Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dressing the Room

Let's say you've got a lovely thing. A stamped concrete patio, perhaps, or a hand knit afghan, or a wall painted with an attractive faux finish. It looks nice all by itself, but maybe it could be better. Maybe it's even lovelier if it's got a border around it in a complimentary color. And maybe the whole takes on layers of added interest when that same color is repeated in a simple pattern across the piece.

I've got this book. I've been "almost finished" with Seek Ye First for months. All I had left were the Tying it All Together and In Which All Is Revealed bits. The hardest bits (surprisingly, since I knew all that I needed to reveal and tie together). Work was proceeding at a glacial pace. This week I worked hard, very hard, and FINISHED the doggone thing.

I'll pause for your wild cheers.

And now it's revisions time. I'm looking forward to de-adverbing and getting rid of passive tense and other awkward constructions. I'm looking forward to adding tension and cleaning up language. I'm really looking forward to rereading to see if it's any good.

But first I have a decision to make, about the frame, the border, the pattern. Seek Ye First involves a group of friends, some of whom are geeks, as they run around town on a scavenger hunt. One of the friends is a computer game designer, and her game is referenced throughout the novel as a significant part of the story, providing a potential motive for a crime.

Before the first chapter, after the last chapter, and between chapters throughout the book are insets from within the game. I originally envisioned these as fantasies, role-playing by two pseudo-anonymous characters from the main story arc. Two characters flirting and coming together within the game as a prelude to doing so in real life: modern geek love.

But after talking to agents about the book, I'm wondering if I shouldn't take these insets in a different direction. Instead of using the gaming scenes as escapism from the plot, maybe they should fuel the main plot. Maybe the suspense of the mystery should carry over into the game world, heightening the tension rather than serving as an escape from it.

The agents to whom I pitched the story liked the idea of the mystery bleeding over into the game. But the early readers who workshopped the first 8000 words or so of the novel loved the escapism bits as they were originally written. Neither group has the whole picture.

I just don't know. I've been trying to decide for months. And it's not like you can tell me; you haven't read the thing!

This is one of the hardest parts of writing, for me. This could happen, or this could happen, or this. But at some point, I have to choose a direction, go with it, and quit second-guessing.

(A friend who read the early chapters as they were first written concurs with the agents: add tension, not release with the insets. So that's the direction I'm headed as I revise. We'll see how it goes!)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I'm Adverb Happy

I'm a writer. So of course I think about language. I think about it a lot. I have my little quirks and idiosyncrasies, little stylistic flourishes that I like to (over)use. I think about how to say it, not just what to say. Or, at least I do that sometimes.

With all this daily blogging, I also get a little lazy. And not just in my blogging. I get focused on story, on what I want to say, and don't always pay quite enough attention to exactly how I'm saying it. I might agonize over a word or a phrase here and there, but probably not every word, every phrase, or even every sentence.

I met with a new critique group for the first time, today, and it was a humbling experience. I am most definitely the junior member of the group, in terms of age, experience, and publication history.

They liked my story, which is a good thing, and had some very nice things to say about my dialogue, descriptions, and ending. But they really smacked me on my weak spots: adverbs, unnecessary words, passive constructions, overlong sentences, "was," "that," and so on. The sorts of things that get manuscripts rejected for being, "not quite polished enough." (See above. And below.)

I know better, I really do. And not all of my sentences are bad. But the really bad part is that even knowing what needs to be fixed, I have a hard time seeing incidences of the mistakes I know I'm prone to making until someone points them out to me. This makes revision a challenge. I write very much by ear, by what "sounds right" to me.

I hope that someday I manage to break my bad writing habits. I hope that I can develop a style that "sounds right" to my ear without losing what makes my voice . . . my voice.

It's not all bad news for me. At least this story wasn't cluttered with cliches. I can learn! And I was pleased that I was able to listen to all the criticism and take a lot of it to heart without feeling hurt or defensive, or letting the "constructive comments" completely bury the praise.

I didn't accept all of the suggestions - like the ones that involved ditching my main characters and making a minor character into a pedophile; that's just not the story I'm writing - but I saw the wisdom in all of them, I saw the reason why the reviewers were making the suggestions they made, even if I didn't agree with the way they suggested I solve the underlying problems.

(Now isn't that a fabulous sentence.)

I have a lot to improve. But I feel motivated, not defeated. I know that I will get to a place where I'm more practiced at storytelling, so that parts of this work come more easily and naturally, allowing me to focus more closely on finesse. (easily, naturally, closely)

On that note, I'll head off to bed. But not hurriedly.


For the past few years I've led an adult Sunday School class. We're a pretty informal, discussion-based group for the most part. And I started slowly, adopting some books a previous leader had chosen and doing a minimal amount of preparation for each class. The amount of effort I put into the endeavor has increased over time.

This year has been very different from all previous years. I chose a very different type of curriculum and have been leading a very different - and significantly larger - class. Even the subject matter has been different. In the past, we've discussed Power, Money, Community, Prayer, Mystery, and Love. This year, we're working on our marriages. The class has always involved sharing of personal stories and experiences but this is a whole new level of intimacy.

I mean that in a very non-Victoria's Secret kind of way.

Last summer I began to participate with the PC(USA) blog, and a lot of my work there has been administrative. I check the ring surf queue for new member applicants, add them to the blog roll, and write little welcome posts. I help with the schedule and filling in where needed.

Today, I've written a Lenten Devotion. It is, after all, Holy Week for those of us celebrating a western-style Easter. (I intend to celebrate a very Western-style Easter this year.)

Anyway, I don't usually mind doubling up on posts, but I've got another writing deadline tomorrow and since today I was there, I cannot be here. And talking about that here is yet another new level of intimacy!

Until tomorrow, then.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Card, Moralizing, and Retconning

I disagree passionately with Orson Scott Card on politics, and his religion makes me really uncomfortable (feel free to Google away).

But I love a good story, and there's no denying that Card is a great story teller. I've also heard that he's a fabulous teacher of writing, which I also appreciate.

Unfortunately, I disagree that all of his stories are great, or even good. I loved ENDER'S GAME as a child and still later when I was older. I also lost myself in SONGMASTER, WYRMS, and other stories. I've read a lot of Orson Scott Card's work, and I hope to read more.

I am not a purist who thinks Card should never have dipped into Ender's world again after the first novel; I really enjoyed XENOCIDE and the Shadow series.

But as the original Ender series progressed, I felt that the novels increasingly were little bits of story disrupted my long sermons (CHILDREN OF THE MIND). And ENDER IN EXILE was definitely more of the same.

More simply, what he said. Or even these folks.

Card writes an interesting Afterward to ENDER IN EXILE, addressing discrepancies between various stories set in Ender's universe (including between the new novel and ENDER'S GAME itself, whose timelines overlap) but I am not a scholar of The "Enderverse," nor have I reread any of its novels recently. I was, however, annoyed by discrepancies within Exile itself, like the one in which readers get a long explanation of the procedure by which starship crew members can join the colonies of any world to which they travel, then a few chapters later we are treated to two attempts to create just the system we have been told already exists!

Several things are explained repeatedly. Though I get that we Americans are lazy and like to be told things very, very clearly, I still got a little bored with the repetition.

But I've written a few . . . let's call them novel-length manuscripts for now; I know that these things happen and am much more sympathetic than I used to be. As a reader, repetition and minor inconsistencies don't make me close the cover.

What bothers me more are the lengthy sermons when nothing's really happening: not plot development, not significant character development (we know many of these characters and have been taught that they do not change. we are who we are from birth or even before, since we are - basically - our biological parents!).

I get that the Wiggins family are very very smart. I just wish there were some way to show us this without spending paragraph after paragraph explaining exactly why they said each thing they said, what factored into their decisions, how they expected to be heard, predicted a response, and . . . so forth and so on. That really tends to slow down a scene.

I also get that Card himself is smart - and knows it. For example, check out this blurb he wrote for Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, which reads as much like a praise of Card as of Sanderson. "It's rare for a fiction writer to have much understanding of how leadership works and how love really takes root in the human heart. Sanderson is astonishingly wise." (Note: I enjoy Sanderson's blog/essays as well as his fiction, and appreciate the way he insists on putting story first, rather than moralizing/teaching.)

I was going to say something next about all the heavy-handed moralizing in ENDER IN EXILE, but if I do that I'll never finish this post. Instead I recommend the 1-star reviews on (linked above) for the interested. (OK, one example. In a conversation with his assistant, a biologist says, "Monogamy has been proven, over and over, to be the optimum social arrangement." P. 104. There's a lot of that.)

And then there's the thing with idealizing children. Children can be excellent at seeing through people. I was much better at that as a child than I am now, and I still remember the power of that feeling, and my frustration that others didn't seem to see what was - to me - obvious. But children are not built like adults; their brains are still developing. Particularly the frontal lobe and all that nifty executive processing stuff. One effect of this is the way that children tend NOT to think as many steps into the future, tend not to consider all the possible ramifications of their actions, tend to react frequently. But not Card's kids.

Card's kids spend pages and pages and pages anticipating any possible results from their conceived actions. An ordinary (read: not "Battle School material") girl walking up a gangway might take a couple of pages of thinking to come to some conclusions that readers reached, oh, several chapters ago. So I'm reading along as fast as I can, considering pulling out my eyelashes as I go in order to distract myself until something new happens.

Children can be smarter than adults, and it's often a great benefit for them to be so in young adult fiction. Or whenever they're main characters. But there's a line beyond which I don't buy it. Adults can be dismissive and blind. Kids can be insightful. But kids rarely sound like little philosophers. Scenes like those I describe above take me out of the story and make me feel like I'm hearing the author's voice, not the character's.

And there's also the early marriage/sex thing. Looking over his body of work, Card definitely seems to like to get his characters together very early. Have you read the Homecoming books? Two main characters, the most idealized couple, Luet and Nafai, are 13 and 14 when they agree to marry, if I recall correctly. (The guy is almost always older.)

After they marry, characters tend to become immediately happy and surprisingly mature, which is lovely but hard to believe. (As I've frequently remarked, this sort of thinking - that marriage and/or sex is something of a panacea - is one of my least favorite things about lots of romance novels.)

I think of adolescence as a time when kids are growing up, separating from their parents and figuring out who they are apart from their families, crystallizing into the adults they'll become. But are not yet. I know that I'm not alone in thinking this way. I've been a teenager, I've known lots of teenagers, sure. But I've also read some biology, psychology, and child development books. I've also seen the statistics for the survival of teen marriages and the health of babies born to teen mothers.

I think adult writing about kids is best when kids are reflected honestly and well - without infantilizing or condescending to them, but without making the children themselves unnaturally aware of their own development. And, most of all, when SHOWING the reader all of this, rather than TELLING us.

Given Card's predilection for marrying off his fictional creations so early, it's not a huge stretch to suppose that one of his teenage characters - happily married and pregnant a few months after saying the following - was speaking for Card when she said:
"Back on Earth, people married later and later. And had sex earlier and earlier. It was wrong to divide them, I know, but who can say which direction was wrong? Maybe the biology of our bodies is wiser than all the reasons for waiting to marry. Maybe our bodies want to raise children when we're still young enough to keep up with them." (P. 211)
I am so glad I didn't marry the guy I was dating at 14. The idea makes me a little sick to my stomach. For that matter, I'm glad I didn't marry the guy I was dating at 19. I am not unintelligent. I have great parents, a very supportive family of origin. But I was still not fully mature and ready to make life partnership decisions as a teenager! Moreover, I was not ready to be a parent. Shockingly enough, at an ancient 34, I am still able to keep up with my children. Again, I'm hardly unique.

The role of women is another interesting thing. There are self-sacrificing male characters, to be sure. And a few women who are successful soldiers. But MOST of the characters are male, including most of the military and civilian leadership, most of the soldiers, most of the students at Battle School.

And women . . . sacrifice a lot. Ender's sister, Valentine, decided as a young teenager to leave her entire life behind and follow her little brother, supporting him in his travels. In teenage Ender's words, "Valentine is a paragon of selflessness and love." (P. 302)

Or they're Eves, succumbing to temptation and leading others to do likewise, like Afraima the non-brilliant Jewish exobiologist with designs on her brilliant boss on planet Shakespeare. Or like Virlomi, the Battle School graduate who returned to India and became a great leader of her people . . . until she began to think herself a goddess and got a lot of them massacred. Sometimes women are both self-sacrificing and temptresses, in turns. In suggesting an affair with her boss, the biologist says:
"Don't be stupid. As soon as I'm having babies, I'll get fat and unattractive and way too busy to come here to help. Child production is everything, right?" (P. 105)
Women do need to marry and have babies, and probably give up their careers to raise the children. (And not just on colony worlds with too few women, like Shakespeare.)


Card's a great storyteller. But I prefer it when he sticks to the stories, rather than the moralizing and sermonizing. And I'll always be uncomfortable with the roles of women (and marriage) in many of his stories, especially in the Ender universe.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Family Entertainment Out of the Box

Ada's a wreck until she gets her morning coffee:

She sure woke up for the CIRCUS, though. Predictably, both girls' favorite parts were when - after buying rather decent admissions tickets - we paid $40 for a 45 second elephant ride followed by a 1 minute pony ride. Ridiculously over-priced for such short rides, but totally worthwhile in the end. Here we are on the elephant: Mommy, Ada, and Ellie clinging to a random Sith warrior and her daughter.

And here are the ponies:

This week we also spent some time NOT in a box and as Paper Bag Princesses.

It was a good week.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Debs - Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club

Welcome to Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club, April edition. This month, I want to talk about THE DEBS by Susan McBride.

Technically, Susan McBride isn't a new author. Actually, she's the author of the successful Debutante Dropout mysteries (which I enjoyed). But THE DEBS is her first Young Adult novel, so it's a change of direction and I was interested to see how it turned out. McBride is also launching a new "women's fiction" series next year called The Cougar Club, about 40-something women dating younger men. I'm anxiously awaiting that one, too, because McBride is a (barely) 40-something woman married to a (slightly) younger man . . . who just happens to be a guy with whom I went to college and played hockey.

I have met Susan. We're BFFs, so I can use her first name like that. (Not really. I've met her, like, twice. But she's really really nice and has this way of making you feel like you really ARE her friend, even if you just met her in a crowded public place.) So I want her to succeed. But I wasn't sure what to expect from The Debs . . .

And I was even less sure when I started reading. The brand names were dropping so thick and fast, I couldn't find the story. Oh, wait, there it is. Holy cow, what's up with this girl?! She's our first main POV character and she's blowing off her friends to go have sex with a guy who all her friends know is a complete jerk who treats her terribly. Niiiice.

I had a hard time relating to the extreme wealth and privilege of the characters. All of the characters, especially with the current world economic situation. And I had a hard time relating to their big dramas and problems, too. I really wasn't connecting to the story.

Or so I thought. And then I realized that I'd finished the book in one sitting. And I was looking around for the next one, LOVE, LIES AND TEXAS DIPS, which I know doesn't come out until June. For the next several days, I kept drifting back to the characters in my mind and thinking about their situations, their challenges, their goals.

The girls had become real to me, and the guys had too. I have a theory about what's really going on with Avery, but I'm still trying to figure out Dillon's story. Even The Debs themselves grew on me. And I have hopes that college will help them figure out their priorities . . . especially Mac (the brain) and Ginger (the environmentalist) who I found most sympathetic.

Though I also found myself caring about Laura (the one who ditched her friends for a guy). And even "The Queen of Mean, Jo Lynn [who] is so easy to hate" (according to one review). I thought Jo Lynn was going to be a textbook Mean Girl, but she isn't. She's mean, yes, but she's sympathetic, too. And it's not like Laura, Mac, and Ginger are perfectly nice. They call Jo Lynn and her friends The Bimbo Squad.

I think my favorite thing about THE DEBS was how real the characters seemed. The boys' behavior was completely mysterious and confusing to the girls, and not easily deciphered by readers, either. The girls themselves were a mixture of child and woman, sometimes seeming so young and sometimes seeming far too old. In short, they were teenagers.

They were all older and more sophisticated than I was at that age, for sure. But given their lifestyles, I found that completely realistic. I saw those kids from afar, when I was in high school. They didn't go to my school, necessarily, and we didn't often attend the same parties, but occasionally we'd cross paths at a golf tournament. Even public schools can have golf teams.

Shortly after finishing THE DEBS I read Orson Scott Card's new direct sequel to ENDER'S GAME, ENDER IN EXILE. After reading that, I was even more impressed with Susan McBride's grasp of teenage life.

McBride's teenagers aren't stupid. They're intelligent and passionate. But they're not all philosophers, either. They're not exactly the same as they were at 6 and will be at 60. They're kids. They have different interests and priorities than they had last year or they'll have next year. They make dumb choices and lack foresight. They care passionately about things. They're . . . interesting.

It depresses me that this is what t(w)eenage girls want to read, though. Brand-name dropping novels about ultra-rich, snobby, classist kids casually having sex, drinking, doing drugs, and being otherwise unpleasant.

It seems that this is what girls (and women) want to read, though, and McBride serves it up nicely. But she slips a little bit of perspective into the story throughout. She creates the world in which the characters live, and she doesn't ridicule it, but she neither does she condone it or its excesses.

Well done, deftly handled. Thanks for the fun read!