Monday, April 29, 2013

But What's The Story *Really* About?

I recently read Sidelines by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is a collection of essays, speeches, and travel writing. I found that it's geared more towards writers, but really, anybody who is a huge fan of hers would probably find this a good read.

There are quite a few gems in Sidelines, one of which includes this quote: "A true statement like 'plot is what happens, and theme is what the book's about' failed to create a distinction for me. It wasn't until I became a writer that it came clear. Plot is what a book's about. Theme is what a book's really about."

This was certainly true for me. Back in high school English, we'd read something, and then the teacher would discuss the theme as if it were some hidden message put there by the author, and only the clever people were capable of figuring it out. I felt like there was a code, or maybe a key, that would allow me to figure out the theme (and thus pass the darn test). But theme is both more complicated, and easier, than that.

Many authors don't even know their story's theme, or themes, until after it's written. I might have an inkling of theme when I write, but often I don't have it figured out until afterwards, and then I go through and make sure the story supports it in character action, symbolism, dialogue, etc. Then I hand the story to another person who has a different life experience than me. They bring that with them as they read, and they might find a completely different meaning in the story, and that's okay. Phew. It took me a while to figure that out.

So what is a story really about? It could be about repressive Victorian ideas, or that love conquers all, or a political diatribe, or a comment on how science will make or break humanity, or the role of religion in a person's life, and so forth. There are many meanings that a story can hold. One of the exciting things about having other people read my work is what they bring to it. Sometimes a reader comments upon something in a whole new way, and I see my own story in an entirely new angle, and that's just pretty darn cool.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Music and Writing

Plenty of people listen to music while they write. I make 'soundtracks' to my novels. While I don't necessarily listen to music while writing the rough draft, I often do listen to it while editing or rewriting in order to get me back to the same head space where I was when I originally wrote the scene. Or, I'll listen to the music and jot down ideas and images, then write in silence.

I just finished revising a YA novel. I added nearly 30 songs to this novel's 'soundtrack,' but felt that during revisions I needed a few more songs, preferably released this year or last year, and capturing the feel of the novel overall. Plus, I really needed to procrastinate before I tackled revisions.

The main character is eighteen years old and prone to enjoying alternative music (much like me, ha). I spent some time stumbling around iTunes and found The Graveyard Girl by M83. I love Midnight City, so I gave Graveyard Girl a whirl. It's reminiscent of the 80's in sound and subject (the lyrics even refer to Molly Ringwald). It's angsty, it reminds me of the movie The Craft, and my inner 15 year old loved it. I probably would have really enjoyed this song up to the age of 20 or so (and even a ways beyond), and so I felt it suited my 18 year old character well.

I also stumbled across a new artist, Jeremy Messersmith, and his song A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard. The album's cover art is adorable and a bit tongue-in-cheek, the song has a folksy, sorrowful sound that his voice is well suited for, and the lyrics are pretty darn nice. Plus, the song is about a relationship, and death, which are a couple of things my main character is wallowing in.

I would've never come across these songs if I hadn't been looking for something more to add to my 'soundtrack' (also, procrastination isn't always a bad thing). These songs, and others, helped me remember my adolescent angst and pour it into the novel.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Review of Let's Pretend This Never Happened

On a day like today--Monday, and tax day to boot--we all need a laugh. Without further ado, I present my review of  Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson. Neil Gaiman endorsed it. So did Wil Wheaton. And so am I. I give it 4&1/2 out of 5 stars.The book is filled with expletives and some rather blunt observations, as well as humor that probably has rankled quite a few people. If you're easily offended, it's not the book for you. The reason it got 4&1/2 stars rather than 5 is because sometimes the humor felt forced. Most of the time, however, it flows naturally, and I often found myself snickering uncontrollably.

This is the story of someone who grew up in a tiny town in West Texas with a taxidermist for a father. She had a... unique... childhood. There was, for instance, the time she ran into--as in, stepped inside--the deer carcass her father was working on and ended up puking, because really, in that situation, who wouldn't? She talks about her childhood with humor, as she does her anxiety disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, miscarriages, marriage, and loss. The book is chock-full of fantastic quotes, such as this beauty: "Considering that we spent a majority of our workday in pajamas while porn played in the background, there was a surprising amount of stress in that workplace."

Beyond the humor, you get a sense that this is someone you can relate to. She's flawed, she has mental health issues and physical health issues, and yet you get the sense that she's pulled through it and come out all right. With a sense of humor about it all, even. So if you need a laugh (and who doesn't?), run out and get this book, or follow Jenny on her blog.  You won't regret it, y'all.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Random Thoughts on Labeling Books

The other day at work while sitting around in the break room having lunch, my co-workers and I started talking about role playing games and books, namely fantasy and science fiction (did I mention that I work with some awesome people?). One of my co-workers piped up and said, "Have you read Becky's book? It's great. It's sort of fantasy." (Seriously, I work with some awesome people. They pimp my book!).

It was the 'sort of' that I thought about later. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that person's assessment of the book. She felt it was fantasy, but not quite. I never got a chance to pursue that idea with her, but it got me thinking about how different readers focus on different aspects of a book. Some people have read Shards of History and labeled it straight fantasy. I've also heard historical fiction, social sf, and even hard sf/fantasy mash-up.

I just finished reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). As the title suggests, it's a memoir. But it's also a comedy. And sometimes while reading it, I thought, "No way this ever happened. This must be fiction." But then I realized the author grew up in a tiny town in west Texas, and I totally believed even the craziest stuff because that's how West Texas is. If you asked everybody who read the book how they'd classify it, some would call it a memoir, and others would label it a comedy. How do people choose one over the other? And why does it matter?

Book labels are for marketing, and marketing is meant to make it as easy as possible for readers to find it. Some books can be promoted as paranormal with a romantic twist for one group, and a romance with a paranormal twist for another. Ultimately, I think it's good to know every possible interested group to whom you could market your book. And, it helps to understand what people think of when you tell them your book is 'fantasy.' Some people will think of elves, others will think of young wizards, and still others will think of demons or vampires. This is why it's good to be able to tell people, "This book is like (insert another book/series here)."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fool Me Once...

Ah, April the first, that glorious day when you simply can't believe the announcements that people make. Don't you just love the constant state of vigilance and having to sniff the whipped cream before topping your pie to make sure it's not shaving cream? Maybe you didn't have brothers like mine, though. Or friends like mine. Or co-workers like mine.

In honor of April Fool's Day, I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite con/heist movies. As a general rule, I don't like those sort of movies (or books). Sometimes the characters come across as cruel and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But sometimes, as bad as the con artist may be, the person they're conning is even worse.

Take Ocean's Eleven, for example. These people plan to steal money from Las Vegas casinos, and the owner of these casinos is a real jerk. Now, I don't feel sorry for casinos as an entity in the first place. Their job is to tilt the odds in their favor and take money. Add to that an owner that the audience despises, and you're rooting for George Clooney to take all the cash and a couple of comped cocktails, too. But really, you're probably rooting for George Clooney anyway. At least, I do.

In Tower Heist, a group of workers fall victim to their boss's Ponzi scheme (almost typed Fonzie there). Their boss pulls a scam on them, and they, in turn, attempt to pull an even bigger one on him. It's a movie that reflects recent financial woes, both in the Ponzi scheme and in portraying the feeling that it's the 'little guy' against the wealthiest one percent. I started out just watching at this movie and soon forgot all about whatever else I was doing. Unlike many other con stories, I never felt that the group performing the con was ever unlikeable.

Feel free to recommend movies or books that made you root for the con artist. And watch out for the pranksters today.