Monday, August 24, 2009

My Penpal, Sharon Shinn

Here's another installment of "My Penpal," this time featuring Sharon Shinn, author of Mystic and Rider:

My email to her:

Dear Ms. Shinn,

I was first introduced to your work when I stumbled across your Samaria series last year--I was interested because I was working on a story about angels and was curious about how you would handle the mythos which is so inherent in such a subject. I have recently read your Twelve Houses series as well and was surprised by how different the two series were: while I felt that the Samaria stories have an almost folktale-type quality (I'm guessing due in part to the length of time which the stories stretch over), the Twelve Houses stories are much more intimate in their characterization.

My question is this: as a writer, did you choose these different styles deliberately, or do you feel it was essentially an organice change? (I ask because I have been working on a fantasy novel for the past year, and one of the aspects I have found to be most difficult is the tone. My first instinct is a fairly intimate view of the characters and their world, but the scope of the story requires some occasional zooming-out which can be awkward to accomplish. In addition, too intimate of a tone
can undercut the message of the story, as well.) I know this is a broad question, but any advice you could give would be very much appreciated.

Sincerely,

Lindsay-with-an-A
Her (or her publicist's) response:

Hi, Lindsay:

Thanks for the note. You pose an interesting question, but I'm not sure how to answer it.

I do spend some time thinking about tone and voice. To a large extent, I think the tone comes from the personality of the main character(s) who are telling the story through their point of view. So, Gabriel is somewhat remote and controlled; Kirra is impetuous and emotional. Tamar is angry; Cammon is limitlessly curious. Tone and voice are even more critical when I'm telling a story in first person (which I don't do in any of the Samaria or Twelve Houses books, but I have done in other stories). At that point, unless the narrator has a distinctive personality, the first-person voice tends to fall rather flat.

These days I see most people advising aspiring authors to stick to one or two point of view narrators in a book... not to "head-hop," as I heard someone call it! If you DO have multiple narrators in a book (as I often do) separate them out by chapter, or at least have a line break to signal that you're going to switch to a different POV. This DOES create more intimate and character-driven story, as you say, which might make it harder for you to tell the "grand scope" part of your story. On the other hand, in my experience, what really sells readers on any book is the characters and how human beings react to their own individual situations, no matter how broad and sweeping the events going on around them. (Like, for instance, you could write a broad and sweeping story about the recent financial crisis and give statistics on how many people have lost their homes. But the story would be far more poignant if you followed one family's desperate attempt to keep their house. And from THAT story, readers could extrapolate the big events occurring.)

I'm not sure if this answer helps you at all! But my primary advice would be to develop compelling characters that seem REAL, even to you, and tell your story through them. If you have to create secondary or tertiary characters -- even the villains! -- to look at other parts of the story, do that, and give them their own chapters. And then have friends (who are also readers) read the pages and have them tell you where you think you've hit the mark and where you might need to do more work. If it helps at all, I ALWAYS have to do more work. :-)

Sharon
I love how easy the internet makes communicating with people I don't actually know!

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's Called Sublimity...

... and I'd suggest you look into it, Ms. Solnit, lest you think you're the first who thought of it.

For those of you who don't know, Rebecca Solnit is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell, which is described thusly in The New York Times:

"'What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?' Ms. Solnit asks. She describes it as 'an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,' worth studying because it provides 'an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility.' Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than 'a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.' Her overarching thesis can probably be boiled down to this sentence: 'The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure' — without disaster, that is — 'is the great contemporary task of being human.'"

(To give her her due, she seems to focus more on the heroism that rises in the face of disaster, but still. Some could argue that this heroism is in response to the feeling of sublimity, which was perhaps the biggest catchphrase of the Romantic era--what I mean is, the willingness to sacrifice oneself arises simply because one is swamped by the feeling of being tiny in a world so large. I'll stop here, however, because I haven't actually read the book.)

Review: The Servant, by James C. Hunter

The company I work for recently featured a guest speaker named James C. Hunter, author of The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership. It was not-so-subtly hinted that it would be good for the masses to read his book, as well, and I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy for free.

The story is fairly straightforward--the manager of a factory of some kind is having problems at work and at home and it is recommended that he attend a leadership seminar at--I shit you not--a monastary where it just happens that a formerly-wildly successful CEO is now living. The majority of the book takes place in the classes and features the discussions between the former-CEO (now renamed Brother Simeon, whom the main character, John, respects because the name "Simeon" is a recurring motif in his life and dreams).

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried, people.

Anyway, there are two different reviews possible for the book, given below.

What Corporate Lindsay-with-an-A will tell her boss and co-workers:

"Wow, I really loved Hunter's people-centric business model! Oh, and his definition of humility is so inspiring! If only everyone followed Hunter's advice, I really think the world would be a better place! Final rating: kick ass!"

What Literary Lindsay-with-an-A will tell her faithful readers:
"Is this book written for children? It's so condescending and patronizing in how obvious his point is. My God, Siddhartha was ten times better than this book and gave essentially the same message--I should probably go back and up the rating I gave Mr. Hesse just out of disgust at this one.

"Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if Hunter hadn't insisted on telling everything instead of showing it. 'I did this, and and I thought this,' rather than giving examples of what he did and thought. This should be read by every Creative Writing student ever as an excellent example of what not to do.

"Oh, and since when do monastaries give classes on leadership? Why couldn't he have learned life lessons and then applied them to leadership? Does Hunter really think his audience is this stupid? And the CEO of Nestle was willing to put his name on the front cover extolling its virtues? I'm feeling faintly ill. Final rating: Blech."
As far as I see it, there are only two options. Either Hunter really functions at the level at which he was writing, which is no fault of his own and is instead a story of perseverance and success over obstacles. If he actually functions at a much higher level, however, and dumbed his book down this much, then it really pisses me off.

"You lose. You get nothing. Good day, sir!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Killing Time Online: The Rumpus.net

Hey, folks, check out The Rumpus.net when you get a chance--it is, according to its blurb, "an online magazine focused on culture, as opposed to 'pop culture.' Pop culture can be hard to define and the term means different things to different people. Basically, we're not opposed to things that are popular, but we have no interest in 'art' created by marketing executives. And we have no interest in derivative art, like images of famous people made from shoelaces or Star Wars characters in funny wigs."

The articles are interesting enough to make me want to return soon to see what else might be posted, but even more interesting is the fact that they are willing to publish essays and articles by unknown writers. Most online magazines won't even accept submissions, while The Rumpus.net actually has several calls for them. Here is more information on the magazine if you're interested.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Defining Definitions: Guilty Pleasures

Oh. My. God. Check out this essay by Sonya Chung in which she writes, "I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos."

In what world does Edith Wharton count as a guilty pleasure? Palahniuk (I guess) I could see, if you're embarrassed about his politics or something like that. (I have a similar feeling towards Ayn Rand.) But Edith Wharton?

I guess I agree with this definition of "guilty pleasure" the most: "something that you enjoy that you think you shouldn't enjoy, either for personal reasons or because of the possibility of other's reactions." Edith Wharton doesn't qualify.

Previous Defining Definitions:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nice Girl (Poets) Finish First?

I have never claimed to be a poet; nor do I read poetry that was written in the last thirty years. Really, I rarely read poetry at all, finding the complete immersion of prose to be vastly superior to dipping into lines of metered rhythms. Therefore, I am not entirely sure why Courtney Queeney's piece over at Bookslut, "The Kings are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women's Poetry" speaks so clearly to me.
I think perhaps that Queeney's points about "niceness" in women's poetry is merely a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon that generally expects women to be quiet and nice--to pay special attention to things that are pleasant and kind.* She writes,

I started mulling over the idea of niceness in women's poetry after three different men -- from different generations, who knew me in different capacities -- read the manuscript of my first book and each responded with some variation of, I really like your poems, but they're not very nice. I can't imagine Eliot's editor telling him that The Waste Land was great, but it wasn't very nice -- niceness is, predominantly, a cultural expectation of women.

Queeney's right: The Waste Land isn't nice at all, but it speaks to some part of the population (which doesn't include me or most people I know), which is far more important than being pleasant. The same can be said for Syliva Plath:

The introduction to Plath's Great Poets pamphlet, penned by Margaret Drabble, inspired further ire for reducing Plath to a tragic victim and emphasizing the theme of motherhood in her poetry. Drabble's introduction does allude to both the head in the oven and lactation, but also characterizes Plath's poetry as "appalling… also exhilarating" and avers, "She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness." In case you didn't get it the first time: "She changed our world." I don't know about the women responding to the Guardian piece, but I certainly aspire to change the world; it seems an appropriately high bar for writers of whatever gender.

It is the very lack of niceness which has made Plath stand out from some of her sister poets, who Queeney argues tend to explore much "nicer" themes and are lauded for it:

I admire the work of many of the poets Burt cites, but then I come across his assessment of "Aqua Neon" by Ange Mlinko. According to Burt, this poem is worthy of praise because "Mlinko offers both a likable persona and a sense of place." Are we now evaluating poems based on the speaker's likability? It seems a poor consolation prize, poetry's version of winning Miss Congeniality. I was the Prom Queen; it was boring.

Perhaps this is why poetry has lost some of its punch--poets (most especially women poets) are no longer inciting strong emotions in their readers. Instead, they are trying to walk the line of making something warm and fuzzy and therefore palatable.
________________________________
*End note: I hate the term nice in all its uses, and I have for years. My roommates in college used to poke fun at me for this, but I have very valid reasons for my hatred of the term: "nice" is a filler, a meaningless four letters that we use to describe something or someone who isn't noteworthy enough to deserve anything else. If I ask you to describe a person and you say, "Oh, he's nice," I automatically assume that he is also generally humorless, boring, and forgettable.

Consider using these terms in place of the word "nice," which I propose should be stricken from our language: kind, generous, friendly, gentle, compassionate, supportive, etc. "Nice" could be (and has been) used in the same context as all of these words because it is so vague as to mean absolutely nothing. Never describe me as nice, or you will see how very un-nice I can be.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Film and Literature in The Onion

Did any of you see the Onion article about the film adaptation of the The Brothers Karamazov? Speaking as someone who has never even bothered to attempt to read any of the Russian novels, intimidated as I am by the sheer volume of pages, it's eff-ing hilarious.
"'I've been picking up and putting down The Brothers Karamazov since college, so this was a dream project for me,' [director] Caruso said. 'I can still remember the first time I ever tried to read it. The obscure, often archaic prose, the overwhelming cast of characters, the frustration of reading 10 whole pages and then realizing that I didn't understand a thing—it all had such a profound effect on me.'"
Brilliant!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

I recently picked up the The Twelve Houses series by Sharon Shinn mostly because I was drawn to the cover art of The Thirteenth House, the second book of the series. This, of course, is a terrible reason to choose a book, but there you are. I had already read Shinn's Samaria series, which I enjoyed for the most part with some minor exceptions (such as the fact that, though the books are a "series," the Samaria stories do not overlap very much and have different casts of characters for each book).

The two series, however, share certain characteristics in that they could be classified as "fantasy romance," which some bloggers seem to find unusual or noteworthy but I do not. (Of course, I grew up reading Anne McCaffrey, Melanie Rawn, and Robin McKinley, all of whom use looooove in their plots, so the fantasy genre is generally closely tied to amore of some kind.)

First up is Mystic and Rider, which introduces us not only to the main characters of the series but to the fairly complex political system which rules the world of Gillengaria. Though I was initially overwhelmed at the idea of keeping track of--egad--twelve houses, Shinn is fairly consistent at re-reminding us of the personalities of each house so that we aren't forced to create a character flowchart to follow the storyline. (I find it hard to believe that any family would have the simplistic behavior traits that Shinn employs here to explain hundreds of years of history, but it would be impossible for the reader to follow anything any more complex so I understand why Shinn did what she did here. I have the same opinion of J.K. Rowling's four houses of Hogwarts, so it may be a fantasy genre trope with which I should just learn to deal.)

The book follows six characters as they travel through the twelve houses of Gillengaria gathering information on the political atmospheres of each land at the order of their king. While it took me a while to figure out which main character was which (Shinn throws all four main male characters at the reader at the same time which is, in my opinion, never a good idea), they eventually emerge as fairly complete characters who, while they may lean on stereotypes a bit, are not overtly cliche, though the women are in general better-written than the men.

Up first is Senneth, the Mystic who controls fire and whose past is slowly revealed throughout the novel to make her more and more sympathetic of a character. Her love interest (indicated by the title, so I'm not giving anything away here) is Tayse, a King's Rider who distrusts (a) Mystics, and (b) those who haven't sworn fealty to any one person or ideal. These two prejudices provide most of the friction between our main characters as they travel.

While I could predict some of the major "eureka!" moments, there were several that took me pleasantly by surprise and I enjoyed most of the novel. I would give it a B+ and would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy the "fantasy romance" series.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Sanderson Series in the Works

Good news for those of you who are, like me, Brandon Sanderson fans: he's opened up about his next book, The Way of Kings:

It happens in a world where hurricane-like storms crash over the land every few days. All of plant life and animal life has had to evolve to deal with this. Plants, for instance, have shells they can withdraw into before a storm. Even trees pull in their leaves and branches. There is no soil, just endless fields of rock.

According to the mythology of the world, mankind used to live in The Tranquiline Halls. Heaven. Well, a group of evil spirits known as the Voidbringers assaulted and captured heaven, casting out God and men. Men took root on Roshar, the world of storms, but the Voidbringers chased them there, trying to push them off of Roshar and into Damnation.

The voidbringers came against man a hundred by a hundred times, trying to destroy them or push them away. To help them cope, the Almighty gave men powerful suits of armor and mystical weapons, known as Shardblades. Led by ten angelic Heralds and ten orders of knights known as Radiants, men resisted the Voidbringers ten thousand times, finally winning and finding peace.

Or so the legends say. Today, the only remnants of those supposed battles are the Shardblades, the possession of which makes a man nearly invincible on the battlefield. The entire world, essentially, is at war with itself--and has been for centuries since the Radiants turned against mankind. Kings strive to win more Shardblades, each secretly wishing to be the one who will finally unite all of mankind under a single throne.
None of this is really surprising to those of us who have already read anything by Sanderson, I'd guess, but I'm still really excited. The Stormlight Archive is a series of 10 books, which he plans to intersperse with single novels and smaller series, so we'll see what the next decade or so brings. (To be honest, 10 books seems like a bit much, but I'm prepared to reserve judgment until I actually read them.)

P.S. For a laugh, check out the fake reviews of The Way of Kings, the first book in the series, over at Amazon.
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