Monday, November 29, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time

Welcome back, everybody! I hope your Thanksgiving (or, if you're not American, your Thursday) was full of family, friends, and lots of food. Now, it's back to business. Like last year, I thought the best way to greet the "official" Christmas season was to remind everyone that books make the best gifts. Here are some of my top picks, all buzzworthy and published in 2010, that might inspire your shopping list:

Fiction:
Room by Emma Donoghue. The hype around this book was built all year, and when it was finally released this past fall, the book definitely lived up to it. In it, five-year-old, Jack, and his mother are confined to a tiny room, greeted only by the disturbing "Old Nick." Their room is simultaneously thought of as Jack's entire world and his mother's torturous prison.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Another young narrator. Another fantastically told story. Pretty much anything by Jennifer Egan is guaranteed to be great.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris. Fans of Sedaris' nonfiction already own this, but if you have a short story lover on your shopping list, this is a nice gateway into Sedaris' pitch perfect essays. Plus, it's cute and quirky, and has that trademark cynicism we all know and love.

Also, obligatory shout-out to J. Franz's Freedom. I know we're all sick of it and him, but it really is quite good. It'll make a perfect gift for the literary snob or MFA student in your family.

Nonfiction:
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. I bought this book earlier this year because I am one of those people who have embraced technology, yet slightly fear that we're headed toward a science fiction dystopia because of it. This book helps to create a balance and teaches you not to fear or criticize technology because you'll only get left behind. But, don't let technology control you either. Moral: remain human.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Vol. 1. We've waited 100 years for this. It's certainly on my Christmas list, and if you have anyone to buy for who also loves satire, literary icons, cultural relevance, and general curmudgeon-ry, this is the perfect gift for them too.

Life by Keith Richards and Just Kids by Patti Smith are also top nonfiction picks for the music fan on your list.

Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy:
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. This is Book 2 of The Strain trilogy. I'm currently reading it and it is just as scary and exciting as the first. The Strain is a lot like the other major grown-up vampire novel this year, The Passage, but to me, The Passage just couldn't hold my attention enough for this type of novel. Del Toro and Hogan have similar "viral" vampires and a diverse cast of characters, but, to me, they just get the genre in a way that makes their series work better.

Mockingjay and/or a Hunger Games boxed set by Suzanne Collins. That's right. I took this out of the YA recommendations. 

Mystery/Thriller: 
Faithful Place by Tana French. I know I recommended her other two books last year, but she came out with a new one in 2010, so I must continue my personal mission of making everyone in the world a Tana French fan. She is simply fantastic and takes the mystery genre to a place that reaches far beyond that aisle in the supermarket.

** Curtis Brown promo alert ** Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackman, who was formerly repped by our dearly departed Nathan Bransford, but still a proud member of the CB family. Rock Paper Tiger has a kickass heroine, an exotic setting, and a pace that's head-spinningly fast (in a good way).

Young Adult:
The Duff by Kody Keplinger. Kody is a friend-o'-blog, but even if she wasn't, The Duff is still one of the most refreshing pieces of realistic YA to come out in a while. Bianca, the main character, is the "duff" of her friends (designated ugly fat friend) and through that label, she becomes one of the strongest female characters to hit the YA shelves this year.

And for the fan of the paranormal:
Matched by Ally Condie. Get ready, this book comes out tomorrow! Much-hyped and even featured in Entertainment Weekly, who always give YA the respect it deserves, Matched is being compared to 1984, The Giver, and Never Let Me Go. Set in a "perfect" society, Cassia begins to think for herself and questions the nature of her world.

** Curtis Brown promo alert ** Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. I recommended her two adult novels last year, but Jeri published her first YA this year and it is just plain fantastic. Aura is a teenager who can see and speak to ghosts, which isn't exactly weird since everyone else her age and younger can too. When her boyfriend, Logan, dies, and she meets the hot! new boy, Zach, she's trapped in a love triangle with the ghost she loves and the living boy who can help her unlock the secret of her generation's abilities.

Picture Book:
OK, you got me. I'm not a fan of picture books. Or rather, I don't have the appropriate expertise in knowing good vs. bad picture books. But, buying Of Thee I Sing, Barack Obama's picture book for his daughters, just might stimulate the economy.

There were a ton of great books published this year and it's impossible for me to list them all. Hopefully these remind you of what's been celebrated (with good reason!) this year and lead you in the right direction.

Happy shopping season! And - your annual reminder - books make great gifts, but they make even better gifts when they're bought at your local indie bookstore. Or at a Borders, which is basically an indie at this point. Sigh.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Three Fundamental Problems

This weekend I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as did most of you, I'm sure. I thought it was everything it should have been, and then some, and I really loved it.

OK. Now that that's cleared up, I want to discuss my three HUGE problems with it. I'll give the obligatory **Spoiler Alert** warning, but my problems won't give anything away to those who read the books and they really have nothing to do with the plot overall. But, you've been warned anyway.

1. Gratuitous nudity. I had read in Entertainment Weekly that Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson kiss in the movie. This confused me greatly because Harry and Hermione definitely do not kiss in the book and nowhere in the series did JK Rowling allude to a love triangle. One of the great strengths of the book is that Harry doesn't get the girl. He gets everything else. Plus, Ron and Hermione are just better together. So, when it came to the kissing scene in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, I was relieved that it was all just a terrible trick being played on Ron by the forces of darkness.

Then, as the camera pans away, it becomes obvious Harry and Hermione are in a naked embrace (and wearing bronzer), and the swirls of fog below their waists imply either 1) they have no legs or 2) they are having sex. In either case, is this necessary? No! Of course it's not. Regardless of how old the actors are in real life (which is still only about 20, 21, by the way), they are playing 17 year olds in a series that, despite its evolution, is still largely appealing to young children. Teenagers have sex, yes. But not in Harry Potter. Gratuitous nudity is bad enough in movies, but when teenagers are involved, it takes on a new level of perversion which, while I'm not offended by in this case, remain disappointed in.

As writers, we should keep in mind that JK Rowling didn't allow such foolishness to occur in her books. Sex doesn't need to sell an already massively successful series. If Harry and Hermione, or any other two characters, actually had sex in the books, then go wild, Hollywood. Nudity all around. But writers should not add something that doesn't enrich, or stay true to, the plot just for the sake of shock value. As a rule, writers shouldn't really include anything, shock value or otherwise, that doesn't add to the story.

2. No one liked Jar Jar Binks anyway. OK, so in the Harry Potter movies, he's called Dobby, but you know what I mean. I suspect that Problem #2 will cause the most controversy here because I know there are people who like Dobby. To them I say, it's nothing personal. But to me, Dobby was obnoxious in Book 2, was the source of a terribly annoying subplot in Book 4 (remember SPEW?), and his death in Book 7 left me saying "finally!"

Regardless on one's opinion about Dobby as a character, my main problem with his death scene in Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was its length. Dobby was comic relief at best and a very minor character throughout the entire series. I was much more upset about Hedwig's death, both in the book and in the movie, because what did Hedwig ever do to anyone except deliver their mail? But I digress.

In a final book that kills off several important and beloved characters, some of whom managed to die within the first twenty minutes of the movie, the film decides to give this minor character a hero's death and later shows a teary-eyed Harry demanding a proper burial. Then, inexplicably, they show the burial! I'm sorry, movie producers, but there's a whole lot of book left to portray. I don't have the time or the level of care to waste on a CGI elf who, if you're only judging by the movies, hasn't been seen since Chamber of Secrets.

As I said, my hatred of Dobby as a character is strictly subjective. But there is still a writerly lesson to be learned here. Minor characters are important and can be beloved (see my Hedwig comment above), but in a series as rich as Harry Potter when so many other fates are at stake, characters should be treated with an appropriate weight. JK Rowling wrote off some very important characters as causalities of a war, and even though I was shocked at quickly some of them went, I understood what she was doing. Death scenes are hard to write, but keeping in mind the context in which you are writing them might make them a little bit easier. In the case of the Deathly Hallows film, Dobby's death was undeserving of the level of attention it received, which, for me, made the rest of the movie a little bit weaker.

3. Do Harry and Ginny Even Like Each Other? In the final season of The West Wing, the writers realized there were only a few episodes of the series left to go, so they very quickly remembered to get Josh and Donna together. This halfassed-ry cheapened their relationship for the audience who waited seven years to see it happen. Enter another seven-year series and say hello to Harry and Ginny.

Ginny has a girlish crush on Harry from the very beginning of the series, but Harry basically ignores her until Book 6, presumably because she finally grew boobs and Cho Chang had recently proven herself to be a popularity whore. Harry and Ginny walk off into the sunset, making out in the woods, and doing all the stuff teenagers in love do when they're restricted to the pages of a children's book. Good for Ginny! Who doesn't like finally making out with their crush? Good for Harry too because Ginny is awesome. But, other than the occasional kiss, what chemistry is there between these two characters? They lack the passion of Ron and Hermione and their longest conversation resulted in Harry saying, "Sorry, but I have to leave you for an undetermined number of months so I can destroy a bunch of horcruxes." I like to think Book-Ginny thought to herself, Whatevs, I'll see what Dean Thomas is up to.

The lack of believability in book-version Harry and Ginny look like a romance novel compared to the way the films completely ignore their budding relationship. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 showed the two share a brief (and adorable) kiss early on, and when Harry, Ron, and Hermione flee for their lives, Harry calls out Ginny's name. That's the last time he says her name throughout the rest of the movie. Yes, he has bigger things on his mind, and I appreciated when Ron calls him out for being so seemingly uncaring. Still, it made me sad to know that Ginny ends up marrying Harry. Even though Harry is "chosen," Ginny deserves better. I mean, would it kill him to wonder aloud what Ginny's up to, or, ya know, if she's alive?

It made me wonder why Harry needed to end up with someone at all. It's the equivalent of making a female protagonist have a "happy ending in the form of marriage." Harry doesn't need to end up with anyone. He's already pretty amazing on his own. Ginny's strength matches his, so she'd be the best choice, but the audience doesn't necessarily need to see that happen. When writing, think of whether your characters really need romance by their story's end. Girls like Cho and guys like Dean are fine throughout - even a Harry and Ginny love affair is all well and good - but giving two characters a happily ever after because you feel obligated to do so isn't doing anyone any favors, characters included.

Friday, November 19, 2010

HARRY POTTER MANIA!

To those who saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 at midnight or are going today: "sshhhh!!!!!!" I'm not going until tomorrow.

HP fans are a rabid bunch. You hear about people lining up for the latest Star Wars movie, but the level of excitement for the final(ish) Potter film is extra special because the hype originated from BOOKS! I know there's this other massively successful series called Sparkly Vampire Goes West or something, but I never experienced waiting on line for those books at midnight, nor have I had to endure a two-hour wait just to see one their movies. So, to me, HP still wins in the fan department.

In honor of Harry Potter weekend, I ask you: What does Harry Potter mean to you? Even if you're not a fan of the series (to which I ask, what!?), you probably have an opinion on something that's meant so much to so many for over a decade. Despite her billions, I wouldn't call Ms. Rowling a sell-out or a Patterson-esque assembly line author. So what can we, as writers, learn from her success?

For those of you who have to wait A WHOLE DAY to see the new movie, here are some fun links to hold you over:

From @jezebel: Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco practice their American accents and look adorable doing it.

From @sjaejones: What's your Hogwarts Astrology? I was very happy that my sign (Aries) complimented my favorite house (Ravenclaw) quite nicely!

Finally, in a complete slip of the keyboard, I had originally titled this blog post "Harry Pottery Mania," which made me wonder if Harry Potter-themed pottery exists. What about Harry Potholders? Questions to ponder...

Have a good weekend, everyone! And whether you're getting tired of waiting on line at the cinema or are still struggling through NaNo, remember - CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

That Just Sounds Pathetic

Happy Wednesday, friends! It seems fitting that the first Story Time publication following my Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction post should be... nonfiction! Today's excerpt from a memoir is by friend-of-the-blog Amye Archer, whose work has appeared on Glass Cases before, and caused a bit of controversy in the comments section. Let's see if her new memoir can ignite the same fire (but, politely)!

But first, a bit about Amye. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in PANK, Twins Magazine, The Ampersand Review, Boston Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and Oak Bend Review. Her chapbook, "No One Ever Looks up" was published by Pudding House Press in 2007. You can read more about, and by, Amye on her blog, First Person.

That Just Sounds Pathetic: A Memoir
By Amye Archer

Chapter One: New York City

My sister belongs here and I don’t. We are in Manhattan, having just exited the 7 Train and scurrying towards daylight through a massive underground walkway that promises to spit us out onto 42nd Street. Jennie, my sister, blends right in. She skips the steps two at a time. She slinks to the right when she should, hugging the smooth white subway tile which hasn’t been its original color in probably close to sixty years. She snubs the homeless man playing an old guitar with only four strings.

I cannot help but stare. He is blacker than anyone I have ever seen. His skin is mud. His eyes are charcoal. His hands, almost yellow on the bottoms, strum across the strings. His voice slips out of his throat almost by accident, but it’s beautiful. I stop to watch him and am immediately hit from behind by a stroller wheel, followed by a purse, two guys speaking Arabic, a cane, three backpacks, and finally, my sister who has circled back for me on a recon mission.

“Come on, keep moving,” she instructs me.

The tunnel smells like hot garbage soup. It’s sweat and vomit and possibly urine, all at once. People walk in ropes. The right is heading towards the street. The left is descending further underground. We move so fast it looks like we are standing still. We are a machine. We create a hum. We are gears sliding back and forth under dim lights and hundred-story buildings overhead.

Twenty minutes ago we were on the 7 train from Queens into Manhattan. We were passing an old warehouse with busted out windows that had been taken over by artists as loft space. The shell of the building was covered in graffiti art. Not tags, not anti-Bush sentiments, but actual art. Twenty-foot-high portraits of Snoop Dogg and Batman sat next to volcanoes spewing body parts and suns setting behind silver clouds.

“It’s majestic,” Jennie pointed out. She sat across from me on the sleek air- conditioned train.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. Look at the Al Pacino! It looks just like him!” I shouted over the metallic squeal surrounding us.

“No, I mean what the artists are doing. They are taking industry and making it their own, taking it back and making it work for them,” she said.


Now, I can't keep up with her. I pant and huff and puff my way through the crowds. The tourists are the ones who stop right in the middle of the procession, Jennie told me when I first arrived, the important thing was to keep moving. That seems to be the rule in this city of a million distractions, keep moving. Moving about the city, navigating its subway system, transferring trains, and calling cars. It's what consumes those who live here. It becomes a battle within yourself to find the most efficient way to travel to your destination. Jennie and her friends spend up to an hour plotting their route before they even leave the house.

We find an exit and climb the twenty or so steps from the tunnel out onto 42nd street. Around us are a million people from every nook and cranny of the country. Lights flash, horns blare, profanity floats through the air tangled with exhaust and expensive perfume. Jennie stares at the city around her. We have our father's hair color, jet black, almost blue in the sun. Jennie's hair frames her face, poker straight with severe bangs. She wears jeans and long sleeves when it's ninety degrees out, as most locals do. She has long earrings, longer than most necklaces I've seen. They feather out into delicate silver fans that cascade down into waterfalls over her angular shoulder blades. Her eyes are tar balls, dark and slippery, staring lustfully at the buildings around her.

The same look she wore the summer she discovered boys in 1988 and ejected me from our clubhouse. It was a dilapidated structure that the kids in our neighborhood spent all summer building. Everything about it was unsafe. We stole rotted plywood from a garbage dump near our house, rusty nails from a neighbor's garbage can, and built our shanty on the side of a steep hill. It creaked and cracked when you walked over the floor, and if you stood for too long to one side, you could feel it lean.

Jennie was fourteen and dating a neighborhood boy who was about two years younger. I spied through the wide gaping hole in the door as Jennie’s teased hair, normally held a foot straight up in the air with gallons of aerosol hairspray, leaned precariously to the side as they kissed. The sucking and slurping sounds got louder as the boy laid on top of her and tugged at her clothes. I was eleven and had no idea what was going on. Soon, his hands were disappearing under the acid washed jeans we had worked so hard to button earlier that morning. They were so tight I couldn't imagine his hand slid under them with ease.

After that, Jennie was gone. She spent her days at school chasing boys, and her nights at home on the phone with them. Our clubhouse went from an innocent meeting place for neighborhood friends, to a den of inequity where Jennie and her friends could slip tongues and slide hands over sexual organs. Our parents made us rip it down.

I see that same look again in her eye tonight. Standing over three hundred miles away from our home, she is at home here. She is one of them. She is a New Yorker. She is a mural of culture and diversity. She has liquefied into the melting pot of Manhattan. She has heard its call, felt its pull, and forgotten us. And I realize, I have lost her yet again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Read. Prey. Exploit.

By now you have probably heard of the ghastly "James Frey Fiction Factory" news that broke over the weekend. In case you were away, this paragraph from the NY Magazine article sums it up:

"This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission."

Gross, right? The always brilliant Maureen Johnson had an equally brilliant blog post about it as well.

Writers, if this is not evidence of the importance of agents, I don't know what is. Desperation to get published is never an excuse to settle for anything less than what you deserve. What's more, Mr. Frey is going into my old stomping grounds - the MFA classroom - to prey on his victims. What strikes me as odd about this is that the average MFA candidate is not taught "high concept," or even knows what it means, and they usually scoff at genre fiction, but it seems as if that is all James is looking for.

The desire to get published and work with "super famous author" can make a person compromise their style, and I am not above advocating "commercializing" a novel for the sake of publication. But! You should never, ever compromise your ideals - whether it's in your writing or in your own self-worth. You are worth more than $250. Much, much more.

Speaking from an industry professional's point of view, this is appalling on many levels. It is an agent's job to protect the writer from contracts like this. Not only would the writer not get paid nearly enough for their work, but Frey makes it so his company can decide not to pay you at all. Add in a little stripping of rights, final say, and ability to protest and you have a nicely packaged fascist agreement. Writers, this is not the future of publishing. And while I know all of my loyal readers are too smart to fall for a contract like Frey's, there are others out there who hide behind larger advances and prey on the un-agented, feasting on their unprotected, and often uninformed, flesh.

My anger toward this is not motivated by selfishness. Yes, the very essence of my job is being tossed aside and put into question by this "other option," but there's a reason agents become agents. And it's not fame or fortune, trust me. It's also not to force writers into a bureaucracy and reap so-called benefits from them, like some writers (usually the rejected ones) sometimes believe. We get into this business because we love books and writers and want to see them succeed. And yes, the more money you make, the more money we make. This is our job, after all. While I can't speak for all agents, I'll say that a huge commission check is just an added bonus. Most of us do this because we honestly love it. We're your advocates and protectors who speak on your behalf because too many people like Frey exist.

Now, there's that other side of me. The one who is now going to speak as an MFA graduate. What makes me afraid of this Fiction Factory is that I know how many people will be tempted to take Frey up on his offer of doom. I have many opinions about my MFA, not all of them positive and most of which having to due with it being an expensive and useless degree. But, I entered a "NY literary scene" I was desperate to be a part of and it did, truly, make me a better writer.

That said, all I "learned" at The New School was how to be a better writer. My writing seminars and literature courses only had one educational motive - craft, craft, craft. No one ever bothered to prepare us for actual publication, or even how to go about getting an agent. If I wasn't already interning at an agency at the time, I probably wouldn't have even thought about the actual logistics of getting published. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the word "published" at all, but we were all forced to attend a three-week seminar on teaching. I guess for when we all failed and needed a fall-back career. No one went to this seminar after the first meeting, myself included.

Writers, as followers of blogs you know this, but as a reminder: getting published is not just (finally!) seeing your book in print. It's, ideally, your new career, and like any job, you are guaranteed protection for your contributions to "the company." We're like your boss, but instead of enforcing a dress code or making you attend awkward office parties, we just pay you. While it's a fun and rewarding business, it's also a business, and to think otherwise is irresponsible. This is one of my biggest problems with MFA programs. Writing for the sake of writing is all well and good, but if you want to turn it into a career, writing students are discouraged more than encouraged, and are rarely, if ever, given the facts.

If all you want is to just see your book in print, then self-publishing or Frey-style rip-offs probably would suit you just fine. But if you want to be an author, then hard work, perseverance, and having "the system" give you your due is what will make you successful. The easy way out is very tempting, especially in a business that makes you wait for every little thing, but giving in to a Frey contract is against your best interest and just plain heartbreaking for those of us who know better. You deserve more, writers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Today on LifeHacker, there was a tremendous list of tips for writing fiction by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. In his usual brilliance, he offers the sage advice of "be a sadist" and "don't waste the reader's time," among other nuggets of wisdom that he was 100% right about (much like he was about everything else in life.)

Writing nonfiction can be liberating and therapeutic, but it also can be scary, revealing, and overtly honest in a way you might not even have been prepared for. For fiction writers, the idea of writing nonfiction is just as limiting and difficult as I find fiction. That said, I'm having a great deal of fun giving fiction a whirl. So, to even the writing scales, I thought I'd offer you fiction writers a list of Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction, and if you already write creative nonfiction, feel free to use this as a checklist.

1. Find your voice. OK, this is Creative Writing 101, I know. So let me adjust it to show what I mean: "find your voice." Emphasis on the "your." Essay, memoir, and autobiography are all specific nonfiction sub-genres, but they all have one thing in common - you. The notion of nonfiction can sometimes make fiction writers feel as if they can't be creative. Hence, their voices, which are vibrant and quirky and dynamic in their novels tend to shift to textbook-mode when attempting to focus that energy on (gulp!) the truth.

2. Honesty Does Not Always Equal Truth. Think James Frey. Yes, his controversial "memoir" had its share of problems, but the core of his case was this: "hey, it was true to me." In this way, I'm on Team Frey, regardless of how I felt about A Million Little Pieces. No, you cannot say you went to a maximum security prison, sentenced to solitary confinement, and just barely escaped death when in reality, you went to a white collar prison for insider trading and were out in two months. That is what we call "fictionalized truth," which is, uh, fiction. You can combine real life people into one character to make for cleaner storytelling, paraphrase dialogue or exaggerate emotion (think David Sedaris), and use the hell out of metaphors.

3. Piss Off Your Family. If you're not writing something that you wouldn't want a real person in your life to read, you're probably doing it wrong. Chances are, the situations in your life worth writing about are the ones that have differing opinions of what really happened. Some people, even your dear, sweet, 100-year-old granny, might not come off in the best light. Or, you may have done interesting or controversial things that you didn't want [insert specific person here] to find out about. Remember: this is your story. Only your feelings, beliefs, and knowledge of the truth are what matter. You cheated on your husband with the pool boy? And you did it because he was inattentive, distant, or emotionally abusive? Write about it. If you have regrets, share them. If he was the epitome of evil, say so. You don't owe anyone anything when it comes to writing.

4. That Doesn't Mean You Don't Need Differing Perspectives. No one likes a pure good vs. pure evil story, not even in science fiction. While you get to write your life story, you don't get to falsely present yourself as the sole hero or sole victim of your narrative. Readers won't like it, and more importantly, it's probably not true. Nothing is ever so cut-and-dry, probably not even with that crappy husband from #3. Be just as complex, sympathetic, empowering, and realistic not just as your fictional characters, but as real life human beings!

5. Have a Story to Tell. This one sounds obvious, but it's an unfortunately necessary reminder. It's always so sad to me when I need to reject people who write about their battle with cancer or the death of their child or their parents brutal divorce that affected how they view the very notion of happiness. It's sad to me because I say, in my head, "ugh, who cares?" The thing is, I care. People care. You definitely care. But, most people have gone through what we have. Most of our tragedies are not especially poignant to anyone but us. If you're Angelina Jolie and you want to talk about the otherwise generic topic of your parents' divorce, then, well, that's different. But, when the average person with no (ugh, I hate to say this word) platform decides "my story will inspire others!," please remind yourself that while they may be true, it still won't sell. Writing for yourself as a means of therapy is one thing. I would never, ever, ever discourage people from writing about their personal traumas to help get over them. Just ask yourself, before putting it all in a query: "Why do people care about my specific experience involving this very common, albeit unfortunate, topic?"

6. Know What You Want to Say Before You Grab a Pen. Way too often when I was in my MFA program, I'd write a quick essay just because it was my turn to be workshopped. I'd start out with a vague idea like "I sort of want to write something about my mother." Then put my pen to the paper (literally, I need to start out in long-hand!) and start coming up with various anecdotes that reveal her personality that could have been construed as clever or even a good example of character development. That, alone, however, does not an essay make. I wasn't actually saying anything. So, scratch that. Start over. "Now I sort of want to write about my sister's wedding." Well, OK, what about it? It was nice? Ugh. OK, scratch that too. I was usually left thinking my life could not be more boring. And I kept thinking that until I realized why I wanted to write about those specific things. More often than not, your reason for writing has little to do with the topic at hand.

7. Every Essay Should Be About Two Things. I'm going to attribute this point with a writing professor at The New School who, in true MFA fashion, had little tolerance for any of us. I loved him after I stopped hating him. There's always a surface topic (this is true for other creative nonfiction too, not just essays), and then there's the "heart of the matter." For example, George Orwell writes about having to shoot an elephant in then-Burma. What he's really doing is making a social comment on the dangers of British imperialism. Another one of my favorite essays that demonstrates this point perfectly is called The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Ann Beard. It is about much more than just two things. You can read it here, which will save me space of having to convince you how amazingly brilliant it is.

8. Have Fun! In the words of Ace Ventura, "fiction can be fun!" So can nonfiction. We can re-live happy memories, put less-happy ones to rest, and re-invent ourselves and our loved ones as characters with flaws, passions, and strengths. Only the bonus is - they're ours. Nonfiction isn't all facts and proper grammar and stuffy English class assignments. It's creative and, for me, more freeing than making stuff up. Real life is just more exciting :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Puppy Smell: Breathe

You all know I love me some repeat offenders on Glass Cases, so I am very happy to bring you another chapter from our surprise-ending excerpt of a few months ago, Puppy Smell. The author, Nicole L. Rivera, is a YA writer from Florida. Her stories look at the serious side of the teenage struggle by using humor. Nicole looks for the jokes in life and details it on her blog, Driven…The Journey.

Puppy Smell: Breathe
By Nicole L Rivera

No one looked at me, as if I were death incarnate. I wanted to jump at them and growl – give them something to stare at.

Instead, I slid into the cold, plastic, chair connected to the fake, wood desk. I plopped my bag on the table and rested my face in the corduroy exterior. I inhaled – grass, chow, baby shampoo – puppy smell.

Warmth consumed me like liquid chocolate flowing through my veins.

“Lisi Davis.”

I raised my hand and put it back down. A tear streamed down my face. I couldn’t bring myself to look up and see the eyes of my classmates.

I should have stayed home today, but I couldn’t look at his pictures anymore. Mom had set them up all over the house like a shrine to the man she hated to love.

I huffed a muffled laugh. Funny how close those two emotions flow.

No one bothered me in class, not even my eccentric English teacher, Mrs. Braun. Instead, I kept my head down and listened as my peers analyzed Shakespeare. As if they had any idea what tragedy really felt like. Stupid kids.

All they care about is who’s going to be homecoming queen, how many extra-curricular activities they can rake up on their college resumes, and who they’d have to off to weasel their way into the top ten percent of our graduating class.

Not me. If I make it through the day without forgetting to breathe, that will be an accomplishment worthy of a full ride to Harvard.

No wonder the Emo’s cut their hair to cover their eyes and paint them in black. I’d have to do that much to cover the red, puffy circles that highlighted my faded green eyes. But, then, I don’t care enough to cover up, and no one cares – or dares – to offer me help.

I’m officially a loner.

Forty-five minutes into sixth period, I rose from my backpack. The smell of Peanut, my puppy, had faded – or my nose had become desensitized to the scent. Either way I needed a break.

The first set of eyes to catch mine were, Bianca’s. She turned back to the front of the room as if being caught doing something wrong – a week ago she’d been my closest “friend”.

Mr. Forbes, my balding Economics teacher, wore his usual vest which was so tight it pushed his fat out in every direction. Someone needed to buy the man a mirror.

He glowed at the class as if any of us cared what GNP was. “So who can summarize the theory of supply and demand for the class?”

His was the only question I’d heard all day.

I raised my hand.

He jumped at signs of life. Everyone stared at me – for a reason this time.

He pointed to me. “Lisi. You have an answer?”

I cleared my dusty throat. “None of it matters.”

He paused.

The class froze. Twenty sets of wide, glass eyes honed in on me like a rat in a lab experiment.

Mr. Forbes adjusted his red bow-tie. “Excuse me?” He tilted his head to the side as if to see me better.

“It doesn’t matter. The higher the supply the lower the price, and vice versa. But, at the end of the day it’s irrelevant.”

He didn’t get mad like most teachers would. Instead, his brow creased into a curios line. “I don’t understand your reasoning. Please explain.” He smiled. “I think we may be on our way to a debate.” He smirked as if announcing no homework for the rest of the year.

The room didn’t get the cue that they should be ecstatic with pleasure to hear what was to come out of my sour mouth. Instead, it was like having twenty statues of Michelangelo’s David facing me at the same time – creepy.

My throat seared – emotion boiling up from one of the cavities I’d stuffed it in.

“All day I’ve wanted to die. Everyone,” I motioned to the room at large, though I wasn’t sure if another warm-blooded being inhabited the territory, “knows what happened to my father. They stare at me, but not one person has spoken to me all day – tried to help me remember to breathe.” I gasped. “At the end of the day, who cares about supply and demand when the people I called friends could care less how I feel. I’m no longer of use on their social climb here in high school world, so who cares?”

They continued to stare at me as if I screamed, “I have a bomb strapped to my chest.”

I put my head back in my bag and there it was again – grass, chow, baby shampoo, and tears – puppy smell.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Have Social Networking Sites Made Us Dumb?

Clarification: Not dumb, as in stupid. Rather, dumb, as in mute - or, wordless.

I am a big fan of the writer's message board and reference site, Absolute Write. It's an incredibly useful site; it builds writers' communities, provides support, and I would in no way ever make fun of and say anything negative about it. Something amusing I noticed when glancing through the forum topics in my Google Reader, however, is the subject titles of each new conversation. Examples from this weekend:

"i poop rainbows"
"so, is it possible without broken bones?"
"grandchild for sale, 30K. supplies limited"
"Lindsay Graham advocates mass murder"
"we don't need another hero?"
"no rest for the wicked"

I'm assuming these threads have to do with writing in some way, but maybe not. It got me thinking "what do writers really talk about in open forums?" (My alternate title for this blog post was "What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About Writing.") Most likely, these topics are intended for research purposes. (Who amongst us hasn't Googled "centaur mating rituals" in the name of "authenticity?") But, I'm sure many forum discussions have less to do with someone's work-in-progress, and more to do with starting a conversation with someone about something on his or her mind. I find this neither negative nor positive, as far as productivity is concerned; I simply find it curious.

Ironically, one of the forum discussions on Absolute Write this weekend was titled "Social Networks Destroy Your Privacy." I have my issues with Mark Zuckerberg as much as the next social networker, but I'm not one of those people who think social media sites are out to get us. They're guilty of taking a mile when we give them an inch, but that's about it. They wouldn't be able to exploit us if we didn't give them just enough to use. 

This is where using social media sites for their intended purposes comes into play. If we're using Facebook for reasons other than connecting with friends (and stalking), and using Twitter as a source of talking about what we made for dinner, rather than when our book is coming out, and, finally, using literary blogs and message boards as a means to discuss anything other than writing or books, then why wouldn't these sites take advantage of us? We're giving them way more than is necessary for them to survive, so why not take the excess and find a way to monetize it?

There is, of course, an alternative side to "saying too much." A more positive side. If any of you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don't always tweet about books... or writing... or publishing... OK, sometimes I just tweet about TV or what I did that day. Am I giving the Twitter gods authority to spam me with stuff I later have to block? Sure. But I also have developed relationships with writers, editors, and other agents whom I've never met in real life. I've even set up a couple meetings with editors as a result of discovering common interests. As someone who is still relatively new to the world of agenting, I've found it incredibly useful and fun to let other sides of me show via social media. 

The benefits of sharing recipes, discussing current events, and talking about your families via social media sites are obvious when you look to publishing and writers' blogs and see the same people comment on every post. These people know each other, and their comments turn into conversations, which lead to friendships, bonds, and critique groups. To me, people who say e-friendships aren't real are clearly not using social media to its full advantage. (That said, I'm a big believer in boundaries. Hence, I will not be your friend on Facebook.)

What do you all think? Have we been given so many literary outlets that we've now run out of things to say? Or is the "nothing" just another part of being social?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Fun

Some links to know and share this weekend:

My favorite publishing story of the week: I challenge anyone to come up with a better rap culture-inspired title than Justify My Thug.

For those of you doing NaNoWriMo this month, I applaud your dedication. But, listen to this piece by Laura Miller too - especially the bit about keeping NaNo out of your query. NaNo can be a great exercise in keeping your brain active and for sparking ideas, but your best work is not going to come through in such a rushing-to-meet-the-deadline approach to writing.

If you try to explain the Internet to a Dickens character, chances are you will both become frustrated, you will likely die from plague, and he will steal your wallet.

McSweeney's brings us "Great Literature Retited to Boost Website Traffic" - my favorite: "7 Awesome Way Barnyard Animals Are Like Communism."

While it's not exactly literary or publishing related, but this blog post from Nerdy Apple Bottom is funny, moving, and important. As writers, we should be aware of the impact words have on others, and no matter what your politics are, I hope we can all agree that it's wrong to make children feel worthless and ashamed of themselves.

Finally, courtesy of YA Highway, "Voldemort and Death Eaters Take Over Grand Central," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Have a good weekend, and a treasonous Guy Fawkes Day!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Almost

I'm happy to bring you a repeat offender today for Story Time! Today's story is a flash fiction piece from Lisa Rusczyk, who last appeared on Glass Cases in February with her story Picture This.
 
Since February, Lisa has completed another novel, raising the total to five published works. Her latest, Chasing the Dark, is available in both print and ebook. She also started her the 'zine, Hazard Cat and has six cats of her own. She lives in Alabama with her husband. Enjoy!
 
Almost
by Lisa Rusczyk

She painted my green walls yellow after I left. She took my ornaments off the tree. I thought the pizza cutter was a nice, shiny touch. I didn’t have any trinkets of my own.

"I need some good news," I told her last time we talked. She’d had twins the week before. I bet all their toys are nicely arranged and not one out of place.

Towels were to be folded in threes with the folds facing out and the toothpaste could never, ever be squeezed in the middle.

We meet for lunch and her hair’s short and her boobs are new. I don’t like her. I used to.

She says, "We almost got divorced. Almost." She doesn’t ask what happened to me and mine.

I say, "I like your hair. Makes you look older."

"Mom kept her hair short. Now I know why. So much easier."

I know short hair isn’t easier. It sticks up in the morning and needs to be washed more.

Diner food comforts me. Grits. Need more be said? I tell her this and she says, "I never eat anymore. Never have time. Work out every day, though."

I say, "How’s your sister?"

"Materialistic. I don’t know how we’re related."

On her Facebook page her sister writes personal sister love notes.

She tells me a secret about her sex life. Something about toys. Something about watchers. I wonder about the "almost."

She picks up the check. Not much talking over the meal and she only ate one egg white and half a piece of toast. I watch her. I don’t like her but I love to watch her. Every movement is a planned execution, a cat prowling a new yard.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Obvious Symbolism Police

Yesterday via Twitter, I wrote (probably with more snark than necessary): "Your daily writing tip from the Obvious Symbolism police: Avoid beginning your novel with your MC waking up. Even if they wake up a vampire."

This got me thinking of other cases of the obvious or cliche that I see more often than I'd like. Back in January, I offered a list of specific phrases to avoid, which I still stand by 100%; this Top 5 list is more like my Obvious Symbolism complaint. Apologies in advance for sounding like a snooty liberal arts writing professor, but you'll thank me later.

1) Waking up in the first sentence. As I already mentioned in my above tweet, this is a weak way to start your narrative. We don't need to see how "ordinary so-and-so's day was" when suddenly something out of the ordinary happens that sets the whole novel in motion. What we do need to see is the thing that actually happens, and we'll know through your superior skills of developing and building a character that it's out of the ordinary. That said, creating a nice scene that evokes the setting we're entering, which may or may not lead to a character waking up, is acceptable as far as the O.S. Police is concerned.

2) Water = New Beginning. Baptism, rebirth, cleansing, etc. Water is literally used in these acts; therefore, water is usually used when a character is metaphorically reborn. Sure, Don Draper swimming in a pool when he decides to write his Jerry Maguire-esque letter to the editor is a nice image. Likewise, a threatening storm, a peaceful rain, or a dramatic gaze at a waterfall can all be beautifully written. Unfortunately, the symbols water represents are overdone and often transparent.

3) Colors. Specifically, I'm referring to black and white. Using black to symbolize death, danger, or something evil vs. using white to symbolize purity, hope, or "good" are pretty standard. Ask yourself if your story has to follow those standards. Other colors used as themes are gray (bleakness, blandness), yellow (both cowardly and bright, happy); blue (tranquility); or red (passion, scandal, love). There is nothing inherently wrong with using colors, but use them sparingly.

4) Ask not for whom the bell tolls. No one cares anyway. When a character's days are numbered or their path to redemption is suddenly made clear, writers will often add a physical symbol (bell ringing in the distance, a song plays on the radio, etc. It's safe to say that a person's self-discovery and/or demise is not brought on by one thing. In theory, your entire novel should have been leading up to this moment. No gimmicks necessary, unless said gimmick has been a major part of the narrative the entire time.

5) It's a bird; it's a plane; it's... cliche! Sorry J-Franz, but taking flight, or being obsessed with things that do, is a wee bit overused when portraying characters who are discontent and just want to escape. Or, to put it more literally, to fly away. This logic also applies to obsessions with the ocean, boats, or other methods of transportation that move through something vast and symbolic.

As with everything, there are always exceptions to all of these rules. The above-mentioned Mr. Franzen is proof of that. But, like with all exceptions to rules, it's better to assume you won't be one of them when you query an agent. (Sorry, but it's true.) Once you get taken on, sell your first novel, and establish a career, then you're safer to play around with the "rules." But until then, the Obvious Symbolism Police will be watching.