Monday, July 18, 2011

On vacation (sorta)

I'm going to close up shop here for the next few weeks for some intense novel writing (and a bit of summer goofing around). Should've said so last Friday, but I didn't know then how much I'd feel like I needed a break now!

Best wishes on all your projects, writing and otherwise, and have a great summer.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Update on Project Demo: Taking my medicine

I'm on track to finish my current revision of Project Demo by Sunday. I'm so thankful for all my generous and smart writing friends who've offered to read this draft. The thought of showing anyone this complete mess of a book makes me feel physically sick. Yet at the same time, I know this plot could really use some of my writing friends' insight! So I'm trying not to think about it too much and pushing forward.

In the meantime, I'm really looking forward to an easier writing week next week! I'll continue working, but perhaps on a less frenetic schedule, doing more polishing and easy-revision type work. On FictionForge's recommendation, I've just started perusing John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which looks like an incredibly helpful read. I'm looking forward to jumping into it more fully next week. And of course catching a showing of the last Harry Potter movie!

How is your writing progressing?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Re-reading: Little House on the Prairie

I was discussing classic children's books with a friend the other day, and got to thinking about Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. I haven't read them since I was child. I was really curious how they'd stack up against modern children's literature, if they would still have the power to fascinate and transport me as a reader. And even if they did, would they offend me? As an adult, I've heard educators rail against their stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. In re-reading them, would I find the stories that have influenced generations of readers? Or an offensive mess? Both? I was really curious.

I have to say, Little House on the Prairie started off really slowly. Quite a change from Harry Potter! The driving plot and conflict of the story was the family adjusting to a new life on the prairie. There were no debilitating internal conflicts, other than Laura never being quite as "good" as her sister. No cutting, for example. That's a joke.

The writing was slow, episodic, and detailed enough that I could've almost built a log cabin myself.

And unlike modern children's literature, the story's action was very adult-centric. It was all told through little Laura's eyes, but it was about Pa building their house, killing a panther, taking them to see the empty Indian camp.

And over and over, the message that to be safe, a little girl only needed to trust Pa: "You girls remember this: you do as you're told, no matter what happens... you do as you're told and no harm will come to you."

Yet, for all that, I gradually became absorbed in the story. The writing was slow, but the language was beautiful, the setting soothing.

Actually, more than that... when I finally finished the story, my mind was racing. It's got such a bizarre ending. Do you remember? Pa discovers that for the time being the government isn't going to support the white settlers in Indian territory. So after a full of year of building their lives, Pa decides they should leave.

I have to say, it had personal ramifications with my own life of late, living on a temporary visa in the UK, unsure what's next.

But more than that, it was such an unsettling ending, bizarre and unexpected, it made me start asking questions.

Like, is Pa really the hero of the story? If so, how come, more than anything, he reminds me of the father in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?
According to Laura he doesn't make mistakes, yet he lets the family dog nearly drown, and later almost shoots it. In the scene I quoted from above, Pa is admonishing the girls for considering letting the dog off leash when dangerous Indians approached the house. The girls feel guilty that they had even thought of disobeying Pa, and he had a good point about not antagonizing the local Indians. But what if the girls really were in danger? And of course, at the end of the story, Pa's sudden decision to leave makes even the perfect Ma sigh and remark, "A whole year gone, Charles."

Further, while Laura could never be as "good" as her sister or as Ma expected her to be, she has the exalted position not only as the story's eyes & ears, but its author. So is she sincere when she quotes Pa that little girls should be seen, but not heard?

The portrayal of the Native Americans was offensive and stereotypical. Their eyes were always black and terrible, they stole from the Ingalls, and in one particularly awful scene it's implied they don't even know how to skin a skunk properly, or have any sense of human decorum, because the furs they're wearing stink with the skunk's spray.

Yet again, it wasn't completely straightforward. At the end, one set of Indians save the Ingalls, then the whole family is entranced by their passing, and spend most of a day watching them, feeling empty and restless afterwards. The novel's very much a product of its time, but I wondered if Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to say more, or ask if the manifest destiny that drives the book was even right. Many times Laura, with her child's voice, tries to ask these questions:

"But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to--"

"No more questions, Laura," Pa said firmly. "Go to sleep."

And of course, at the end, the family leaves. One review I read online suggested it was because Pa finally acknowledged his mistake, and they left out of guilt (though again, the text never says this).

So strangely, much like Harry Potter, I spent several days after finishing Little House on the Prairie thinking about it. And I fully intend to re-read the others, too (Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek). It was a fascinating portrayal of a particular time in history (maybe two times in history, the 1870s when the books are set, and the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing in the 1930s). And, whatever meanings may or may not be there, a complex, beautiful, and absorbing read.

What do you remember of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? Did you grow up on them? Have you re-read them recently? Did you have any of the same questions I did?

Monday, July 11, 2011

When writing is hard work

I write because I love writing. I love crafting sentences. I love breathing life into characters. I love inventing new worlds.

But sometimes it's hard work.

Sometimes it's not about beautiful words and quirky characters, but going through my draft chapter by chapter, finding every mention of one character, and rewriting the scene to include a different character (yes, I'm into the nitty gritty of Combining Characters, which I wrote about last Monday).

I know all this work is making Project Demo better, which is exciting. And it's not like I'm sweating, or miserable, or have a nasty boss who says terrible things about me behind my back. I'm just a little bored.

How do you write when you don't feel like writing?

Do you trick yourself? My tutor Julia once said she makes a game of it, pretends she's really looking forward to it. She puts on fun music, makes herself a nice cup of tea, and jumps into the writing.

Or perhaps you reward yourself? Bribe yourself?

Any advice? Commiseration?

I'm hoping to have a complete, READABLE draft of Project Demo done by this weekend. I'm saying it here so I can force myself to make it happen!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Jawless fish held their own

It's summer, it's Friday, and I have a ton of work to do on Project Demo. So I figured it was okay to have a short post today. And really, all I want to say is: why yes, that IS my husband, Philip Anderson, in the New York Times.

So proud.

Though he would want me to tell you the Scientific American article explains the research a bit more thoroughly. And the real achievement is having his paper published in the scientific journal Nature. Thanks to my excellent copy-editing skills, I'm sure.

The photos show a series of extinct and modern fish jaws. See the NY Times for more info (Powell, Anderson, Friedman).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Re-reading: Harry Potter

My head is like a sieve when it comes to remembering stories. Probably not so good for writing. But not a bad thing when it comes to reading, as I can happily re-read books, and enjoy them as much as the first time I read them.

Given that my overall reaction to the most recent Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part I) was, "Huh?", I figured I should probably re-read Deathly Hollows before seeing the final movie in the series.

I imagined it would be a fun re-read, but I wasn't prepared for how much I enjoyed the book the second time around. It's been years since I read any Rowling (actually, probably 2007, when Deathly Hollows first came out), and then I was anxious for the characters, reading quickly and late into the night to figure out what happened.

This time I already knew the outcome (more or less), and could revel in the story, the characters, and the world Rowling created. And I was absolutely blown away! I think it's become a bit intellectual to dismiss Rowling, to point out her over-use of adverbs, or long-winded storytelling. But what a book! What a story-telling master! In my mind, she has earned every bit of her fame.

Rowling's a master of world-building, and has created such a realistic, magical world, no wonder it inspired not only movies, but a theme park. People want to live there! But what also impressed me was how she relies on her readers to remember the details of her world. She doesn't bother explaining from book to book what every spell means, or how the Floo Network works, she just assumes we remember (thankfully for me, there's also an extensive repository of HP knowledge online, too!). It makes the world even more absorbing and believable.

She's also a master of character arcs. I've been struggling with my own characters lately, so how incredible to see the two billion characters Rowling has all have the perfect ending, a perfect moment in the sun, and a realization that changes everything for them. Since finishing the book, I've found myself, even a week later, still thinking about that moment where Bellatrix and Mrs. Weasley duel, or Harry naming his son Severus, or Lupin making Harry his child's godfather. Even all these years later, I get chills thinking about the first time Harry sees the thestrals at Hogwarts (that's probably my favorite Harry Potter moment of all). I think that's what makes the books such page turners. I had to know what happened, to everyone, because I trusted Rowling to pull everyone's story to a close.

Speaking of Rowling's two billion characters (approximately), I was also surprised at all the voices. They're so distinct! It helps that every time I read Ron, I can hear Rupert Grint's voice in my head. But regardless, each character is written with so much individuality, they're easy to tell apart, even when they're all arguing with each other.

So it's been an absolute joy to re-read. Someday when all the hype is over, and when life is particularly quiet (hah!), I'd love to settle down for a couple of weeks and read them all again, back to back.

Do you have a favorite image or moment from Harry Potter?

I've been re-reading a few classics lately. Next week I'll post my thoughts on a very different book, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Combining characters

Revising Project Demo is progressing more smoothly--though still with much anxiety and hair-pulling. Lately I've been focusing on plot and characters, making sure each character has a goal that drives them through the novel.

I had two characters who were frustrating me. One was instrumental to the plot early on, but didn't have a role in the climax. The other character was introduced to the story late, but I couldn't figure out how to incorporate him any earlier. It wasn't until I was making a list in my note book of problems to tackle that I had a revision revelation: both of these characters had the same role in the story.

So my task this week isn't to rewrite the plot to include both characters throughout the story, but to combine the characters into one. They're very different people, so I have some decisions to make, and I'm a little regretful of losing one character's funny quirks.

But the change ultimately makes for simpler, more streamlined storytelling. And now that I've stumbled across one combination, I've been on the look out for other ways to combine characters, settings, and scenes to ensure that each has a concentrated purpose and impact.

It's moments like these where I'm reminded of how little storytelling is like real life.

Have you ever combined elements in your writing? Or have you expanded your writing, trying to give each thing its own individual purpose?

Oh, and for my American readers, Happy Fourth!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ancient Athens: Greece Pics V

It's Friday, so I figured we were due for another (unfortunately, the final!) round of Greece pictures.

Athens has several ancient sites located in the area around the Acropolis.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was finished in the 2nd century AD and sacked in the 3rd century in an invasion. It was never repaired, and used as a quarry for building materials. But what's left is still pretty incredible:

Here's a fallen column that illustrates how all the columns are put together. A pole would have run through the middle to stabilize it:


On our last day in Athens, we visited the Ancient Agora, which used to be Athens prime marketplace and social gathering point. It's where Socrates and Plato would have spoke, where plays would have been performed, and where the city council would have met.

Now it's mostly just foundations, with the occasional odd statue or column. But it was pretty incredible to walk around such a piece of history and to imagine what might have been.

This is the Temple of Hephaestus, overlooking the Agora:


Here's a view closer to the Temple. You can still see the inner frieze, depicting the Centaurs fighting the Lapiths:


The Agora has one fully reconstructed, modern building, the Stoa of Attalos, which now houses a museum for the Agora.

It was very neat to walk around, like getting a snapshot of Ancient Greece.

The theatre is mostly in ruins, but several statues still remained at the door:

Several of the ancient sites were later appropriated by Christians and used as churches. You can see the cross carved in the middle of the stone:

Our final day in Greece, we wandered around the Plaka (a touristy area near the Acropolis), taking everything in. We loved how this was part park, part random ancient site:

We also stumbled across Hadrian's Library. Ohhh! Had I known this was a THING I could visit, I so would have gone. Unfortunately we had to catch our flight home. Something to do next time:

One last view of the Acropolis, this one taken from the Agora: