Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keeping Zombie-Slayers Interesting


I've been reading a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels, both young adult and, um, regular adult, lately.

I've read several very good ones that have seized the fancy of the reading public and have, I think, bright futures full of happy sales reports.

But I've also noticed a trend in my reaction to these books.

They start strong with a high concept - an irresistible hook - and plunge ahead with gruesome world-building and, in the best books, well-constructed heroes/heroines and secondary characters.

And then....about halfway through the book...my interest fades.

I have a theory about why this is, and it may have something to do with the fact that I recently reread Vogler's HERO'S JOURNEY. Without going into all the approach-the-cave/elixer/return blah-blah-blah, the fact is that the emotionally satisfying story arc that we are used to, that we expect from our popular fiction, does not allow for prolonged battles with the Evil. Generally we want our heroes tested - once to set up the story, and again in the climax - and we want those battles to be limited in scope. Dramatic, yes, and fraught, but not endless.

In a post-apocalyptic story, whether it's zombies or Suicide Collectors (in Oppegard's debut book), much of the book is given over to a protracted engagement and struggle with the Other. And I think this can get ho-hum-inducing.

I was thinking of this in the context of that Hero's Journey thing. Vogler makes the point that American audiences have somewhat different expectations of a story arc than audiences elsewhere in the world. I'd go a step further and say that recent - young - American audiences expect a deliberate and structured escalation and resolution of a story. This is why, for instance, today's high school students might not be as enamored of THE STAND as their parents. Or to go way back - why story traditions like the Arabian Nights or Aesop's fables might not go over so well now: we want our stories to build on themselves, arriving at successive truths on a path to one Large Truth.

In a post-apocalyptic novel, we spend 30,000 or 50,000 words watching all the different ways that our heroes struggle with the World/their Foes. There is not an emotionally satisfying progression or escalation. Generally our hero learns more and more about the foe, through a variety of tests, until there is enough accumulated knowledge to launch a successful offense. This arc addresses the external conflict - how do we defeat the undefeatable? - but generally leaves the hero's internal conflict untouched.

And this may bring me to the second reason why I find myself occasionally disappointed in these books:

It's all about character.

Yes! Really. Even in a book like this. Fact is that, while I might be mildly curious about how the zombies came to live outside the village, or how some past war decimated civilization, I am far more interested in the characters who are left behind. Just because they have to save the world is no excuse not to make them as multi-layered as possible. They still need quirks. They still need to surprise, and touch, me. I need to find their love stories wrenching and their grievances agonizing. Otherwise - no matter what is going on all around them - it's still not going to be a riveting book.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Go Sisters :)


My pal Kelli Stanley nominated me for a Sisterhood Award, and I'll gladly take it because I firmly believe in and practice the sort of roundabout kindness-delivering that I believe women are especially good at. We lift each other up, sugars.

Now I get to nominate a few ladies myself. Y'all spread the love now, hear?

Lisa Hughey
Julie Goodson-Lawes
Martha Flynn
Tawny Weber
Rachael Herron
Maggie Lyons

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Empty Boxes

I'm trying to remember that change is good and all, and the collective reading public is adapting as any vibrant living organism can be expected to do, but this image still made me a little sad.

It got me thinking about all the sensory details of newspaper boxes. Lots of people cherish the sound of the paper hitting the driveway; for me the bright-painted metal boxes, once outside every grocery and diner, are far more evocative.

Think about how it felt to drop coins in the slot. How your heart would do a little happy blip to see those neatly folded (neatly folded - isn't that a gorgeous phrase?) papers in stacks. How, if the top one was mutilated in any way, even just a little crease across the headline or a tear in the corner, you'd go for the next one down. It was, after all, your hard-earned quarter you were spending, and you felt somehow ennobled by entered into this honor-system moment of commerce.

They owed you a pristine paper. You owed them a certain reverence for the process. You'd never, ever, cheat and take two papers, even if in later years you once discovered an un-paid-for carton of Diet Coke in the bottom of your shopping cart at Target and loaded it into the trunk anyway.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Almost forgot to mention - CHARLIE!

Sheesh, you get a little mushy and all sensible thought flies out the window!

My interview with Charlie Huston is up at Pulp Pusher. Thanks Charlie for taking the time and going easy on me since it was my first. If it doesn't come through in the interview, I love his work.

I've already got my next target in mind, but I'm going to stay mysterious (and finish his most recent book)...

Thank You Trishy

This month has been challenging, to say the least. Reminding me again that, when you're down, it's especially important to choose your friends well.

What do you say to a friend who starts knitting you a sweater the day the first of the bad news comes in...and knits faster and faster as things continue to go south...then gives you this lovely wooly thing that feels like you're wearing a hug?

"Thank you" just seems so inadequate...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March Column

(From Heart of the Bay, the newsletter of the San Francisco chapter of Romance Writers of America)

As my fellow board members have do doubt figured out by now (and with ample dismay, I imagine) I am not a details person. Minutiae escapes me, particularly numbers. I can handle simple things like the date, how many children I have, how many of those darling little powdered-sugar donuts come in a pack of Hostess Gems (five) – but start talking percentages and volume and statistics and we’ve got problems.

Enter eagle-eyed chapter member Josie Brown who occasionally separates out the important stuff from the chaff and sends it along. Josie recently forwarded some figures on 2008 book sales. I mentioned last month that the news was not all as dire as we thought. This new information refines the data a little:

December sales were up nearly 10% over last year.

What does that tell us? It’s evidence of a notion many of us suspected – that recession-burdened shoppers will continue to buy books. Whether as a gift item or – we can presume – as inexpensive entertainment, the book provides good value.

The children’s category numbers rocketed up.

This is not just the Twilight effect, as some suggest. Twilight followed another successful franchise whose name hardly needs mentioning. Both middle grade and young adult audiences appear hungry for new offerings. And many authors in our chapter are stepping up to meet that demand.

Hardcover sales for adult fiction were down 13% over the year.

People are buying fewer hardcovers. This is reported on blogs, in Romantic Times, in casual gatherings of readers. Heck, I’m buying fewer hardcovers. And the industry will continue to adjust its hardcover/trade/mass market and electronic book numbers as it evaluates demand. However, it’s nowhere near time to declare the format dead yet.

Which is a nice segue into my final thought for this month. It may be time to declare the print book review, if not dead, at least ailing. Column inches have been cut or eliminated in many major newspapers. Now, since lots of newspapers have been unfriendly to romance in the past, there may be some sweet irony in the fact that reviewing is finding a new and vibrant home on the Internet, and romance largely led the way.

Read more commentary on the subject of print reviews moving to the web in this article by Jacob Silverman of the Virginia Quarterly review.

Arts and Letters Daily serves as an aggregate of the latest online reviews– and it’s marvelously democratic. Try it – more fun than tmz.com!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Two Ladies

warning: this post has no merit in a help-you-write sense :( - - - but I am emerging today from the last few very difficult weeks, and am in fact going to write immediately after sending this, and I didn't want to start with anything too hard.

Hence:

I was reading the New York Times book review yesterday and something struck me as kind of funny. the front-page review is of a new biography of flannery o'connor, who I LOOOOOVE, and there are some pix included. I don't know if i would have liked her in person - frankly she seems like she must have been a prickly crazy bitch - but I think I would have liked hanging out with her.

Flip to the middle and there is a 2-page spread for Danielle Steele's latest. Now, DS has got to be about a million years old. Hang on, actually, i'll wiki her.

....okay, i'm back, and to my shock she is only 62. Wow. Anyway, she's got this author photo where she looks better than I did in my 20s, though Im' kind of wondering if she's got an assistant back there tugging on her shirt and her bra and the skin of her face, you know, kind of keeping everything up in the air.

And I have NOTHING bad to say about her writing. Rock on, DS, clearly the woman knows how to write a story that speaks to a lot of people and NOBODY has any business putting that down, ever. But I guess I was just thinking about how much of a role image played or didn't play in the two writers' lives. See where I'm going? Flannery was the kind of gal who, if you were going to take her to your friend's house for dinner, you'd have to call ahead and say "now about my friend, she's a little weird...". DS - well, I think you'd probably die of perfume poisoning on the cab ride over.

Where are you on the scale, do you suppose? me, I figure I'm somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Goals

We have a tradition in my RWA chapter where we write down our goals at the January meeting, seal them, then review them a year later to see how we did. This year, the goals got misplaced for a while, but they finally turned up. I was pretty curious to see what I wrote, since in January of 2008 I had no agent, no sales, not even a published short story in the last several years.

First I saw that I had sealed the envelope with a big red lipstick kiss. Huh. Kind of unlike me. Then I saw I had written "2008! Yeah baby!" on the front. Also unlike me, but it reminded me that I started last year with a lot of determination.

Here were my goals:

Functional Web Site (check and doublecheck - thanks Maddee!!!!)
Volunteer presence in RWA (oops, accidentally got elected to the board - check)
25 short stories (not quite: but I wrote over twelve)
Finish Stella book, one additional book (check - I wrote two more books)
Speaking/presentations (yikes, but check - despite tons of fears, dragged my butt in front of an audience a few times, though I did cheat and make T. and J. and L. present with me)

To re-cap, 2008 was an awesome year. 2009 has begun with a dizzying pile of challenges, but I'm determined to remember to practice a little gratitude even in the face of all these obstacles. As my son and I reminded each other the other day, Littlefields do NOT let fear slow them down, Littlefields are NOT quitters, and Littlefields NEVER give up.

My goal in 09? To write with this much commitment, determination, and passion every damn day: