Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

It's Wednesday, and it's also Halloween! That means a scary writing prompt that's sure to get you on your way to a great scary story. Here goes:

Night had come early. That's what Amanda thought when she looked out the window; it was only late afternoon, but the sky was so overcast she thought it was near dark. She shook it off as nerves. She and Ted had unpacked the moving boxes last week, but the new house still didn't feel like home.

Suddenly, deeper in the house, she heard a sound. Beside her, the cat bristled and began to yowl.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

National Novel Writing Month

First and foremost, let me apologize for my lack of posts lately. Currently the real world has been draining my creative time...that said, I've got a big announcement to make!

Its not often that there's an event that I'm really excited for-- but here goes its almost NOVEMBER! Normally, there's not too much to get worked up about in November (Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night in the UK and Thanksgiving in America). However, this year that's all about to change. NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) is a brilliant excuse for you to make that time for that novel you've been meaning to write. National Novel Writing Month runs from 1 November through 30 November and challenges you to write a novel in that time period. You are not allowed to 'finish' a pre-existing novel, but you can bring an outline/brainstorm to the table and work from that.

National Novel Writing Month is an intense and challenging experience, but one that people who have completed it tend to find fulfilling. The experience puts professional writers and amateurs together and allows them to write side by side for the purpose of completing a novel in a month-- how much better does it get?

I'm up for a particular challenge this year as I don't own a computer (amazing!). You can watch my progress on the website-- and if you join, I'll make you one of my writing buddies.

I'm going to take a deep breath and revel in the calm before the storm. I'm not sure I'll be in the same high spirits this time next week when the stagger weight of this creative process has descended-- but we'll see.

Fingers crossed (and I sincerely hope to see some of you as my writing buddies).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday-- a day later!

Here at Minion & Maverick, we're currently a day off...

So, this might not be you typical Writing Prompt Wednesday, but at least its a refreshingly creative mid-week break!

Her eyes widened as the crack in the sidewalk grew steadily larger. She felt her knees buckle as she reached out for something to hold her steady. The world suddenly titled out of focus.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Containing the River

I recently saw Alice Sebold in person at my local library. She was giving an interview onstage with a local radio personality. She was there to discuss her new book, The Almost Moon, but she also spoke quite a bit about her debut novel, The Lovely Bones. This was a bestseller in 2001, the year I graduated from college. I will absolutely never forget when I first encountered it. I had just graduated and moved with my boyfriend to a new city. I had always had something to do in the fall--I'd never felt more adrift in my life. I felt transparent, like my future hadn't found me yet and I didn't quite exist.

I was a lifeguard that summer--not at a regular pool, but a fill-in lifeguard who traveled to different pools when their regular guards called in sick. I remember sitting at a pool with weird green Astroturf instead of a cement deck in the middle of a subdivision, wishing I'd remembered to bring reading material. I saw a copy of Seventeen on one of the deck chairs, and I picked it up. There was some fiction in it--I thought it had won some contest or something. It was a short story about a girl at a camp for gifted kids. Her sister had been killed in a brutal murder. Her grief was so alive on the page, and her tentative first love with a boy at camp was so poignant--I thought it was the most brilliant short story I'd ever read. It turned out it wasn't a short story at all--it was Chapter 10 of The Lovely Bones.

I wondered at the time whether I'd been so affected by that book because I was reading it at such a strange time in my life. But looking back, I realize that it was well-written in a way that isn't planned--it was like the poetry of the phrasing was coming directly from Sebold's subconscious. Here's an example of what I mean. This is how Sebold starts off the scene where Lindsey, the girl whose sister died, loses her virginity:

Under a rowboat that was too old and worn to float, Lindsey lay down on the earth with Samuel Heckler, and he held her.

What's important in this sentence? Sebold doesn't say "Lindsey lay down on the ground"--the way a normal person would say it. She uses the word "earth."

Her sister, Susie, was killed in a sort of room that her murderer had dug out of the ground. "There was too much blood in the earth," Sebold says when she describes how the police knew that Susie had been killed and not just kidnapped. You see the word "earth" in the scene with Lindsey, and you don't just think about two teenagers under a rowboat. You think about how the earth that Lindsey is lying on is the same earth that held her sister as she died--about how for Lindsey, the act of sex is life-affirming--she's still on the earth, not in it--and for Susie, the act of sex was her death. And even in this moment when Lindsey is moving into a realm of adulthood where her sister will never follow, she will always be connected to her--as connected as she is to the ground on which she walks. The word "earth" rings in that sentence. It's a strong statement. And I believe it's not something writers do on purpose. It's almost automatic.

I remember Sebold saying once that she didn't have a choice but to write The Lovely Bones--that the character of Susie came to her and demanded that she write it. My boyfriend, who was with me at the time, thought that sounded loopy. I thought it sounded absolutely sane. Novelists must sit down every day and slog through stories that they aren't sure will work until they reach the end. They must make endless choices about character. I'm writing a book right now where I'm not extremely invested in the main character--I see two different types of characters that could tell this story well, and despite the fact that I'm well into this story now, I still struggle with the temptation to scrap everything and start all over again, using the other character type.

But sometimes you don't have a choice. Sometimes the characters come to you with voices so strong that you know exactly what they will say, how they sound, how they word things--sometimes much differently than the way you would yourself--and how they think. They grab you by the imagination and they make you write their story. It's happened to me before, and it makes all the difference. The story simply flows through you, as if you're the channel that guides the river. You don't have to manufacture the water yourself.

I've read Lucky, Alice Sebold's other book. It was definitely good--but I didn't find it to be inspired the way The Lovely Bones was. I didn't see the same instinctual poetry, the same seminal repetition of certain words. She was thinking her way through this one, not simply letting it come. During the interview, Sebold said one thing that stuck with me: she said that the first line of any book is the most important part, because that is the first thing your narrator says. Once you get that exactly right, you know how the voice of the book sounds. And the hard part of the work is done.

If you've ever felt that strong connection with your characters, that flow of words and ideas that seems to be coming through you from someplace else, you've felt something very ancient. The Greeks named it the Muses. You can see its work in The Lovely Bones. And maybe you've felt it, every so often, when you sit at your keyboard. If you have, you're sharing in something as old as creativity yourself. And you're a true writer.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Halloween Reading Round Up

Ok, I'm a nerd. I'm a really big fan of reading Halloween themed books in October. I said it, now you can mock me. Thus far, I've managed to kick off the season in style and read three completely different horror themed novels (one of them is really a chick lit though).

Blood is the New Black
Did you ever wonder what would happen if you tossed some vampires into The Devil Wears Prada? Something very similar to this novel, I'd suspect. Blood is the New Black centres around a lowly intern who unintentionally is offered a position at Tasty the ultimate fashion magazine in NYC. She soon finds out that she has to put up with a lot more than competitive fellow interns and back stabbing assistants, her boss is a real blood sucking bitch! What follows is an at times hilarious account of her adventures in the world of high fashion and vampire slaying. While not the most brilliant novel I've read this month, something about the lightness of the story just drew me in.

The House of Lost Souls

A good ol' fashioned ghost story. I was a bit sceptical about this book as I'm not keen on ghost stories, but my friend gave me a proof of this title a told me I HAD to read it. I found the voice of the author a bit difficult to get into, but once I did I was up till am racing through the novel. Set in London, The House of Lost Souls is a chilling story of a haunted house, satanic rituals, and of course a climax of good versus evil. While I found the ending problematic and a bit rushed, I thought the story was engaging and worth reading.

World War 'Z'

Did you ever wonder what would happen if a zombie epidemic were to take over the world? I adored this book. The concept behind it is so simple (an oral history of people who survive the 'war') and yet as a parable the message is so important. The book follows the world's descent into madness, fear, nuclear war, and chronicles what mankind had to overcome and endure to survive in a world of zombies (and nuclear winter). I read this book with all the lights on in my flat and absolute terror (even though the characters relating their part of the story had to have survived as the book is an oral history). I guarantee you, this book doesn't disappoint.

Right, I'm off home to curl up with a good scary movie (and protective hubby to cuddle next to) and a glass of wine. Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Here it is, your regularly scheduled writing prompt. I used this one-line prompt to write a killer first-person monologue a few years ago, and now I"m imparting it to you:

I'm not a bad person.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Football and Fantasy Have in Common

Just a warning to any football fans out there who might be reading: I will be expressing negative views about your sport. They may not be fair. They may not be politically correct. You may completely disagree. But they are my views and this is my blog. So, deal.

I hate football. (And I mean American football here). I don't like the idea of getting worked up about a game on television instead of actually participating in something. I don't like the lowest-common-denominator nature of football. I don't like the fact that football players get paid millions of dollars to prance around and tackle each other when people who actually do important things for a living get paid peanuts. I don't like how the passion of its fans is inversely proportional to the larger human significance of the game itself.

My boyfriend is a football fan.

This past weekend, he had some friends over to watch a football game. I spent the day curled up in the bedroom, re-reading my battered old copy of Lord of the Rings. Somewhere between the Mines of Moria and Shelob's lair, however, I realized something: what we were doing wasn't all that different. Here, to my great mortification and embarrassed wonder, are a few things my beloved fantasy novels have in common with (ugh) popular sports.

Heroes. C'mon, admit it: you cheered when Eowyn defeated the Witch King. When Sparhawk delivered his last one-liner to Martel before running him through. When Lyra pulled the wool over the eyes of Iofur Raknisson. Whatever your favorite fantasy series is, chances are you loved it because you fell in love with its heroes and you loved watching them succeed against impossible odds.

It's the same with sports. Just as my heart soared in rapture when Roland burst into Eddie's world, guns blazing, to save him from the mobsters--and ultimately himself--in The Drawing of the Three, my boyfriend is uplifted by every success of his favorite sports heroes. If I could, I would give a few examples. But I really can't think of any.

A close-knit group of friends. The absolute best thing about fantasy novels is the close-knit group of motley companions--an unlikely and sometimes unwilling gathering at first, but they come to depend absolutely on one another. In the best fantasy novels, every character has his or her own distinct strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits. They're all interesting on their own. But as a group, each character serves an important role. They fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

It's the same for a well-cast sports team. You have your guys who throw the balls. You have your guys who catch the balls. You have your really big guys who jump on the other guys to keep them from attacking the other two types of guys. know what I mean. The team is larger than its individual characters, and each person plays a crucial role.

A common enemy. The world of most fantasy novels is reassuringly simple. You know exactly who the bad guys are. Most of the time you can tell on sight--the bad guys look different from the good guys, either because they're a different race or they're a whole different species. In a complicated world where nobody's totally good or totally evil, it can be comforting to know exactly who's on your side and who isn't.

It's the same with sports teams. You know exactly who the bad guys are. Your team is in one uniform; their team is in another. There's no moral ambiguity here--you always know who to cheer for.

A clear and obvious goal. Find the magic stone, defeat the evil enemy, escape the dark castle--in fantasy novels the goals aren't always easy--but the path is always clear. It's the same with sports. Your objective is clear, there's no moral waffling, and everybody is on the same page.

Pure escapism. The attraction of fantasy is pure escape. The richly imagined, all-encompassing worlds; the clear objectives; the characters that make you fall in love, laugh and cry, and miss them when the book is through--all combine to completely take you out of the ordinary problems of your own world and into a place that's full of wonder and absent from the bewildering gray areas of real life. It's the same with sports. You'll find all the hero worship, clear goals and objectives, and strong cast of characters there. You may love fantasy and hate football, like I do--but they serve the same purpose. Maybe I'm a closet football fan after all.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What I'm Reading: The Lightning Thief (redux)

As promised-- my review of: The Lightning Thief

Now-- let me preface this review by saying that I'm not a book snob. I've met lots and lots of book snobs in my life and I can't stand them. I'm talking about the people who refuse to read anything unless its a literary masterpiece. Oh please! Get over yourself. I read for the thrill of the story, the engaging characters, and the use of language. Also, I read for pleasure-- and if your book is too dense for me to enjoy, then I wont. I'm not afraid to say that.

However, over a year ago when my friend suggested I read The Lightning Thief, I completely ignored her. I wasn't really interested in the premise of the book and thought it was just 'the next Harry Potter' a marketing term that makes me cringe (which will be discussed in a later blog). Even though I adore children's literature-- I gave this book a pass. It wasn't until a box of books arrived at my job (containing The Lightning Thief) that I finally buckled down and read the book.

After reading the first three books in the series back-to-back I'm not sure why I procrastinated so long. Rick Riordan's books are a complete joy! His books are funny, witty, and above all LIGHT HEARTED. Its the sense of fun and adventure that hooked me.

Percy Jackson is your average twelve-year-old dyslexic trouble marker (oh, and the son of the sea god). When he discovers that his Math teacher is a Harpy and his best friend is a satyr, he realizes he's in for even more trouble.

Percy is sent to a summer camp Half Blood Hill (very unfortunate name) where he finds out that the Greek Gods and Goddesses are very much alive and actively interfering in the mortal world (they have now relocated to a new 'Mount Olympus' on top the the Empire State building). He and his fellow campers are all 'half-bloods' or half mortal/half demigod. All of the campers are trained in battle combat (with ancient weapons of course), archery, and survival skills they are being groomed to be 'heroes' and change the fate of the world.

When Zeus's master lightning bolt goes missing it is Percy's task to retrieve it. Aiding him in his quest is a feisty daughter of Athena and his trusty satyr pal. What follows is a rip-roaring quest through America (with Medusa owning a garden statuary shop and cooking the best burgers in town) wherein Percy and his friends find themselves face to face with mythological characters. Riordan's humour makes this book read like a treat. While its moral isn't the deepest and at times I wished that Riordan would have explored less common mythological creatures I highly recommend this book.

Honestly, the book is so slender that I'm afraid to say anymore (I don't want to give away too much of the plot). Pick this one up-- you wont regret it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Its WEDNESDAY and you know that that means. This is a bit of a piratey themed Wednesday (although, to me this story doesn't have to be about pirates-- but that's the beauty of a writing prompt, all the different avenues it lends you). Hope this helps inspire you!

No, she thought as she watched the waves beat at the shore. She wrapped her arms around her legs, trying to make herself smaller-- warmer. She stared out at the foreign beach and wondered how she had managed to arrive at this point. She shivered.

I shall dive into the sea, that's the only answer. She cursed herself for not being a more accomplished swimmer. While he focused on his treasures I'll escape. She watched wave after wave break upon the sand, numbed by their consistency. After this next wave breaks, I'll go. She unhinged her long legs and stretched her arms.

A large boot landed between her legs, rooting her to the spot.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Shakespeare Was a Working Writer

"He should have stuck to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them."

"A middling playwright...often crude and crass...two of [Beaumont and Fletcher's plays] being acted through the year for one of his."

"...imitative, annoying, and tiresome."

What do the three authors that recieved this criticism have in common? Three things:

1. Their work was written for the common reader, rather than to academics, scholars, and literary critics of their time.
2. They enjoyed enormous popular success and mixed literary success during their time.
3. They are now considered three of our greatest authors.

They are (in order): Dickens, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

I remember I was at a writing conference this summer, and one of the speakers was L.A. Banks. This woman is a serious working writer. She writes vampire fiction and romance novels, and churns 'em out at a jaw-dropping one book every six weeks or so (if I remember correctly). I remember listening to her talk and thinking, gosh, I would LOVE to have her career.

But I also want what every other writer wants: validation. I want to be considered a literary genius, my work passed down through the ages, plastered with lofty awards. Yeah, I have delusions of grandeur. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we all do, to an extent. And even though L.A. Banks is a working writer with a healthy career, nobody is comparing her to Toni Morrison or Jamaica Kincaid.

There is definitely a perception that you can have literary merit or popular success, but not both: that a really excellent piece of writing is so rarified that it's only a chosen few who can truly appreciate it. But when I look at writers like Dickens, I think that he's not really the Faulkner or Fitzgerald of his day; he's more like the Danielle Steele. He wrote popular fiction. And when I look around at the writing out there, I start to think that maybe it's not the recognized authors of our time who will stand the test of centuries. Maybe it's the Stephen Kings and the Danielle Steeles and the Harlequin authors that readers of the future will venerate.

L.A. Banks gave a great talk, but that's not what I remember. I remember standing near her while she was speaking to another writer. They were having a conversation about writing popular genre fiction versus literary fiction. And Banks said something about how there's no shame in being a working writer; after all, Shakespeare was a working writer.

I guess what I realized then was that you don't have to give up a paying career as a writer to be recognized. You don't have to write literary fiction that doesn't sell and work as a creative writing professor. Your genre of choice may be snubbed by the critics of today, but it could be the biggest thing to hit 2100. After all, it's not the most "literary" works that stand the test of time. It's the work that reaches and inspires the common people.

Friday, October 5, 2007

What I'm Reading: The Lightning Thief

Did you ever wonder what the Greek Gods and Goddesses got up to these days? Did you assume that they had safely passed into the realm of myth and children's stories? Think again!

Check back next week to hear all about the series that has me turning pages like lightning....

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Welcome to Wednesday! Okay, here's my attempt at a writing prompt:

It was eight in the morning. The alarm clock rang, and Liza slammed it quiet again. Her head was pounding from last night, and she was seriously considering calling in sick. She rolled over—and suddenly sat up in surprise.

A naked man was stepping out of her shower.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Self-Employment or a Day Job: Which is Right For You?

If you're an aspiring novelist, you're probably someone who'd really rather be in a room alone, writing, than doing anything else. The problem is that writing books isn't exactly a career you can get paid to learn. You can't get a paid internship, a middle management job, and work your way up the ladder while collecting a steady stream of paychecks. Nope: you're stuck doing all the hard work with no pay, and then hoping that somehow you'll eventually collect a fair wage for that work.

Unless you have a trust fund or a saint for a spouse, you'll be stuck working for a living--at something other than what you consider your actual career. There are two ways to do this: get a normal job somewhere, or work for yourself.

The Steady Job: Costs and Benefits

There are benefits to having a steady job. The most obvious is that it's steady. You don't have to worry about money, and for some, that means dreaming about your novel instead of worrying about your paycheck. Then there's the benefit of having to get up and go to work around other people. The characters you meet at work can give you lots of ideas for your writing.

Of course, a day job can also suck the soul right out of your head. You can come home drained and exhausted every day--even though you didn't do much more than sit at a cubicle. If you don't like your job, you're not a good fit with the company personality, or you don't work with like-minded people, you could be miserable. For some, it's just too much misery to trade for a regular paycheck.

The Entrepreneurial Route: Pros and Cons

At first glance, opening your own business sounds like the best way to go. One of the most frustrating aspects of a full-time job is that it must come before your writing. Your boss might want you to work during a time of day when you'd rather be writing, or object to you using the company copier to make copies of your 400-page manuscript. But when you run the company, you're the boss. You can work whenever you want, however you want, and nobody can tell you otherwise. You can truly craft your schedule around your writing time.

For some, freelance writing sounds like an ideal business. There's nothing quite like the joy of getting paid to do what you're good at. I had several jobs where my duties were definitely not within my areas of talent, and I hated every minute of it. I knew I was talented--just not at what I was doing. And I hated the fact that I was seen as a bit of a screw-up. With freelance writing, I know I excel. I like getting up and going to work--even though I only have to go so far as my desk.

The problem with running your own business, though, is that it quickly takes over your life. You might want to spend the day writing your novel--you might even be planning to--but if there's client work to do, you'll probably do that instead--especially if your novel's hit a snag and you'll do anything to procrastinate. And when your day job is writing, it can be tough to summon the enthusiasm to write a novel when you've already spent all day writing other things.

The right choice depends, of course, on your circumstances. If you've got kids to support and a mortgage to pay, you might be stuck with the steady job--at least for a time. But if you're independent-minded and your steady job makes you want to poke your eyeballs out, you might be happier choosing the entrepreneurial route. I've tried them both--and I know what's best for me.