How to Avoid Being Too Dark?

On Monday, while discussing young adult literature, I utilized a ‘bedroom’ dark metaphor. The argument being that you can see in the dark if there is some light trickling in.

In my opinion, all young adult literature – all good young adult literature – has that little bit of light trickling in, even if it’s not obvious at first.

There is another kind of darkness though: total darkness. The darkness that makes people go blind after too long in an underground cave. There is no hope in this darkness. There is no light for your eye to catch and your pupils can dilate forever, but they’ll never grow large enough to pull light where there is none.

Rest easy. This kind of darkness doesn’t exist in kids literature at all. Editors just won’t let it happen. No way are you going to subject a kid to rape, torture, war, drugs, and murder without some kind of redemption in there.

However, let’s say that you’re writing a kids book, you’ve got some super-dark themes going on, and you’re concerned that the reason no one is picking up the book is because it’s Cave Dark.

For the Answer to Avoiding Being Too Dark, we shall look to our mentor, Neil Gaiman and The Graveyard Book for some pointers:

1. Humor helps. And not just humor, but where you position the humor. For example, in The Graveyard Book, you’ve got the man Jack creeping all through the house with a knife in his hand. You’ve got three dead bodies. DARK. Then, as you read the next couple pages, you discover that there’s a mischievous baby (Bod) who has jumped his crib, lost his diaper, and is gleefully crawling up the street naked. Not so dark. You realize that this little kid (who probably gave his parents several sleepless nights) is going to be the undoing of the man Jack…just because of his absolute nerve, even so young.

2. Explain the rules of the darker world. As Bod grows up he is exposed to ghouls, Hounds of God, vampires, and ghosts. For starters. These are the embodiments of most horror stories from the Dark Ages on up to now. DARK. Gaiman negates the spooky power by explaining how things work on the other side. There are still ‘town meetings’, there are days where you have to clean your crypt, there are children playing…but they’re all stuck to the graveyard. They can see in the dark. They can haunt. The problem with being dead, as it’s explained to Bod is that they can’t affect anything anymore. The ‘names have been written.’ Their potential is gone. Once the reader is exposed to the hows and whys of the place, there’s nothing left to be scared of.

3. Make your main character tough enough to handle the problems. No one likes a wimp. No one wants to read a book about a little boy whose parents died and now he’s all alone and being raised by ghosts and all he does is cry at the headstones all the dang day. When Silas – Bod’s guardian – explains what happened to Bod’s parents (they were brutally murdered = DARK), Bod flinches, but he doesn’t break. He gets angry. He wants justice. He may have suffered at this man Jack’s hands, but he is not his victim. That is a very hard distinction to make, and your characters will have to show their toughness in their own ways, but make sure they have some kind of tough.

Those are just a few ways to let the light in. So remember, if you have rape, war, murder, drugs, torture, and teen dating all in your book-cave…you really need to let some light in or your readers will go blind – they might even pluck their own eyes out in despair. That would be bad.

I’m a Winner!: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It’s Tuesday again folks. And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!
And there’s one big thing I’ve done in the last week:

I WON NANOWRIMO!!!!!!!!!!!!

50,000 total new words for my work in progress in the last month!!!!!

*crowd cheers*

So, about equals about 10,000 new words on my work in progress for the week.

That’s really probably enough, isn’t it?

And I’m not alone. Crossing the finish line with me: my good dear friend Deb and my good dear spouse Shane.

A big hearty congratulations to everyone who wrote this past month. And to everyone who is still punching those keys: STOP READING RIGHT NOW AND GET TO WORK.

It was a great experience and now I shall list what I have learned:

1. Having someone to write with is a good thing. Early on in the month I was gonna throw in the towel. Then Shane got a fire lit under his own typing fingers and sped past me. In one day he banged out 7,000 words, made me feel like a total bum, and therefore I kicked my own ass to keep up. Because, really, I should not get beaten by people with full time jobs. If they can do it, I can do it. No excuses.

He still kept ahead of me throughout the month. *Jenny’s carrot*

Until I saw the magical ‘40,000’ on the bottom of my Word screen. After that I was not stopping, I wasn’t slowing down for anyone and ditched everyone and everything to end NaNo early on Sunday. I was beyond thrilled.  

So it served to prove that, all too often, I’m the person in my own way.

2. I need a sketch pad or something where I can sketch out floor plans, ground plans, street maps, or whatever. The idea for this had already been in the back of my head because of an Umberto Eco essay in Confessions of a Young Novelist. I don’t have the book in front of me, but Eco talks about how he added dialogue because a set of stairs in The Name of the Rose was long and the characters should be talking all the way down. Basically, he was so aware of space and location that he had his characters behave accordingly.

I think I need to do that — and the point was brought home to me via my writer’s group on Sunday. Basically, the end section of Part I is confused. There’s a lot of action, but no one knows where anyone else is in relation to the whole. Part of that is me not having a clear idea of where or what I want my characters to be doing.  I also forgot where I put the kitchen. And the home office.

This is stuff you need to know, ya know?

3. Writing is a reward in itself. Yesterday, when I had nothing I had to write, I still had a million and one things I wanted to get down on paper. I actually stopped myself because my well is really really really dry at the moment. It was energizing to get all that stuff down, but I need to get my bearings a little bit.

Today I’m going to continue work on a short story, but I’m going to take it nice and slow.

How are you guys recovering? Revving up for the holidays?

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal took a series of hits for this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Her argument is that Young Adult Literature is DARK: “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

A great many people have already gone off on this article and its overarching condescending tone toward today’s young adult literature. For the most part I agree with the bulk of the article’s dissenters, though, and I’m only going to say this so that you guys know where I’m coming from completely, I can see Gurdon’s argument if I look at how the subject matter is treated. Sex is a big deal. Cursing and language and expression are big deals. Violence is a big deal. Books and movies are currently how kids and teens learn to address their world and a blasé attitude towards these things is not to be lightly tolerated. And, quite frankly, I was unimpressed with the ‘gravity’ given to sex in the Twilight books – which millions of teens ate up – just an example, and just my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but LOVE Sherman Alexie’s response to this article. (He was called out in it.) In his own Wall Street Journal reaction Alexie says that it’s too late to protect the kids. By the time kids read the teen books, the trouble has already hit them in real life. How do you tell a teen mom to not read about sex? Alexie says: “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Sounds a lot like the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reminds me of those fairy tales. Here is the boogey man, come to slaughter a family, and only the chosen/blessed/selected child escapes. Sure, it’s dark. Sure, it’s scary. But I don’t think that anyone gets through life without suffering, without being frightened. By the time kids are old enough to read this book and understand what’s going on, they will have heard about horrible events on the news, they will have experienced fear of something. What’s beautiful about this book is that the main character, Bod, is raised by the very ghosties and ghoulies children fear when they are very young. Bod, a child, is given gifts that make him like them – he can see in the dark, he can Fade, he can Haunt.

And when he is strong enough, he must face his greatest threat – which is not a ghost or a ghoul, it is a man named Jack. A man. A person who is just like Bod. Living, breathing, and violent.

Not to give away the end or anything…but Bod defeats him.

So, as stressful as it may be to be a parent and have darkness facing your child from every bookshelf, it is a necessary thing. There are monsters in the world. That is real. There are problems in the world. That is real. But you always have to remember there is light on those bookshelves too – the dark is defeated, its power is negated.

The darkness facing a parent on the bookshelf isn’t real darkness. It’s like a dark bedroom. When the light goes off, you can’t see anything but the dark. But if you stay, if you keep your eyes open, if you pay attention to the dark, your pupils dilate, growing wider, larger, to capture the light that is hidden – a streetlamp, or the moon, or stars. Then you can make out the shape of the bed, a bookshelf, pictures on the walls. You see in the dark. And the things that were frightening, like the monster in the closet, turn out to be a pile of clothes spilling out of their basket. (I know, frightening in its own right!) There was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

Marathons, Sheep, and Conclusions: A Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I’ve done this week:

1. And still NaNoWriMo. This past Saturday I participated in a marathon with Shane and Deb via the Pikes Peak Writers. It was strangely quiet in the big room. Partly because I forgot my headphones and partly because the big ol’ room was empty except for me, my buds, and two other folks who were pushing through.

However, I’m over 35K words now.

Sure, some of those words include ‘sheep’ – a flock of which I did not see coming – but it’s a fun ride, nonetheless.

2. Conclusions come to:

Take December off. MUST have a break. Plus I’ve got to read a whole bunch of books if I’m gonna hit my 80 book goal.

Then, in January (yep, I’m coming to some New Years Resolutions/Goals), finish the Line as quickly as possible. After that, start revising short stories – thus beginning 2012 as *drumroll* THE YEAR OF VAST REVISIONS!!!

Yep, next year I’m dedicating to revision mode. I have so many projects in various states of completion that next year will be dedicated to finishing. Polishing. Making pretty.

Next resolution: make a concerted effort to not talk about selling. Always in the back of my mind is the idea of selling the story. Getting it out there – and while that is still a priority – the writing and revision are to be made The Priority. So often the talk on the blogosphere revolves around selling and the publishing world and how hard everything is, or what options there are. 

I’m telling myself to get over it. Work on the work. If you do what you’re supposed to do (tell an interesting story and write it well), I really believe the other stuff will fall in line.

Has NaNo brought things into greater clarity for you? Whadja do this week?

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin’ on a Buddy: Iver Arnegard in High Contrast Review

Wahoo! My wonderful friend and mentorish-writing buddy, Iver Arnegard, has just had his short story “Made of Land or Water” published in the High Contrast Review.

Definitely check it out if you’ve got a second. It’s worth it.

Congratualtions to Iver, who took time out of his crazed teaching schedule to talk to my writing group last month. So, not only is he a talented writer, but he’s an all around nice guy.

The Multi-Creatives: David Keplinger’s By and By: The Copybook Songs of Isaac P. Anderson

A lot of writers I know do multiple creative things: needlepoint, ceramics, jewelry making, theatre, art, dance, music. There’s a certain attractiveness to this. Because, always, creativity breeds creativity. Through experimentation people find what they want to say, and then, through even more creative exploration, discover the way to say it.

Every now and then, these various artistic bits merge, developing into something new and very interesting.

I have had the great opportunity to study with a poet by the name of David Keplinger (you guys may have heard me mention his name around here before). I’ve heard him read his poetry at many different venues.

But, I’ve probably heard him sing in bars, or around campfires, more. Cuz that’s just how we roll.

Now I’ve just learned that David has combined his poetical sense and his musical inspirations to cut an album based on his great-great-grandfather’s poems. I was so absolutely tickled by this that I had to let you guys know, so you can check it out. It’s a really moving tribute to his family, but I think the historical notes, the creative expression, and the folksy style are inspiring too.

Your Slip is Showing: A Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Welcome to Tuesday! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

1. Um, yeah. NaNoWriMo is still going on. I’m not sure what week we’re in now. Week six? Week twelve? Feels like it’s been going on forever, and I’m slightly behind and in catch-it-up mode at the moment. It’s been this interesting see-saw bit: one day I’m up, the next day I’m down. I can’t seem to get ahead…which, I won’t lie, would be really, really nice.

One thing that’s funny about writing at a quick pace and not caring about what you put down (which isn’t entirely true, I just can’t not care about what I put down) is that your tangents/flaws/habits show themselves in a very exposing manner.

For example, I am an em-dash kinda chick. There is nothing like those double dashes to emphasize the parenthetical talky talk I like to emphasize. I’m sure this is especially annoying to the reader.

Also, I love the word that. And that is really helpful when you’re trying to up word counts. Any time a hang-up is overuse of words, NaNoWriMo blesses you.

I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon either. Shane is also participating in NaNo and he has discovered his penchant for overusing metaphors has resulted in sometimes three or four metaphors for one thing. (His word count is ahead of mine…perhaps I should embrace the power of long metaphors.)

Ah, to have your slip showing….

2. Reading. I have done some of it during this NaNo thing. However, I’ve also not finished reading anything. I’m halfway through a bunch of non-fiction, and only one novel.

I’m finding reading novels frustrates me as I try to pound out my own novel for NaNo. The novels remind me of how much I need to revise my em-dashed mess for it to be any kind of readable. Then all I want to do is revise. But no! I must hold back. I have plans! I have a schedule! I must write the dunderheadedness now! (See? NaNo also exposes your use of whacked-out words like dunderheadedness. I actually used the word nefariousness in my WIP. This is how it goes….)  

How’re you guys doing?

Domesticity: A Fictional Photo Essay (An Experiment)

A mix of chemicals is required to wake, bitter-granule reminders of some forgotten, formerly memorable sensation.

The day continues, each hour folding one into the next. You are told the work is important.
There is no way to organize your thoughts in a respectful manner.

You push through, but maybe there is an edge of resentment. A little piece that knows: the work is important –

but your heart won’t break if you go elsewhere.

Thursday Reviews!: The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As informative as this book is, I’m still not 100% sure how to poison a person and get away with it…so I guess the “Handbook” isn’t as handy as it’s cracked up to be….

However, if you wanna know all about hunting bad guys with beakers and bunson burners in 1920s/1930s New York you will not find a better book anywhere than this one. I LOVED it.

Blum has an excellent way of guiding the reader through a multitude of areas that can get confusing in their ‘high-context’-ness. Stuff like history if you’re not familiar with the era or place; stuff like chemistry in any form; stuff like political science all get enough attention so, as a reader, you don’t get lost lost and you’re not bored to tears either. It’s a fine balance and she handles it swimmingly.

This book also handles the intricately knotted tendrils of chemistry, crime, politics, and psychology in the best possible way. Cause and consequence – including the ever-irritating law of unintended consequences – are beautifully illustrated.

My favorite portions of the book were the sections that handled Prohibition’s effects:

“So it was that as Prohibition moved toward reality – Wyoming had become the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment on January 16, 1919 – Gettler and his small staff returned to the idea that wood alcohol was about to increase in popularity. THe Eighteenth Amendment, now that it had attained full ratification, was scheduled to go into effect in 1920. Already, though, the medical examiner’s office was charting a rise in alcohol poisoning, as New Yorkers hurried to find alternative supplies.”

We’re always looking for alternative supplies, aren’t we?

The increase in drinking deaths, the government participation in poisoning its citizens (the government officials defending themselves with the all-too-common blustering defense: “They broke the law, they deserve to die!”…as if *abiding the law* and *life* have ever been synonymous), and the necessity of capturing real violent criminals (the kind who poison dozens of bakery patrons), all helped drive Charles Norris, New York’s first medical examiner, and his crew to work round-the-clock to discover the make-ups of several poisons.

It’s a great read. Really quick, to the point, and guarunteed to up your answer quotient on Jeopardy!. But, even more than that, I think that way Blum interweaves all of the seemingly disparate elements of the Prohibition period is helpful as a medium for looking at today’s issues of concern like the economy, oil, immigration, and the reactions to Wall Street. These things, like the issues pressing in the 1930s, do not exist in a vacuum – and a good many of the problems Blum touches upon (corporation oversight, for example) are still with us today. I really think this is an entertaining and important book.

View all my reviews

Voices in Your Head: Writing Group Issue #1 with some help from Ursula K LeGuin

At my last writers group meeting – we meet the last Sunday of every month – a disturbing trend came to light:

One of the group members said that she would not be submitting for a while because she was hearing the other members’ voices in her head.

This probably would not have raised the little hairs on the back of my neck except for the fact that this was the second person I’d heard say those exact words in the space of a few months. That may sound like a long time, but in the space of critique meetings, that’s twice in ten get-togethers. Which isn’t much.

I admit to a certain amount of Really? in my own thoughts. Because I have no real issue distinguishing which pieces of criticism I want to take (what I need to take may be a totally different thing…there I go, happily ignoring stuff that might be necessary…), I had a very hard time even understanding what these writers were talking about. I don’t hear people when I write. I barely hear them when I edit. I write down the critiques that are compatible with my vision of the piece and ignore the rest. Well, that’s just ducky for me, right?

But that kind of attitude is just not helpful for writers who are experiencing this.

So in the past week or so, I’ve tried to imagine what it is they are experiencing. And my imagination, I confess, did not help me that much.

Mostly I felt like an intolerable bully who had helped pummel these writers into blockage. I found myself angry with these writers. I found myself being irritated that these writers “couldn’t figure it out.” Harsh? Oh yes. I was not thinking nicely.

While all of this was going on in my brain – which couldn’t put itself in someone else’s shoes (an experience which added to my frustration because, dammit, aren’t writers supposed to be the ones who can go into everyone’s shoes and walk around a while?) – I picked up a book that had been on my shelf a while: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin.

As I was flipping through the book, I noticed Appendix 1: The Peer Group Workshop. Seeing as how this subject was on my mind, I flipped to the appendix and read all the way through the section. I found some things my group does right: we’re all at about the same skill level so there’s no inequality really; we read and mark up over time (we have a month to read and work on each other’s manuscripts); we all speak up at the meetings; and we have just the right number of people.

Then I realized the other rules that LeGuin recommends in this appendix are rules designed to keep writers from ‘hearing voices.’

1. LeGuin recommends: “The author of the story under discussion is SILENT.” We are not silent. The authors can talk, ask questions, explain what they meant. LeGuin argues that silence is necessary because “It’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticised not to be on the defense, eager to explain, answer, point out” so instead, the writer should focus on listening. By staying silent, “You won’t be busy mentally preparing what you’re going to say in answer, because you can’t answer. All you can do is hear. You can hear what people got from your piece, what they think needs some work, what they misunderstood and understood, disliked and liked about it. And that’s what you’re there for.”

While, on the surface staying silent seems like a writer is just gonna sit there and take it while the Voices keep going – what really happens is you hear your own voice much clearer. By not being able to respond, you draw your own conclusions about what the readers are saying. You have to know what it was you wanted to say. You have to know what you wanted them to feel. And you can just listen and see if they got that or not.

However, the author gaining anything from staying silent depends very much on the standard the critiquers are held to…which brings me to:

2. LeGuin recommends:

Each critique should be:
Strictly in turn.
Without interruption from anyone else.”

Oh dear.

This is where our group totally falls apart. No lie. There’s rambling, interruptions, debates, suggestions, correction, deletions, philosophy, styles, quotes, diatribes, reading recommendations, movie recommendations, music recommendations, and on and on and on. It’s a chaotic discussion and generally there are two or three voices dominating the conversation. (Yes, one of the loudest is me.)

After I read LeGuin’s rules from critiquing, and after I thought about the suggestions, corrections, recommendations, etc. I suddenly understood where the voices were coming from.

As a group, we don’t shut up. No freakin’ wonder our compatriots are brain-fizzled.

Each group has to decide for itself how it wants to run and what ways work the best for them, while not alienating members. Not everyone works the same and, after my soul-searching this week, I’m going to think more on it and then discuss with the group whether or not we need to revise our ground rules and how we would like to it if we go forward with new rules.

I’m still sorting out my own emotional component in the matter, because a great deal of how the group currently runs is based on organic development – a lot of the way we do things were attempts to make it ‘more fair.’ And then, I still wonder, if the writers who hear the shouting and debating while they write are going to be any better if the critiques are kept under more control? Or will brief, to the point critiques be enough to set the voices off anyway?

But I do think that LeGuin’s ground rules will figure heavily in my thought process.

Anyone out there in a real-life or online workshop/group experience the hearing of voices? Any ideas on how to keep a meeting balanced?