September 26, 2013

Book Review: Finding the Core of Your Story

"How to strengthen and sell your story in one essential sentence."
 
Author: Jordan Smith



I’ve been studying the world of fiction publishing and marketing for long enough to have heard plenty about the importance of a good logline—or elevator pitch, or whatever you want to call it. But recognizing your need for one and actually writing one are two very different ballgames.
Until Jordan Smith contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to review his book for him, I’d never seen or even heard of a book dedicated solely to the construction of a good logline. But that’s exactly what Finding the Core of Your Story is: a step-by-step, how-to guide to writing a logline sure to catch the interest of potential publishers, agents, and readers.
Even if you’re new to the writing and publishing thing and you’re not even sure what a logline is, that’s okay. The author starts out with a straightforward explanation of the concept and purpose. From there he builds on with basic logline templates, then expands even further with concept ideas for using tools like irony, intersecting plot threads, conflict, and even a chapter dedicated to giving characters individual loglines. Even if you’re like me and your story has 14+ plot threads tangled together, don’t worry. Read the chapter “Untangling the Threads of Your Story.” Frustrated with trying to convey the uniqueness of your characters and/or story world in just one concise sentence? Read the chapters “Tickle Me with Your Adjective Feather” and “In a World Where…”
Even if you’re not to the point of needing to pitch your book to editors/agents/publishers yet, a logline is still a great tool to have on hand. Just this week I wrote a logline for the project I’m tackling in NaNoWriMo this year. Doing so has helped me figure out the characters and their motivations, as well as give me a core idea to focus on.
I could go on, but I’m sure you’re starting to get the idea.
The thing that really made this book super helpful and the logline writing process make so much sense were the examples the author used. Rather than just telling you to “find what makes the situation the most ironic and capture that in your logline,” he actually shows you how by writing loglines from real movies and books. For someone like me, who learns best by example, it was a huge help.
And if you’re writing one of those exceptional stories—you know, the ones that defy all the models and break all the rules—he’s got you covered there, too, not only with formats for handling those unique situations, but with great guidelines for highlighting just exactly what it is that makes your story so unique.
The author has a fun, conversational voice and a humorous approach—complete with generous doses of hilarious writers-only humor—that made this a delightful read.

Those of you who’ve been hanging around here at the Lair for awhile will have read enough of my reviews to know that I don’t just rave over any old book. But this is one of those special times when I am totally comfortable raving. : P
I whole-heartedly endorse this resource. Every writer—whether experienced or aspiring—should own a copy. Mine has become one of the two most-used books in my writing resource library, no joke.
Click Here to order Finding the Core of Your Story from Amazon!

I received a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for my review, but was under no obligation to review it favorably. My opinions are my own.
 

September 17, 2013

The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books



This post is a reprint from the July/August 2013 issue of Imprimis, a speech digest publication of Hillsdale College. The article was adapted from a speech delivered on March 12, 2013, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. I don’t usually do reprints as blog posts, but this was just so stellar that I couldn’t resist. In my opinion, every writer should read this. It’s that good.
**Warning** This article does contain some very mature content related to very dark and, in some cases, graphic and obscene subject matter, which I have reprinted uncut. I assure you, I would not do so if I didn’t believe the point it makes is worth it. Any of my readers under eighteen may want to let their parents preview the post. You won’t hurt my feelings if you choose to skip this one, I promise.
~Mary
“The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books”
By Meghan Cox Gurdon

On June 4, 2011, the number one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number two topic on Twitter that day—almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous—had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature… by me. Entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adults—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly more lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.
Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal presin, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open. The late critic Hilton Kramer was seated once at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen. Allen asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he’d savaged in print. “No,” Kramer said, “they’re the ones who made the bad art. I just described it.” As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.
I don’t presume to have a nose as sensitive as Hilton Kramer’s—but I do know that criticism is pointless if it’s only boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children’s books, is to engage in the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct “discrimination.” Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher’s Weekly warned of a “danger” that my arguments “encourage a culture of fear around YA literature.” But I do not, in fact, with to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.
Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are na├»ve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”
What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples—but with a warning that some of what you’re about to hear is not appropriate for younger listeners.
A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, heart, feet, penises. Where the f— was this?”
That’s from Andrew Smith’s 2010 Young Adult novel, The Marbury Lens.
A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her “cutterslut.” In response, “she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”
That’s from Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 Young Adult novel, Rage.
I won’t read you the most offensive excerpts from my third example, which consist of explicit and obscene descriptions by a 17-year-old female narrator of sexual petting, of oral sex, and of rushing to a bathroom to defecate following a breakup. Yet School Library Journal praised Daria Sandowsky’s 2008 Young Adult novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, for dealing “in modern terms with the real issues of discovering sex for the first time.” And Random House, its publisher, gushed about the narrator’s “heartbreakingly honest voice” as she recounts the “exquisite ups and dramatic downs of teenage love and heartbreak.”
The book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read whatever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.
I appeared on National Public Radio to discuss these issues with the Young Adult book author Lauren Myracle, who has been hailed as a person “on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression”—as if any controversy over whether a book is appropriate for children turns on the question of the author’s freedom to express herself. Myracle made clear that she doesn’t believe there should be any line between adult literature and literature for young people. In saying this, she was echoing the view that prevails in many progressive circles—that young people should encounter material that jolts them out of their comfort zone; that the world is a tough place; and that there’s no point shielding children from reality. I took the less progressive, less secular view that parents should take a more interventionist approach, steering their children away from books about sex and horror and degradation, and towards books that make aesthetic and moral claims.
Now, although it may seem that our culture is split between Left and Right on the question of permissiveness regarding our children’s reading material, in fact there is not so much division on the core issue as might appear. Secular progressives, despite their reaction to my article, have their own list of books they think young people shouldn’t read—for instance, books they claim are tinged with racism or jingoism or that depict traditional gender roles. Regarding the latter, you would not believe the extent to which children’s picture books today go out f the way to show father in an apron and mother tinkering with machinery. It’s pretty funny. But my larger point here is that the self-proclaimed anti-book-banners on the Left agree that books influence children and prefer some books to others.
Indeed, in the early years of the Cold War, many left-wing creative people in America gravitated toward children’s literature. Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, has written that Red-hunters, “seeing children’s books as a field dominated by women… deemed it less important and so did not watch it closely.” Among the authors I am referring to are Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Ruth Krauss, author of the 1952 classic A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. Krauss was quite open in her belief that children’s literature was an excellent means of putting left-wing ideas into young minds. Or so she hoped.
When I was a little girl I read The Cat in the Hat, and I took from it an understanding of the sanctity of private property—it outraged me when the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two rampaged through the children’s house while their mother was away. Dr. Seuss was probably not intending to inculcate capitalist ideas—quite the contrary. But it happened in my case, and the point is instructive.
A recent study conducted at Virginia Tech found that college women who read “chick lit”—light novels that deal with the angst of being a modern woman—reported feeling more insecure about themselves and their bodies after reading novels in which the heroines feel insecure about themselves and their bodies. Similarly, federal researchers were puzzled for years be a seeming paradox when it came to educating children about the dangers of drugs and tobacco. There seemed to be a correlation between anti-drug and anti-tobacco programs in elementary and middle schools and subsequent drug and tobacco use at those schools. It turned out that at the same time children were learning that drugs and tobacco were bad, they were taking in the meta-message that adults expected them to use drugs and tobacco.
Which is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Yong Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”)
The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.
In journalist Emily Bazelon’s recent book about bullying, she describes how schools are using a method called “social norming” to discourage drinking and driving. “The idea,” she writes, “is that students often overestimate how much other kids drink and drive, and when they find out that it’s less prevalent than they think—outlier behavior rather than the norm—they’re less likely to do it themselves.” The same goes for bullying: “When kids understand that cruelty isn’t the norm,” Bazelon says, “they’re less likely to be cruel themselves.”
Now isn’t that interesting?
Ok, you say, but books for kids have always been dark. What about Hansel and Gretel? What about the scene in Beowulf where the monster sneaks into the Danish camp and starts eating people?
Beowulf is admittedly gruesome in parts—and fairy tales are often scary. Yet we approach them at a kind of arm’s length, almost as allegory. In the case of Beowulf, furthermore, children reading it—or having it read to them—are absorbing the rhythms of one of mankind’s great heroic epics, one that explicitly reminds us that our talents come from God and that we act under God’s eye and guidance. Even with the gore, Beowulf won’t make a child callous. It will help to civilize them.
English philosopher Roger Scruton has written at length about what he calls the modern “flight from beauty,” which he sees in every aspect of our contemporary culture. “It is not merely,” he writes, “that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts”—here we might include authors of Young Adult literature—“are in a flight from beauty…There is a desire to spoil beauty…For beauty makes a claim on us; it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”
We can go to the Palazzo Borghese in Rome and stand before Caravaggio’s painting of David with the head of Goliath, and though we are looking at horror we are not seeing ugliness. The light that plays across David’s face and chest, and that slants across Goliath’s half-open eyes and mouth, transforms the scene into something beautiful. The problem with the darker offerings in Young Adult literature is that they lack this transforming and uplifting quality. They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way; they show an orgiastic lack of restrain that is the mark of bad taste.
Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to-18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulfur in the stories they read?
The body of children’s literature is a little like the Library of Babel in the Jorge Luis Borges story—shelf after shelf of books, many almost gibberish, but a rare few filled with wisdom and beauty and answers to important questions. These are the books that have lasted because generation after generation has seen in them something transcendent, and has passed them on. Maria Tatar, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard, describes books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, and Pinocchio as “setting minds into motion, renewing sense, and almost rewiring brains.”
Or as William Wordsworth wrote: “What we have loved/others will love, and we will teach them how.”

The good news is that just like the lousy books of the past, the lousy books of the present will blow away like chaff. The bad news is that they will leave their mark. As in so many aspects of culture, the damage they do can’t easily be measured. It is more a thing to be felt—a coarseness, an emptiness, a sorrow.
“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it does not matter.” That’s Roger Scruton again. But he doesn’t want us to despair. He also writes:
It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only—or even at all—in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surround them and live in another way. The art, literature, and music of our civilization remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial.
Let me close with Saint Paul the Apostle in Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
And let us think about these words when we go shopping for books for our children.
***
Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

September 12, 2013

Summer is Over...

... or at least, very nearly. It's been an amazing summer, I don't mind telling you. Great weather, plenty of rain (the Ozarks are a rainforest right now, compared to this time last year), exciting events - no complaints!
I won't bore you with the details of my entire summer, but I will take a few moments to talk about Realm Makers, which was definitely the highlighting event!
If you didn't hear about it beforehand, Realm Makers was the first-ever writers conference specifically designed for Christian writers of speculative fiction. And it. Was. Awesome. I met some amazing people, had the privilege of shaking the hands of people I'd previously only met online, and had a great time enjoying the company of a whole troop of people just as crazy and creative and nerdy as me!
We were able to get all three of the Lost Scribes together, which is a rare treat these days. Elyn (far right) rode up to St. Louis with me (second from left) and my friend Michaela (second from right), and Heather (far left) came all the way down from Michigan. In this picture we're hanging out at the Friday night costume dinner with Becky Minor, the reason we even had such a thing as a Realm Makers conference. So a huge thank-you to her for an awesome weekend!
You may have noticed in the first picture a bit of a steampunk theme - at least on the part of Michaela, Elyn, and myself. That wasn't entirely intentional, but it ended up being pretty cool. Pictured here is the pile of weaponry and other steampunk accoutrements we brought along. Michaela made the ray gun herself - yeah, she's cool that way. And for the record: you should have seen the looks she got when she waltzed through Steak & Shake on Saturday still wearing the sabre, ray gun, and bowie knives - with Elyn and me tagging along, acting like this is perfectly normal. We laughed about it for most of the trip home.
Oh, the people we met! In this picture with me is none other than Kathy Tyers! I was so excited to meet her Friday night at the costume dinner/awards banquet (yes, I was there when they announced this year's winner of the Parable Award and the Clive Staples Award, which was awesome), but the coolest part was on Saturday, when I walked down to the lobby to find the Kathy Tyers sitting at a table talking to my mother. Seriously - can it get any cooler than that? (Mom was our chauffeur for the weekend, in case you're wondering why she was there. She said she wasn't going to turn us loose in St. Louis, so apparently she either doesn't trust us, was worried we would be so overloaded with excitement that we couldn't find our way home, or suspected we might just choose not to come back.) So Saturday I got to enjoy a long lunch break with my mom, two of my best friends, and one of my favorite authors.
Among other personages with whom I made acquaintance over the weekend were L.B. Graham, author of The Binding of the Blade series; Brian Davis, author of the Dragons of Starlight series (and with whom I sat down and had a lovely chat about my novel The Sword Masters of St. George's Academy); Jeff Gerke, commander-in-chief of Marcher Lord Press; and of course Becky Minor, author of the Windrider Saga.
Best of all, I got to see Grace Bridges, leading lady of Splashdown Books, again - this time officially as "my publisher"! Yep, she made the trek all the way from New Zealand to be at Realm Makers. I also got to meet a lot of the other Splashdown and Avenir Eclectia authors too - Deborah Cullins-Smith, Kat Heckenbach, Travis Perry, and Robbyn Tolbert. I'll admit, I was a little intimidated about meeting Robbyn. She's the one currently working on Song of the Wren-Falcon, helping me get it ready for publication, and for some reason that just really, really freaked me out. But with the help of my friend Heather ("Help" in this instance indicating Heather dragging Robbyn over to me by the hand, shoving me towards her, and saying "Now talk to each other!"), we broke the ice and started getting to know one another.
Let me just say that, having met and talked to Robbyn, I feel totally at peace entrusting her and all the rest of the Splashdown crew with my manuscript. Don't get me wrong - I wouldn't have submitted my novel to Splashdown at all if I was worried they might mess it up - but still, it's my baby, you know?
Now though, I have every confidence in the world that by the time it's done, Song of the Wren-Falcon is going to be absolutely the best novel that it can possibly be. And it's going to be good for me as a writer, as well as for the novel itself. I'm not going to be allowed to get away with any cheap tricks or short cuts (which, I confess, I did use here and there in SotS - yes, I know it's not SotS anymore but that's way simpler an abbreviation than SotW-F).
But more on that in another post. For now, back to Realm Makers.
So, we three Lost Scribes (say - someone should write a song about that!) were milling around at the costume banquet, and all of a sudden who should we spot but a man with a cybernetic left arm?! Naturally, we had to tell him about our character Skylar, and get a picture with him.
Here we are, being epic - because it's Realm Makers and we can do that. ; ) Later, as the three of us were geeking out about the fact that we'd found Skylar, we realized that Ben Wolf (the cyborg gentleman who graced us with his presence in these pictures) doesn't look at all like Skylar in the face... but he does look a lot like our character Hezekiah in the face. And, were Hez a decent human being in any basic capacity, we decided that we could easily imagine his personality being similar to Mr. Wolf's. So we got to met two of the characters from our shared novel, rolled into one master of writing conference ceremonies/magazine editor.
Which brings me to another highlight of the weekend! On Friday, Ben Wolf and Andrew Winch, the executive and senior editors of Splickety Magazine, respectively, gave a talk on what flash fiction is, and how to write it. (Flash fiction is what Splickety Magazine publishes.)
At the end of the talk, they announced a contest: write a story of 500 or fewer words and turn it in to them by noon on Saturday. The winner would get published in the first edition of Havok, a new imprint of Splickety coming in January.
So, instead of sleeping like we should have done Friday night, Elyn, Michaela, and I all stayed up most of the night, woke up abominably early Saturday morning, and spent most of the time during the morning lectures scribbling stories instead of taking notes. We all got them turned in, and settled down to wait eagerly for the announcement of the winner, set to take place at 5:00 pm.
It finally rolled around, and they started announcing the runners-up. Elyn made the finals, with her story Wolf Myth!
I didn't make the finals, but I was just glad that I would be able to say I entered the flash fiction contest at the first-ever Realm Makers conference.
But then they announced the winner... and it was me!!! I literally almost fell over. I had no expectation whatsoever of winning, so hearing my name blindsided me completely. Which turned out to be a problem, since they then asked me to read my story aloud to the entire assembly of conference attendees. Elyn says I read it a little too fast. I imagine that to mean something along the lines of Twitchy from Hoodwinked. But oh well.
So, that means that if you subscribe to Havok, you can expect to see my story, The Mermaid's Pocketwatch, in the inaugural issue!
It was a great way to wrap up an utterly fantastic weekend. I'm so glad I got to enjoy it with so many of my closest friends, authors I've loved for years, my publisher and new colleagues, and new friends made.
Come to think of it, it made a pretty nice finale to the summer. Here's to next time!

If you've actually made it to this point in the post, you're amazing. I know, it was insanely long. I should have done a three-part series or something.
I still don't have internet at home (another one of those ridiculous details about my summer that I won't bore you with), but I've got things arranged so that I should be able to get to wi-fi at least a couple of time a week now. Most of the posts this fall will probably be scheduled as a result, but I'll try to still reply to comments and post at least every week or so.

I hope everyone's summer was wonderful, and I'm looking forward to this fall. God's doing some cool things, and I'm excited to watch them unfold.

How was your summer?