Bad Dates and Fiction

What does a bad date look like in a work of fiction?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve written a novel in which the protagonist is sexually abused as a small child. As a teen, she isn’t capable of voicing her discomfort in dating. Stemming from her early abuse, her inability to speak her mind has great consequences, including an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m also thinking about this because I am one of the believers that stories

Dept. of Speculation is a great example of a nuanced and conflicted relationship as well as a must-read for its powerful language. All in a very quick read–exactly the kind of literary fiction that asks you to fill in the gaps of intention and motivation.

change lives. When a story is told well enough, its reader can experience an internal change. His brain can be rewired, and he can find himself in empathy with people he hadn’t thought much about before. I want to quote this full paragraph from Scientific American that summarizes the case:

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” [social psychologist David] Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Other studies suggest that it’s not just literary fiction that does the trick; a reader immersed in a good narrative–in a book, on a screen–gains greater social acumen and empathy.  

The Haunting of Hill House is a great classic example of genre fiction (horror) that delves into a woman’s motivations for her behavior.

Conversely, I have a hunch–and here I have no data–that we read too many fictional ‘good dates’ that are nothing more the rom-com version of sexual tension. A couple of people meet, they don’t have anything in common, they don’t like each other, and they fall in love. What happens when we read or see this too often? Will it, too, create an unseen pattern in our brains? If so, why do we keep writing it?

I think there are two reasons: we know that if there is no conflict, there is no story. And people read this stuff.

Writers need to take some responsibility for their work. If we want to see change in dating behaviors, we need to be more nuanced about what a conflict is–all sorts of things get in the way of two mutually infatuated people. People do and will read about them.

Additionally, we should all be having a discussion of the difference between that place where women feel harmed and simple bad dates so that we can, as quoted above “fill in the gaps to understand . . . intentions and motivations.”

Proof that we’re unclear on the difference between bad and ugly is found in the arguments of  cultural pontificators about the case of Aziz Ansari. Some women see the Babe.net article about his date with an anonymous 23-year-old woman as a story of sexual assault; others as revenge porn. Still others are trying to find a middle ground, seeing this as a story of how fraught and complicated dating is and how men and women still don’t get each other. (The very reasonable and thoughtful LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian summarizes the blowback in two related columns here and here.)

Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into the sort mud slinging and name calling that does women no good. The Babe author Katie Way called out HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield for calling out “Grace,” the subject of the article. Unfortunately, Banfield refers to the Ansari evening over and over as a “bad date,” when it is something uglier than that. Way responds by ripping into Banfield with one of the most juvenile ad hominem attacks you’re likely to read. “Ashleigh, someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write-up made that burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.” (The complete email is printed in Business Insider.)

Fiction writers, including those who write for the screen, can help get the train on the rails. Rather than continuing to watch people blame one another, let’s ask, “How can we help people to stop participating in encounters that at the very least, make us psychologically uncomfortable and fill us with regret?”

I’m not thinking of a discussion of the workplace, which thankfully is finally being placed under the microscope–or at least under the magnifying glass. I’m only thinking about dating and the use of the term ‘bad date.’ Because, as a society, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the–felicitous?–point of bad dates yet. If a mere bad date were the issue, stories like “Cat Person” would never go viral.

A bad date is still a mutually respectful one. Two consenting adults go out to find out a bit more about one another, to discover whether or not they’re going to click. If they do click, that’s a good date. Often they don’t. When one realizes this, he or she says so, and they part ways. That’s a bad date. Nothing traumatic, no lingering ill will, no future counseling sessions.

For some excellent writing about emotional motivations and relationships that outsiders can’t understand, but that become clear to the reader, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a great novel.

Let’s start the change in our imaginations, where most good things begin. Let’s more carefully craft the point of view in scenes with good, bad, and genuinely ugly dates in our fiction. Let’s stop calling any work of fiction with a female protagonist that deals with the complications of female life ‘women’s fiction.’ Thus labeled, no matter how good a job the author does in portraying female ‘intentions and motivations,’ these books will not be marketed to men, and men are not going to read them. (I’ve more fully expressed my feelings about this label in this Literary Journeys column.) Let’s change the fiction that changes mental patterns because that’s what changes behavior.  

We all know we have to change that narrative.

Note: I wrote this several days ago and decided to let it stew. Meanwhile, I saw an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jennifer Weiner about how reading romance novels can help men understand what a good date is. (She uses the term ‘bad date’ in the way that I’d like to get away from, but she makes a good case that romance novels include some solid sex ed and answer the question ‘What do women want?’) I primarily read commercial, upmarket, and literary fiction. But I have read some romance that I’ve really enjoyed. Ara Grigorian has been able to avoid the whole throbbing manhood/member thing and write about pairs of thoughtful adults who find one another and love. I reviewed his novel Game of Love here.

Stoking the Creative Fire

Dinosaurs I made from fabric I took down from my work bulletin boards.

As I discussed in my last post, I don’t think that there is any special condition we can label writer’s block; however, this year I have come to believe in ‘life block.’ Not only have I had my own dark year of the soul (as opposed to a dark night, which would be wonderfully short lived), but I’ve talked to many creative people who have stopped doing anything joyful.

“Why,” I ask my poet friend, “aren’t you writing any poetry?”

“Who cares about poetry right now?” She answers. She means that there is no room for creativity in our political reality, in our upside down world.

I can’t argue that when we don’t want to get up in the morning and face the latest tweet, we are somehow going to want to creatively celebrate our craft. More likely we are thinking, ‘I could make myself some breakfast. Or I could jump in the river.’

Fortunately for me, my environment is arid. 

For a nephew who loves construction equipment.

Ironically, it’s in times such as ours that the work of creative people can be most appreciated as it countermands the sense that there is nothing good left in the world. I’ve always felt that it’s important to be creating something, any little thing, if just to provide kindling for the passion until we have the energy to maintain a roaring fire.

So how do people fuel their creativity when it seems pointless to create?

Being a perpetually and hopelessly guilt-ridden person, I’ve often tried a work

My niece suggested that small tote bags just the size for children would be great for carrying toys around the house, so I repurposed more bulletin board material.

around when writing was just too much. I do write. But I also try all sorts of things that are less creative than writing and more utilitarian—thus, appeasing the scold in my head who says, ‘Don’t waste time on things no one will ever

Teddy bears for the nieces.

use!’ I am probably the perfect person to use as the ‘DON’T TRY THIS’ example. But since I’ve committed to the DIY MFA book club in both reading the book and answering the writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to show a few of the things I’ve done to get through extended bad patches.

At a very young age—twelve, I think—I started to needlepoint because I felt adrift. I had the sense that I came from nowhere, a person with no household heirlooms and no family stories. I was trying to create these and somehow make a connection between the past and my future. I wrote about the intensity of this feeling in a personal essay about the death of my grandmother that was published in the Longridge Review, an online journal in which adults reflect (one hopes with wisdom gained) on childhood experiences.

The bell pull, in those crazy colors that my parents loved.

So as a tween, and then as a teen, I took needlepoint classes with older women. I made many items for my parents, most of which have not survived to be heirlooms: a pillow meant to be decorative but that over the years wore out, a purse that was never used, Christmas tree ornaments, god knows what all. A lot of these items were stitched in blues and shades of avocado green because those were my parents’ favorite colors for decades. Those colors haven’t stood the test of time. I also made samplers for my sisters when they got married (the colors were more palatable).

A few years ago, my sisters and I were packing up my parents’ longtime home as they were downsizing. Hidden in a closet unused, I found a bell pull that I’d forgotten I’d made. I also found a rug I’d hooked—a tiger because at the time my dad worked at Tiger International, a shipping company. I’d thought he would hang the rug in his office—hooked rugs on the wall were quite the rage at that time—but it, too, stayed in the closet.

Since the things I had hoped to use as family heirlooms had come to nothing, I decided to take photos of them and then toss them. However, these two are still around. My oldest son wanted the bell pull and hung it in his apartment. I worked at a high school whose mascot is a tiger, so I brought the rug to work, and one of the teachers took it to hang in her classroom, happily giving it life for the first time.

One of my youthful creations that I discussed in a personal essay in “Longridge Review.”

As a teen, I made one needlepoint sampler that was just for me and matched the colors of my room—red, orange, and yellow. All the women in my class advised against those colors as they wouldn’t stand the test of time. They were right. I framed the sampler, but it didn’t last long on the wall.

About the only needlepoint pieces I have made that receive a regular public airing are five Christmas stockings—for my husband, myself, and each of my three sons.

While much of this work came to nothing, stitching is an activity that is meditative or lends itself to woolgathering because it can be done without much concentration on the work itself. It allows the mind to be open to ideas and to the invention of story; it keeps the self centered and yet allows open space. To those who have never tried it, it may seem like a strange practice for opening the imagination, but it works.

Not my sons’ pjs, but more recent Christmas creations for nieces and nephews.

Similarly, sewing and quilting can have the same effect on the imagination. I don’t know how many things I’ve sewn in my life—again, I began as a tween—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a thousand. As a teen, I sewed all my own clothes. Since then I’ve made all sorts of crazy things when I needed to get through periods of anxiety and allow myself some creative space. When my sons were small, I would take them with me to the fabric store. There would be tables piled with remnants of all colors and patterns. They would jump into these and wrap themselves in various designs. I could be with them and in my own world at the same time.

Almost all of what I’ve sewn has been worn or used, but of course, I didn’t record the items. I do have some photos of my sons in shirts that I made for their first day of school and in matching Christmas pajamas that included booties and nightcaps, but I think they wouldn’t appreciate a public airing of those. I also have some photos (from social media) of my more recent creations.

Recently, I decided to use fabric from bulletin board displays because I thought it was a shame not to repurpose it. One set of bulletin boards became dinosaurs. Another, little girls’ dresses. (Right at the time of the solar eclipse, which is echoed in the design.)

Other than reading good books—which always spurs creativity—I think the last thing that helps me to find my way to writing is walking in natural places.

Poppies in a wilderness area near my home.

Last week, I was walking in the local botanical garden with my youngest son.

A rattlesnake on a walking path near my house. This walk/snake led me to write a short story entitled “Argyle.”

There was a display that played off the Game of Thrones popularity called ‘Grove of Thorns.’ In it were all sorts of thorny plants native to California. One display showed the loggerhead shrike, commonly called the “butcherbird.” It captures insects and spiders and then impales them on thorns so it can leisurely eat them. Tell me you can see that and not want to include it in a story.

My son commented that the desert areas with their Joshua trees reaching into the open alone appeared to be frozen characters and had, not the appearance of a prophet in the wilderness, but of the Medusa-killed character of the creepy statue people in the Dark Souls video game. Who knows—maybe that’s where the creator got the idea.

Open space for your thoughts and they will arrive.

A favorite wilderness path near my home.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on your writing superpower. There’s a little quiz where you select photos of settings, character images, and books that you like best. This is to help you see what sort of writing (or personality) ‘superpower’ you have. While I find these sorts of quizzes fun, I don’t take them too seriously, so I am not going to write about my superpower, which turned out to be ‘Disruptor.’ However, if you’d like to take the quiz, try it here.

Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.

Lud-in-the-Mist: Page One

Lud-in-the-Mist is wonderful. Today, would an agent read past page one? 

Last month, a book I’d never heard of found its way into my consciousness twice in one week. I’m not one to assign supernatural sources to serendipitous events (after reading that book, I’m wondering if I should . . . ), but with two mentions coming so close together, I figured it was worth looking into. My son is a serious fantasy fiction reader and told me that he had just read Lud-in-the-Mist. He found it extraordinary. I don’t often read fantasy fiction, but his praise was high, and he’s a harsh critic of fantasy authors whose world-building is inconsistent, whose characters are not as fully developed as any serious literary fiction. So I thought I might add Lud-in-the-Mist to the end of my 100-book-long ‘to read’ list.

A few days later, I happened upon a discussion of fantasy and literary fiction (and the intersection of the two) between Neil Gaiman and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, Gaiman mentioned that Lud-in-the-Mist was an unjustly ignored novel, one of the best of the twentieth century. I forwarded a link to my son and said maybe I would go ahead and read the book. As this was just prior to Christmas, he bought me a ‘print on demand’ copy.

You can look on Goodreads to see how much people love this novel, so a positive review isn’t entirely my purpose here. However, as someone who reads little fantasy, I found it so good that I sat in my yoga pants and t-shirt all day and read until I’d finished. It has a traditional sense of the hero’s journey. The mayor of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer (love that cocky name!) is conventional. He’s an enforcer of rules and laws, one of which is that no fairy fruit from the Fairyland beyond the Debatable Hills is to be eaten.

Fairies are often associated with the dead or the ‘Silent People’ and are feared. Their fruit was outlawed after the merchant middle class managed to overthrown the aristocracy and rid the town of both the pain and pleasures of that elite group. The fruit appears to have caused the extremes of behavior exhibited by the aristocrats. Thus the fairy fruit has an obvious analog in illicit drugs. I read that Hope Mirrlees, author of Lud-in-the-Mist, was influenced by the work of Christina Rossetti. You’ll have some fun with that as you read if you remember Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” from your college English literature course.

Although the wellness generated by the new law is a delusion (according to Nathaniel’s lawyer father), at least, unlike fairy fruit, it is available to all and treats people equally. It offers a contented orderliness.

Mayhem sneaks into the mayor’s household when a wiley servant gives Ranulph, son of Nathaniel, a taste of fairy fruit. The boy begins to act strangely and the effort to correct the situation leads to a hero’s quest for Nathaniel, who until this moment had never understood how much he loved the boy.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that villains are interesting and multi-dimensional; the longtime friendships humorous and enduring; all characters grow in understanding; the adventure is surreal and creepy; the hero’s quest and return are as magical as you could hope for; the fairy fruit itself is a powerful metaphor and argument for the dark side of creativity and the necessity of letting it in.

So here we have this very good book. My question, as a writer, is: would it be published today?

First, there is the title, Lud-in-the-Mist. Fantasy books need the names of towns to feel fantastical and this one fits the bill. However, I think, as a title, it would turn people away—at least those who hadn’t read Gaiman’s praise. Yet, this is a good introduction to the novel. ‘Lud’ is sometimes used when authors want to signal past usage for ‘Lord.’ The lords and their fairy fruit have been banished, but the mayor and other jurists are certainly the new lords in the sense of having power in the community through law. Contrarily, ‘-lud-’ as a root word from Latin means play, joke or jest, even mock. (Lots of words contain this meaning—allude, collude, delude, elude, illusion, interlude, ludicrous, prelude.) Playfulness is not what the town is known for, but something that needs to be recovered if it is to survive.

Strike two against Lud is the length of the introductory chapters which give the reader  a good deal of setting and backstory. We learn about the “capricious’ and “selfish” Duke Aubrey, “a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty, who seemed to be possessed by a laughing demon of destructiveness.” He’s interesting, but generations have passed since he disappeared, by many accounts, to Fairyland. Would an unknown contemporary writer be allowed to start there?

Many early pages are spent on the setting, a sort of idyll at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl (large and commercially valuable) and the Dapple (small and rumored to have its origin in Fairyland).

I was recently at a writers’ conference and attended a session where three agents on a panel listened as the first page of each of many attendees’ novels were read aloud. (The authors of these first pages were anonymous, but surely they were attending the session.) The agents were to pretend that they were reading the page as part of a query for representation. They were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading. If two of the three raised their hands, that query was a reject. Of about sixteen first pages that were read aloud, only one wasn’t rejected. The reasons for rejection were sometimes obvious—the writing was no good. But all of the pages that described natural settings or landscapes were rejected out of hand simply because two of the three agents said they hated that as a beginning. Some of these were lovely. If they had made it to a book in that form, I would have kept reading. So, too, did I love the descriptive passages at the beginning of Lud. They drew me into the world of the novel, and while it was an earthly town with some familiar elements, it was also distinct in its beauty.

Mirrlees’s descriptions of landscapes are all vivid. Because her town and countryside are so richly evoked early on, when she moves into the dark otherworld of Fairyland and the Silent People, the contrast is eerie and the reader is chilled. It exactly hits the mark that Joseph Campbell describes as the business of mythology and fairytale—the dark configurations enter the unreal, fantastical space that represents the psychological fear inherent in facing the great challenges and passages of life.

I would be sorry not to be able to read new works of fiction that set this slow pace through which we best enter an unknown world.

Note: As I mentioned, I read (and write) mostly realistic fiction, so I’m not well-versed in fantasy. But I do enjoy Neil Gaiman (who doesn’t?) and found a few of his books great for book talking to teens in the library. On my School Library Lady blog, I reviewed both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book; I see parallels to Lud-in-the-Mist in both.

 

How I Became a Writer

All things come to me slowly. I wish it weren’t so. I love stories of epiphany, of lightning bolt inspiration. But my consciousness river is turbulent with questions of creativity, of ethics, of purpose. What is heavy enough to withstand the agitation and upheaval–what isn’t thrown loose–remains on the riverbed, tumbling until it is finally (and I hope finely) polished.

The idea that I am a writer has rolled through my life for many years. In all that time, I have jotted ideas on napkins and index cards, fleshed them out in journals, written drafts of stories and novels, and eventually begin sending work out that felt ready for publication. I’ve been thrilled to have stories, essays and book reviews published because the end game of writing is communication with the reader, the beginning of a dialogue. I write because I want to live in the world of ideas.

So without being able to pinpoint an epic moment of clarity, I can only say that I knew I wanted to be a writer because I first knew I wanted to be a reader. I have mentioned in essays my wonderful third grade teacher, Miss Shuck, who took me for a reader before I knew I was interested. Seeing that I had a knack for words, she didn’t torture me with the Dick and Janes of the day, but handed me a high school English anthology and let me have at it. Back then these texts were a bit more moralistic than they are now; nevertheless, the stories were compelling, and I found myself reflected in them in a way that made me begin to think of myself as part and parcel of the community. I remember a particular story about an overweight girl who was to participate in a bicycle race. She was trying to eat right and practicing the route. She worked hard. And yet on the day of the race, she ended up taking a shortcut–unseen–and winning. While everyone was celebrating, she admitted to her teacher that she had cheated. Her honors would be stripped. This felt to me the bravest of behaviors because that girl was going to catch hell. I was a bit overweight myself, and I liked to think that I had the same honor in me.

Connecting with someone else’s story while reading is the first step for anyone who becomes a writer. Its natural sequel is the sense that the reader, too, has a story to tell. She then goes about the difficult task of working to tell it right.

Reading just about anything, no matter how unconnected to my own stories, is always inspiration for writing. At a writers’ conference this fall, I was surprised to hear author Lisa See report that she doesn’t read while she is writing. She’s afraid that the style and tone of the book might influence her own work, taking it out of her voice. I can’t imagine how this happens. In preparation to write, I will often listen to poetry as I walk or hike. (Yeats has a way of pulling ideas and images from the depths of consciousness as do old epics such as Beowulf and Gilgamesh). I’m no poet, but what a wonderful place to begin in listening. How lucky I am to have a multitude of voices, calling me to join with them in conversation.

Note: Today the DIY MFA Book Club begins. This blog post is in answer to the first writing prompt: “How did you become a writer?” It looks like a fun group. The prompts and discussion will be based on Gabriela Pereira’s book DIY MFA. Wanna join? Check for the Facebook Group ‘Word Nerds Unite.’

Inlandia Teen Issue: Time to submit!

Happy New Year! 

 

I just want to remind teens that the submission deadline for Inlandia: A Literary Journey is coming up on February 15. The new year is a great time to commit to getting your favorite pieces of creative writing and artwork together for submission. Check the submission guidelines and FAQs here. (If you’ve never used the submission manager ‘Submittable,’ you will create an account. It’s easy to do and it’s free.)

Quick lesson on how to submit to the journal.

I love the energy of the teens who are working toward submitting their creative work.  I had a great time with Mr. Luna’s journalism class, talking about Inlandia and its mission, the teen issue and recent good books! It was a great way to end the 2017 calendar year and the first semester of the school year.

Keep writing! Keep creating! Submit!

On-the-fly book talk using School Library Lady blog! (Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena’s ‘Photographic’ is up on the computer.)

Reading for Renewal: Book Recommendations

As it is Christmas Eve Day, I decided that my ‘Literary Journeys’ article for the Southern California News Group should be about books that offer us renewal. Each of the novels discussed in the article have examples of how the characters need to change who they are in order to move forward on a spiritual journey. A few are classics; most are this year’s imprints; every one of them is a worthy, possibly life-changing read.

I didn’t include YA fiction since the readers of the newspaper are generally adults. However, I’m still recommending Photographic and Challenger Deep. In addition, I finally read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. Green’s novels are automatic bestsellers as he has a great fan base (and for good reason). But if you haven’t had a chance to read his latest, it’s a serious reflection on crippling anxiety, a medical state that is very difficult to change.

Below is the link to the Press Enterprise, one of the newspapers that runs the Literary Journeys series. I hope you’ll have a look and pick out a few of the recommendations as your New Year’s reads. You know you are going to get Amazon gift cards this week from those who love you but think you have everything. Tell them which of these books you bought and share; have your own intimate book club and discussion of new beginnings. What could be a better holiday gift?

Inlandia Literary Journeys: Follow characters on trips that end with a renewal of hope

Gabrielle Prendergast Interview

Zero Repeat Forever, which is Book I of The Nahx Invasion. She teaches screenwriting and creative writing and has written for television, print, and online. She lives in Vancouver, BC and was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing life and her recent publications.

VW: I want to focus on Zero Repeat Forever as I just finished it, but I’d also like to ask a few questions about your writing for Orca Book Publishers. Some writers, even writers of YA fiction, may not know of Orca, which is a Canadian publisher that serves struggling teen readers. I first learned of Orca when I became a teacher librarian. Our reading classes would come to the library, and I needed something that would interest the students. Over the years I read and book talked many novels from Orca imprints. (Two of yours that I recommend are The Frail Days and the recent Pinch Me.) I am deeply grateful for the existence of such books and I know many teens are as well.

I’m wondering how an author decides to write books for ‘undiscovered readers’—a term that is so much better than ‘reluctant readers.’ Does the publisher approach you based on your other work? Do they set specific limitations on vocabulary and the length of the book?

GP: While Orca has a sort of stable of authors who often write these books, they accept submissions from any Canadian citizen or permanent resident. When you’re writing for the “hi/lo” series, they usually contract the books based on a chapter outline and three chapters. My editor invited me to submit for “Limelights” (The Frail Days)  but I decided to submit for “Soundings” (Pinch Me) on my own. The aim is a reading level of about grade 2-4 for “Soundings,” so we just go on what our writing software tells us.  With “Limelights” the reading level was a bit more flexible. The word lengths are pretty strict though. 14-16K for “Soundings” and around 20-25K for “Limelights.” Vocabulary is not exactly simplified but we choose words carefully and use short sentences.

VW: All of the Orca novels I’ve read have an upbeat message; characters often solve problems in original ways. Is this something that Orca asks for or did it occur naturally in your work?

GP: For those series, yes I think that’s what Orca wants, though they don’t specifically ask for it. Since they are aimed at undiscovered readers we don’t want the kids to feel miserable at the end! I also feel that when writing for kids, stories should be resolved in some satisfying way, maybe not in the first book, but by the time the series ends. That said, I always feel like at the end of a YA or middle grade novel the story is just starting, since the characters are still so young with their lives ahead of them. I could write a sequel to every book I’ve ever written!

VW: The storyline of both The Frail Days and Pinch Me involve teenage musicians. One of the things I enjoyed in both these novels was how the characters’ natural creative drive was part of the problem solving. It’s so tiresome that young people are made to think that their creativity is not an asset and that cultivating it is a waste of time. Thanks for helping to prove otherwise! Are you a musician in your life outside of work?

GP: I was a musician as a teen. My band was called Fall Down Go Boom and The Frail Days is dedicated to the other members. Two of them still play together and work as professional musicians in Toronto.

VW: I’d like to turn the conversation to Zero Repeat Forever, the first book of the Nahx Invasion. It’s a work of science fiction in which an alien race of tall, armored anthropoid beings have invaded the world and seem bent on the destruction of the human race. Our human protagonist is Raven, who along with some friends, has survived the initial invasion because she is at a camp in the wilderness preparing for the summer campers to arrive. As survival becomes difficult, Raven encounters Eighth, a Nahx, who, like all Nahx, is voiceless and follows directives he receives in his mind. Circumstances require that they attempt to work together, a situation that creates its own set of dangers.

This may seem like a strange connection, but bear with me. I’m working on an article that has caused me to read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture.  One of the many things he says about good writing has to do with why readers connect with characters: “The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?”

While Zero Repeat Forever is exciting and fast-paced in terms of danger and hope, one of the wonderful things about reading it is that a teen and an alien have a very engaging ‘human’ relationship. This is an achievement because Eighth can’t speak. Did you model their relationship on any that you know? How did you come up with the sign language that Eighth uses?

GP: Oddly Eighth’s side of the relationship is inspired by the way animals form relationships with humans. You know how cats bring strange little gifts to you or dogs seem to be trying to understand you when they turn their heads to the side? And how loving and non-judgemental companion animals are, sometimes even to people who neglect or mistreat them. And of course how they can eventually thaw even the coldest hearts. August [Eighth] is a bit like that with Raven, very loyal, maybe even by his very nature.

Raven’s side is partly Stockholm syndrome, partly the relief of being able to vent all the rage she has built up inside her. She basically has a tantrum in one scene and afterwards she feels like a changed person, all her rage is gone. One reviewer described her as a “hot-head” and that’s fairly accurate. She was having a bad year even before the invasion and never was able to fully process all her feelings. That with the loss of Tucker [her boyfriend] and the terror at what’s happened to the world was too much. Being with August was like a safe place where she could rage and be alone to think and work it all out. And not be judged for it. That’s key.

August’s silence is one of the things that makes him perfect for Raven. She has to verbalize her way into understanding him and everything that’s going on while he just listens. She needs a good listener.

The sign language was inspired by tactical hand signals used in the military, which the Nahx adapted to be a more complete communication system. The idea is that anyone who is denied language will spontaneously develop a communication system with whatever tools are available to them. This has been observed in deaf kids who are denied sign language instruction – they invent their own languages which can be quite complex.

I watched a lot of ASL videos also, just to get a feel for how sign language looks. I also took a course in Auslan (Australian sign language) years ago, so I kept those lessons in mind too. That said, Nahx language is meant to be a “sign system” rather than a complete sign language.

VW: I really enjoyed the settings of Zero Repeat. Although it takes place in real (Canadian) spaces, you needed to make your reader see and feel them. I’m a good example—I live in Southern California, which sadly, is on fire right now even though it’s technically winter. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s truly cold, yet I felt Raven’s suffering when she lacked the proper gear. In creating a dystopian world, do you use any of your own experiences with nature and neighborhoods? (I’m wondering if you’ve nearly drowned in freezing water. . .)

GP: I certainly called upon my childhood enduring Saskatchewan winters. I’ve never nearly drowned, but I have swum in many a near freezing lake. It’s…refreshing! We spent a lot of time outdoors as kids and the winter cold was both beautiful and terrifying. It was important to me that the winter be almost like another antagonist in the book, someone you can’t turn your back on, you can’t trust. Someone who will kill you if given the chance.  

VW: Writers and readers alike are always interested in the title and cover illustration of their favorite novels. Both the title Zero Repeat Forever and the cover illustration of a dandelion splashed with liquid metal are based on important events and themes of the novel. They are wonderful choices for the North American edition! Did you know right away what the title would be? Did you influence the cover art or was that a decision that was out of your hands? Why does the UK edition have a different cover that looks more like a Stranger Things connection?

GP: My agent suggested the title, and I immediately loved it as it was already such an important scene in the book. I had no influence on the cover(s) but loved both of them when I saw them. I think the UK cover skews a little younger and less literary, which is where they wanted to aim the book, I suppose. All they said was that they thought their design would work better. I love them both!

VW: Characters must suffer in order to grow, yet many authors have a hard time putting theirs through some of the worst moments. Both Raven and Eighth suffer mightily. Did you have a hard time with that? How do you manage to drag your characters through a life of torment?

GP: It was easy enough at the time, but the more I wrote, the harder it got to punish them. I don’t think anyone wants to read books about people with perfect lives, so I don’t write them. But, in particular, I didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of war, invasion, occupation. These are present day situations for a lot of people. Some reviewers have praised the “realism” in ZRF, which is ironic given that it’s science fiction. But I did try to keep as much as possible grounded in reality to make it feel real.

VW: As Zero Repeat Forever is the first book of a series, I wonder if you had the general plot outline for the entire series before you began writing or whether the story develops as you write.

GP: I had a general idea but a lot of that has changed. I feel like the world has changed a lot recently and some of my ideas no longer felt relevant and fresh, so I changed them.

VW: Writers tend to suffer because they have to deal with so many rejections. Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with rejection? Have you always had something new coming out, new work, so that rejection was more easy to accept?

GP: I have a neurodivergence that makes dealing with personal rejection sometimes catastrophically hard. But for some reason, I think that makes professional rejection much easier. I get nervous, but I’m never hurt by criticism or rejection or my work because I see that as separate from me.

But yes, I do always like to have a few things lined up, not so much for making rejection easier but more to keep up the momentum of my career.

VW: You have written in a variety of genres and for different age levels. Do you try different methods of writing/different writing styles just to see what works? Or does a specific genre seem like a natural match for the story from the outset?

GP: I pretty much know how each story is going to be told and who the audience is. A lot of that is because I always have a “comparable” or “comp” in my mind. Comps for ZRF included The Hunger Games and Divergent. The comp for Pandas on the East Side was Because of Winn Dixie, etc.

VW: Writers always ask successful authors about their writing routines—such as whether they write daily. Since no two people are alike, I find it strange that anyone believes in a magic schedule. However, I do know that all people have fluctuating energy levels that affect their schedules and can derail their plans to write. Do you have any hints for increasing creative writing energy when you need it?

GP: I try to write pretty much daily, though sometimes I give myself breaks. Writing with a friend (not co-writing, just you writing your book and them writing theirs) helps. At the end of the day, you can compare notes and discuss your word counts, etc.

VW: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

GP: My pleasure.

Hope and a Bit of Advice

Kazuo Ishiguro receiving his Nobel Prize from H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 2017.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2017
Photo: Pi Frisk

The state of the world has been so depressing these past weeks that it’s difficult to think anything matters, including discussion of writers and writing. But I have an article deadline this week, and in the process of writing that article, I keep going back to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize lecture. It’s not only full of hope, but he gives some excellent writing advice as well.

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, or if you are feeling hopeless, don’t delay.