boy disappeared, I took off. I knew that this was the direction the story needed to go in, and when I went back and revised, I cut out all the exploratory stuff that didn't contribute either to this part of the world, or do development of the protagonist's capacity to do what she does. I left the first part deliberately sketchy and exploratory, because I felt it set up the somewhat choppy rhythm of the story -- which isn't plot and action-heavy, but rather centers around a moment of transformation which proceeds from mosaic emotional logic rather than a causal chain.

Do this enough and you can see the different phases of writing in another writer's work as well. When I started being able to see this more clearly in the work I was reading, it inspired me to want to hide my tracks better. ;)

I'm going on about this right now because I'm in an exploratory phase right now with da nobble. And I'm not comfortable with it. I've just started year nine of work on da nobble (holy shit!) and thought I had left generative work behind me and was just going to revision. But I've hit a very important chapter that just wasn't working. I've rewritten this chapter twice, and have to rewrite it again now. And I'm having to generate. The research I did got me through an important scene, but now I'm dealing with the aftermath of that scene and I have no idea what happens now. Argh!

Now I just have to let-go-let-it-flow. I hate that shit! It's much easier telling my students to do it than doing it myself. I think part of the problem is that I'm out of practice. But part of it is certainly that I resent having to go back into exploratory on a novel that I've been working on for 8 years and have two finished drafts of. I don't feel starry-eyed and excited and in that fresh phase. I feel jaded and worn out. Committed, but worn out, like eight years into a rocky but loving marriage.

Sigh.

November 20, 2010

Reading Update: Fun Genre Binge

I haven't updated in a while, and it's mainly because I didn't have a whole lot to say about these books because I was reading them in the spirit of junk food or comfort food. I hooked up (from Shinn's Troubled Waters) with the Wrede books through Amazon's recommendations (yes, I did.) Same with Elliott. Then someone at Borderlands recommended Carrigan and I went forward from there. The next thing I knew, the new McKinley was out, and I had to read that, and then I discovered that Marta Acosta had released the last of the Casa Dracula books and I had to read that.

It was a binge.

So now, before I go back to the growing stack of books I'm supposed to be reviewing, I'm going to sort out my feelings about each of these (or at least, my thinkings) in five sentences or less. Wanna hear it? Here it go:

  • Patricia Wrede Mairelon the Magician: A teenaged street urchiness dressed as a boy tries to steal from a performing magician and finds that he's real, and powerful, and rich. She becomes his apprentice and travels with him and his servant, trying to prove that he didn't commit a crime he is accused of. Fun, but dragged a bit in the middle and there was too much going here, and then going there, and then coming back to here, and then going back there. Later we're tipped off to the fact that the novel is intended as a tribute to 19th century stage farces, but who wants to read those?
  • Patricia Wrede The Magician's Ward: Sequel to the preceding. The young woman apprentice magician apparently gets a class pass because wizards transcend class, so she's introduced to high society as her master's ward. There's a mystery to solve, which involves her going back to the underground economy she used to serve, and of course her master falls in love with her. Also fun, but also too beholden to uninteresting, early, and awkward forms of farce. And why do consummating kisses always have to be performed in front of the entire cast, never in private?
  • Kate Elliott Cold Magic: Definitely the best of this bunch and the start of a promising series. A young woman living with her aunt and uncle and cousins in an alternate steam-punky England, is given away into an unbreakable magical marriage -- as the oldest female in her family -- to a stranger, a "cold magician," in accordance with some old family agreement she never knew about. She discovers that SPOILER she's not actually a member of her family, at least not by blood, and that her aunt and uncle knowingly used her as a decoy to save her beloved cousin, who was the real target of the marriage agreement. Now her husband's family wants her dead, so that they can get their hands on her prescient cousin, and she's busy herself trying to figure out where she came from, what the truth of her family is, and how she feels about her new husband. Can't wait for the next one!
  • Gail Carrigan Soulless
    Gail Carrigan Shameless
    Gail Carrigan Blameless: I'll just do these three together: A "preternatural" Englishwoman, i.e. a person whose touch takes away vampires' and werewolves' supernatural powers, helps England's government ministry on supernaturals solve mysteries. The head of this agency, a werewolf, ends up SPOILER marrying her, and their relationship forms a central issue in the series. From Book 2 on, the author tries to make a virtue out of a series of unintentional malapropisms and misuses of language she committed in the first book by making one of her characters a malaprop; but it doesn't work: she has no gift for language and that's a HUGE problem in this book. I also didn't like the horribly anachronistic slang and attitudes (yes, I KNOW this is an alternate timeline, but the author doesn't seem to understand Victorian attitudes at all, although she tries to use them.) Despite these crippling flaws, the books are well structured and terrifically fun and I'm going to keep reading.
  • Robin McKinley Pegasus: I've mentioned before how annoying I find it when the first book of a series can't find a good place to stop. Each book has to have its own arc, people! Even Lord of the Rings did! A girl and her pegasus try to prove that the intelligent pegasi are just as important as humans, but the lesson is somewhat muted by the fact that the pegasus lets the girl ride him and basically brings his entire race of people to heel to serve her needs. Nothing by McKinley can truly be bad, and I'm anxious to find out how this one turns out, but probably not anxious enough to read this book again before the next one comes out, to remind myself of what actually happened.
  • Marta Acosta Haunted Honeymoon: The fourth and, sadly, the last book in the Casa Dracula series about a voluptuous, wild-child Latina writer who gets half-turned into a vampire by the man of her dreams. In this episode, she has to choose, finally, between the straight-arrow, righteous vamp who turned her, and the slightly scary, mysterious, but hella sexy vamp she's been doing on the side. Although a hundred percent chicklit -- down to detailed descriptions of every outfit she wears, every meal she eats, and every fuck she sexes -- the series doesn't skimp on fundamental character development for her protagonist. It's not terribly serious, but it is both fun and satisfying, and I'm sad to see Milagro go.

November 15, 2010

I'm Reading This Friday!

Fire flyer full color lo-res

November 04, 2010

NaBloWriMo Fail

Argh! Already!

I owe two stories today, but threw a dinner party instead. Now I'm drunk and it's not gonna happen!

Tomorrow I'll try to catch up on two stories and Sat two more. Argh!

November 03, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Stratosphere

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

I tried four times and couldn't write anything. Argh! Now I'm gonna have to write two tomorrow!

November 02, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Please Join Us!

Dear Donor,

Sorry to address this letter in a form letter fashion, but I'm afraid I don't know how to mailmerge ... or to export a mailing list from our database ... or to get into the database in the first place. So I'm just going to photocopy the printed list from last year (thank God for my predecessor's mania for hardcopies) and cut and glue it onto the envelopes. I'm sure there's an easier way, but I don't know it. (If you know how to do any of these things, I sure could use a volunteer. I'm a program man myself, not an admin.)

I'm writing to ask you to make a donation to the Save Our Forests Alliance.

As you may know, it's been a hard year for the SOFA. We lost half our board of directors in an "attempted coup" and then the other half resigned when they discovered that their takeover was illegal and they'd have to invite the first half back for mediation. The first half declined to return to where they weren't wanted.

But their loss, right? After all, we're the premiere anti-deforestation organization in our part of the Midwest. Anyone who can't put the mission ahead of personal agendas doesn't need to be a part of that. But we know that you, dear Donor, are an intrinsic part of that.

The only downside to losing selfish board members was that our treasurer was in charge of our accounts, and s/he won't return my calls (I was advised by a lawyer not to name names or hint about genders on official documents,) and there's something strange going on with the bank misrecording our account activity so that our accounts are reading zero. But I haven't been confirmed as executive director by the board (because we no longer have one; that should all be fixed as soon as I get ahold of our advisory board members and get them to step onto the board on an interim basis, but as I said, I can't get into the database so I don't know who they are; if you're one of our advisors, could you please email me at nickt@sofa.org?) so I can't access our account records or demand an accounting from the bank. They keep referring me to our former treasurer.

Because our now-erstwhile E.D. had been fired previous to the board breakdown (the one thing they all could agree on was that the only effective leader in the organization had to go) the remaining managers couldn't access the accounts, and the staff couldn't be paid. No one wanted to listen to my explanation that it would all be sorted out eventually, when our lawsuit came up in court and we were able to get a judge to order our bank records to be released. So we lost our entire staff. No one was willing to work on spec or (God forbid!) volunteer for a few weeks. I understand; we're in a recession. But the forests can't save themselves, can they?

We at SOFA know that you know they can't. Which is why we need your help today. We're asking our most loyal donors to make a gift of $500, $100, $50, or whatever you can afford, to help us continue our valuable work.

We have the infrastructure, and the programs in place. All we need is some interim funding to get our operations going again. We still have that giant spool of nickel-plated chain, shiny and new and waiting to bind our volunteers to the trees in front of the capitol building. We still have our office (for another month, until the eviction goes through) and it's not to late to pay up our back rent and stay here! We could even start programming again, if our volunteer coordinator would only send me the spreadsheet of volunteer contacts. I know I shouldn't have slept with her when I knew I was getting back together with my girlfriend, but the girlfriend didn't work out after all, and anyway, I don't think our forests should be punished for my mistake, do you?

Please help. We can't do this vital work without you.

I'd enclose a remittance envelope, but I don't know where they are. I've put our address at the bottom of the letter however (I would have used letterhead, but I don't know where that is, either) to make things a little easier on you. I'm writing you because I know that you, like me, still have the passion for our forests, and can still see the forests without getting lost in the trees of doubters and haters and less-than-committed people.

Together, we can make this country great again. Please give today.

Our best wishes for the holiday season.

Sincerely,

Nick Tanner

Interim Executive Director

p.s.: Don't forget to ask your employer to match your donation! You could double or triple your donation that way! Please give today!

 

This is my second NaBloWriMo instant fiction post: short short stories I'm writing every day throughout November, mostly inspired by online videos and images. Stay tuned for another one tomorrow.

November 01, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Later, At Forty

She looked at him with disgust, but when she spoke, her tone was even.

"Is there any way I can convince you that the boyish grin is counter-productive?"

It was a question, but phrased as a statement. One of her teenaged students had asked her recently -- not entirely sarcastically -- if there were any upsides to growing old("-er" she had added silently) and losing one's highs and lows. Since then she had been ticking them off, somewhat desperately, in her head. Here was another one: the skill of modulating her tone of voice to suggest a richness of meanings -- double, triple, and quadruple meanings -- without even much having to try.

With this one sentence, she had conveyed her contempt, but also amusement, affection, longtime shared knowledge, weariness, and, finally, an openness (nonetheless) to whatever his boyish grin was trying to sell. She conveyed her preference that he learn how to just state his desire without trying to win her over. She could see the messages all received. Maybe it was her skill. But maybe they just knew each other too well at this point.

And maybe it was impossible for him to change. Maybe he was far too old a dog.

"It's just a date," he said. "Boyish grins shouldn't impact your decision."

"Aren't we past dating? Shouldn't we be watching videos at home with our hands on our paunches?"

"Why do you care what people think?" She wasn't sure if this was one of the advantages or disadvantages of growing old(er) with someone: that you can skip whole explanatory chunks of an argument.

"I care what people think because what they think could get me fired. I'm not supposed to be dating my students."

"I'm not your student."

"If any of my students see me with you, they'll try to flirt with me to get an A."

"Are you giving me an A?"

Definitely a disadvantage. She had enjoyed this sort of comment (with accompanying raffish grin) when she was a girl. Then she had tolerated it. Now she found the whole thing abhorrent. Did his emotional development get frozen along with his body? She wondered that more and more. The next time they moved, she'd have to make him her son.

"Please?" His begging was disgusting, but also genuinely pathetic. She relented, more out of habit than anything else.

"We can go see a movie," she said. He jumped up and down with annoying irony. "But I get to choose which one. ... And don't try to hold my hand this time. Promise?"

"Promise," he said immediately, and with the same date-night inflection that meant he wouldn't keep that promise. Ugh. She felt smothered by the teen-boy attentions in public. It wasn't just what other people thought. It was also what she thought. He looked like a baby to her now. It just wasn't sexy anymore.

Nowadays, silver foxes turned her head. It was like some old-guy pheromone switch had gotten pulled in her libido. She couldn't help it. When she went to conferences these days, she nearly got whiplash from all the cross-angle ogling. She'd cheated on him several times with the tenured, and then had to shower three or four times to try to get the smell off. She still wasn't sure it had worked. Did he know? Did he put up with it the same way she put up with him? Why didn't he just leave? Wouldn't she prefer it?

She didn't have any answers.

This is the first of my instant fiction posts for NaBloWriMo. I'm going to write a short short story every day throughout November, inspired by a video or image I see online. I make no promises about quality.

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