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….