Daily Archives: August 9, 2010

What’s Most Important

Sometimes I lose stuff. Almost never but usually all the time. Like when someone says let’s meet at X and I say, Okay. Call me when you leave.

Then I put my phone down and get ready, get kids ready, then don’t know where phone is.

Where is phone? I search. Everywhere. Under clothes. Down in the bathroom. Where was I when I had it? And I can’t believe how much ground and mess I’ve covered since that phone call. It could be anywhere. And what if they’ve already called and it’s buried under my underwear I was folding when I made the plans? Or maybe it’s downstairs,  or maybe they haven’t called and it’s in a totally obvious spot? Are they already there? Should I just leave without the phone? But what if they haven’t even left yet? What if they’ve decided not to go? Where is my phone? Where is my phone?

This happens only like six times a day to me. I need a landline.

One time I was sick of losing my money. I was telling my roommates about this problem and then as a joke, stuck a wad of cash down my bra.

This is where I should keep it, I said.

Yeah, they said.

I was so funny back then.

So then I got busy and forgot the money was there and eventually ended up on campus. I was walking along when a boy I sort of knew but not all the way knew, came running up.

Ann Dee, I am so glad to see you. I have to print up an ad for my class in fifteen minutes and i forgot my wallet. Do you have any  money?

Sure, i said. Because I knew I had some cash.

But then I couldn’t find it. What? Where is that money.

Hang on, I was telling him.

I check my pockets. My bag. He’s saying oh please, please find it.

i’m getting that crazy feeling, the feeling I had just been discussing earlier and oh wait  . . . .

Oh. I say.

What? he says.

Nothing.

What? Do you have it?

No.

You don’t?

I mean yes.

Yes?

Yes.

I put my hand down my shirt and hand him a sweaty wad of dollar bills.

He looks at it. Looks at me. Looks back at it.

Thanks, he says.

No problem.

And that was the end (I did wonder if he’d ask me out after that but he didn’t)

This is a long long long way to say I have been searching for my BIRD BY BIRD book for about an hour. I finally found it but what is my problem? I’ve talked about this problem before, my meandering messy everywhere way of living both my real life and writing life. It makes everything so much more complicated: simple tasks turn into huge ordeals. What takes some organized, disciplined, all-together people five minutes, takes me three and a half hours. It’s aggravating.

But.

BIRD BY BIRD. Have you read it?

I have been struggling with my book I’m writing.  The writing process has felt bigger and scarier and whatiffier, I know that I’m going to have go back and rewrite rewrite rewrite maybe a thousand times and I haven’t been enjoying it. I keep thinking, is this worth it? What am I doing? Why is this so hard? There are so many other ways I could be spending my time.

Then I started reading BIRD BY BIRD.

Anne Lamott says,

But I still encourage anyone how feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Sometimes I go through life, particularly my writing life, letting small things get me down. I let things outside of writing, things that are on the periphery, rule my center. The thing is, the joy is in the writing. When you hit a scene, when you finally discover who a character is, when you realize that the first fifty pages are crap. Even that is exciting. because you’re getting somewhere. you’re becoming better at what you do. you’re making a story real. And true. And better. even if it is in the least efficient way possible.

I’m trying to relearn how to let myself go. To let my characters barge over my plot and put me in my place because I’m realizing that’s the only way to write it right. I need to have fun and let everything else go. Only then will I get back to the real reason why I write. Sweaty money in my bra.

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A Post Where I Actually Argue a Critique of THE CHOSEN ONE

I am not so vain to think that every person who picks up my books is going to love them. It just is not going to happen. I don’t love everything I read, why should anyone love everything they read?  However, I usually have good reasons for why I love or don’t love a book. As writers, we should know why a book works for us, why it doesn’t and we should know it on the writerly level. We should study both kinds of writing. This can only help us improve as novelists.

Sometimes Kyra will say to me, “Mom, you got a bad review.” And I will (quite valiantly) say, “We can’t please them all.”

That’s the truth of it. When we write, we put ourselves out there–our books out there–and if you have done the best you can in your novel, well, what more can you do, right? Not everyone will love your stories. If you write a book thinking someone (an editor, PW reviewer, blogger, uncle, church member or etc) is looking over your shoulder, you’ll have a partially true book that will need some real rewrites when you’re done. So write YOUR best book–the one in you and try to not let anyone peek at your novel until it’s published.

Sometimes, I DO take issue with a critique. Especially when a critiquer doesn’t understand how a novel SHOULD be written. There are specific things that should happen in a book. This is not a formula really–but we know, for example, we should introduce our main character in chapter one and that by the end of the book our character should change. We know fiction works in a certain way.

I’m going to quote a bit of a not-so-good review of THE CHOSEN ONE. And then I am going to tell you all why I think this critique of the book isn’t completely valid.

Disclaimer: First, I understand about having an opinion. We are all entitled to our opinions. And we can even share them. Which is what I’m doing. Sharing my opinion on someone else’s opinion.

Second, I understand reading a book and truly being bothered by it. That’s how I felt after reading LIVING DEAD GIRL. I was so moved, so disgusted that I knew I wouldn’t read that book again. That said, I felt LDG handled the topic of kidnapping and abuse in a way that I could have never done. The book made me feel uncomfortable. It broke my heart. Good books do that. Scott was successful because she absolutely moved me.

So here we go! (Quotes italicized)

This review of THE CHOSEN ONE on The Everyone Read It!! blog gives props to audio book reader Jenna Lamia. (BTW–on our trip to ALA we listened to Jenna’s reading of the novel and she was amazing. She’s won lots of prizes for her beautiful, beautiful work.) The reviewer feels like she would have enjoyed the paper book less had she not been listening to Jenna’s amazing read.

Here is the first quote I want to talk about: Williams’ portrayal of the compound felt realistic enough, though I was waiting for her to be even more critical of the systemic abuse against women, girls, and boys at the hands of the elders of such cults.

When I started writing this book, I knew I was going to have to develop a world that many wouldn’t understand. I was going to have to create a place that became real to the reader. Writers do this all the time. We see successful fantasy writers create worlds that a reader would recognize in a heartbeat.

Sense of place, scene development, both are important to good, strong writing. It is our duty to always create a real world for our readers.

The world I tried to create in TCO was a TRUE-ISH place that is completely foreign to the majority of the book’s readers, and the compound was the only home that Kyra Carlson had ever known. Ever.

Whenever you write anything, all you authors out there, it is imperative that your main character stays the kid you wrote him as and that he never becomes YOU (the person who wants a character to be even more critical of the systemic abuse). One of the reasons I wrote this novel was to explore why one girl would have the courage to run. If she had never seen anything– anything at all except her world–Kyra could only react to what she had seen. Her world was abuse cocooned in a loving family. She was used to it. It was all she knew. She could not criticize because she didn’t have the tools of criticism except what she learned in her environment.

Perhaps my personal views on women’s rights are too radical to align or compare to the author’s. I thought Kyra was an interesting, sympathetic character and I found it easy to root for her, but I felt myself waiting for Kyra to recognize how wronged she and her siblings had been by her family and community.

For me to put any of my own feelings about modern-day polygamy into the novel would have been a huge mistake. The book would have gone from Kyra’s story to my rant. And every smart reader would have noticed that. It was not MY job to be critical of what was going on in the compound. It was Kyra’s story of the slow awakening as to what was happening on the compound.

Would I love to go into every polygamist home, snatch up their little girls and take them away? Would I love to grab the females, let them see that there is another world out there where God isn’t as demanding? Would I love to take a bat to every pedophile in this (and every other) community? The answer to all these questions is yes.

But could Kyra do it? No. These weren’t her questions and concerns at all. It wasn’t her story.

I take issue with the author of this piece saying she has any idea what my personal views are on women’s rights. The truth is, my young adult novel wasn’t the place to discuss my beliefs. It was time to tell a story.

I felt myself waiting for Kyra to recognize how wronged she and her siblings had been by her family and community.

When we write, we must allow our characters to be who they are–and then they need to grow. But the character must grow in a way that is true to that character.

I think of Justine Larbalestier’s novel LIAR, a book we’ve mentioned on our blog before. Here we see a character we know from the beginning is unreliable. At the end of the book, we see the actions that the main character has already proven she can take in the beginning of the book coming to pass. While the story is a surprise, Larbalestier never steps out of the parameters she has set for her character.

We don’t want predictable characters for sure, but we do want believable characters. I’ve said be true to your characters plenty.

Yes, it would be terrific if someone (even Kyra) who lived in a community such as this realized everything that was wrong with the community, told everyone else, and then they all moved away leaving the controlling patriarchs to play amongst themselves. But that would have a been a boring book. It would have been predictable, and I daresay, people would have set the novel aside.

If this book had a sequel, Kyra would, eventually, see all that’s wrong with where she had grown up. It would take years, but she would see. Mostly, though, she would be haunted with the idea that she had done the wrong thing by leaving her family at all. She would be plagued by guilt. I know this is how people work from experience.

In real life we rarely get what we wish for. This is true in fiction, too.

Perhaps the author’s faith prevented her from railing against those forms of oppression that are common not just to polygamist cults but to Christian and Mormon churches in general.

Okay, this paragraph bothered me on many levels, but I will only address one. Fiction is not about the author but about the story. Always. As soon as the author starts letting her beliefs shape a story, it begins to ring false. In a book we should only see the world from our character’s point of view.

This reminds me of what a good friend of mine, Jim Jacobs (co-author of CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, BRIEFLY), says about  how he hates a novel that has a 12 year-old character thinking 40+-year-old thoughts. That isn’t a direct quote, but you get the gist.

Keep the author out of the book! Yes! I feel differently than my character! But this is her story!

I find it interesting that this writer thought it would be okay for me to rail against forms of oppression in a book for teens. Or any fiction for that matter. It’s my duty, I think, to tell a good story.

By the way, there are far more abusive polygamist marriages outside of Christianity than there are in it.

So, as writers, we have a number of balls to juggle:
sense of place
sense of story
telling a story from our character’s point of view and not our own
allowing our characters to develop naturally
being true to our characters AND
keeping ourselves out of the story

These pointers might help book reviewers, too.

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