Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: May 2007

New story for sale!

I have a new story up on Amazon Shorts, a near-future tale that is sort of about body modification and sort of about fame and a bit about L.A. It’s called “Chasing the Spotlight” and I encourage you to go check it out and let me know what you think!

Links will be put up on the sidebar momentarily.

Women in Historical Fiction

Lance Mannion, to whom I’ve referred before, has been pretty vocal lately on the topic of feminism. With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, he thinks it’s a shame that Keira Knightley has, for all intents and purposes, been turned into a boy. His point, shorter: in an attempt to prove that women are the equals of men, writers are losing sight of the feminine aspects of their characters.

This is something that’s bothered me about a lot of period pieces lately. It seems necessary to show that women in the olden days were Just As Tough as men, even though in those actual times, they were discouraged from showing it. Lance’s point, an excellent one, is that women can be men’s equals–and have been, throughout history–without being equal at physical skills (specifically, fighting).

From a writer’s standpoint, I think these are important things to remember. In your novel, especially if it’s historical/high fantasy, feminine characters (in general) survive by their wits; masculine characters survive by their muscles. Note that feminine characters are not always women; masculine characters are not always men. However, the exceptions should be notable. And you should have some balance.

In Common and Precious, there is a definite (and intentional) contrast between the two main characters, the one masculine, the one feminine (and they happen to be a man and woman, respectively, or at least a male and female tiger). Thinking back on it, I don’t think it ever even occurred to Melinda (more appropriately, to me writing her) to fight her way out of her predicament. It just wouldn’t be in her character. Does that make her any less strong or powerful? Well, I hope not.

Any other good examples of strong female characters who aren’t just “boys with breasts” (Lance’s words)?

Blogging about writing

And now, writing (in a blog) about blogging about writing. Lance Mannion, whose blog a friend turned me on to, is quite entertaining. Today he takes issue with a novelist (Richard Ford) who says that “a literary blogger is just “some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute.”” (forgive the double quotation). Mannion’s reply, in part (the whole is very long, but worth it):

…what does Ford think that guy is doing in his basement in Terre Haute?

My guess is he’s writing a novel.

And this is something Ford’s got to know. Most great novelists started out as some guy or gal sitting in a basement, or an attic or a cheap rented room, in some place as obscure and far away from literary glamor and greatness as Terre Haute—some of those obscure and far away places were in Paris and New York, the distance and obscurity is spiritual and metaphorical but very real to that guy or gal.

A few years from now Richard Ford will be blurbing that guy from Terre Haute’s new novel.

There is a growing reaction from many sides of the mainstream media toward these darn bloggers, with the freedom to say what they want without having to have, y’know, earned the right to speak in public. I’m seeing it from the political reporting side particularly, but also here and in a few other places (like the SFWA’s recent dustup about authors who post their work online, which spawned a whole movement in backlash). What Ford is saying, essentially, is, “I don’t want my work reviewed and dissected by some schmoe.”

There are plenty of smart people out there who for one reason or another haven’t succeeded at making a vocation out of their avocation, but remain passionate about it nonetheless. In the sports world, Henry Abbott was recently hired to blog professionally by ESPN. Has his content changed now that he’s “certified”? Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon, professionally, and he’s one of the smartest political reporters I’ve ever read. All Ford has done in making this remark is underscore that credentials are not a predictor of being in touch with people, or even of doing a good job.

Review: Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Secret Prisoner’s Goblet of Phoenix Half-Blood, by J.K. Rowling
**/10, a fabulous adventure of a boy who discovers not only that he’s a wizard, but a famous one with an equally famous nemesis

I finished listening to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” two days ago and am ready for book seven. So where is it? Oh, right. I’m two months early. Anyway, I thought I would scribble down some thoughts on the Story So Far, as it were.

Overall, Rowling’s series stands up well to a fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh reading. The characters remain as distinct and likable (or not) as ever, and Jim Dale’s voice only accentuates that (when listening in sequence, one thing you notice is that Madame Hooch, for instance, has a different voice in book one than when she reappears in book three, but these are minor quibbles with Dale’s outstanding work). One of the things Rowling does as well as anyone in the YA fantasy genre is build a world as whimsical as it is believable, where spells like the Bat-Bogie Hex exist alongside the sinister ultimate curse, the Avada Kedavra (the resemblance of the last word to ‘cadaver’ is surely intentional). Even the plots hold up, because Rowling is a master at foreshadowing, and, even better, she gets better as the series goes on, planting misleading foreshadowing and building on expectations set in previous books so that she always stays one step ahead of most readers. The biggest gripe I can muster against the books is to echo a comment Stephen King made about them being slightly overwritten, with an excess of adverbs and explanations for feelings (and an overuse of the ‘toadlike’ comparisons for Dolores Umbridge in book five). However, as a friend of mine pointed out, the book is aimed at young adults, and so this is not only forgivable, but necessary.

I resisted picking up the books at first, reluctant to join in on what was becoming a national phenomenon, until a friend of mine sent me the first three volumes. Well, I’ve never been one to turn down free books. I read them and instantly became a convert. If you are one of the people who has been resisting Harry Potter because he is so popular, please stop doing yourself this disservice. Buy them in secret, don’t admit to reading them, but do read them. They are not the best books of our times, but they are immensely enjoyable. Each book has its pluses and minuses; some are outstanding while others are merely enjoyable, but the series as a whole offers a rare chance to follow characters through a long, coherent story at a formative time in their lives–compare the wide-eyed eleven-year-old Harry with the determined sixteen-year-old, and you will understand what I mean because you will have grown with him, experiencing what he did and feeling his wonder, frustration, and hope every step of the way.

Also, you should stop reading now, because I’m going to start talking about the plots.


The arc of how Harry learns more and more about his past and his future destiny is really one of the best things about this series. It’s the central mystery that keeps us engaged, even through all the other lovely little plots Rowling creates to keep us entertained. I’m sure it’s not over yet, that there is still more to be discovered, and that’s why I can’t wait for book seven.

I’m so glad that book six was as enjoyable as it was. Of all the books, I think “Chamber of Secrets” is the weakest, but “Order of the Phoenix” is the hardest to re-read. It’s just so frustrating to feel Harry’s over-reactions to everything, to beg him silently to control his temper and watch as Hogwarts goes from a place of delightful magical discovery to a place almost without joy. Only the last third is fun, as Harry becomes distracted with the mystery of the Department of Mysteries and Voldemort’s target therein and the book becomes more of an adventure.

“Half-Blood Prince,” by contrast, is a great read from cover to cover. We get caught up in adventure almost immediately, there is an appropriately awkward romantic subplot, and it ends by unraveling the mystery it began and setting us up for a climactic adventure in book seven.

There is plenty to discuss about the books, but too much to fit in a single blog entry. I could create an entire blog about it (and people have), but I’d rather just encourage my friends to read it (most of them have, at this point), and wait impatiently for July 21st.

** It is pointless to assign a rating here, I think. If pressed, I would give the series overall a 9/10, but that’s unlikely to sway anyone who hasn’t yet read the books into reading them.

Review: Tithe

Tithe, by Holly Black
7.5/10, a beautiful and dark story of a girl discovering her identity in the faerie world

I used to be quite devoted to the world of Young Adult fantasy, back when I was a Young Adult–Madeleine L’Engle and Susan Cooper remain favorites–but since I picked them up, the landscape has changed. Faeries, vampires, and werewolves are the big things, driven in part, I’m sure, by the success of “Buffy” and related shows. Holly Black is one of the names I’ve become aware of very recently in this newly vibrant field, and “Tithe” is the first volume in her YA series.

Sixteen-year-old Kaye travels with her rock-star-wannabe mother up and down the East Coast, landing most recently in her grandmother’s house in the Philadelphia area. She’s been familiar with faeries from an early age, small companions with cute names like Spike, Lutie-loo and the Thistlewitch, but she hasn’t seen them in quite a while. They reappear in her new home with some startling news: one of their number has been killed–by a mysterious knight whose life Kaye has just saved.

This conflict is not as simple as it first seems, and Kaye’s role in it only grows more involved as she finds out more about the faerie world. The Unseelie Court, from whence comes the mysterious knight, is an ethereal, sinister place, with horrors and unearthly beauties aglow from Black’s lovely descriptions. Faeries, you see, can be as dark as they are beautiful, and the darker ones gather in the Unseelie Court to torment other unfortunate faeries (though it must be said that the denizens of the Seelie Court do not seem as much gentler as simply more adept at concealing their dark side).

Kaye stumbles through this new world very believably, with all the charm and wonder of any of my favorite YA heroes or heroines. Black’s characters are vivid and enjoyable, especially the faerie, and some of the encounters between Kaye and her mysterious knight are truly a delight to read. The world of faerie, too, is wonderfully imagined, with many nods to all of the discourse of that world: faeries are famously bound by spoken promises, ancient rules, and customs, and Black makes sure that Kaye snags herself more than once on the jagged edges of that rough world.

The story itself seems slightly rough in parts, specifically the pacing. Events come to climax too quickly, or arise before the reader has a chance to process what was happening. There are almost two books here: one that happens before Kaye discovers the Unseelie Court, and one after. Following the story is not a problem, but I didn’t feel as much tension as I thought it deserved, because it kept getting sidetracked. Nonetheless, this is a world I would be happy to revisit, and fortunately, Black has written two more books: “Valiant,” and the recently-released “Ironside,” which continues Kaye’s story.

I had the good pleasure of attending a book signing in which Holly Black and her friend and fellow author Cassandra Clare signed books and gave a very enjoyable presentation. Black’s dissection of urban fantasy and the relationship back to old fairy tales was particularly interesting. Clearly, she not only knows what she’s doing, but she has a sense of history and literature. She also signs with a great quotation, which I have yet to figure out how to do consistently. Even if you can’t get it signed, I still recommend picking up her book. It’s a fun, quick read, and if you haven’t read YA fantasy since “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” it’s unlike anything you’ve read before.

Elation and Frustration

I just finished “Tithe” by Holly Black (review forthcoming) and was struck by a linking theme between that and the Harry Potter books, which I’m listening to on audio (just started book 6, so I’m ahead of schedule). Both of them deal with magical worlds that exist side by side with our own, below the surface, as it were. Now, I have no desire to write a story about a wizarding world (Rowling pretty much owns that space), nor about faerie (not without becoming a lot more conversant in the extensive discourse going on with those worlds–I am familiar with some of it, like Greg Bear’s excellent “Songs of Earth and Power,” but I never read, for instance, any of the <color> Fairy books, and I am largely unaware of the current flood of YA urban fantasy out there, though taking steps to remedy that). However, that line of thought did give me an idea, which turned into a story, and in the space of a day, I have another idea for a book to write.

This is cool. This is spectacularly fun. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any of the current projects I’m working on finished any faster, nor does it give me any more time in the day to take care of this idea. The good news is that this story is probably a shorter novel than I’m accustomed to writing, and the idea is one of those burning ones (in Greg Bear’s parlance, a vibrant new world) that supplies a lot of its own energy.

Now I just need a month off to write it. So what do you do when you get an idea like that? Put it on the shelf and finish your current projects, or dive right into it and figure the others will take care of themselves eventually?