Monday, February 28, 2011

How do you illustrate a novel's soul?

Every year, Bath Spa University Writing for Young People MA students create an anthology to showcase their work. The 2010 anthology will be published in May, and all of the extracts and illustrations will also be available on a website (here's last year's anthology, Making Waves). The publication will culminate in a launch party in London with numerous agents and editors (yes, strangely enough this will be my second London launch party in two years).

I haven't blogged about the anthology before, perhaps because it seemed such an ephemeral, distant thing. But I have been quietly busy doing final edits and copyedits on my first two chapters of Project Sparkle, writing an author bio, and a brief back cover-type blurb. Given my love of cover art, I also volunteered to be a cover editor, and to help with coordinating illustrations for each extract.

So last Tuesday I was invited to visit Bath Spa University to meet with the art students who were in the midst of illustrating our anthology. The students had not been allowed to chose which piece they worked on, but rather their tutor had assigned an extract to each student, trying to match the artist's style with the writer's content, themes, and genre. The tutor explained that while the students had been shown our blurbs, they hadn't even read our extracts, as he didn't want them to get bogged down in specific scenes or character details, but rather to try and capture the novel as a whole.

We found a quiet space in the back of a busy art studio, and each student presented their work. They each explained their understanding of their author's story, and what details struck them. Many of the students discussed their research and thought process, and flipped through their sketch book to show the different elements they had considered. Then they presented their current work in progress.

I was absolutely blown away. I was expected to critique each design, considering the author's piece and intentions, and how well the illustration meshed with those. And I managed to point out a few elements. But mostly I was in awe. Somehow, without reading our novels, let alone our extracts, these students had managed to capture the novels' souls. I kept looking back at the blurbs they were given, wondering how they had jumped from a single sentence to understanding and illustrating the most important theme in a classmate's book.

This blog is called "Critically Yours" for a reason. I always have something to say. For that reason, I was quite nervous about this meeting, nervous about criticizing young art students. I needn't have worried. They had captured every single one of my classmates' novels closely and beautifully.

Even Project Sparkle. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was assigned a fairly gritty photographer. He's using a technique I had never seen before, illustrating my novel in a way I hadn't considered. But it fits the book perfectly. I can't wait to share it with all of you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I'd like to thank the little people...

Girl Friday, who blogs at Reading, Writing and Ribaldry (which sums up her blog rather perfectly!), has become a good blogger (and Twitter!) friend the past few months. So I was chuffed (using one of my favourite British words, just for GF!) to have her bestow upon me the Irresistibly Sweet Blogger Award. And for letting me know my ballgown and tiara for the acceptance speech were optional, because you know, mine did happen to be at the cleaners.


Here's how the award works:

1) Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2) Share four guilty pleasures that you have.
3) Pass the award on to six other sweet blogs.

Like Girl Friday, I'm not sure I have many guilty pleasures... I'm old enough and wise enough (or perhaps just stubborn enough) to figure if something makes me happy, there's no need to feel guilty about it. But I have managed to come up with a few...

1. Lifesavers
Especially the Wint O Green ones (yes, they really are called that). So thick and sugary and minty... What? I like having minty fresh breath. So I stockpile bags of them whenever I go to the US.

2. Fashion

I know. I'm just about the most unfashionable person imaginable. And it's gotten worse since I became a student, then a full time writer. I blame Project Runway. Which got me started reading Tom and Lorenzo's fashion blog (which is one of the funniest and most addictive blogs out there, kittens). So now I find myself having conversations about Jennifer Aniston's new hair style and Michelle Obama's new stylist, and that dress Rihanna wore to the Grammys. And I'm only being somewhat ironic! It's a very strange place for me. Especially since I'm not even entirely sure who Rihanna IS (I don't get out much). So perhaps I'm a little out of my element. But I refuse to be embarrassed about discovering all the cutting-edge, creative, beautiful things the fashion world is doing.

3. Baths
The longer, the more bubbles, and the better the reading material, the happier I am. Though recently I discovered 700+ page literary tomes on plot get a little heavy in the tub.

4. Hockey
I've been accused of being vicious and blood-thirsty for my love of this game, but love it I do! And not for the violence, no matter what certain friends and husbands may say! But for the speed, the power, and the grace (yes, they may be 200+ lbs and missing teeth, but put them in ice skates and hockey players are amazingly graceful). I've missed it a lot since I moved to the UK. As many of you know, Phil and I are looking to move again in the coming year. It's not exactly top priority, but it would be nice if my new home could have a good hockey team (and not classless thugs like Chicago's Blackhawks--sorry, but it's true).

Okay, that's probably more than you ever wanted to know about me and my strange fixations. Onto the awards!

For all your encouragement and friendship, for teaching me about writing, making me think harder about my writing, and even more about life, and above all for laughter, I present the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award to:

Elisabeth at FictionForge
Bridgette at Bridgette Booth
Mary at ResidentAlien
Anne at Making It up as I Go

and two long-time friends who I only recently discovered writing fantastic blogs:

Jyourist at Nexus
Adoptsomom at Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Congratulations! I'm only sorry I couldn't share it with more of you! Now go dust off those tiaras!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

COMPROMISED by Heidi Ayarbe

Monday I blogged about Pretty vs. Gritty books and authors. Today, I want to review COMPROMISED, one of the best gritty books I've read in a while.

Summary (Goodreads): "Maya's life has always been chaotic. Living with a con-man dad, she's spent half her life on the run. Whenever her father's schemes go wrong, Maya finds a scientific way to fix it. But when her dad ends up in prison and foster care fails, Maya grasps at her last possible hope of a home: a long-lost aunt, who may not even exist.

"So Maya formulates a plan, and with her wits, two unlikely allies, and twenty dollars in her pocket, she sets off in search of this aunt, navigating the unpredictable four hundred miles from Reno to Boise. Life on the streets, though, becomes a struggle for survival—those scientific laws Maya has relied on her whole life just don't apply."

I found it to be an honest portrayal of homelessness and life on the streets. Heidi clearly understands the dangers kids face. Her characters feel they can't turn to the police because of the violence they've encountered in their own homes and in the foster care system. However, their fear of the authorities leaves them entirely alone to cope with the cold, hunger, and violence. And they're children; they struggle to even read a map.

Since I've finished the book, I've actually been thinking a lot about the title COMPROMISED. It's a great, eye-catching, memorable title. But it also suits the book. While Heidi's novel is about a terrible, sad situation, there are no evil characters. Every character, even the minor ones, thinks they're doing the right thing, or at least the best thing, given the circumstances. Their lives are full of compromises. Maya's Dad surrenders her to the foster system, her friend, Nicole, shoplifts food and medicine.

The entire story is seen through the eyes of Maya, who is a useful window for readers into the world of homelessness. It's a completely new life to her, so she is as shocked and disturbed as the reader. However, she hides her emotions behind scientific facts, and is always formulating a plan. Her way of life is compromised by homelessness. She quickly discovers, despite her plans, there's nothing about her life that she can control.

So... a gritty story. But just as Monday we were talking about finding the balance between gritty and pretty, I think Heidi focuses on the second part of her title too, the idea of "promise". In the course of the book, Maya learns to open herself up to all different types of people and situations, illiteracy, Tourette's, transsexuals. And she ends up finding her own family and friends on the street.

So COMPROMISED is a gritty read, but it's also truthful. It's filled with memorable, realistic characters, and a backdrop of love, hope, and family, even in the midst of darkness. And it's a great read.

Disclosure: I received a signed copy of COMPROMISED from Doret at TheHappyNappyBookseller. Thank you Doret & Heidi!

You can read TheHappyNappyBookseller's interview with Heidi Ayarbe about COMPROMISED here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pretty vs Gritty.

In Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan, a photography teacher refers to two of his students as Pretty and Gritty. Pretty takes a lot of pictures of trees and flowers, Gritty does urban landscapes and homeless people.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference. Fellow writer / blogger Nick Cross has also written about this juxtaposition, calling it Catharsis vs. Escapism. Obviously the best books have both, but some artists are definitely more Pretty and others much more Gritty. Why? And how much choice to we have in the matter?

Because I tend to be an awfully gritty writer. I start writing a middle grade novel about pirates, and end up dealing with issues of slavery and rape.

Some writers deal with dark subject matter as a way to consider their own lives. That's what Nick Cross means when he talks about catharsis. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Author Meg Cabot has talked about how her difficult childhood with an alcoholic father prompted her light-hearted stories: "Romantic fiction was the only thing that helped me escape when my life was the worst it ever was (and the worst I hope it ever will be). And I vowed then that if I ever became a professional writer, I’d write books that I hoped would give readers like me a fun escape from whatever awful thing they were going through" (the whole post is incredibly thought-provoking, touching, and worth reading).

Thankfully, I had a safe childhood. So perhaps my gritty novels are the result of a fascination with darkness.

But I think, more so, I'm obsessed with truth. I don't like to read romances with flawless (and beautiful) characters whose lives end happily ever after. Or watch movies about inner-city children who beat the odds and never look back. As a former teacher, I know it doesn't happen like that. Instead, I've discussed oral sex with kids, bullying, sexual harassment, self-harming, abuse. Some of this with children as young as twelve. It happens. Unfortunately, it happens frequently. So to me it doesn't feel right to skate over these issues.

But at the same time, I miss escapist writing. One of these days I'd like to write a really fun book about pirates. I'll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, on Wednesday I'll review of one of the best gritty books I've read recently, Heidi Ayarbe's Compromised.

Are you consistently Pretty or Gritty? Or do you somehow manage to balance both?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Looking backwards for inspiration

Writing a novel isn't a short sprint. Sometimes it's absolutely exhausting. Sometimes the finish line is so far away it's not even visible.

Lately I've been overwhelmed by how much is wrong with Project Demo. I don't have an ending written yet. I hate my beginning. My main character's voice isn't fully fleshed out. And I'm not sure how to tackle any of these problems, let alone fix them. I don't even know which problem to start with.

But I have been in this position before.

My tutor, Julia Green, once said it's for this reason that she saves all of her old journals. Not only can she look at her published books sitting on the shelf, but also at the journals she used when writing them. She can see all of her fears, her agony. But she can also see how she solved her problems, finished the books.

Well, I don't have any published books, but I can look back too, perhaps even more efficiently. Blogger archives all my old posts.

So this week I've been reading Revision the hard way about how tricky true revision can be, and Revision woes where I tried to figure out how to end Project Sparkle. My favorite find has been Facing down fear, where I wrote about how sometimes even starting work is overwhelming because I'm so afraid of how bad my writing is. Today's post begins with the same image, a photograph I took of a St George and the dragon statue in Stockholm.

It's good to remember. And good to read my other posts, where I celebrated finishing Project Sparkle and how much I loved it.

So back to work. Bird by bird.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reading widely

Before writing Paradise Lost, John Milton undertook a six-year period of self-directed study, reading everything that had ever been published and was available in Europe.

I find it absolutely fascinating that Milton's world was small enough and young enough that he could do such a thing. It must have been a great education. Unfortunately, it's one that's impossible for modern writers.

When I left my job to pursue my MA in Writing for Young People, I undertook my own self-directed study, determined to read as many children's books as I could get my hands on. And I've read a ton. I have a good understanding of today's trends, the market, how different issues have been tackled in children's literature. I've also learned so much about voice, craft, plot.

Yet as of today my Goodreads account has 210 books on my "to-read" list. It's impossible to keep up, even with the books I desperately want to read. So I fall into a worrisome trap: I limit myself to only children's literature. After all, that's what I'm studying and writing. And it's what I love.

But I also love Charles Dickens, Tim O'Brien, Sarah Waters, history, literary fiction, fantasy, and so many other types of books. By limiting myself to children's fiction, I worry I'm missing out on reading other stories, and learning as much as I can about my craft and language.

So lately I've been trying to branch out. I read a collection of Grace Paley's short stories to see how she incorporated the voices and settings of New York. I read Adam Lanager's Crossing California to see how he did the same for Chicago.

I'm especially grateful for my library's book group. Currently we're reading Deaf Sentence by David Lodge. It's funny, thought-provoking, and the premise and use of language is so clever. As an American children's book reader, I might never have discovered this British, adult novelist. He's certainly not one of the authors on my to-read list. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to read him.

And it's that opportunity, reading widely, and discovering new genres and authors, and knowing that there's so much more to discover, that makes me feel a little sorry for John Milton.

Do you concentrate on one area of literature? Or do you try to read widely too? How do you find new authors to try?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Faulks on Fiction

Last weekend British author Stephen Faulks' show "Faulks on Fiction" about the British novel and its characters premiered.

One of his guests, Martin Amis, generated a lot of controversy with his comments on writing for children:

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book,' but [here he shakes his head] the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

As author Lucy Coats says on her blog, writing for children doesn't restrict her literary freedom: "When I write fiction, I research and plan just as (I assume) Amis does. Then I sit down and let what comes, come... We are all the amanuensis for our characters--and yes, often we do use language they never consciously would. It's not a feat of the writer's art exclusive to highbrow literary fiction. When I write, I think about language, the richness and complexity and wonder of it, and I use it to hook the reader into my story, to ensnare them in my net of words, to take them so far that they forget that what they are seeing is only print on a page of dead tree."

Though of course, to be literal about it, if we consider genre, structure, form, all writing restricts freedom in some way. Was Shakespeare restricted by his use of iambic pentameter? Or, as fellow writer and blogger Nick Cross says, "Something that Martin Amis seems unwilling to admit is that he too – consciously or unconsciously – operates under a whole set of restrictions. Such as only writing for smug, middle-aged, middle-class men."

However, I've been surprised Faulks' own sexist comments about heroism and gender haven't been getting more attention. Last weekend he was interviewed by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC's radio program "Open Book" about heroism (the theme of his TV series' first episode).

Here are some of his comments (my transcription, apologies for any slight errors):

Faulks: "When you come to someone like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, whom we call a hero, it's quite clear that she's not a good person or a person you look up to, but for some reason she's the person you root for in the story."

MF: "She's the only woman you manage to come up with out of seven heroes. Did you find it hard to find suitable female candidates?"

Faulks: "No, not at all. But not all of them fitted the arc of the story were telling within each programme... "

MF: "But according to you, Becky can't be a heroine because she's not good enough, and it's a qualifier I'm interested to know you didn't employ on your men, Winston Smith and John Self, hardly paragons of virtue."

Faulks: "Becky is a hero, despite being morally not a good person. But the reason she's a hero, not a heroine, is because she's the focus and the words actually lose their kind of gender connotations... I think you can have a woman hero but I don't think you can have a man heroine on the other hand.... because these things are not mirror images of one another. Jane Eyre, for instance, is a heroine. I mean, she's a much better person that Becky Sharp, but she's a heroine, I think, because Charlotte Bronte suggests that Jane Eyre's journey is to find a man, whereas Thackeray suggests that Becky Sharpe's journey is to do without men."

MF: But isn't Jane Eyre emblematic of her time?" ... (the interview continues, with a few more sexist comments, then Mariella Frotsrup moves on to let Faulks talk about how he believes the hero is dead, except in genre fiction).

Faulks: "Harry Potter, I mean, he's the most famous character of the last 25 years and he is genuinely heroic."

MF: "And don't forget Lyra, Philip Pullman's female heroine, who's a girl."

Faulks: "She's a female hero I think you'll find."

Frostrup then managed to cheerfully finish the interview without strangling Faulks--though it seemed to be a close call (the whole interview, at ten minutes, is worth listening to, and available here).

Needless to say, after hearing this, I didn't rush home to watch Faulks' program. He's managed to insult writers, women. Now the show needs to say something racist, perhaps about Mexicans. Then they'll have narrowed their audience almost entirely to white, middle class men. But perhaps that was the intention all along.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Teaching reading (or Don't let Anne drive the bus!)

I recently volunteered to be a primary (elementary) school "Reading Buddy." I get to go into a school once a week and have my Reading Buddy read to me. And chat about books, words, and life in general. And sometimes I get to read to my buddy, too. I can't wait to get all the paper work and security checks finalized.

In the meantime, I attended a training session at the school I'm going to be working with so I could learn their system and expectations. As a former teacher, I found the reading plan well-structured and accountable. As a writer and lover of books, especially children's books, my heart ached.

Basically, books are scored on levels 1-12. The more words, the more complex the words, the more dialogue used, and the more complicated the story, the higher the rating. Kids' reading levels are assessed, and they're only supposed to read books at the level they're at. Once a child reaches above 90% fluency on a level, they can be moved up one level. At the training session, we worked on introducing books to kids, assessing what areas of a book might be difficult, and how best to prepare kids for reading a new book.

What was my problem with all of this? Well, the books were written specifically for this system. We read one non-fiction picture book about how to build a house. Another about a wedding. Some of them were okay, some weren't, but none of them made me eager to turn the pages. Where was Mo Willems? Or Maurice Sendak? Or Julia Donaldson?

I get how the system is about encouraging children's reading confidence, gradually building up their ability. But I worry that it takes all the fun out of reading. After all, what's the point to reading if you're not going to read about dinosaurs? Or monsters? Or a pigeon stealing a bus?

But maybe I'm a reading snob. I don't remember learning how to read. I don't remember ever struggling with it. I didn't have to learn English as an additional language. And I've never had the honor of helping a child learn to read. So maybe there needs to be a system in place to assure everyone learns, especially kids who struggle or don't have supportive families. But I'm hoping my buddy won't tell if I bend the rules every now and then and bring in contraband books.

Is it bad that I haven't even started and I'm already planning on subverting the system?

Do you remember learning to read? How have you (or would you) teach reading?*

*Several months ago, one of my blogging friends wrote an AMAZING post on how to read with children. I remember being inspired by it. But I can't find it in my Google Reader. If you know what I'm talking about, please share the link so I can post it! Thanks.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Seven Basic Plots: a world of possibility!

One of the reasons I've been busy lately is because I finally got my hands on a copy of Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories by Christopher Booker. I don't really have time to be reading a 700+ page tome of literary analysis, but it's so readable and fascinating, I really can't stop. Plus, it's been a tremendous boon in my own writing, sparking a lot of thoughts and feverish outlining.

Here's the blurb from Goodreads: "This book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of 'basic stories' in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales, via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling." But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are 'programmed' to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Christopher Booker then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years, and why so many stories have 'lost the plot' by losing touch with their underlying archetypal purpose."

Seven Basic Plots begins by working systematically through Bookers' seven different plot categories (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth), offering classic and modern examples of each, and showing the different stages occurring in each plot. While I don't consider myself a plot novice, the wealth of information Booker shares, and his logical overview, has been incredibly useful in helping me determine Project Demo's plot structure, and dissecting other books I've been reading.

It's also fascinating realizing how much character and society can determine plot. For example, a good-intentioned character in a Rags to Riches story will come to a happy end. However, a character with dark intentions might find riches, but not contentment. Booker points out that most plots have this "dark version." He analyzes several of Shakespeare's Tragedies and shows how their endings differ based on their main characters. Richard III is a villain, and the play ends on a trumphant note with him being overthrown. King Lear also acts poorly, but he's not a villain. He travels a nightmare journey, and is helped to repent by the actions of his faithful friends, servants, and daughter, Cordelia. So, while there is goodness in Lear's world, at the end it's not enough to save him (or Cordelia). Whereas Romeo and Juliet are clearly not villains, but they live in a warring society that won't accept their love. They also die at the end, but the ending is hopeful as the two feuding families come together to mourn.

It makes me realize how many different ways a story can be told, given a slightly darker character, a slightly kinder family, a love interest... everything can change. It's exciting. I'm seeing dozens of new possible stories opening before me.

Plus, it made me think of this hysterical trailer for Mary Poppins as a horror movie. Enjoy!



Monday, February 7, 2011

Keeping busy

Some mornings it feels like the whole day is stretched in front of me, endless. The clock doesn't seem to move. It's a Tuesday or a Thursday, so I don't have a blog post to write. Crickets are chirping in my email. Endless time to write. Except I don't have a thing to say.

Other days I'm critiquing a novel, revising my query letter, outlining my plot, and taking notes from a book on craft. Plus I've got a blog post to write, a meeting to go to, a dentist appointment, and the fridge is empty.

It's good to be busy. Especially to be lucky enough to be busy with writing. But after a few weeks of it, I really wish things would slow down again.

The grass is always greener, isn't it?

What kind of writing week are you having? What kind of writing week do you wish you were having?

Friday, February 4, 2011

"This Is Just To Say"

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams (1934)

It's been a hectic week. So it was a blessing to wake up this morning thinking of Williams' plums. Such a simple, yet beautiful poem. Hopefully it also brings you some peace and joy at the end of a long week.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Writing exercises

Earlier this month, I blogged about Writing every day. I work on writing every day. I revise, I draft query letters, but sometimes I don't get to do what I'm most passionate about: actually write.

Lately I've felt my routine has become staid and, coupled with the stress of the submission process, missing some of its passion.

So last weekend I instituted daily writing exercises.

Yeah, I know. So far I've only done five of them. But can I tell you how much fun I've been having? I've written a family argument over dinner, a murder in progress, and two kids escaping in a beat up station wagon full of dwarven gold.

I've been using Adam Maxwell's Fiction Lounge for writing prompts. It took me a while to find prompts I was happy with. I want to write fiction, not anything introspective (ie: write about the last time you cried), and I want a prompt that can throw me in the middle of action, not just suggest a color or object (ie: "mint"). Adam's prompts work for me, and have sparked a lot of fun randomness (dwarves! gold! murder!).

I only give myself five minutes. Five more minutes if I'm enjoying myself. So it's hardly taken up any writing time. And I've found it sparks enough creative energy to carry me for quite a while through my slog of revision.

I'm not sure how long this will last. But for this week, at least, I've become a total writing exercises convert.