Category Archives: Advice

Why Bad Books Matter (to Writers, anyway.)

. . . So, to tell you about bad books, I have to go back a little bit in history; I have to tell you a little about nursing school. Nursing school, you see, is as close to hell as you can get as a nominally free citizen– the hours are brutal, the respect is nil, the wages are zero, and you see many sights that Cannot Be Unseen. Really freaky stuff that messes with your head, too, dead people and surgical screw-ups and the vacant gazes of people who have decided they want to die and you’re just an inconvenient pause in their plans. Not to mention frequently running into patients who like to flick HIV-laden blood in your face and expose their shriveled manhoods to you and other indignities. It’s not fun.

I went through nursing school, the first semester, while heavily pregnant with my 4th child (not counting the stepson.) The second semester, I was a weepy postpartum mess trying to pump breastmilk in hostile conditions while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and raising a family. Yeah, not good. My baby turned sickly from being in daycare all day, which led to hospitalizations and drama, and I spent my second year in nursing school going to school all week and then working all weekend as a “nurse tech,” which is basically a technical term for “the bitch of every real nurse on the floor.” I also developed plantar fasciitis, which is about as much fun as having someone do a crucifixion on your feet every night before work.

During my preceptorship, I had to assist in delivering a dead baby girl. That messed me up, badly. I barely had the ability to finish my final project and walk the stage (although my grades were, annoyingly to everyone else, still at the top of the class, if not the actual top. I didn’t bother to check.) After I graduated, I was elated. I immediately got a job, a job with a staggering amount of personal responsibility that I had also heard had a high turnover rate (I should have been suspicious right then) but it was a real job! With a real wage! And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have to go to school anymore! I could READ again!

So, being the more-than-slightly overly-ambitious woman that I have always been, I decided that what I needed to do was to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.  I sunk a large amount of money into a stack of the books on the list (from Amazon, of course) and dove in. I started with “Henderson the Rain King”, which was a somewhat odd choice, but the cover looked really neat with the big lion on it and, hey, Saul Bellow. Real literature with a capital L, people.

And it was wonderful– Henderson the Rain King is a really great book, especially when you’re in your mid-30s and wondering if life has a point and, if so, WTF is it?

The job didn’t last long– my husband transferred to Florida and I gratefully handed in my resignation before management could find a way to pin me with some legal responsibility for the next screwup. And, given that all my stress was suddenly gone, the baby we’d been trying to conceive for the previous year decided that, yes, he’d immediately be conceived after all, so I never went back to work as a nurse.

But I kept trying to read, with the stated goal that I’d read all those darn books by the time I was 40. By the time I hit 39, with several major health problems along the road, my newest toddler with a rare disease, and yet another baby on the way, I decided that finishing wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t going to fail any huge existential crisis by not finishing by 40, after all.

And I’ve kept plugging along at it. At this point, today at the ripe age of 43, I have seven titles left out of 100– James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses,” “The Big Money” by John Dos Passos, “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy” by James T. Farrell, and the ominously 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell.

I’m basically down to the books that I am having to force myself through by sheer will. I have developed a fondness for Henry James, so he gets a pass, and I haven’t delved deep enough into the Dance to the Music of Time to even really get a feel for whether or not it’s a monstrosity or a delight, but the others . . . ohhhh. I loathe them. I hate them with a rare passion which could fill volumes.

And, yet, these are books which have been acknowledged, by thousands of people, to be true classics of Western Literature. How dare I, a humble little fantasy author, dare to say that they’re bad books? How, if they are bad books, do they get so much acclaim?

And there’s the secret right there, my dear readers: tastes vary. Some of these books on this list were written a long time ago, for very different audiences. Some of them have completely lost their cultural context– quick, tell me the relevance of all the people John Dos Passos includes in his character sketches, given that they’re a bunch of union rabble-rousers and Communists from the 1919-1940 period! Tell me how much “Tobacco Road” has ever mattered, considering what a schlocky piece of prejudicial crap it is, other than to give Yankees another reason to look down on Southerners. And please, find me a reason to respect VS Naipaul besides the fact that he comes from an underrepresented culture so we’re forced to swallow his bilge wholesale.

Some of the books, most of the books, on this list are amazing books. They’ve changed my heart, touched my soul, given me hope and strength, and allowed me to better navigate the tides of my life. And some of them have been crap, and I’ve read them wondering why I force myself through this. I’m not getting a grade– no one is giving me some kind of medal for reading these books. I’m not getting extra credit. So why, besides some kind of completionist obsession, would I force myself through something like “Catch-22” when it’s like listening to a long boring joke told by some tottery old uncle with no sense of humor?

As far as I can figure out, fumbling through these books on my own, the bad books have something to teach me as well. They may teach me something about a part of our history that I’m not too familiar with– Under the Volcano, Zulieka Dobson, and Angle of Repose all fit in that category. They may teach me about how to write truly repellent characters– for this one, all you have to read, really, is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They may teach me different writing techniques, they may teach me nothing that I can even discern at first, but just getting through them requires me, as a writer, to do the most difficult thing that any writer has to do:

I have to put myself into someone else’s head.

That’s never easy– so many of our characters are just us, different aspects of us, writ large and split into different people. My daughter, who is reading my novel “Dragon Venom” right now, sometimes comes up to me and points out a passage that sounds like some aspect of my personality, digs out a joke that sounds like something I would have made, or accuses me wholesale of excavating one aspect of my psyche and turning it into a character entire. Well, of course, I am the person I know best. Of course I mine myself for material. But I also have to examine other people, learn about them, predict what they would do, and make extrapolations from there. And that’s where these books that I loathe come in handy.

Because they are decidedly NOT me. I’d never have gotten myself into the mess that the protagonist let himself in for in The Magus. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I would have killed off every character in “The Rainbow” rather than have it end as it did. The House of Mirth made me hate weakness in myself as much as it made me hate the protagonist for her weak decadent fate. Some of the characters make so little sense to me (hello, JP Donleavy), that I can’t even begin to figure out what they’re thinking. And I don’t want to– they’re jerks.

But that’s been the only good part about all these bad books. Many people disagree that they’re bad in the first place– to say, publicly, that you hate James Joyce because he was playing the system doesn’t make you especially well-loved by people who admire him for masterfully playing the system. That’s an insolvable problem, there. I will always see him as a man obsessed by his own literary fame, and they will see him as a genius who struggled to make his vision clear to the world. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

And I will, for these next two months, agree to force myself through it, no matter how bitter the taste. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe– the man had talent, that’s for sure, I just disagree about the uses he put it to. I’m halfway through “Catch 22” and “The Ambassadors”, just a long boring bath or two from finishing Studs Lonigan and The Big Money. The Dance to the Music of Time 12 book series? Seriously? I am having the hardest time with that one. So far, Book 1 has been a “British boys away at boarding school” thing and it’s giving me no particular thrills. I am hoping that it gets interesting quickly, because that’s the only stumbling block on my road to completion of this now-decades-long reading challenge that I saddled myself with.

I am hoping to learn something that I will need on this next novel-writing journey. Because my goal, dear readers, is not to just crank out another novel in a boring trilogy and pad out my word count. My goal, my eternal goal, is to get better with each book– I want you to care about my characters. I want you to cringe when they die, rejoice when they win, suffer with them when they’re in troubles and tribulations. I want them to be as real people as they can be, given that they’re characters in a book. I want the action to flow naturally and logically from the plot. I don’t want to shrink from making the big decisions– I want the bravery and the love to do the right thing, to write the book the right way, and to give you a book at the end of it which will make you happy to have read it.

And that is why bad books matter– they show you, better than anything else, what you don’t feel is true, what you don’t feel is right, and how not to do things.

Wish me luck in applying these lessons!

 

 

 

 


Suicide Kings

My heart is broken yet again. Another singer has killed himself, killed himself in the ultimate abnegation of his own vocal skills– hanging, a psychological end to the voice and breath itself. And I am angry. And hurt. And very very sad.

Chester Bennington wasn’t my favorite musician ever. Chris Cornell, yes, he was. But Chester was yet another tormented and talented soul, a man with a family and things to live for, an artist who was still producing new works, a human being who deserved better than a solitary end.

I don’t even have words for how frustrating this is– I know how it feels to be that alone, to feel that desperate, and to take those steps towards making the pain cease. Luckily for me, someone had my six and was able to pull me back from the brink, twice. But this is an ongoing problem for people who have suicidal impulses. I have fought my own fight with depression since 12, and with suicidal thoughts since I was seventeen. Goodness knows how long Chester fought, but judging from his lyrics and his life history, he’d been fighting the same demons since his early teens at least. And Chris Cornell, too– another artist, another life history that begins with severe mental problems in their early teens. In both cases, these talented beautiful humans lost their battle, and it isn’t right.

We need people to be able to ask those hard questions, every damned day if you have to. “How are you feeling?” “How are the bad feelings today?” “Do you feel like hurting yourself?” “Can I help you somehow?” “Do you need meds/rest/food/help?” “What can I do to make things better?”

Even if they aren’t able to vocalize a really good response, you need to ask them. For someone who you know has suicidal impulses, you need to watch their behavior. And, no, it isn’t fair. Yes, it’s a hell of a burden. But it’s what you do when you love someone who has these problems. You lock up the guns, you lock up the pills, and if they’re really low, you check them into a hospital as an inpatient so they can get the help they need.

We need to stop acting like it’s somehow shameful or embarrassing for people to struggle with suicidal ideation. We don’t bury suicides at the crossroads anymore, people. If someone you love is fighting this fight, you need to be on their side, not just helplessly standing on the sidelines.

Yes, sometimes people do this “out of the blue.” I am not discounting that. But for someone who has a lifelong history of mental problems, they can be just one sudden shift to serious depression away from an attempt upon their own lives. Even when everything else was going okay, even when they seemed at the top. All it takes is one thing going to hell in a handbasket, and that can be enough of a trigger.

Because suicide, by its nature, is not a rational act. People do this when they are hurting out of all proportion to what they feel they can endure. We will never know the full story of why these two men decided to do this thing. But they were certainly full of pain. I’m sure their families and their fans all wish they could just go back in time, say the things, find the fix. Sometimes, you know, there isn’t a way to stop someone. But we can try. We SHOULD try. We should fight suicide like we fight cancer, with all our guts and love and anger and determination. There is a cure out there somewhere, but no one seems to be looking. We need to find that cure.

And in the meantime, use your love, use every ounce of it, to hold on to the ones you hold dear. God bless.

 


Alienating your Audience

Nightwish

I’ll be honest, I *think* this is has the newest singer in it, but they change them like shoes with the season, so . . ..

Okay, let’s just throw it out there. Artists are artists for a reason– they want to put their music, literature, art, whatever it may be, out there for the public to experience. (If they hide it in a box, this still implies a vague hope that someone will find it after they die. Otherwise, you’d burn that stuff.)

This often includes putting in a huge chunk of your ideals, religion, philosophy, and (most certainly) your personality. That’s just the way it is. And people’s opinions, religions, philosophies, and such all change over the course of your lifespan.

Certainly, I’m not the same person I was 18 years ago when I was doing most of my writing. So many things have happened to me that aren’t public record, so many little changes, experiences, traumas, and joys . . . you couldn’t expect someone to stay the same for that long. So I don’t expect artists to do it, either– and I don’t simply listen to artists whose views perfectly align with my own. I spend a good deal of my life explaining to people that, yes, I can listen to a musician who happens to be a flaming atheist without the least remorse. Some elements of their beliefs may come through in their music, sure, but I’m an adult, I can pick out the stuff I like and ignore the ranting bits.

And, hey, sometimes ranting is not a binary sort of thing. I was amused when Rage Against the Machine objected so strenuously to Paul Ryan naming them as one of his favorite bands. We don’t get to choose our audiences– what kind of art would that be? Some sort of self-referential masturbatory exercise, bleh. My opinions on Paul Ryan aren’t much more positive than Tom Morello’s are, I’m sure, but you have to admit that a rich musician has more in common with a rich politician than he’d probably care to admit. And, hey, Morello can always hope that his sometimes bizarre guitar solos will induce a seizure in the politician and bring about some kind of late-in-life political swing.

But anyway, wouldn’t you like to at least admit the possibility that the most folks in the country STILL don’t disagree with the people on the opposite side of such things on basic principles like babies shouldn’t be starving and nuking our world is probably a very bad idea. Maybe having people who disagree with you listen to your music or read your books or look at your pictures can be a good thing. Maybe, hey, you can open eyes through your art, who knows. Living in an echo chamber is boring AF.

The problem comes in when you suddenly do a 180 degree switch to something that’s out and out religious or political when your audience has previously not looked to you for wisdom of that sort. If you’re at all familiar with Rage Against the Machine, the fact that they stood naked on stage to protest censorship, or that they support the Zapatistas isn’t going to surprise you. If, however, Zach De La Rocha suddenly released a cd of Marian hymns and polyphony chant, you’d be more than surprised. Some people would be thrilled (hey, I would) but most of their audience would be pissed. That wasn’t what they were selling before, so what’s with the switch?

The Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish did something of a similar sort with their 8th album, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.” Oh, Nightwish has always been a little wonky on the religion side of things– Finland isn’t exactly a hotbed of Christianity at this point, our efforts to Christianize them having fallen through quite some time ago. Finland actually has the lowest population of Catholics in Europe, and even most of those are emigre Poles. But the songwriter/mastermind of the band mostly confined himself to topics of fantasy, nature, and whimsy, with the rare song like “Wish I Had an Angel” that is actually blasphemous (in a sort of “I want to write a bad-boy metal song” kind of way.)

Then, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful. . . in which, Nightwish suddenly swerved into atheistic Darwinism of the most unthinking type– the type that considers religious people to be deluded and stupid and inferior, instead of just people who happen to disagree with you about the probability of the existence of a deity. Sigh.

It’s a painful thing when a band which you’ve enjoy, whose albums you have bought, decides to write songs telling you that “You live only for the days to come, Shoveling trash of the upper caste” in “Weak Fantasy.” And in “Yours is an Empty Hope,” he follows it up with imagining the vitriol that he will receive online with musings like “Feed me to pigs in your fantasies, Your sea roars bitter elegies . . . Yours is an empty hope.”

Well, gee, I don’t know what you expected, Tuomas. Basically, since Nightwish brought on the uilleann pipes guy, the lyrics have started to sound like they were written after a few too many late-night marijuana-induced discussions of the nature of reality. You had an audience, and doubtless you will retain a great part of it and probably gather in new listeners, too. And I don’t wish them ill in this. Musically, Tuomas Holopainen is a gifted artist. I’m just surprised, myself, at the tone that Mr. Holopainen has taken. A decade ago, he stated that he wasn’t religious, but “doesn’t consider religion to be bad.” Then, a decade later, there’s a bunch of trash-talking, virulence, and . . .  all this.

No, you shouldn’t expect your audience to like every change you make. Ask Chris Cornell (who was in Audioslave with three members of Rage Against the Machine)– he made a more pop-sounding solo album with Timbaland as a producer and the critics and audience savaged him over it. They have tastefully stopped talking about it now that he’s impressed them with a new Soundgarden album and his Songbook tour, so he’s largely been forgiven for his unexpected shift into different territories. (Me, I loved that cd, so I never considered there to be anything to forgive. I don’t see eye to eye with Mr. Cornell on many political subjects, but he’s a damn fine musician and a great artist.)

But, you know, there’s being dignified when you make a change and it upsets and angers people, and then just moving on, deciding what you’re going to do next, and working on that next thing. You can take some of the advice you get, reject the rest, and do whatever your heart and mind and soul tell you is the right thing to do. Or you can get pissy about it and probably finish the job of alienating those people forever. It’s always, always, up to you.

All I can say about my own work is that I welcome thoughtful criticism. Trolling and flaming, well, those suck, so don’t comment with those and we’ll get along fine. Trolls get banned, that’s the standard rule of the road around here.

And I can guarantee that there’s going to be religious and spiritual and psychological and horror and fantasy and blood and guts and sexuality and all sorts of messy topics in my work. Just so you know. But my treatment of those topics is what makes my work, well, MINE. Unless I have one of those guitar-solo-induced seizures and suddenly change my basic personality, none of that’s going to change too much.

 

 

 


Gratuitous Gore in Game of Thrones

Caution: Extensive Spoilers Ahead! For both the Song of Ice and Fire books AND the Game of Thrones HBO series! Abandon Hope, All Ye who Enter!

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So, anyway, last night I finally caught up with Game of Thrones on my DVR. What can I say, it’s been a busy week. Anyhow, I was generally pleased by the changes that the tv series has made to the book storyline– at this point, I am almost ready to call it a completely alternate universe of Westeros and be done with comparing the two universes. Most of the main characters have been improved hugely beyond their characterization in the texts, and many of the pacing problems of the books have been avoided. One tiny little thing niggled at me, though, when the show was through . . . a tiny pinkie finger, and the torments thereof.

You see, in “A Storm Of Swords”, the book that Season 3 of the show is mostly following, we do not see or hear of the fate of Theon Greyjoy. He basically disappears from the text, only reappearing in the later books, transformed utterly by the experiences he’s had in the interim. Those experiences, at the hands of the bastard of Bolton, are essentially tortures that are almost unimaginable in cruelty and sadism. Thankfully, GRRM doesn’t subject us to every detail of them. The aftermath, and the slow reveal of all Theon’s missing appendages and broken bits, is horrifying enough.

The television series, on the other hand, has subjected us now to several scenes of graphic torture. I have to say that I entirely disapprove of this– not just because torture is sickening to watch (which it IS), but because it’s a lousy choice to portray something so graphically for such an extended time. Eventually, the audience recoils– if you’ve ever watched the movie “Casino”, I bet you can remember the point at which you sat back and said “Now, this is just sick for sickness’s sake.” There comes a point where the mind, in order to protect itself, just shuts down the empathy section and refuses to care about these characters anymore.

A lot of people had that reaction to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, so it’s not just mobster movies that can tilt the emotional pinball machine. By choosing to hit us with graphic scenes of torture, both physical, as in the first scene of having his feet broken in the screws and the later scene where his finger is flayed, and psychological, as in the mind-boggling false escape and the later game of lies, the television series risks the very real possibility that the audience will just dissociate themselves from the events. I’ve read several comments on various websites that lead me to believe that a lot of people are having that reaction already. They’ve gone from squirming in their seats in horror to just walking out of the room to get a soda or something.

In a way, it’s a sort of PTSD of TV. Not to trivialize the very real disorder, but for sufferers OF those types of disorders, especially, these scenes may be unbearable even to read about.

I think GRRM chose the right path in his books. By letting us slowly see the results of torture instead of the torture itself, we are allowed to gradually build up some feelings for the broken betrayer of the Starks. He’s done hideous things, but what was done to him was, in a way, his payment for those crimes. The Theon at the end of Book 5 is not the Theon of Book 1. He’s been shattered and is slowly piecing himself back together. It’s one of GRRM’s better pieces of characterization.

By showing us the torture, perhaps the show’s directors felt they were making sure we knew that Theon paid his dues in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. I think it’s too much of an appeal to our worst sides, too much like what people call “torture porn.” There’s a faintly lascivious air . . . which is made even more apparent in the final scene of torment of the episode “The Climb” . . . a scene that I knew was coming but was very nauseated by anyhow.

I had a feeling that the character of “Ros” on the show was due for a death– she had no more real role to play in the events to come, and her usefulness was pretty much over once Sansa and Littlefinger went on to their next destination. I was expecting her to be written out . . . maybe not expecting her to be explicitly shown to be the harlot that Littlefinger sent to an unpleasant demise at the hands of a sadist. But her death scene, in her ripped clothes and cross-bow-crucified pose, was another instance of “too much” in the graphic (and sexualized) violence scale. Mercifully, the scene was brief, but the image lingers in the mind. It’s reminiscent of the queerly obsessive attention that we still pay to the Jack the Ripper Murders. Murder, when it involves a prostitute, seems to become another sort of “service” that they’re providing for the public. By being paraded around by the media in pictures (or carefully positioned and shot in a television reenactment), the public is led to what is, essentially, another exploitation of them.

Yes, yes, it’s all for the audience, and we keep watching so it must be okay with us . . . but will we keep watching? As the thousands of books, websites, and magazine articles about the Jack the Ripper case can attest, we probably will. The scenes of Littlefinger’s whorehouse are, mercifully, now at an end as he moves off to court Lysa Arryn, but the camera’s lustful eye will soon turn to Dorne and the scantily-clad southern women, to Meereen and the scantily-clad women, to Braavos and, well, more scantily-clad women . . . and then there’s the torments ahead for our various heroes and villains. How many more torture scenes with Theon do the directors expect us to endure? The one in this episode dropped my own internal rating of the show down. Any more, and I’ll be strolling to the kitchen instead of sitting on the couch . . . and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the people at HBO want me to do.

Cut the torment, Game of Thrones. Have some mercy upon your viewers, even if there is none (story-wise) for poor Ros and Theon.


Christmas distractions

So yesterday began our annual “12 Days of Christmas Baking” tradition, wherein my older daughter and I turn a significant portion of our energy over to cookies and cleanup.

So far, we’ve taken it easy– caramel marshmallow popcorn on Wednesday and decorated powdered donuts (store bought) for today. Things step up tomorrow, though, with the addition of St. Lucia buns. That should be interesting, as I’m also going to be steaming up a huge pile of tamales. Yum.

So, writing is about the last thing on my mind. I’m still reading the Pulitzer winners and I picked up some good reference books about topics related to books I want to write. So I’m still thinking, I’m just not writing. At least, not until after Christmas.

In the meantime, I’ll be reading, watching movies, and baking. And trying to enjoy this Christmas as if it were my last. You never know. My dear friend Judy is not with us this year. It makes me wish I’d done more to make the holiday brighter for her. We only get one chance at life, though.

So live the holidays well. Peace.


5 Things Never to Say to a Writer

So, I’ve been a bit discouraged lately, and in my discouragement I reached out to some friends and got varying advice from them. So, in tribute to my friends and their advice, I offer you some advice of my own: Five Things Never to Say to a Writer, no matter how Depressed and Discouraged they may be:

1. “Well, you might take up another hobby.” Doubly bad, implying that your writing is just a hobby and that you need a new one.

2. “You just need practice.” Ouch. So I’m that bad, huh?

3. “You’re not a bad writer, but . . .” Anything followed by “But” is automatically bad. Do not use.

4. “I just got busy and put your book down and then forgot about it.” Aha. So it does suck. Nobody “forgets” to read the newest bestseller.

5. “I hear that McDonalds is hiring . . .” The kiss of death. 🙂 Pick out your best black outfit for my funeral.

Thanks, guys. I guess I’ll be looking into pottery or stamp collecting next. 😉

(Not really.)