Review: Elements of Mind by Walter Hunt

I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.

To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.

First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.

The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”

Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”

Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.

Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.

Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.

I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.

Superheros, Fiction, TV, and lady troubles part 2

See part one to get the backstory.

  1. Women of strength are almost always an extension of male power.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  She’s watched and trained by a male watcher.  Xena the Warrior Princess owes her salvation (and the existence of her franchise) to Hercules.  The ladies of the X-Men?  Xavier’s.  Across the board you see women who are taught to be strong by men, or women who operate under the covering of a man’s world or man’s blessing.  There are some rare exceptions, like Wonder Woman, whose existence seems to point to a flaw in my logic.  But, if you will experiment:  write down every female superhero/action hero/TV protagonist that you can think of and then highlight all the ones who are completely independent of operating under male authority.

    Trust me, you won’t need your highlighter much.

  2. Either their sexuality is hidden, or is a weapon.  Women in traditionally masculine roles are given very few options: either hide your femininity in order to dress and operate like a man, or flaunt your femininity like a weapon.  You see it in the over-sexual poses on comic book covers, in the drastic v-necks and skin tight blouses on TV, in the made-up faces and perfectly coiffed hair that have no place in a crime scene or hiding behind surgeon’s masks.

    What’s up, world?

    And most of the time when you see a female character who has taken pains to neither dress in a masculine way or use her sexuality as a weapon, the situation will be contrived at LEAST ONCE to make her into a sexual display.  (For example:  Castle’s Beckett, who normally is neither overly masculine or feminine, is contrived to have to play the role of a model on a catwalk.  Why?)  How often are male police officers forced to go undercover as strippers or whores?  When male spies have to seduce someone for information, do they have to subjugate themselves sexually to do so?  Come on.

  3. Nurture: there’s a loaded word.  Whether or not male superheros have family can be a loaded issue.  Normally, their family relations are taught with loss or lies.  Peter Parker’s guilt about Uncle Ben, Batman’s loss of his parents, and many more such examples.  But for women in the power game, the issue of family tends to come down to nurture.  The choice is clear:  for the woman to have power, she must scorn nurture.  It is implied, therefore, that nurture is a “default mode” for women that must be shut off for them to have strength.  Yet the nurture still ekes out in the form of Wonder Woman comforting Superman against her breast.

    While I understand that feminine physiology demands that women address the issue of childbirth, I also find it odd that men can have children in these situations where women cannot.  And why can men?  Because they impregnate women who do the nurturing for them.  The nurturing happens removed from the source of strength.

    When I think about it too much, I get a headache.  What, exactly, does this symbolize?

  4. Humiliation.  When male superheros are beaten down and humiliated, it usually takes the form of them being bound and gagged and their strength being mocked.

    When females are humiliated, it is all too often sexual in nature.

    Hm.

  5. And the double standard of tears.  In the first Die Hard movie, the protagonist is reduced to tears.  This stoic crying is seen as a symbol of his strength and perseverance.  Compare that to any woman crying ever.

    No, really, any woman crying ever.  I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of any time that a woman crying is seen as a sign of strength and perseverance instead of a sign of weakness and over-emotion, and I can’t think of one.  Men are allowed to cry on occasion because it is seen as a sign of them being in control, them willingly connecting to a depth of emotion that is understood to have an “off” switch if necessary.  Women, on the other hand, aren’t supposed to cry because it is seen as them being unable or unwilling to harness their emotions appropriately.  Women cry when they are in pain so that men heal them, they cry when they are upset so that men stop, they cry in this or that situation because they are unhinged or just neurotic.

    Sigh.

    When Batman cries it is because he is strong enough to acknowledge his grief.  When Catwoman cries she’s just psycho, yo.

 

How Not to Suck at Writing

  •   Try Grammarly‘s plagiarism checker free of charge because your teacher definitely will.
  •  Think about what you are writing before you write it.  This seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But all the time I see students coming in for help with papers who have just sat down and started writing and then been mad that the ideas didn’t come.  Ideas are kind of like beautiful women- rare is the writer that can get one in bed without putting some thought into courting it.
  • Try something different.  Okay, I get it: writers can be superstitious.  You wrote an amazing poem in that red shirt, but today you have that red shirt on and it’s not working.  Try something different.  It isn’t that hard.  Sometimes ideas get stuck on things, and you have to tease them loose.  Take a walk, eat some chocolate, do jumping jacks, kiss someone, do a headstand, talk it out with a friend, take a shower… do something.  The longer you sit in frustration at the keyboard, the more reluctant your ideas will be to show their face.
  • Ask why.  Is it something you’re writing for personal reasons?  Ask why you’re writing it, that will motivate you to work through your frustration.  Is it something you’re writing for an assignment?  Ask why it was assigned, it will help you understand what is expected of you.  Without the “why”, any work of writing can end up seeming directionless and confused.  Don’t do that to your work.
  • Write anyway.  Write the worst, most pointless, most meaningless and painful drivel you can.  Write through the wall and then look at it and ask, “what can I do to make this better?”  No matter how bad it is, it’s better than nothing.  You will have gotten a start.
  • Use art.  Writing an essay about sharks?  Draw the outline as pictures of sharks.  Use a graphic organizer, like an idea cloud or a Venn diagram.  Find some way to visualize the ideas you want on the paper, and you’ll find the shape of the written work starting to form in your head.  For some people who are more visual than verbal, writing can feel like surgery without anesthesia.  Finding a way to bring the visual into the writing process can ease the way.
  • Tell yourself what you are doing.  “I’m sitting down at the computer.”  “I’m going to write a paragraph now.”  By verbalizing your goals you cement them in your head, and make it a little easier to follow through.
  • Set short, manageable goals and reward yourself.  A Fun-Size Snickers for each bullet point?  Awesome.  I’ll go ahead and make more bullet points.  (Yes, this really does work.)
  • Treat it like a game.  We get the idea from the Hemingways of the world that writing is a tragic thing full of pain and best managed drunk.  It doesn’t have to be so dire, it can be fun.  Find ways to play with what you’re writing.  Hide a little joke in there.  Don’t take it so seriously.  Even if it is a paper for a grade, your teacher can sense if you hated it, and that will color their opinion.  I know I can tell the difference between a paper where the writer was engaged and happy and one where the writer hated it ever having been assigned:  one is far more likely to garner an A than the other.
  • Realize it is a moment in time, and will pass.  You aren’t going to spend the rest of your life in front of the computer screen.  Do what you must to get through it, and then go out and realize the sun still shines and the birds still sing.  The longer you spend at the keyboard resenting your writing, the longer you remove yourself from the things that make you happy.
  • Just type.  Nonsense if you have to.  Get your fingers moving, and get it done.

(this blog post is totally sponsored.)

Gae Polisner, Author with the Box of Wax Lips

(Written for my journalism class, with endless thanks to the fabulous authoress herself.)

“I get an image, or an interesting fact, and suddenly it’s a whole book,” Polisner says, “And I think, what is this that I’m writing?”  

The storylines that plague Polisner into writing them have staked out a place for her in classrooms and bookstores right beside classics like Steinbeck, whose “Of Mice and Men” features in Polisner’s debut novel, “The Pull of Gravity”.  

People choose to become authors for a variety of reasons, such as a love of literature, a desire for fame, or to emulate novels that have held deep meaning for them as readers.  For Polisner it’s about doing what she loves:  finding simple themes or ideas or even single scenes that interest her, and trying to paint a picture to share those unshakeable feelings with her audience.  While she doesn’t know what the future holds for her books or herself as an author, Polisner knows that she’s not going to stop writing.

Polisner lives on the North Shore of Long Island with her husband David, and two sons Sam, 17, and Holden, 15.  She attended Boston University and Brooklyn Law School.  She spends her days wearing many “hats” as a legal mediator, a mother, a wife, and of course with her writing; when she isn’t working on a manuscript directly she builds social networks on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.  It may not be exactly what she expected being an author to be like, but for Polisner wearing the many hats that being an author requires lets her keep writing.  That, for Polisner, is “just this wish fulfilment.”  

Like many authors, Polisner talks about writing from the time she was small.  She never really imagined that she would become a professional author, so she set aside writing creatively when she entered into law school and focused on technical work.  Polisner still loves her job as a mediator and practices it in between the many manuscripts she’s revising and marketing.  So why did she decide to pursue a career as an author?  

“One day,” Polisner says with a laugh, “I sat down and decided I would write a hundred pages, just to see what it felt like. But after a hundred pages I couldn’t stop.”

Her self-effacing humor is amplified when she talks about stumbling into a career.  “[Friends and family] read it, and they liked it, so I kept working on it.  Honestly, I don’t know how that all happened,” Polisner says.

Polisner finished her first manuscript and entered it into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2007, the first year the contest was held.  That experience led her into a conversation with agents and publishers which carved the path to her writing career, even though that particular book has yet to be published.  

Her own experiences with publishing affect the advice she gives to writers just starting out.  Polisner says, “you have to find your inspiration, whatever keeps you going, and you have to have some luck.”  

By luck she means that no matter how great your work is, writing is still as subjective as an art.  Each manuscript is a little masterpiece, and just like a painting everyone will interpret it differently and have a different idea of where it belongs.  Authors depend on getting their manuscripts in front of the pair of eyes that believes in the potential there and wants to fight to have it published.  

“That part is the luck part,” Polisner says, “that part you can’t control.”  

For Polisner, the drive to keep going even when she received rejection was her children.  

“Having my sons really changed it for me,” Polisner explains, saying that she chose to live by the maxim that it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, what matters is if you get back up.  She didn’t want her sons to give up when people said no to their dreams, so she just kept going.  It was ten years from the time she first decided to give writing a shot before her first book was published, but she doesn’t regret any of the journey.

Polisner’s original passion was women’s fiction; the first time she sat down to write a novel, that’s what she wrote. That was what won her recognition in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and secured her first agent.  For some reason, a publishing deal never came together.  She wrote another women’s fiction novel that received a lot of positive feedback from readers and agents, but still not a book deal.  

“The young adult literature was a surprise,” Gae says with a touch of nostalgia, “because women’s fiction was my first love.”  It seems as if most of her journey surprised her.  The idea to have Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” take center stage in “The Pull of Gravity” was also unexpected, something that simply occurred to her one day, redefining the novel as well as giving Polisner new and unexpected avenues for marketing her work.  

One of the ways “The Pull of Gravity” has reached the most readers is through being used as a “bridge” or “companion” novel, being paired in the classroom with Steinbeck.  It is used as a stepping stone to getting readers interested in classic literature and standard literary fiction.  Bridge novels are a new trend in teaching that have even come to Yakima, where Yakima Valley Community College has even seen the technique used in an English 101 class taught by Dan Peters.  

That class paired “The Hunger Games” with “Fahrenheit 451”, and many students responded enthusiastically. Dodie Forrest, director of the Writing Center and chair of the English Department, states that while using Young Adult Fiction as a bridge is useful, she wouldn’t suggest that every professor try it.  Part of helping students reach the level of literacy they need at a college level is recognizing what they already bring to the table.

“While I want [students] to appreciate literature,” Forrest says, “I also want to appreciate their literacy.”  But Forrest is quick to add that she’s excited any time she sees a student reading, be it YA Fiction, a graphic novel, or classic literature.  If a student loves any words on a page, that creates a foundation to build on for a more critical response later down the road.  So books like Polisner’s “The Pull Of Gravity” can have a place on college campuses, like the copy that is available to borrow from YVCC’s own Writing Center.

Sarah Andersen, age 28, an English teacher at Clio High School in Clio, Michigan, was the first teacher to use Polisner’s book in her class.  Andersen’s school was looking to replace “The Odyssey” with another story about a journey, and “Of Mice and Men” seemed like a natural fit.  “Once we made that decision, I recommended that we pair it with The Pull of Gravity,” Andersen says, because both of the books are about friendship and the timeless adventure towards self awareness.

Andersen was glad to find that Polisner was enthusiastic and eager to help.  Making a guide that other teachers would be using, and possibly judging, was a nerve wracking process.  The emails exchanged back and forth smoothed the process and helped Andersen feel confident in her work.  Andersen says that Polisner “deserves tons of kudos for how accessible she is as an author.”

On top of contributing to the teacher’s guide, Polisner also chats with classrooms reading her book over Skype, interacts with youth on her Facebook page, tweets, and responds to book reviews on Goodreads.  

Polisner says she’s still trying to figure out unique ways to market her next novel.  Perhaps there will be another tie in for teachers to use to connect with their students, or more gimmicks like the wax lips and troll dolls she’s been bringing to readings for “The Pull of Gravity”.  Polisner says that it can be a real challenge to come up with anything new to do.  Still, she’s fortunate in the way that YA authors band together and support each other.

Polisner has done group readings with other authors, even 90 second “flash” readings aimed towards younger audiences that might not be interested in longer, traditional fare. If someone isn’t interested after the first ninety seconds, Polisner says, all you do by reading a whole chapter is lose them more.  

Shorter readings, gimmicks, and fun, those are all things that YA authors turn to in order to keep things fresh and relevant to their primary audience.  But ultimately it’s not about the gimmicks or the constant push to come up with something new and interesting.  

As Forrest is quick to point out, when someone reads they’re really just looking for that connection; they’re seeking a theme or character that speaks to their own experiences, and helps them understand and respond.  That’s what Polisner demands from her own writing:  something that forges a connection.  She waits for that idea, that scene, that character that suddenly demands a whole book be written around them.  

Polisner says there’s no way to really know where that will take her in the future.  She has to negotiate the tension between what will keep her career going and what will feed her creative drive.  “I want to do I what I want to do,” Polisner says, her voice losing a touch of it’s characteristic edge, “but there’s a balance to that.”

The Cost of Silence

(This is an essay for a class, but I really, really like it.  And it’s been so long since I posted a blog…)

What happens to a society where the artists, writers, and thinkers fall silent?  What changes when necessity and fear get in the way of civil engagement?  What if all of the greatest minds of this age are working two jobs to keep food on the table, falling asleep to reruns of last year’s sitcoms, and posting memes on Facebook instead of speaking out?  Could it be that society is slowly deprogramming the electorate’s ability to create and dissent, replacing it with social pressures, mindless entertainment, exhaustion and fear?  The grinding pressure of the current economy is undeniably closing the door to art houses and niche publishers, artists are hanging up their brushes and writers are putting down their pens to pick up extra hours at more traditional jobs, causing beauty and dissent to both end up marginalized as boutique businesses.  The necessity of surviving everyday life blinds us to the real cost of the changing landscape of our economy;  If America is to remain the bastion of thinkers, a melting pot brewing some of the greatest innovation and debate of our world, we will have to raise our voices.

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy,” Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay Speaking in Tongues.  Anzaldua goes on to explain that without writing, women can lose sight of their inner self, their dark and poetic “other”, they can lose their soul.  By writing, a writer can keep the soul alive; the cost of silence is grave.  As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon Litwack said to a group of graduating students in 1987; “History teaches us that it is not the rebels or the dissidents who endanger society but rather the unthinking, the unquestioning, the obedient, the silent, and the indifferent…  The time to be alarmed about our students is not when they are exercising their freedom of expression but when they are quiet, when they despair of changing society, of even understanding it.”  These two great thinkers give two very different reasons for keeping our voices engaged:  the first reason is to feed our souls, and the second is to prevent the further decline of our society.  The stilling of our voices, from either perspective, leads to different but equally grave consequence.  In nature, there is never true stillness.  Everything in nature grows or dies, the saying goes.  What happens when the voices of a society are stilled?  As Martin Neimoeller said in his famous poem about not speaking out during Nazi rule, “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,” which culminates in the chilling final epitaph, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me.”  Silence breeds death.  Words are necessary.  If we are not content to see society fall away, we shouldn’t be content to starve our own creativity.

“There is no need for words to fester in our mouths,” Anzaldua writes.  There is no reason to hold in our words, and every reason to let them loose.  When we allow ourselves to stagnate in indifference we lose so much more than just the things we may have otherwise said.  We lose ourselves, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose and truth.  Like Neimoeller, we lose our connection to the society we may one day depend on for our own salvation.  Even more, if we accept silence from ourselves we give away our ability to dissent.  When the Nazis came for Neimoeller how could he have protested for his own sake without being immediately confronted by the fact that he had defended no one else?  This is a truth that Anzaldua unflinchingly embraces, “What we do and what we say ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our own responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength.”  If it is true for what we say it is also true in the moments we are silent.  What we don’t do and what we don’t say ultimately comes back to us, as well.  We always have a choice; we can choose to speak.

If silence comes at such a grave cost, why do so many embrace it?  The reason seems obvious:  Fear.  The fear may be of violent repercussions.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States, many citizens silenced their disquiet about the Patriot Act out of a sense of duty paired with the intense fear that without sweeping legislation even worse attacks would occur.  Geraldine Perreault references this in an article about the need for dissent, saying, “How quickly people have been willing to give up many long-standing civil liberties and the right to know what their government is doing in their name. The aftermath demonstrates the ongoing necessity for thoughtful dissent as a civic responsibility of citizens in a democratic society.”  Fear may have also played a large role in the German citizenry’s silence during the Holocaust; if they spoke out to defend the Jews, what would happen?  But sometimes the fear is far more subtle. For instance, what happens when people disagree? When they laugh? When they simply ignore one’s words? Or perhaps the silence is motivated by one of the simplest, oldest terrors that anyone knows: the fear of change.  What do we change about ourselves by speaking, and what changes in other peoples perception of us? Such change may seem welcome, even exciting; or, it may seem far more dangerous than physical violence. Change can wound a soul in ways that cannot easily heal.

Silence often seems like the safest option, if not the noblest one.  Gloria Anzaldua states that writing is one of the most daring things she’s ever done, “and the most dangerous.”  Speaking up is indeed risky. Even if one is writing about nothing any more controversial than breakfast, there is a certain vulnerability present.  As Audre Lorde writes, “The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”  But silence is also a treacherous choice; if we’re silent we stifle ourselves.  We cause the blooming tendrils of our soul to wither, wilt, and maybe even die.  We give free reign to the demons we wish to confront.  We kill the hope that we could bring more life and beauty to the world.  We strangle that part of ourselves that rails to be acknowledged.  We slowly start to die.  “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition,” Audre Lorde writes, “and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”  But is it the silence that chokes us, or our choice to put the gag in our own mouths?

The only real option is to never accept silence, especially when we are at our most afraid.  “To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them.  Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink in our pens.”  We have to exorcise our demons.  There are times that it seems that our society is falling apart and losing itself.  Advertising, obesity, over-medication, falling literacy rates, wars, violence, pornography, media polarization, drugs and guns and sex; the list could go on forever.  And in all of this we still struggle with some very old woes.  Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, all of these things continue to divide people.  There is a sense of disquiet and injustice roiling beneath the surface of all national dialogue, ears still searching out the next strong voice to bring discontent to the forefront of our national consciousness and help us make sense of the pain people feel.  Who will be the next Martin Luther King Junior, Harvey Milk or Alice Paul?  We may never know, if citizens continue to accept silence from themselves.

The truth is that even if a person isn’t the next face of civil rights, they still have a story worth telling and an opinion that needs to be heard; if for no other reason than to release their own demons.  Writing and reading need to stop being seen as a hobby and start being viewed as a social necessity and obligation.  We live in a society that trades words like a commodity, where news is 24 hours and on demand, and only the most scintillating tales get real play.  Reading and writing are treated like luxuries, or as the hobbies of nerds and know-it-alls.  Even worse, only those words which people most want to hear ever seem to be spoken very loudly.  We shy away from truths we find discomfiting.  How can a society like that survive?

Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”  Today’s society hardly leaves breathing room for discussion and dissent.  Adults work forty hours a week while children spend 30 hours a week at school not counting bus rides, or walking home, or even homework.  The New York Times reports that the average American spends 2 to 3 hours an evening on television.  That’s an addition 14-21 hours a week.  When, then, once household chores, meals, weekly shopping trips and social obligations are met is there any time left over for thinking?  Ghandi said, “In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long arduous quest after Truth, and the Soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”  Yet the demands of society leave little room for restfulness, and the jam-packed pace of the average American’s day doesn’t yield much time for silence and light.  The light that colors most American evenings is the blue glow of a widescreen, and solitude is often peppered with voices from the television and radio, not silence.  The dissent that America needs to function as a democracy is isolated into 150 characters or less on Twitter, or blasted out on Facebook status updates.  

Facebook, Twitter, and the widescreen TV are not to blame for the ills of society.  They are simply a reflection of our problem, not the cause.  John Taylor Gatto, in his emblematic essay about the problem with today’s children, writes, “Think of the things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.”  Why?  Because children, who are born learning actively through play, at some point must be taught to learn passively:  Sitting at a desk and repeating what they are told.  Gatto describes this construct as “absurd.”  It is.  The next great leader cannot be made by segmenting his or her life into 45 minute periods during which thought is turned on and off by command.  The next great leader won’t be encouraged by having his or her ability to think critically graded on a smaller scale than his or her ability to repeat what a teacher wants to hear.  A leader, such as what this country desperately needs, certainly isn’t going to be born out of demanding school- and work-days that end in evenings spent with TV and Twitter, and barely any time left for reflection.  What do such things produce?  Not thinkers:  Consumers.

To produce a nation of thinkers, a nation of dissenters and debaters, priorities need to shift.  Each individual needs to make the decision to turn off the TV, if need be.  And parents, knowing that schools cannot be depended on to encourage active thought, need to take their child’s future into their own hands.  How?  Treating reading and writing like another aspect of life instead of a luxury, for a start.  Kurt Vonnegut, the renowned author, said, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.”  By fostering reading and writing skills we not only provide the solitude and silence necessary to spark thought, but also the fuel necessary to feed it.  In order to utilize space for reading and writing in our lives, we also need to give up the idea that such space doesn’t already exist.  Anzaldua confronts that idea that we need to make room for writing brashly, “Forget the room of one’s own- write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom.  Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking.  I write while sitting on the john.”  Neither can we hold our breaths until the right time to read, write, and speak presents itself.  We have to make the best of the time we have right now.  This is the right moment to stop listening to fear, to stop accepting passivity, and to do what we can to exercise our minds and right to speak.  We can inform our society rather than be victims of it, if we lift the gags from our mouths.  We must.

Free Advice Friday: how not to suck at writing

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I mostly learned it through sucking and then trying desperately not to.

  1. Write Things Down.  I know, right?  Writers should write things.  But here’s the thing:  Sometimes you spend hours agonizing over a character’s motivation.  Or thinking about what season the story takes place in.  Or wondering what will end up happening to this or that guy.  Or thinking about where you want the story to go.  And you need to use the toilet, or make yourself a sandwich, or move on with the day.  You think, “oh, I’ll remember.”  NO YOU WON’T.  Write it down.  The best writers leave behind notebooks, sometimes banker’s boxes, sometimes MULTIPLE banker’s boxes full of their notes to themselves.  You wouldn’t believe how quickly even a monumental plot decision leaves your head when you stop writing and start living your daily life.
  2. Write Daily.  Do not write when the muse strikes you, because the muse is a fickle wench who will run you on a bender for weeks and then leave you high and dry twenty pages from finishing your novel.  Write daily.  Even if it’s just opening the document and tweaking a few words here and there and patting yourself on the back for not completely sucking, write daily.  If you don’t, you will grow away from your story.  Every day our lives change us, even our brain chemistry changes by fractions.  We continue to evolve.  If we don’t write, we evolve away from our own words.  Trust me, I know.  Shelve your writing for a few months, come back to it, and you won’t pick up where the last sentence left off.  You’ll stare at the horrid thing wondering what self-congratulating hatchet man wrote that inane drivel and then you’ll want to drink until you forget that it was you.  Trust me.  And it’s not just that- details like people’s eye color, what kind of sweater they were wearing, what they were going to say next, how you wanted the story to end, they will all leave you faster than the proverbial Hollywood film producer upgrading to a fresher model of trophy wife.  Write daily, or write crap.  BELIEVE ME.
  3. Read.  Read good things and read bad things, but read.  The best writers are also ferocious readers.  Why?  Because when we read we learn what we do and don’t love about writing.  We, as writers, can take that and improve our own writing by knowing what is good and what isn’t.  You know that one writer whose settings always draw you in?  That author whose quirky characters always steal your heart?  That wordsmith who smacks you down with the opening paragraph and drags you kicking and screaming to the gruesome climax every time?  Don’t you want to be that guy?  I know, I know, stealing other author’s ideas is plagiarism.  But stealing their methodology isn’t, and by reading you can start to internalize those things you love most and recognize writing that you hate.  You’ll start to think, “are my characters as endearing as Rowlings?  Are my settings as breathtaking as Dickens’s?  Is my pacing as nervewracking as King’s?”  Whether you realize it or don’t, you are learning to teach yourself to write by reading.
  4. Know your characters.  Have you ever read a book where the entire time you just couldn’t make yourself like the characters?  Where they felt hollow and unpredictable?  Where they read almost more like caricatures or stereotypes than three-dimensional people with wants and needs?  Yeah, don’t write crap like that, enough other writers already do.  Before you start writing, and as you write, ask yourself a lot of why questions.  Why would he say that?  Why would he wear that?  Why would he want that?  Why would he do that?  Also, ask yourself a lot of “hows” and “whens”.  And (point one) WRITE IT DOWN.  Don’t be afraid to go through, line by line, and ask yourself, “why?  how?  when?” realizing that as you get more familiar with the process of thinking about your characters, it will become more and more second nature.  There will come a point in writing when the words just leak out of you (in an overflowing pitcher sort of way, not an incontinent bowels sort of way) and you won’t have to think and think and think.  Although there will still be times, even several novels in, where you still do have to sit there and write pages and pages about your characters in a notebook somewhere just to say “hi” and get to know them.  Think of it as a shortcut to saving a lot of time later, when you’d have to spend months editing a manuscript just to fix problems that could’ve been avoided by asking yourself important questions before writing the story.
  5. Write about the human condition.  Whether you’re a farmer in the midwest or a banker on Wall Street or a hunter-gatherer in the bush of Southern Africa, you want the same basic things as the rest of us.  You want a safe place to sleep.  You want to be loved by someone.  You want a good meal.  You want to feel like the work you do with your hands pays off.  You want to leave a good inheritance for the next generation.  You want to experience beauty.  That is what makes you human.  If you want your story to instantly speak to anyone who would ever pick it up, write about those things.  The best stories are the stories where the protagonist just wants a decent cup of tea.  Or, just wants to curl up with her boyfriend but an apocalypse keeps happening.  Maybe he’s a servant who can’t seem to even wash the dishes right, but once the adventure starts you think, “maybe he’s going to save the world.”  Even if the plot line is nearly unbelievable, if your story has those elements people will put themselves in it.  They’ll commit.  And if the payoff is good enough, they’ll be loyal to you as a writer, because they’ll feel like in some small way you wrote about them.  And you did, because you wrote about all of us.
  6. Torment your audience, at least a little.  If your protagonist just wants a good cup of tea, make sure he doesn’t get one until the end of the story.  If she just wants to smooch with her honey make sure a really good apocalypse interrupts them.  If he just wants someone to appreciate him, make sure the person he wants that appreciation from the most doesn’t look twice at him and he has to prove himself over, and over, and over.  Believe me, no one wants to read the story that goes like this:  “Susy never had any good luck in her life ever.  But when she woke up that morning, she made the best pot of coffee.  Her bacon was just crispy enough without being burnt or soggy, and for once the pancakes didn’t have any lumps.  On her way to work she met the cutest guy and gave him her number.  Her boss didn’t yell at her once, and then as she was leaving the cute guy called and they met for drinks.  They hit it off and eloped and then made sweet, passionate, just-kinky-enough love.  The end.”  YAWN.  NO.  Make sure Susy burns her toast.  She is too shy to give the guy her number.  Her boss is a major suckwad.  She’s miserable.  She hopes to see the guy at the bar but she doesn’t, but THEN…  You get the point.  People want to see their characters tested because it gives them something to hope for.  Maybe, just maybe, things will work out for Susy.  (And if they work out for Susy, there’s hope for all of us.)  Ah, that’s better.
  7. Torment your audience maybe a lot.  People say things like, “don’t kill off your most sympathetic character or the audience will hate you.”  Then authors like JK Rowling and George RR Martin have a good laugh, because isn’t that how the game is played?  Sometimes there is nothing better than holding your breath while you’re reading, starting to feel that sense of dread, your pulse banging in your ears, thinking, “oh man oh man oh man…” and then, WHEW, the protagonist dodges a bullet.  You put the book down and you think, “woah.”  And then you fall in love with the author and read the rest.  Or, once in a blue moon, the character dies gruesomely, and you throw the book across the room and cuss and cry and swear you’ll never read another word by that author, and you start to pen them a horrid note and then change your mind and read the rest of the book and adore them.  (I’m not the only one who does this, right?)  Because you realize that they were writing about life, and sometimes life takes a turn.  Sometimes it’s brutal and short and mean and the good ones die.  Sometimes by dealing with death we see people to be who they truly are.  Imagine if Harry Potter’s parents had lived; or, if certain other characters had survived in other books.  Would it have been the same tale?  Would Harry have risen up to be the man he was by the turn of the final page?  What if a certain beheading didn’t happen in A Game of Thrones?  Doesn’t the torment the characters experience refine them like coal into diamonds?  So don’t be afraid to torment your audience, because each time a reader feels their pulse change and their throat catch they feel their whole body commit to a story, and that’s good for everyone.
  8. Picture the whole story in your head.  Some writers talk about being inspired by a few scenes, images, or quirks of characters.  (William Goldman and NK Jemisin come to mind.)  That has led to some amazing tales, but don’t think for a moment that when William Goldman first dreamed up the Princess Bride he didn’t sit down and write the sword fight and pirate tale that he first envisioned and then magically end up with that classic novel.  No, he had to work out the story to give those few scenes breadth and depth and meaning.  So if you have a conversation in your head, or one quirk about a character, or a few disconnected images, don’t imagine that by writing them down you will suddenly find your muse and become the next great novelist.  Work your story out.  Picture the whole thing.  If you have to, be like Kurt Vonnegut and get a roll of paper and map the entire thing from start to finish in crayon.  Think about things like pacing and how stories have rolled out as you’ve read them, and make deliberate choices about where you will take your reader and why.  You know this muse that writers long for?  You’ve got to woo her, and you’ve got to pay your dues.  To put the figurative ring on her finger and take her home, you’ve got to know her story.  Unlike the floozies you may find at the bar in the bottom of a bottle (you know the ones, the ones you would NEVER tell your parents about) she’s not going to give it up the first time you sit down at the keyboard.  Work for it.

There’s more advice, of course, but this is the basic stuff.  The big stuff.  The game changing stuff.  The stuff I banged my head against for years and years.  It all boils down to the same thing- don’t expect the writing process to be magic.  It’s called a process for a reason.  It takes a journey to get to a good story, even a short one.  Even a good paragraph means thought, planning, and work.

So work it.

 

Shifting Perspectives

Editing Honest Conversation is like going to a high school reunion.  Everyone is older, and just different enough that it takes a moment to recognize them.  “Hey, didn’t you used to…?”  But then the night wears on and like flipping a switch suddenly you realize that under the extra twenty pounds and new career somewhere in there is the same person, the same likes and fears, the same old problems.  It’s amazing how much time changes, and how much never seems to change with time.

I’ve decided to shift perspectives.  Not in the sense that I’m changing the purpose of the story or why I wrote it, but in that I’m trying to dig way deeper and write a story that is less linear in it’s execution.  Less, shall we say, pointed.  As I was editing the hard copy I kept writing in the margins “What is John thinking?  Why isn’t he ever really allowed to TALK?”

And then I realized something; you see, when I first wrote the story I was Zoe.  I didn’t really care what anyone else had to say because I was furious and disappointed that no one was really listening to me.  I wrote the story from first person to really go into what Zoe was thinking and feeling, and at the same time that choice blocked out all other voices.  John and Zoe would be having a conversation and it was almost completely one sided.  If I’d cared to, I could have shown Zoe wanting to understand her friend and pastor more, but at the time I was on a tear.  I only had one thing, one goal, that I was reaching towards.

This time around I really want to showcase all points of view.  The television show Law and Order, every so many seasons, has an episode where you see everyone’s perspectives but the truth behind the story can be almost impossible to understand, and when the credits roll you as a viewer have to decide how you feel about the final verdict.  This time around I want Honest Conversation to be like that.  I want people to identify with all of the characters, even the ones I happen to disagree with.  I want people to feel safe putting themselves in the story and asking, “in this tale, who would I be?”  It’s less about getting people into my head, this time, and more about getting into theirs.

So, after already having done a tremendous amount of editing, I changed my mind about some things.  I started over, going line by line.  Shifting the perspective from first to third person.  Filling in the other side of the conversation, showing the other characters, their little tics and foibles, their thoughts and fears.  Letting the reader decide who they identify with, and why.

It’s a process that has literally exploded the story, sometimes adding five pages to one page of original text.  But it is oh so worth it.  Let me show you with this section from the original:

John walked in and smiled at me.  I smiled back and motioned to the empty and sat down, immediately opening his briefcase and smacking his Bible down on the table between us.  “You didn’t bring yours?”

“I know well enough to bring a gun to a gunfight,” I replied.  “It’s in my purse.”

Compare that to this passage, from the revision:

Something caught the corner of Zoe’s eye, and she saw John walking around the corner with a leather satchel over his hunched shoulders.  A bright yellow umbrella contrasted with his dark blue trench coat. His hair was mussed and there was a distracted look on his face. If Abigail had been there she would have sent him to the bathroom to straighten up with a single glance. The door jingled as John walked in and he glanced around, looking past Zoe twice before he saw her. Zoe smiled weakly, gesturing at the empty seat in front of her. She was sitting at one of the larger tables, her pen and notebook already open to a page full of grim doodles. John walked over and left his satchel on the seat, shrugging his way out of his coat and propping the yellow umbrella precariously up against a table leg. “Let me go order something,” he said.

“Sure,” Zoe replied, her mouth already halfway buried in another long sip. A moment later John returned to the table, rummaging around to lay out his own notebook as well as his Bible.

“Where’s yours?” John asked, his fingers stroking the battered blue cover of his own Bible, so used to wear that the once silver lettering had faded to a shadow. 

“It’s in my purse,” Zoe replied. “I know well enough to always bring a gun to a gunfight.”

The difference ends up being not only in other characters having a voice, but also in showing Zoe in more of a fair light.  You get to see her confusion, her distraction, and even her pain more wholly.  I hope that at the end of the day that change makes her a more sympathetic character for the readers who thought she was close to unhinged the first time around.  Hopefully it makes the story more engaging as well, since the reader can get more of a feeling for the setting by experiencing it through more than one biased voice.

In any case, I’m loving the process, but also having to accept the fact that it may take far longer than I’d once envisioned.  My month of revisions may end up being six months or more.

But it will be oh so worth it!