Better Read Millennials, Stephen King’s Ancestors, and a Piece of Writing You’ll Never See

Here’s a round-up of cool reading/writing news that I’ve come across recently and thought you’d enjoy too!

According to a new Pew Research Center Study, as Slate reports, Millennials are better read than previous generations. 

No real surprise that James Patterson is the top-earning writer — coming in at $94 million this past year — according to Forbes’ list of top earning writers. And, of course, my super-hero Stephen King is also on the list.

Speaking of Stephen King…

He’ll be on “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on September 23. Check your local listings!

And King has also done a recent interview in The Atlantic where he talks about teaching English…with great sympathy for teachers.

Onto another hero: Margaret Atwood. Unfortunately, you’ll have to live another 100 years before you get to read her new work. She’s agreed to write a piece for a time capsule-ish art project.

Myth, History, and Belief Systems

Ancient myths precede histories and were once thought to be histories. They were thought to be true accounts of important matters.” ~Margaret Atwood, from “Burning Bushes” in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

I’m part of a couple reading groups on Goodreads. Unfortunately, I can never seem to keep up with the novels the groups are reading because I’m so darn distractable. *shiny!* However, these smart folks have directed me to books that I would not otherwise have read. For example, right now I’ve started reading a book called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset – winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It’s a monster of a book. I’m barely halfway through part one of the trilogy.

But I’m far enough in that I see something very interesting going on.

Brief overview of the book: Kristin takes place in 14th century Norway and it’s about a girl/young woman who enters into an unwise marriage against her parent’s consent.

(What on earth does this have to do with Margaret Atwood? Just hold on a second, I’ll get there.)

In one of the opening sequences, Kristin is confronted by the spectre of a dwarf (a fairy in Norwegian terms). It’s an interesting section in which Kristin is almost tempted away from her father and the group she’s traveling with. Her father ‘saves’ her at the last moment, and she tells him what she saw. Dad immediately freaks out. She’s not allowed to leave his side, nor is she allowed to tell her mother – a deeply religious woman who would flip if she thought her daughter was being threatened by evil sprites.

While reading this turn of events I was caught by the idea that, in the past, the myths are real. Magic is real. The reason we read fantasies and science fiction and speculative fiction (whatever you want to call it) is partly because we don’t see this stuff in real life…anymore. Science has kind of ripped the mystery away, but once upon a time – and not a very long ago time either – we used to believe that magic was real. Miracles could happen.

Undset certainly caught the right historical tone – and it made the history more believeable than any description of medieval churches ever could. For the first time reading a historical piece, I felt the very real terror of the *beyond.*

In “Burning Bushes,” an essay in In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, she states there are questions that myths answer:
1. Where did the world come from?
2. Where did people come from?
3. Where did OUR people come from?
4. Why do bad things happen to good people?
5. Why do good things happen to bad people?
6. What is right behavior?
7. What do the gods/God want?
8. What are the right relationships between men and women?

And that’s why myths have hung around so long.

I would add that a good story – any story – has characters who behave in accordance with a mythos. Whether you base the story’s belief system on science, with its “seven step” scientific process, or if it is based more on a religious backbone or if it’s based on the idea that Nothing exists past this life doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is something (nothing is something too) because real human behavior revolves around the answers to the above questions. You can’t write something believable without knowing what those answers are for your world.

Margaret Atwood, from what I’ve read, has taken great pains in order to answer these questions for herself. In Handmaid’s Tale, you can see the evolution of the society via a belief system. Oryx and Crake is almost a listed, direct answer to the questions she poses in “Burning Bushes.”

And so far in Kristin Lavransdatter, these questions are being addressed as well.  

Do you have answers to these questions for your stories? Have you read any books that answer these questions particularly well?

New Short Story from Our Mentor!

Hello Atwood fans.

For those of you interested, The New Yorker has published a new short story by Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress.” If you dig stories with dark women…this one’s for you.

Let us know what you think!

World Building vs. Character Building

Today I’m going to follow up on my earlier post about The Year of the Flood. I had talked about Atwood’s world building, which is immersive and draws me right in. She doesn’t info dump, but rather, she gives little glimpses to draw you in. It’s like the world-building peep show. On the second page of the book, one of the main characters, Toby, is looking out at her surroundings:

“She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate…There’s a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it’s gone now.

She doesn’t bother explaining things. She raises questions, “What’s a lumirose? Why is there an arm?” and moves on. For a reader like me, it grabs me right off. I get curious. So, why do I find The Year of the Flood easy to put down? The characters and plot don’t grab me.

Most of the book is focused on flashback. We start with a post-apocalyptic setting, and the most fun parts of post-apocalyptic fiction are wandering the world, seeing the carnage, and watching the characters overcome the wasteland’s challenges. Flashback takes all of the fun out of it. We start with everybody being dead. Then, it goes back years to a storyline that is, honestly, pretty dry. We see both characters’ lives before the flood, and for both, it involves little of their own conflict and a lot of them observing other people.

The questions I come to for characters are: What’s at stake? What do they stand to gain or lose? What’s important to them? Or, put another way: Why should I care? I know both of the main characters survived the disaster. Everybody they had conflicts with before is presumed dead, so there are no reasons to assume that the big adversary from a decade earlier is about to resurface, especially since she spends hardly any time in the present once she gets past the first few pages. I made it to page 215 and I’m bored with the flashbacks. The past isn’t interesting unless it affects the present, and there have only been maybe 15 of those 215 pages that have anything to do with the present. Those 15 pages are mostly world-building pages, too. The closest the present has come to conflict is that one of the characters had a run in with some wild pigs and might be running low on food some time in the next few months. That’s fine as conflict to get you warmed up in the beginning, but when does it get bigger and more urgent than that?

To sum up: The Year of the Flood has left me high and dry. I want to care, but I don’t. I like the world, but an interesting world isn’t enough to get me through 400+ pages.

World Building

I’m working my way through Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. The interesting thing to look at is how she built her world.

On one hand, she explains very little. She tosses the reader right into the midst of rakunks and a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not until much later that she explains about the genetic manipulation that created the menagerie of unusual critters. I haven’t gotten to the explanation about the apocalypse yet, and I’m half way through the book. Atwood is confident enough to think you’ll just go along for the ride, which is cool.

On the other hand, there’s oodles of extra stuff. She includes sermons from one of the characters and religious hymns throughout. It adds texture. Or, it’s intended to. At first, I read them. Now I skip them. For my money, I’m just not into it. But, then I’m reminded of something Neil Gaiman said about Fragile Things when people said they weren’t into the poetry. To paraphrase, he said, “Don’t think of it as a book of short stories and poetry. Think of it as a book of short stories with free poems added in.” Based on my impression of Atwood, I think she’d be on the same page as Gaiman.

World building is such a fine balance. Do it right, and people get sucked in. Miss the mark, and…

So far, I’m kind of on the fence about The Year of the Flood. More commentary on that later.

Margaret Atwood and Origins

Part mentor post, part Origins Blogfest (this one’s a big ‘un…and how’s that? From no blogfests to two in three days!).

In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination, Atwood has a series of essays about how she came to write science fiction – or speculative fiction, depending on what definition you use – so I was thinking about not only why I write but why I write what I do.

Why I write kind of boils down to my friend Shelagh. There’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln that goes something like this: “I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” It’s rather like that. Prior to a certain evening in a pool hall (don’t ask) I was convinced I was going to be an actress. I did something like twelve community plays in four years, had just started auditioning for movies/commercials and was on my way to the BIG TIME in my head. Kind of. (Ah, teenagers.)

But I’d always fiddled with stories. I’d write bits and pieces down, show them to my friends, and that was about it.

So, I’m playing pool with Shelagh and someone in the bar asks, “What do you do?” At that moment my answer was a big fat nothing. I’d fallen into a total funk – you guys know the kind: “Life means nothing, I have no goal, no vision, no nothing.” And Shelagh, who had read my fiddling and was a character in a couple of the fiddles, answered for me: “She’s a writer.”

I said: “I’m a writer.” That was that. It was a perfect fit. I’m now kind of obsessive…anyone who talks to me will tell you that. It’s really all I talk/think/dream about. Stories and how to tell ’em good.

Margaret Atwood has been making me think about why I write what I do.

She has this great essay on flying rabbits – her early version of superheroes. She writes about her influences and how they impacted her. This got me thinking about my own influences.

Honestly, I think I lost the way to my stories for a while – and I bet that a lot of other writers feel that way too. First, I was convinced I was going to be a horror guru (I love Stephen King, read my way through John Saul and Dean Koontz in my teenage years, and I owe a great deal of pre-teen sleepless nights to R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike). Then I went to school and was surrounded by these wonderful – and I mean wonderful – literary writers; only students then, but it’s just a matter of time for these guys. I was taught poetry, the classics, and was introduced to the moden geniuses of Sherman Alexie, Tim O’Brien, and Toni Morrison. When I saw what they could do, I was so jealous that I couldn’t do what they could do…and I tried really hard.

Got a couple under the drawer novels to prove it.

Recently, I think I’ve gotten a handle on the stuff I want to write. If you refer to my Booklove Blogfest post, you’ll see that the big sweeping stories are my favorite. I’m working on one right now. Would I say that it’ll be the super-mega-blockbuster that those are? Hell, I can’t even say if it’ll be published.

What I can say is that I’ve finally internalized that you should write what you want to read. There’s a difference between hearing this bit of advice in every single writing blog and every single writing book and actually internalizing the information. Because once you actually own the idea that you should love your story first, the process loses the grind. It becomes fun. It becomes not what you should be doing, but what you want to do. (There’s still plenty of shoulds that come along, don’t worry.)

Basically, wherever you’ve come from with your writing, as long as you’re honest with yourself about where you’re going with it, it’s a gift.

Oh, and don’t let your friends down.  

Margaret Atwood on Her Creative Process

Okay, here’s a great little interview from Big Think, asking Margaret Atwood all those questions that we writers love to ask other writers…especially those more successful or smarter than us.

Something interesting that struck me in her methodology was the ‘rolling barrage’ – because I do this. As she describes it: the rolling barrage is the process of writing by hand, typing that in, writing by hand, typing it in, and on.

Check it out, it’s only four minutes and she just might help you figure out which idea you should be
writing about….

You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to: Define Your Terms

What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters…’speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books….In a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by ‘science fiction’ is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under ‘fantasy.’”   ~Margaret Atwood, Introduction to In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

When two writers of Atwood’s and Le Guin’s caliber come to separate definitions of the terminology used in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Fantasy genres, it’s a sign there will probably be some confusion when you’re looking to see where your work will wind up on the shelf. This is a question that a lot of writers ponder.

I admit that the sci fi/fantasy stuff I read – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, etc. – tends to be found in the general fiction/literary categories…which makes it that much more confusing. The novel  I’m working on now is a dystopian novel (speculative in its own right), and a large bit of it hinges on what Atwood would call ‘speculative fiction’ and Le Guin would call ‘science fiction.’ When all is said and done, how am I supposed to define my work?

After much pondering, I decided the first thing to do is to define what I believe these genres to be, and put my work in its own place within my own defined parameters.

While Atwood’s definition of science fiction differs from Le Guin’s, both authors have terms that serve the definition of: “stories with elements that could conceivably occur in the future.” For Le Guin, that’s ‘science fiction.’ For Atwood, it’s ‘speculative fiction.’ Both have definitions that function within the larger genres as a whole. They aren’t speaking a foreign language. If pressed, they can communicate their terms – and once the terms are presented, it’s really quite simple to understand what a person is claiming.   

If you, as a writer, understand what your story is – slipstream, urban fantasy, military science fiction, space opera…whatever…be sure that you can explain your idea of the term to a person who might say it’s something else.

The second thing is not to define your terms so randomly that no one working within any of these genres would understand what you’re talking about – be aware!

Atwood and Le Guin are not on different planets when they talk about these terms. Be familiar with the lingo of the genre you’re writing in. In fact, the above quote gives some very good parameters on science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Defining your work shouldn’t mean creating a whole new terminology. Let’s face it: none of us are creating the wheel.  

For me, as it turns out, Atwood’s definition fits what I think of my novel. Also, I think of it as speculative fiction because, in my head, science fiction involves outer space. It’s just my own personal pitfall. However, I’m not so ridiculous as to insist that readers MUST call it speculative fiction – I understand that a lot of readers (if not most) jive with Le Guin’s definition of science fiction. In fact, during the pitch session last Sunday, Ms. Jones asked if my work could be classified as science fiction. And I ’fessed up and called it science fiction. Still, I knew what she was getting at, and I knew what she meant when she asked about genre. Because I knew what my definitions were, there was no confusion when I presented my work.  

Farewell Gaiman, Welcome Atwood

Alas, such as it is on this blog, we cannot keep talking about one author forever. So, as pleasant as it has been to talk of Gaiman, and as many works as we have left explore of his, it’s time for someone new. But dry your tears, friends, we’ll be talking about Terry Pratchett in April so I’m sure his name will pop up again.

Now for our new February Mentor.

I give you: Margaret Atwood!!!!!!!!!

The reasons Atwood is such a wonderful mentor are so large in number that it boggles the mind. I’m not going to list them here. (I started talking about Atwood late last year, but got distracted. You can see those posts in the sidebar to right, if you are so inclined.)

We’ll just get started – February is a short month!

The first thing I want to discuss about Atwood is related to a recent struggle going around the web-o-sphere about the responsibility of authors and the responsibility of readers in reviewing. This post has very little to do with Atwood’s writing directly, but everything to do with authors this “day-n-age.”

As I’m sure you realize, the world of writing and publishing is teeny-tiny. A MicroWorld if you will. The world of publishing includes the obvious members: authors, Amazon, agents, Amazon, editors, Amazon, publishing houses, Amazon, booksellers, and Amazon. But more and more there are bloggers, online review spaces like Goodreads, and the starred review spaces on the bookselling websites staking out a piece of the literary conversation.

Recently there was a debacle on Goodreads, a site I love because it’s generally been free of the drama that occurs on blogs and starred reviews – the writers and readers mostly discuss books and the conversations stay on-topic. The gist of the debacle is this: a reader/reviewer read a set of sample pages from a YA book and found the sampling offensive. She proceeded to offer a feminist perspective on the pages and stated clearly that she had not finished the book because this opening so bothered her. A few commenters stated that, because of the arguments the reviewer made (and by argument I mean the presentation of her opinion, not that the reviewer was picking a fight) they would not pick up the book.

Does that sting? Yes. Is it fair? Actually, feminist arguments are a more formal form of literary criticism, falling in with post colonialism, minority/Other criticisms, etc. So, yeah – it’s a fair statement of opinion.

Still hurts like a B. No doubt.   

What happened next I think was done with good intentions. One of the author’s (Author A) author friends (Author B) spoke up for her – pointing out the reviewer had not read the entire piece, that the POV character grew throughout the novel, and that Author A was intentionally emphasizing character flaws in the POV character. However, some of the comments were made in a *light* tone of typing-voice, so it came off sarcastic when I think Author B was actually trying to lighten the mood.

Result? MASS UNPROFESSIONALISM ON ALL SIDES

Commenters called Author B a ‘troll.’ Author A rushed in to defend her work and her friend – and is generally considered to have handled herself well in the situation, and not sounding at all like this author who cursed out a blogged review of her work and received massive negative starring on Amazon. (I mentioned Amazon was involved in the publishing world, didn’t I?) She was joined by at least one agent in defending the work and Author B. I think they were trying to do some damage control, but it just added fuel to the fire.

Should the authors have responded the way they did? Engaging a reviewer head-on like that? Um…we’ll get to that in sec when I bring in why Margaret Atwood’s our mentor on this one.

Before that, I’d like to speak as a reviewer and the whole thing about the negative starring. When I review a book, I only review books I have read and I star them according to my opinion on the piece. It irritates me no end when I see a bunch of positive stars that are obviously written by close family members, it irritates me when I see authors ‘pimping’ their novels, and it irritates me when I see a campaign to knock down an author with one-star ‘reviews.’

This is what happened to Author B in the debacle. Because of a strong negative reaction to his posts in the comments section of a book that was not his – and because of his Twitter commentary as well, let’s not forget the jumping of spaces! – the commenters jumped from reviewing Author A’s book to reviewing Author B’s character…and they said so on his book’s review space.

‘Campaigning’ like this is not professional, and before someone says “Well, Goodreads isn’t a professional review space” – then I say, instead of unprofessional…it’s not nice. It is bullying. It is unfair. It is rude. And it can be very damaging. Especially when it comes down to an author’s livelihood: his or her book. Be better than that.

All that being said, how should an author react when someone – a reviewer, a reporter, a clown at your kid’s birthday party – says something negative about you or your work?

And now we get to Margaret Atwood. I direct you to this post on her blog. Check out the comments section. See the guy who says “you’re a bitch. I’m sorry I wasted my time and money on a dozen of your books. Most of them were boring anyway“?

Yeah. Let that sink in for a second.

There are commenters who engage this guy on Atwood’s behalf, sure. But note Atwood’s reaction.

Um, yeah. Where is it?

She doesn’t respond. I hope that, as another commenter said, “If the confidence that Atwood has exuded throughout her brilliant poetry and prose is any indication of who she is, I’m pretty positive she laughed at that comment.”

Because the truth is, people say nasty, mean, bullying things – they shouldn’t, because that makes them jackasses. When you’re published they’ll say sh*t about you, they’ll say sh*t about your writer friends, they’ll call your agent fat and your editor doofy. They’ll dislike your characters, your story won’t speak to them, or – worse – they won’t feel anything about you or your work at all. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling these things…and, as an author you don’t have to necessarily stay quiet.

Some things to keep in mind:
1. Authors have this thing called a platform. Margaret Atwood has a Twitter account with 300,000ish followers. She has a website, a facebook page, and a blog. Plus, you know, she’s got those book things. If someone sounds off and presents an argument that she feels she needs to respond to, she doesn’t have to respond on that someone’s turf. She can respond in her own space, on her own terms.
***Atwood recently attended a conference and presented her argument that Twitter boosts literacy – so there’s always public speaking…=)
****And in Weird Synchronous News: Atwood speaks about The Handmaid’s Tale in the Guardian…see? Platform. Use it.
2. History/time and more work will put a review in perspective. Atwood wrote Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-80s. The critiques of today are different than the critiques when the book originally came out. If Atwood spent all her time defending or explaining that one work…we wouldn’t have Oryx and Crake, or The Year of the Flood, or The Penelopiad, or…you get my point? There is work to do. Stop talking to the reviewers on their turf and create a new work that defines your place in the literary world more clearly.

3. “But I’m not Margaret Atwood. I don’t have piles of work or a platform or…or…” you say? Well then – you have more work to do, don’t you?

Thursday Reviews!: Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the first story of this book, “Murder in the Dark,” and when I was finished I turned to my husband, shoved the book in his hand, told him to read it and then he was to tell me HOW DID SHE DO THAT?

He didn’t really have an answer but his comment defined what I thought of the rest of the book: “It’s written with the confidence of someone who knows she can hit a homerun every time.”

Confidence oozes through every one of these pieces.

Least faves (because they just seemed a little too forced – and I wish I had a better word for that sensation, but that’s the best I’ve got!):
“Gertrude Talks Back”: Queen Gertrude gives Hamlet her opinion on her current and former husbands. Fine. But the tone somehow seemed dismissive – and the character of Gertrude never seemed dismissive in the play – which is doubly odd considering the information she is giving her ‘priggish’ son. And, this may seem an odd critique, but I think the white space between the paragraphs doesn’t do the story any favors. It gives it a fragmented feeling and I think that a piece riffing on Shakespeare would work better within the play framework – perhaps shaping the monologue in a block form like Hamlet’s own speeches would have allowed the words to have more impact instead of making the reader adjust both the form and the words.

“Poppies: Three Variations”: While this is probably the most complex exercise, it reads just like that: an exercise. She riffs on a verse about poppies by John McCrae by using the same words of that verse, in the same order, to tell three different stories. The first words of McCrae’s verse is ‘in Flanders’ and all three mini-stories have with ‘in’ followed somewhere by ‘Flanders’ followed somewhere by the next word in the verse. It’s a good way to stretch the literary muscle, but it’s like watching someone work out – we admire their physique but prefer not to see the huffing and puffing and sweat that go along with it. Just give me the calendar, ya know?

The stories that I absolutely adore are the ones that have a satirical bite to them.

“Simmering”: Oh! My FAVORITE by far. (I know, it’s unfair to choose favorites, but there you have it, anyway.) It’s all about what happens when men take over the kitchen. Go get this book and read that story.

“Murder in the Dark”: It set the tone for the rest of the book. Is the author just trying to manipulate the reader throughout (I’m totally okay with the way Atwood manipulates, by the way), is she just a magician showing nothing of reality? Puts the power with the writer…so I think my writerly friends will enjoy this a lot…as well as readers who like to figure out the trick. I still haven’t….

“Happy Endings”: A choose-your-own adventure marriage!

Atwood also illustrated the collection, and some are as provocative as the stories – which are also dominated by the bits and pieces of male and female anatomy. Interwoven among the stories is the question of objectifying the body: “Making a Man,” “Alien Territory,” “Dance of the Lepers,” and “Good Bones” hit on the question in a more direct way…but it’s everywhere.

Well worth reading – and it won’t take that long either.

View all my reviews