Have Books, Will Read, Need Time

November 25, 2013

Recently, I’ve had the good luck to acquire a nice stack of new (or new-to-me) writing books.

Writing Books

They are …

Publishing E-books for Dummies by Ali Luke – This is fairly technical reading, but after checking it out from the library, I really wanted my own copy as a reference. I’m about halfway through and plan to use it as my Bible for formatting and publishing Rumpled.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide by Angela Ackerman – I bought this one because I wanted to bring an Amazon order up to $25 so I could get the free shipping. I read about this book in Writers Digest and put it on my wishlist long ago. It has an alphabetical listing of emotions, along with some common facial expressions, gestures, or other mannerisms that are outward signs of that emotion. It’s not the type of book one reads cover-to-cover, but I thought it might be useful when I feel there’s too much lip-biting or hand-wringing going on. I haven’t used it yet, though … now that I have it, I almost feel as though using it would be cheating. It’s probably a better tool for revision than rough-drafting, anyway.

The Creative Life: True Tales of Inspiration by Julia Cameron – Another one I read about in Writers Digest. I still haven’t even cracked The Artist’s Way, but I’ve got the follow-up ready to go for when I do!

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – There are not a ton of writing books out there that are genre-specific, and this is only the second one I’ve come across for sci-fi and fantasy. The other one I’ve read is How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by J.N. Williamson, and that was over 16 years ago when I was writing my first fantasy novel. I’ve written about my ambivalence toward Orson Scott Card, so I feel it behooves me to say that I got this book through Paperbackswap so OSC isn’t making any money from my acquiring it. And when I’m done, I’ll pass it on via PBS again.

Magazine Article Writing by Betsy Graham – My dad bought this for me at a secondhand shop and recently rediscovered it in his basement. It’s over 20 years old, but good writing advice never goes out of style. And as much as publishing has changed and expanded over the past 10 years or so, magazines themselves haven’t changed much — aside from developing robust online counterparts and/or folding altogether.

If and when I get around to reading these, I’ll be sure to post my reviews here. And now that I’ve shared them, it’s time to finally make room for them on my shelf!

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Orson Scott Card’s Plea for “Tolerance” is not Enough

November 11, 2013

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” – A.E. Wiggin

Warning: this post contains Ender’s Game spoilers; proceed with caution unless you’ve already read the book, seen the movie, or have no intention of doing either.

It’s a big scary world out there, Ender, full of aliens and homosexuals.

My husband and I went to Ender’s Game on Friday. I thought it was a beautiful movie, but I still left the theater feeling conflicted. I knew many people were boycotting the movie because of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia — which, as an attitude, could perhaps be forgiven, if he hadn’t also taken active steps to block GLTBQ people from enjoying full rights. It was later revealed that OSC won’t receive any money from box office sales, but many continued the protest on philosophical grounds. Others say to go ahead and see the movie if you want to, but just don’t buy OSC’s books. I have a fairly extensive collection of Orson Scott Card’s books, purchased back when I only knew him as a gifted storyteller and not as a homophobic bigot. Luckily, all my OSC books came to me through used book sales and Paperbackswap, so none of my money has made it back to him (and, by extension, into the anti-gay campaigns he supports).

I often don’t have to struggle with such cognitive dissonance about the entertainment I enjoy, because most creative types are pretty open minded people, especially writers of speculative fiction, where being able to imagine new and different worlds is a job requirement. But one thing that always frustrates me about “classic” science fiction (Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, etc.) is that, although these authors could imagine vastly different worlds in terms of politics and technology, they could not imagine gender roles that went beyond the norms of the time they were writing in, leaving their female characters empty and one-dimensional. Orson Scott Card frustrates me in the same way.

In response to the boycott, Orson Scott Card issued a statement in which he said Ender’s Game had nothing to do with “gay rights” (my paraphrase) because they were not an issue when the book was written in 1984 (head in the sand much?). But Ender’s Game, which is ultimately a story about tolerance, remorse, and forgiveness, has plenty to say about prejudice–and that includes homophobia.

Ender is a powerful leader because he understands his enemies to the point of “loving” them. This is what keeps him from becoming brutal, although his mission requires violence. His biggest frustration when faced with the Formics (the alien “invaders”) is that he has trouble understanding them. But eventually, he does — and when he does, he feels such remorse over the genocide he unknowingly committed that he devotes the rest of his life trying to make it right.

In case you missed this, Ender found a way to understand and love an alien species that looked, thought, and communicated nothing like him, and that had wiped out millions of his people. If Orson Scott Card can imagine this feat of understanding, why can’t he make the comparatively tiny leap toward understanding people who fall in love with others of the same sex? Anyone who has fallen in love is already 98% of the way there. If you understand love, if you understand the desire to live a life free from hatred and discrimination, if you understand the desire to follow your heart, there’s not really anything else you need to understand about being gay. And yet, Orson Scott Card apparently cannot make that leap; and he puts his money and his activism into pushing others back from making that leap, too. Is this what Ender would do?

As the series progresses, we see that Ender’s remorse over his role in the Formic genocide leads him to a deeper understanding of all life. In Speaker for the Dead, he makes it his work to find the seeds of good in even the most seemingly “evil” of people, so that after life they can retain some dignity and be remembered as human beings rather than “monsters.” Again, if Orson Scott Card can theoretically make the leap and see “good” in someone who beats his wife and children, why can he not make the same leap to see the “good” in people who are not of his politcal/moral/homophobic persuasion?

Many people speculate that OSC is a “closet case” who feels that the current social order is the only thing “saving” him from giving into his own secret gay desires. While I’m not going to use this blog to speculate on his sexual orientation, he hasn’t left issues of gender ambiguity completely alone in his work. In Children of the Mind, Ender’s adopted son Miro finds himself attracted to “Young Valentine,” who is a projection of Ender’s mind. That means that Young Valentine essentially has Ender’s soul; she is not a real woman, but a man’s imagining of a woman, retaining something that is ultimately male. Miro reflects on this — does it mean that, underneath it all, he’s really attracted to Ender? He can’t shake his feelings for Young Valentine, even after this contemplation. Is it just me, or are things getting a little queer in here?

While the characters in the Ender’s saga attempt a “live and let live” philosophy toward alien races, viruses, and other humans, Orson Scott Card agitated to prevent his fellow human beings from having equal rights and equal dignity. To his credit, he’s willing to “let the case rest” now that the Supreme Court has ruled that forbidding same-sex marriage is unconstitutional (even though, in the past, he’s called to “overthrow” any government that would let such a thing happen.) But how much of this is him “taking it like a man,” and how much of it is his fear over how his homophobia might affect his pocketbook? He’s pleaded for “tolerance” of his views from those on the other side, just as he’s decided to “tolerate” them by no longer fighting against same sex marriage.

Let’s return to Ender’s Game. Although I love the story’s message, there remains a bit that rubs me the wrong way. And that is how quickly, how easily, Ender is forgiven for wiping out an entire sentient species by that very species. While human beings commit genocide to retaliate for millions who died in a past war, the Formic Queen forgives genocide and allies herself with the one who committed it as soon as she understands the depth of his remorse. Now, it seems that Orson Scott Card wants a similarly quick “forgiveness turnaround” from the GLTBQ community. But there’s one important difference: Orson Scott Card has expressed no remorse for the spiritual violence his activism has committed on millions of GLTBQ people and those who love them; instead, he’s simply decided to “let it go.” This is not enough. We have been “tolerating” homophobes forever — when was the last time you heard of gay people committing “hate crimes” against the people who spread hatred toward them? Despite fear rhetoric to the contrary, GLTBQ people have never tried to take away the rights of homophobic people — they just don’t want their homophobia imposed on secular institutions. That is tolerance, and those of us who support GLTBQ rights have been doling it for years. Orson Scott Card can have my “tolerance,” but he cannot have my respect, my admiration, or my money.

In Orson Scott Card’s crusade against homosexuality, he has committed a grave evil, just as Ender Wiggin has. The difference is that Ender immediately feels acute remorse, whereas Orson Scott Card seems to feel a smidgen of embarrassment. Asking for tolerance is not enough. To truly redeem himself, he must ask for forgiveness.


Fairy Tale Book Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

September 1, 2013

Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book had nice pacing, a good narrative arc, and perhaps most importantly, a good balance between its two primary storylines — the continuation of Cinder’s story, and the introduction of Scarlet. Initially I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as Cinder because I didn’t like Scarlet as much as I liked Cinder. I think I still prefer Cinder, but by the end of the book, Scarlet had grown on me.

I think what I really love about this series is the way that it melds so many different genres that I like — although it’s science fiction with spaceships and androids, it’s “light” science fiction, so I don’t have to feel stupid if I don’t get the “hard” science. The retold fairy tales bring something new to the table, but they also stay true to their source material. I felt a little ambivalent about how closely this one skirted toward the paranormal romance genre, but it’s still loads better than “Twilight” or even “Sisters Red.”

While these books have a nice balance of plotting and character development, I do feel uncomfortable with how cavalier they are about death. Characters who are vitally important to the protagonists die in both books, and their passing doesn’t seem to engender the kind of bereavement that it should, feeling too much like a plot point and not like a devastating loss. These books maintain my interest and my emotional investment, but they don’t bring me anywhere close to tears — which they should. Instead, the deaths make me feel indignant, like the character has been dealt an injustice not only in losing their loved one, but in not being allowed the emotional resonance that the situation calls for.

Still, I loved the way Marissa Meyer managed to intertwine Cinder’s and Scarlet’s stories, and I look forward to seeing how she will continue to weave ever-more fairy tale threads together in future books.

View all my reviews


The Only Cure for Writer’s Block? Writing.

August 26, 2013

When I teach writing, I always tell people that the only cure for writer’s block is writing.

Now it’s time for me to buck up and follow my own advice.

I’ve read all the Dark Crystal books I can get my hands on, cover-to-cover, poring over the pictures and taking notes. I have enough bare bones to begin writing my contest entry. There’s no more excuse now for putting it off. Except that I’m intimidated.

The world of the Dark Crystal is lush and complex and ancient and, above all, visually stunning. A world meant for the eyes to devour. And capturing that same sense of awe and beauty in writing will be difficult, so difficult that the task of transforming a blank computer screen into something similar seems almost impossible.

But starting a new project always feels impossible. And by not writing, I’m not using the part of my brain that knows how to make those connections, that can break through writer’s block. There are things that can happen in your mind when you write that just won’t happen when you’re just thinking. That’s why writing through writer’s block works. It gets your mind engaged in the right way again, and even if you have to write pages of crap, usually in the midst of it there’s an “aha!” moment that you never would have uncovered if you just tried to solve the issue while washing dishes or walking the dog, staying in your mind, not using the tools that you will need to break through this wall. You can’t nail a board back onto the deck by just thinking about a hammer, and you can’t break through writer’s block by just thinking about it, either.

Mondays are my blogging days, which give me a reprieve. And tomorrow I blog for Young Adult Catholics. But on Wednesday morning, my task is clear: I will be writing my outline for the Dark Crystal’s Authorquest. Here’s hoping that will help my story “crystalize” enough to write those crucial 10,000 words.


Speculative Fiction … Literary Fiction’s Best-Kept Secret

August 19, 2013

A couple weeks ago, I commented on a newly published author’s implication that the reason many writers are not getting published is because they’re writing stories with fantastical elements (and received a very insightful comment from one of my readers that the nature of this particular author’s novel, Race Across the Sky, follows fantasy’s “hero quest” paradigm. Hm.)

This same podcast series also included an interview with Emily Croy Barker, author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. There was no denying that this was a book of fantasy; the interviewer admitted that she didn’t read much fantasy and was “pleasantly surprised” that she enjoyed the book. She then went on to ask Ms. Barker whether she read fantasy, as though we were about to receive a scandalous reveal. Not surprisingly, Ms. Barker said that she did, without hesitation. (I would have been disappointed if she didn’t, as I don’t think authors have much business publishing in genres they don’t even read.)

I’ve been noticing this tendency to eschew the sci-fi or fantasy label amongst other recent books that clearly draw upon the genre for their premises. The July issue of BookPage includes a review of a novel called The Humans which is told from the perspective of an alien who seeks to intercept humans’ development of a certain technology, which he doesn’t believe they’re ready for. In case you missed this important point, this book is told from the perspective of an alien. But instead of being labeled as science fiction, it receives the rather vague designation of “popular fiction.”

On the next page, we have a review of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel in which the main character time travels and inhabits different lives while she receives electroshock therapy for depression. The genre? Literary fiction. That’s shortly followed up by Sisterland, a novel about twins with psychic abilities, which is designated as merely “fiction.”

I saw something similar happen with The Time Traveler’s Wife. It has time travel in the title. There is actual time traveling in the book. There is even a (somewhat weak) “scientific” explanation for the time travel. I defiantly shelved it with “science fiction” on my Goodreads account, although you’ll find it under “fiction” or “literature” in most libraries and bookstores.

Can you think of other examples?

So, if time traveling, aliens, and the ability to predict the future don’t qualify as science fiction, what exactly does? To me, this comes down to the problem of a desire to elevate “literature” above genre. Literature is read by those who like to feel superior, convinced that they read for enlightenment rather than for entertainment, and that their college + educations make them oh-so-much-better judges of good literature than the masses. If you want women’s book clubs to buy your book, or to have a shot at that Oprah sticker on the cover, you better not be shelved with genre fiction.

Literary fiction is generally understood as fiction that is character driven, that is concerned with the artfulness of the storytelling, and that attempts to say something “larger” about humanity and/or the world. I have no doubt that the books referenced above fit these descriptions. They may not follow what are considered “typical” fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but then, the very best in any genre reaches beyond expectation. And genre fiction will continue to struggle to be taken seriously if those who are employing aspects of genre as central features in their story deny their association with their high-fantasy and space-opera writing kin.

Despite all the talk about geek being “chic,” apparently in the book world science fiction still reeks of fanboys dressed in Trek gear and shelves cluttered with action figure collections. I’ve certainly encountered this culture (and found much to love in it, btw) as a lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy. But I’ve also found people who are willing to look critically at the world, to ask the big “what if?” questions, and to join in deeply exploring this thing we call life. Although reading sci-fi and fantasy is certainly not a prerequisite for friendship with me, I find that all my closest relationships are, indeed, with other speculative fiction readers–because they are willing to “boldly go” into new territory of the mind, and bring a continued sense of wonder to the world.

Thus, I think it’s a shame that fantasy and sci-fi writers with a somewhat literary bent distance themselves from this rich community, reinforcing stereotypes that it is not real literature (as opposed to their own story about an alien). I, too, strive to infuse my fantasy and science fiction with literary conventions; plot tends to emerge as secondary behind writing and characters for me. But when I publish, I will wear the label of fantasy/sci-fi writer proudly, and have no doubts about the good company I am in.


Fantasy … Less Worthy of Publication?

August 5, 2013

Through my library work, I have access to Penguin’s “First Flights” program, which features interviews with first-time authors. A little over a week ago, I was listening to the interview with Derek Sherman, author of Race Across the Sky.

During these chats, the interviewer almost always asks the author about his experience of getting his first book published. (Most of these authors explain the process as “unexpectedly easy,” which is rather depressing to a passionate, unpublished author! Does this have anything to do with the fact that these are the books the publisher has chosen to promote? Was publication “easy” because what they wrote “happened” to be just the sort of thing that publisher was looking for and wanting to publish? At any rate, I hope this isn’t a truly “representative sample.”)

Beware the dragons’ wrath!

When the interviewer asked Derek Sherman this question, he mentioned how Googling “I’ve just written a novel, what next?” brings up a lot of blogs from disgruntled authors complaining about how it’s impossible to get anything published unless you’re already famous. Then he added, “Then you find out they’re all writing novels about dwarves, and dragons …”

As a writer of fantasy, I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this comment. As he contrasted the “ease” with which he was published against these “disgruntled” authors, was he saying that the reason such authors weren’t getting published is because they’re writing fantasy? Is this a genre that is somehow less worthy of publication, or new talent? My husband suggested the most positive take on this comment, which was that perhaps he was saying that particular field was already so “flooded” that it was hard for new folks to break in. But I don’t think so — despite breakout successes like Harry Potter and classics like Lord of the Rings, I still think that fantasy and sci-fi remains a very niche genre. At least, through my work in libraries over the past several years, I’ve noticed that few library workers read sci-fi/fantasy (among a sub-population who are very big readers), and the sci-fi and fantasy aisles are decidedly smaller than the “mysteries” or “general fiction.”

I’m curious about other potential interpretations of this comment. Is writing about “dwarves and dragons” a justifiable roadblock in and of itself to publication? I don’t think so, and it rankles me that any author would summarily dismiss unpublished authors in another genre, while he basks on his pedestal of publication.

As for me, I’ll keep writing about dwarfs and dragons, and reading about them, too. And I’m going to pass on Race Across the Sky.


The Dark Crystal Authorquest and Writing on Assignment

July 29, 2013

A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed to put my Rapunzel novel on hold so that I could wrap up a few other fiction projects. The first was my Rumpled ebook. The second is entering a submission in The Dark Crystal Authorquest contest.

I found out about the Authorquest about a month ago. I saw The Dark Crystal once as a little girl, and again as a teen. I was always intrigued by the world and I loved the puppetry. When I watched it again after deciding to enter the contest, I realized I’ve been having dreams about the Mystics for years, but was unable to place where the images had come from. Now I know they must have lodged in my subconscious from my earlier viewings of The Dark Crystal. That gave me a sense of connection to the material that confirmed my decision to enter the contest.

I have three books about The Dark Crystal waiting for me at the library, and I’m hoping reading them will spark something. I’ve been making notes, watching the movie and all the commentary, reading everything on DarkCrystal.com. But still, a story hasn’t emerged for me.

I feel like I am absolutely qualified to write something of this nature. The Authorquest is searching for a young adult, fantasy series. I write fantasy. I write young adult. I’ve also written a lot of fan-fiction, so I understand working within someone else’s creation.

But as the days pass and I find myself no closer to an idea, my confidence wavers. I think, if I’m having this much trouble, there’s no way I could win the contest. But it’s not really about winning anymore. Now, it’s about proving to myself that I can do this. Although I write non-fiction on assignment frequently as a freelancer, I’ve only successfully written fiction on assignment once, when I wrote my short story “The Man in the Mirror” specifically for inclusion in Queer Dimensions. But the idea of writing fiction on assignment has always intrigued me, and I know other writers make their living doing this. Consider the ghost writers for the Animorphs series, the V.C. Andrews books that kept being published after she was long-dead, and the James Patterson writing factory.

I remember watching the special features on the JEM DVD collection (one of my favorite TV shows from my childhood), and hearing Christie Marx talk about how she was given the character designs for the JEM doll line and tasked to write a TV series about them. Some people think that this type of work is done “just for the money” or “just to sell the merchandise,” but I don’t agree. I fully believe that, even writing fiction on assignment, even when taking direction from someone else’s vision, you can fall in love with the story you’re writing. It can become just as precious as your totally original work. Erin Hunter (actually a pseudonym for a team of writers) was hired specifically to write a fantasy series about cats. The head writer, Victoria Holmes, doesn’t even like cats — but she is able to write dozens of books, which her readers adore, because she’s taken the cats’ storylines and made them her own, weaving her own personal experiences — such as health crises — into the Warriors plots. If a writer doesn’t come to cherish her fiction, I don’t think it will connect with readers the way that the Warriors series clearly has.

I know I can’t force creativity, but I need to keep showing up nonetheless. Reading, imagining, jotting down the bare wisps of ideas at the corners of my mind. I want to do this not to win the $10,000 or the publishing contract (although those things would be wonderful!) but to prove to myself that it’s something I can do.

I’ll let you know if I turn out to be right.