Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Unyielding Curtain of Uncertainty

Despite myself, I found myself thinking about criticism I had recieved at Pope's workshop of all places during residencies and the advice he had for successful fiction. I clearly remember one piece of advice that made me cringe : Don't begin a story with the character waking up. I found myself tinkering with a very differnet beginnig for the Blue Zone, though after I got so far in, I realized it was a different novel altogether. Still, I want to post at least a chunk of it, because there is a certain cleansing factor to wallowing in one's mistakes.

Chapter One: Remix
She walked through the high grass, her fingertips tracing a parallel path at her sides as her long white skirts sighed against the growth. Stars winked in and out over head in a net of velvety black sky. The moon hung low, and was so full it blazed like daylight over the field. Laughter bubbled its way up from her belly, spilling into the night as the wind played with her long fiery red hair.

Mina sighed. The hair, that’s what gave it away. She knew it was a dream when that glorious red hair danced at the corners of her vision. It was the same color as her mother’s and very much not her own. But in dreams, wishes were reality. She had wished for this place many times. The night inhaled around her, drawing her attention to the left. There was the house, complete with its network of ivy clinging to every brick of the structure. Momma loved ivy, even when Daddy had argued it would eventually crumble the brick under it.

“Well then,” Momma had laughed, “we shall live in a house of vines.”

Momma was the only person Mina had ever known to actually possess a laugh like wind chimes. A laugh which reached her now. Mina’s mother stood on the concrete slab of a doorstep, waving to her. She wore a white dress that matched her daughter’s, glowing in the moonlight. Mina grinned, racing towards the house. Her momma was waiting.

The wind picked up. The smile slipped from Mina’s face as the world drained of color. The only color left was her mother’s red hair, which whipped across the woman’s face in the building wind. Fear pricked into Mina like thorns. She ran faster, but the grass pulled at her skirts and scraped up her legs. She began to call out, each word squeezing her throat tighter until she could barely breath.

“Mom!” Mina gasped. She was nearly there, just a few yards away. Her mother’s laughter still filled the air, except now the sound was sinister and twisted. The woman grimaced in fear. Mina reached for her when the house exploded.

The wind shrieked, drowning out all other noise. Mina cowered as shards of glass and wood splinters came at her. Pain appeared like black stripes in her eyes. She looked down. A sash of red silk twined around her legs, burning where it touched. More red threads wrapped themselves up her arms, caressing her face. Abruptly the wind ceased. The silence was worse, dreadful. Mina felt her eyes dragged to the wreck of the house. Her mother stood on the step, her hair still rising on a soundless wind. She looked perfect, immaculately white. All except for the tiniest drop of red on her stomach. Threads of red grew out from that tiny drop like spider webs, growing thicker as they went.

Her mother burst into shreds of blood red silk. Mina screamed.

The scream followed her out of the nightmare. Mina sat up, shoving her hand into her mouth to stop herself. She didn’t stop the noise fast enough. Her roommate Sarah nearly fell on the floor as she rushed over.

“Mina!” Sarah wrapped her way too thin arms around her. It was like being hugged by a friendly spider. Mina quickly squashed that thought, Sarah had been nothing but wonderful to her and to her great disgust she was quaking in the tiny girl’s embrace.

“Was it another one of those dreams?” Sarah whispered, gently pushing Mina‘s sweat soaked hair out of her eyes. Mina struggled to calm down, she was four years older than Sarah, it was silly the other girl had to comfort her every time she had a nightmare. Frustrated, she swatted the girl’s skeletal hand away, regretting it immediately when she saw the hurt in her roommate’s face.

“I’m fine Sare-bear,” Mina muttered, trying to make peace. Sarah nodded, scuttling back to her bed without another word. She quickly put her back to Mina, obviously miffed but too nice to snap back. The older girl almost wished she would, it felt like kicking a puppy the way that girl cringed at every harsh word that left Mina’s mouth.

She sighed, resting on her knees. To her great disgust, she was soaked in sweat, so much it felt like it pooled in her sheets. Mina climbed out of bed, shivering as the air cooled her skin. She refused to sleep in that mess and the staff wouldn’t be around to change the sheets until morning. But she had other options. The door to this room with blessedly unlocked since she had been moved to the low risk ward and Mina intended to take full advantage of that privilege. Within ten minutes she was laid out on one of the many couches of the common room, comfortable despite the occasional whiff of old urine and cleaner. She did her best to ignore it and closed her eyes, trying to reclaim sleep.

Her clothes clung to her uncomfortably, nearly strangling her when she rolled over. When she straightened out that, her scars ached and itched. She carefully scratched around the nasty ones on her legs until she left red stripes on her skin. Ten minutes later, her hair tickled her nose, making her sneeze. Mina gave up, the sky was beginning to lighten anyway, which meant the night shift nurses would be gathering soon for Paperwork Hour.

Mina grabbed the ratty afghan hanging off the back of the couch and wrapped herself in it as she made her way down to the desk. It helped stop the shivery feeling despite the fact it made her look like a bag lady. Her journey proved a success when she caught sight of Nurses Bennett and Washbourne, the two nurses she could stand in this place.

Jeannie Bennett had been the first nurse to treat her like a normal person in this miserable place, and Max Washbourne was one of a handful of male nurses probably in existence, as well as being one of the most relaxing people to talk to. It was Max who glanced up from his paperwork first at the sound of shuffling feet, his tired face lighting up in a wonderful expression of concern.

“Mina, dear? Good gravy man, what are you doing up before the sun rise?” Max never swore, and spoke like a cross between an 18th century gentleman and Shaggy from the Scooby Gang. He ran a hand through his nest of quietly graying blond hair, massaging the muscles in his neck as Jeannie turned to Mina with open arms.

“Hunny, you having those god awful nightmares again? Please tell me you’ve been taking your meds on schedule.” She wrapped Mina in a tight hug. Mina loved Jeannie hugs. The woman always smelled like cinnamon, even after a night of work. She nodded into Jeannie's shoulder.

“I keep taking them, but I don't think my nightmares care if I'm taking sleep meds or not.” Wrapped up in Jeannie's hug the night caught up to her, Mina stifled the urge to sob. She missed her mother desperately and having an older woman hug her was almost unbearable. She gently pulled away, not wanting to reveal her feelings to Jeannie. It seemed the older woman caught on anyway, sympathy pinching her face as she ruffled Mina's still damp brown hair.

“You look far too tired for such an important day sweet heart. Why don't you go catch a nap in the staff lounge?” Jeannie pulled the keys off her wrist, much to Mina's surprise.

“But Jeannie patients can't do that, besides what's so important?” Mina got another shock when Max swore just under his breath. Jeannie's face darkened, Mina had never seen her so angry.

“Didn't Mr. Lyme tell you your out patient evaluation was this afternoon?” Jeannie asked quietly fuming.

Mina sighed. Mr. Lyme worked in one of the few offices at the center, though his actual job title had never been made clear to her. She knew his duties included such interesting tasks as drawing up the nurses shift schedules, writing requisitions for medications and other hospital supplies, arranging staff meetings to coordinate healing activities for the patients. It was also his job to inform patients of the various performance evaluations they had to undergo during their recovery. She knew the man did many tasks for the center and all around was a decent guy, in fact she saw him only yesterday. He really should have told her then, but Mina knew why he didn't, and for that reason she couldn't get mad.

“It probably slipped his mind,” Mina said as nonchalantly as she could, ignoring Max and Jeannie's shared expression of confusion. “Besides, Jeannie, I have a shift with him at 9 A.M. He could be saving it as a surprise.”

Jeannie snorted, slipping the keys to Mina anyway. “You go sleep on it, love, I'll wake you in an hour and half before I leave for the day.”


Lost Masterworks

Having recently finished a rather interesting text for another class, titled Lost Masterworks of Young Adult Literature (ed. By Connie S. Zitlow) I find many contemplative thoughts springing to my mind. The collection featured several essays by writers, teachers, critics, librarians and other literary minded ilk spotlighting works that have either gone out of print, been severely over looked by the literary community, or have miraculously resurfaced. In other words it covered a wide range of topics concerning a genre of literature oh so dear to my heart. Many of the books I have not heard of, for they went out of print before I entered the realm of young adult fiction, others I have read and was shocked to learn they were no longer in print or were in danger of meeting that big paper shredder in the sky. For instance, having read The Changeover, I personally sought out Margaret Mahy’s other works, only to find out her Catalogue of the Universe is now out of print. I also had no idea Sue Townsend’s Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Age 13 ¾ was such a neglected text, since it was one of my personal favorites growing up. However, the most illuminating essay was the very last one, by Margie G. Lee, who penned her thoughts of her first book going out of print.

It is eerie how much her thoughts echo my own even now. She spoke of writing as an author’s vain attempts to escape mortality, how seeing one’s book go out of print was almost like having a family member die. In my early dreams of becoming an author, I had very much the same thoughts, that creating a book, getting published, was a secret ticket to immortality all writers shared. I could be the next Charles Dickens, whose words have lived well beyond his life span.

Truth and disillusionment really didn’t hit till college. I, myself, was a novelty in a small town high school, few people had such grand ambitions, or were willing to stick with them come hell or high water. I wasn’t completely under the veil of cotton candy clouds and pink sugar trails. I understood the livelihood of a writer was difficult, making a living as a writer was extremely rare, and while you hear about the success stories, there are plenty of relatively successful writers who scrape a living in between two jobs and near starvation. I expected to slave over my craft, and persevere through the ugly stack of rejection letters. But none of that mattered, because if I achieved the ultimate prize, if I got published, then I had achieved my slice of immortality, I would live ‘forever’ through my great works.

Terms like “out of print” never even crossed my mind. Really it should have. Did I really think the century Dickens wrote his masterworks produced no other writers? It is staggering to think how many writers have already slipped into obscurity. Dickens is one of the lucky ones, the chosen popular few. How few writers will escape my generation intact? Will they escape based on their merits or perhaps, their girth? Will a writer like James Patterson, who is now nothing more than a name used to sell books by lesser known authors, be someone who is remembered a century from now? Or will J.K. Rowling be one of the historical greats? Harry Potter shall be the new Oliver Twist. Will something I write find enough of a foothold, enough of a fan base, enough prestige to land in the annuls of the literary elite that perhaps I will steal a small slice of immortality after all? Perhaps. Or maybe it will find a few more centuries of readers before it slips into oblivion.

Margie G. Lee also spoke of the great lengths she went to trying to find a new publisher for her first book, going so far as to put the completion of her new work on hold in her quest to breath life back into a dead novel. Truthfully I know in her shoes I would do the same thing. I would weather hell and high water to find a way. Her essay also proved something. Out of Print books have a very nasty and inaccurate stigma to them. Lee’s book was not put out of print because of slumping sales or bad press, but rather by a common business practice; when her publishing house was bought out by a bigger house, they cut the list of books the house had in print, Lee’s included. This is a business practice that happens fairly often, not that any one told Lee this. Still in her search to find another publisher, she found door after door essentially slammed in her face because her book had the out of print stigma hovering over it. “It is out of print therefore it must have sucked”. Considering how fast books flash in and out of stores these days I wonder how many of them are actually labeled with this devastating stigma or how many were just warehoused to make room for the new junk or best sellers. For example I usually find an entire bookcase dedicated to Stephanie Meyer, whose Twilight series is the soap opera of my generation. Heaven help me if I want to find Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series or any of Diana Wynne Jones’s beautifully written young adult novels. I know these books are not out of print, and sometimes I do find them, when they are not overshadowed by the EdwardBellaJacob triangle of love.

But these books are becoming harder and harder for me to find, a fact that depresses me, these are my favorite authors, they have written some of the most meaningful books of my life. Will I see them go out of print in my life time? Very probable. On the other hand, there is always that glimmer of a possibility my books find publication. If that is the case, I know where to point a finger for my readers. You like my stuff, well then meet my predecessors. In fact it would be the highlight of my literary career if a critic ever roped my work into the same league as Jones or Pierce.

While Margie G. Lee’s words are illuminating in their honesty, and reveal a side to the publishing world I actively try to ignore as a writer and a book lover, I still find gleaming of hope in her words. Her story is one of success. While her first book did go out of print, she eventually found the publisher who helped pump life back into it. A publisher who was in fact the same one who rejected the book when she first sought to get it published decades earlier, a fact which really says rejection doesn’t always mean rejected forever.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Getting Started

There is nothing quite so frustrating as finally sitting down to your computer, after going to painstaking means to put aside time in the first place, and finding yourself staring numbly at a blank screen with no idea how to begin. You find yourself gently tapping the keys just to give your restless fingers something to do. I find myself in this predicament all too often these days and it is a sensation that makes me want to pull my hair out. It is especially painful after spending a grueling 8 hour day, working a double job of book store employee and playing mom, a double duty which leaves me drained, irritated, and exhausted by the time 4:30pm rolls around. Everyday I have dragged the extra 20 lbs of laptop and books along with me to try and get homework done in between shelving, customers and mommy time. I haven’t even had a chance to turn it on the past three days whatsoever. You would think getting work down at home would be easier, but between household chores, making dinner, and further mother duties, the hours just seem to slip away, until I find myself staring at a blank computer screen at 9:30pm, trying to remember how to spell my name. My husband has found me slumped over more than once, and kindly tucked me in. So here I am after finding a baby sitter for Malcolm, after getting the house essentially to myself, and I must have spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure out where to go from there. After my eyeballs started pulsing I had to start ranting or I think they may have fallen out of their sockets. Still a page of ranting and raving about everyday difficulties is great therapy, everyone needs someone to rant to, even if it a blank computer screen. I am starting to feel a genuine tingle of motivation creeping into my fingers now. Perhaps this day shall not be wasted after all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reading Response: Art and Fear

Reading Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland was far more revealing than I anticipated. I have never had the opportunity to read a text which so thoroughly nailed down the writers mindset, truthfully I never really thought artists were such predictable creatures. I learned I am very misguided.

Art and Fear had several insightful observations not only about the current generation of artists, but human nature in general. I had not really thought of how completely unsupported the making of art is in this day and age until reading this text. I had a certain skewed understanding of it, watching the continued crumbling of the publishing world and its morals, but I did not comprehend this atrophy applies to all forms of art. It is true though, in today’s day and age, it is rare to find the writer/painter/potter etc, who makes a living solely on their craft. Many artists must compliment their meager artistic earnings with a nine to five job. I know because I do work a 40 hour a week job, and all the trappings that come with it. It is an odd feeling when say 100 years ago, one could earn a living by becoming a writer, 50 years ago writers were able to make a living off their work. Something changed, drastically, to the point where the crafting of art is almost looked down on or seen as a tier only the fabulously talented and willing to starve aspire to. The term “starving artist” is not a new phrase, but it seems to have taken on an almost vicious edge in today’s consumer driven world. Bayles covered many issues, from self doubts, to quitting, to the difficulties artists face in the current times trying to find their niche in the art world, if they have a niche at all.

The chapter that spoke the most to me in this text was Fears About Yourself. While it is sobering to realize how completely some of these fears fit me, such as the fear that you are only pretending to do art because you doubt your artistic ability, is one that has plagued me for years. There is always that nagging doubt in the back of my mind when I read over something I have written of “who the hell would read this?” or “what are you playing at? This is rubbish.” I have novellas I can’t even look at without cringing as they sit on my shelf collecting dust because I don’t think they are could enough to mess with. But Bayles also points out, you have to make a lot of bad art before any good art comes out of it. His example of the divided pottery class was excellent, as well as a statement that really struck a chord with me: Artists often dream about already finished work, not the crafting of the work.

I can not even count the number of times I have day dreamed myself at a book signing, having achieved J.K. Rowling status-like fame, having just bought a castle with my oodles of money from my amazing book sales. *Snort* Yes it is easy to dream such dreams, but I honestly do not daydream myself swearing and sweating over a keyboard, trying not to beat my head on the desk as I try to get the words out of my head and onto the page. But writers are allowed to produce bad work, its called drafts. I could not believe William Kennedy rewrote one of his novels eight times before he was satisfied with it. At the same time it is a work ethic I am trying to cultivate.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Response to Roger Sutton’s Blog

Reading Roger Sutton’s Blog was highly enjoyable, mainly because reading his blog pieces was very similar to conversations I have with a wonderfully flamboyant and intelligent coworker of mine. Although I started reading by skipping around, I ended up reading a few dozen posts, his sense of humor and insights into the publishing work are easy to get into. Plus, Sutton often references genre fiction, which is wonderful because I am surrounded by genre fiction all day long, as my store specializes in mysteries, romance, westerns, and children’s. Despite the amount of giggling I did while reading his posts, I also had some interesting personal insights.

One of his posts dealt specifically with mystery writing, as he was currently reading Lisa Scottline’s latest book in her Bennie Series. He spoke of how ludicrous the plot was but how he would not only finish the novel but eagerly await the next book. This sentiment brought to mind two questions. How long should a mystery writer keep a reader in suspense, or how long should they drag out the element of suspense, but the reader becomes too frustrated and throws the book across the room? I ran into this problem outside of the mystery genre just reading Robin Mckinley’s Beauty, which drags out its final plot elements to the point I could feel my teeth grinding as I read it. While her character development is wonderful, there is definitely a feeling it is far too dragged out, it takes nearly half the book before Beauty even meets the Beast. In my own writing this is also a large worry I have. I always wonder how much I want to reveal with a chapter and what I want to save for later, how much later, when will my reader feel I have kept too much hidden for too long and throw the book across the room. And yet the right amount of suspense is golden, fuel for the fire, it keeps the reader strung along, unable to put the book down. For all I don’t like his books, Dan Brown is the king of suspense. The Da Vinci Code consists of two to three page chapters each bloody one ending in a cliffhanger but by god you can’t put that book down.

The second question Sutton asked in this post was in a character series what unforgivable mistake does the writer have to make in order for the series to be dumped? This is a very scary feeling and again applies across multiple genres. I myself dumped the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton when her books became too raunchy. He even mentioned that perhaps the author did not truly make a mistake so much as fail to hook the reader from the beginning. I have to point a finger at Patterson in this case. The man does not even writer his own novels anymore, but the Alex Cross series sells like mad, even after he actually had a commercial where he threatened to kill the character off if not enough people bought his book. Ugh.

Aside from Sutton’s insights on writers, he also had many posts which shed more light on the world of publishing and selling. I found his post on’s war with Macmillan a bit unsettling. I know I am treading tricky ground here but I have always had issue with book pricing, I love working in a used book store that sells books for $1 -$4 because I hate how much Borders expects people to pay for the pleasure of reading in our current economy. When Amazon attempted to sell Macmillan’s books for cheaper than the publisher wished, Macmillan pulled all there stock out of Amazon. Okay, but I am not going to stop using Amazon because I am a poor working class housewife and Amazon helps me afford school books. It is hard to defend Macmillan’s decision, or Amazon’s reaction when I have been perpetually torn over book pricing for years now. Still it was insightful to read about the situation. I wonder how I would feel if I were a published writer in this scenario.