Weekly Musing: Chaotic Mess

Oh, what a difference a month makes. I have completed the first month of the initial revision round on my historical fiction novel and it has gone a lot differently than I had envisioned. Physically my working space is a mess with papers, folders, and pens strewn about. From a creative standpoint things are also a giant mess. I had no idea just how much I would still be changing my mind. More than once I’ve altered where the story opens. I also decided to replace some character names because I wasn’t honestly never fully on board with the original names I straddled them with.

Issues I knew I’d have to deal with I finally got to and it wasn’t pretty. Most were research related and I got those nailed down. I hope anyway. As I noted above, I have this tendency to change my mind. Fingers cross I’ll let these thing stand for a while. The problem with me and research is not only do I get sucked into a black hole, which I usually enjoy, is I spend probably far too much time double, triple, and quadruple-checking facts.

In the back of my mind I am paranoid should this book get published, if I have even one thing wrong, even if it is something small, I will get blasted for inaccuracy. This is a product of observing and participating in various online discussions. It fatigues and frustrates me to point out nothing will be 100% accurate, especially in fiction. While I’m not the lone voice in this, it still bothers me trying to reason with idiots. Explaining authors can only do the best they can with the information they have falls on deaf ears.

While I can defend and understand what other authors do, it is problematic for me to apply the logic to my own work. I have to be vigilant in telling myself I am in the beginning stages of revision and that I have never revised a novel before. Techniques I apply to short stories have worked but I am also discovering my strategy must be different.

Nothing will be perfect yet I’ve already redone the beginning at least two times and will tackle it a third time before throwing in the towel to move onto the middle. I have re-arranged and re-re-arranged chapters, deleted others, switched chunks of a scene to either earlier or later in the book and even noted scenes I think would be better switched to the other character’s POV. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to condense basic information into a quick, easy-to-read file so I don’t have to keep flipping back to Scrivener.

I have learned that while I may be a naturally organized person with a brain that thrives best on compartmentalization, the other part of my brain, the one which controls creativity, apparently likes the chaos. Perhaps it’s the thrill of creating a giant mess and then working to put it back together into something better. I’m not very nice to myself.

But this chaos vexes me. I’d hoped to be a further ahead on my rewrite; not still stuck at the beginning. Looking ahead to August, it’s going to be a busy month personally. I ponder how much time I will while making sure I pace myself so I don’t fry my creativity. Yet this makes me feel as if I’m pushing myself more and more behind. While I have likened this to an extreme marathon, this first month has me feeling as if I haven’t even gotten off the starting line.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean by Calandra Usher

The Book of Dean is the first book in The Gospels of Cal’eia tetralogy by Calandra Usher. Like the book I reviewed last month, this is also a debut novel although it came out last year. The story centers around Sarah who is on the run from something or someone. She stumbles upon a very odd property in the middle of rural North Carolina which starts her off on a very odd journey. Something is obviously very, very different about Sarah as she can speak and understand horses. One of the four men who live on the property discovers Sarah. When she is about to leave the next morning, an accident forces her to stay until she recovers. Her recovery allows her to and the men to cautiously get to know each other with each side quickly determining none of them are quite human.

The four men, Dean, Fabien, Warren, and Pete, are all very different from each other. Dean is the leader of the group, Fabien is the gourmet cook and joker, Warren is the big teddy bear, and Pete is the serious intellectual. For the most part they accept Sarah right away although they are cagey about seeking medical attention for her after a terrifying accident badly damages her leg. Sarah is okay with this despite the fact she has a difficult time trusting people. She justifies it because she sees auras around people and theirs apparently project they are okay. Sarah also has some other otherworldly capabilities like telepathy, assigning shapes to foods she eats, and has a deep spiritual connection with the world.

The men are able to quickly earn her trust although Pete is the most wary of the four as he realizes something is very different about Sarah and worries about the group being discovered. It bugs him that she was able to find their very large and oddly designed estate in the first place as they intentionally built it in the middle of nowhere. As the leader, Dean trusts Sarah and advises the other men to do the same. Slowly Sarah opens up about herself and questions the men before finally grasping who and what they are. It’s not until the end of the book that who and what Sarah truly is, is revealed thus setting up the next book and presumably is the rest of the series.

Despite this being subtitled The Book of Dean, we really don’t get to know Dean very well. He’s a nice guy, apparently is gorgeous because Sarah keeps telling the reader, and is smart and well-read but then again all of the men hold multiple PhDs in various fields. But that’s it other than an obvious attraction between Sarah and Dean. Despite all this, I didn’t find Dean all that interesting. Out of the group of four men, I found Fabian and Ren the most interesting for very different reasons. Dean was just too perfect and even when there’s a hint of a dark side, something we all have, it’s dropped until the very end when the men’s true identities are clarified.

I also didn’t like Sarah very much. Despite her age being stated as twenty-eight, she comes across as much younger. She’s a caring free-spirit and has this mystical air surrounding her but I found it grating at times to read her ADD-like narrative. Since my spouse has ADD it’s taxing enough having conversations with him that when I read a book I don’t want my lead to narrate that way. Sarah’s story isn’t helped by the first two chapters which are strictly backstory and could have been used later in the story when as it became relevant to the story. There were other chapters that, while had lovely writing and emotion, were distracting from the story itself.

There are little things which are never explained or resolved. For example, the reader is never given the reason when Sarah is still on the run. She initially leaves home around the time she graduates from high school because her mother has passed away but since the book begins when she is twenty-eight, who or what is she still running from? I wonder if this is something that is explained in the next book but more hints or at least letting the reader know, not necessarily the other characters, what is after her. Also, Sarah destroys a valuable object which surprises her and the four men yet again this isn’t explained.

I also felt like there wasn’t any real tension or sense of foreboding throughout the book. I don’t necessarily need a story to be dark and brooding but the whole book and the characters are just too nicey-nicey for me. Even when there are some darker spots, they’re microscopic. The ending, though, I think does hint that perhaps the story will get maybe a tick darker.

Overall, the book didn’t work for me. I wasn’t particular taken with the character of Sarah and felt the mystery surrounding the situation could have been resolved more quickly. I think there was way too much back story that added very little and I think dragged the pacing of the story down. There were also way too many grammatical errors I couldn’t just pass off as a product of how the main character speaks.

I did like some of the otherworldly descriptions and I think Ms. Usher captured the colors and shapes of emotions quite well. I also liked the interaction with the horses and cat because I’m an animal lover and talk to animals. Certainly not in the same way as Sarah, of course, but I appreciate that animals have thoughts, feelings, and unique personalities just like people. Ms. Usher also paints quite a lovely picture and I appreciated reading something different within the fantasy realm.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean two-and-a-half pencils.

 

Weekly Musing: What Is Critical Thinking?

I wanted to touch upon the concept of Critical Thinking as I feel it is something that is unforgivably lacking in society. Everyone’s a critic but does that mean we actually know what critical thinking is and engage upon it? The dictionary definition is that it is a noun meaning disciplined thinking which is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Notice in the definition it doesn’t state an emotional response or opinion. Yet whenever I try to participate in discussions about a book or whatever, I see more and more people believing their opinion counts as critical thinking. Far, far too often criticisms I see are based on emotion, irrational thinking, and personal biases. There’s this aggravating mentality of “I’m right and you’re wrong because…because you just are!” I find this incredibly painful to see. It truly hurts my heart to see people argue, not debate those are two separate things, over a point. Both sides have the critical part down to an ugly art but neither remembers to stop and think.

When examining a piece of literature in an intellectual manner, emotions need to be separated from the analysis. This is difficult because one of the beauties of literature is its ability to make us feel. Whether they’re positive or negative emotions, the written word has a glorious power on our heart. It’s also human nature to be emotional; we are animals after all. Yet our brains are wonderfully evolved to handle this separation.

When it comes to analyzing literature, our head must take center stage. Far, far too often we forget this. In our debates (arguments) we want to prove our interpretation is the only right one. We employ non-critical thinking techniques by calling each other names, claiming someone’s position is stupid or wrong because they don’t agree, and fail to cite any evidence to support our stance. When things get this way it gets no one anywhere; people shut their minds off when they argue and their hearing becomes selective.

I’m not sure how or why this happens and that’s not my focus today. What I want to talk about is encouraging us all to work harder on critical thinking. Look again at the definition of critical thinking and let’s break it down by each of the key parts.

Clear: When analyzing something, is your argument clear? It doesn’t have to be a complicated stance in fact it’s probably better if it is communicated as simply as possible. This makes it easier to stick to the point(s) for all parties involved.

Rational: Is your criticism coming from a place of rational thought or is it based on an emotional response? Often times our emotions are irrational. How many times have you struggled to understand why you feel the way you do at a particular moment? Why does something make you happy today when yesterday it wouldn’t have? Again, employ the gray matter between your ears when analyzing something. Does criticism make logical sense, stripped of my known personal biases as well as emotion? Get in touch with your inner Spock if you will.

Open-minded: This is probably the toughest thing to do. Even more than trying to be rational. Based on our life experiences and values, being open-minded is damn near impossible for any of us. No one is taught be truly open-minded and it shows in our actions. That being said, through careful practice and lots of reading (after all the more reading one does the more exposure we get to the lives of others) we can open our minds. This isn’t the same as allowing others to try and change who we fundamentally are as a person. Just hear the other points even if you don’t agree with them.

Informed by evidence: Oh boy, how do I explain this simply? Evidence in this case refers to what is in the text. Not what the author’s intent was even if you’ve read or watched interviews with the author. Keep in mind whatever the author’s intent was when they wrote the piece isn’t the same as what the reader will get out of it. As humans we all bring our life experiences to the page as we read. Our points of reference are different from the author’s. We see and interpret things differently from the author. That’s okay and is wonderful. So when we speak about our analysis being informed by evidence, it needs to be based upon what the text says. From that we can then use the text to support our position or to try and refute the opposing point.

We’ve got the critical part done but the thinking portion is something that needs to be worked on by all of us. Keep the above points in mind whenever you engage in a discussion not only about literature but also about other aspects in your life. Keep in mind, though, it is okay to stick to your guns and principles but treat others with kindness and respect.

 

Weekly Musing: It. Has. Begun!

At the end of February I finished the initial draft of the historical fiction novel I’ve been researching for years. I’ve taken the last few months off away from it so it can sit and because I was mentally exhausted. During these last 4 months I worked on other stuff; mainly new short stories, jotting down new ideas, and accidentally starting another novel.

My self-imposed deadline to begin the revision process was July 1st. Well, as July 1st got closer, the more anxious I became. Excited, some, yes, but anxious because I know there is so much wrong with it. It is going to be an overwhelming amount of work just to get it to a coherent point.

Another cause for my anxiety was this is also going to be the first time I’ve tried revising a novel. Since I’ve never really revised a novel, I wasn’t sure where to start. On and off over the past 4 months I have thought about this process. Where to start? How long will this take me? And more than once, is this even worth it?

I chewed over the last question the most because the story is set during a little known rebellion that ultimately failed and how the ebb and flow of that rebellion is mirrored in the relationship between the two main characters. Because it’s not set in a popular time period or place I am concerned about if it is even worth revising since I suspect it will be a hard sell. Ultimately I realized that I need to continue the work on it. If I don’t I will regret it and even if I can’t get it traditionally published or decide to not even self-publish it, then I do need the practice on how to revise a novel.

Once that dilemma was decided, I focused more on trying to figure out what my process is for revising a novel. Writing is such a highly individualized sport that no matter how many books, articles, and interviews I read about revising, it still comes down to figuring out what works for me. I knew I simply couldn’t approach it as I would a short story due to my process for writing a short story is different from writing a novel. Thankfully I’m not under any kind of deadline so I can take my time.

The easiest part of the process was the day I printed out the manuscript. Apologies to the tree I probably killed to do it but hey, at least I recycle the paper. Since I hadn’t written it in order this meant I would have to cobble together in order the story. Messy but it’s how my brain works when drafting a novel.

Below is a picture of what it looked like when I put the book in order.

Organizing part 1

All laid out

Good thing I have a large expanse of floor space to lay things out. Since I need to visualize and touch things, I spent a couple of days staring at the finished product including reviewing scenes I was throwing out as well as noting scenes which still needed to be written.

What I happily discovered was by laying out the whole novel like I did was seeing each character’s presence in the story. It was also nice seeing the story falls into the classic 3 act structure.

Another problem I had to contend with was since I have two main characters who’s stories start off in different locations until they finally merge into one, how in the hell was I planning on ordering the story? Good for me I had written scenes down onto notecards with dates I worked on each scene. I connected the scenes together, dividing them into beginning, middle, and end. To solve the two main character question I further divided things by designating one column for each character and ordered things accordingly.

Compiling this proper like

Compiling this proper like

Essentially I’m revising two novels which will be combined in the next round of revision. At this point, this makes sense to me and I think will allow me to completely immerse myself into each character’s mind and world.

Next came the very scary step of actually starting the revision stage. Below is a picture of what I’m referring to as my command center: the dining room table. While I have separate desks for my computer and physical writing, neither are big enough for me to spread out. Since I’ll be fact checking and doing additional research during this phase, I need my computer nearby. And who honestly uses their dining room table? We certainly don’t very often.

The bridge

The bridge

As of this writing, I’ve revised the opening chapter which took a lot longer than I anticipated. In the months ahead I know more research will be done, scenes will be added and deleted. The least of my concerns is the harder examination of the prose itself. Yes, I’m trying to rewrite some of the crap I threw down on paper but once I have my facts straightened out, I can relax and focus on that.

What I’ve been telling myself during this process is to keep in mind to take it word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter. This isn’t a sprint or even a marathon but an extreme marathon.

Weekly Musing: Free Speech

With today being the 4th of July I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom. In particular free speech, a topic that is dear to my heart not only as an American but as a writer as well. Free speech is always a hot button issue, but over the past few years the argument seems to be becoming more contentious. For some reason free speech to some seems to be about who is right vs. who is wrong. Yet this should be kept in mind: no matter how compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic of a person who think you are, someone out there will find you offensive. Good people offend people just as much as bad people do.

This musing is about what I see as vital to free speech for writers. We shouldn’t feel the need to hold back on language used in our prose. This does a huge disservice to both the story and the characters. Our characters are the ones who tell the story; we are just their vessel.

Yet something I’ve seen twice this week gave me great pause. On two separate days, two different authors asked within a Facebook group I’m in about usage of racial slurs in their manuscripts. One mentioned how her editor wanted her to substitute an historically accurate racial slur for something more politically correct. Many of us responded considering the place and time period of the story, if the word was what was commonly used, then it should be in the story regardless of how offensive it is. What disturbed me most was it was an editor advising the author to sanitize and make the story more in keeping with today’s sensibilities. It made me wonder if this editor had any prior experience with editing historical fiction or if the editor works for a publisher that doesn’t want to rock the boat or even perhaps the editor is allowing his or her own self to be offended rather than looking at the story as a whole.

Unfortunately, just a few days later there was yet another question posted by a different author about usage of racial slurs in their manuscript. This author expressed hesitation over including offensive terms and was curious to hear others’ thoughts. Overwhelming the response was again, if it is in keeping with the characters, the time period, and place, then yes, they must be included. Many advised against over usage especially in the narrative unless it’s first person. I responded that if people read the offensive term and aren’t offended then that says to me they’ve become de-sensitized to such language which is a far bigger issue.

Both of these dilemmas along with numerous online debates I see on a variety of topics regarding what is or isn’t offensive gets me thinking. Being offended by someone’s differing point of view, no matter how vile it is, is not a justification for censorship. With free speech comes the inherent right to be offended by someone else. This is completely and utterly okay. Two people do not agree 100% on everything all the time. Debate is great until it turns into an attempt to shame and guilt the other person. It’s also not the way to go about trying to change someone’s opinion.

When it comes to literature, the fictional world, like the real world, can be an ugly place full of people who say and do things that turn our stomachs and who have different morals and ethics from our own. So why the hell should literature be turned into a sanitized, unrealistic, and inaccurate version of life to appease the majority? And who is this majority? And why is the majority considered to be correct? And why does this mythical majority feel the need to squash stories about individuals, whether set in past, present, or future times, which are considered to be offensive? Our differences should be respected but that is not the same as agreeing with an opinion or action which we find offensive.

What I find the most offensive is when this real life need to suppress, shame, and guilt others dribbles down the literature pipeline. In our real lives we all know plenty of people whose views and experiences are so vastly different from our own that we legitimately wonder what the hell their problem is. We question how they came to what seems such an illogical conclusion. But one of the beautiful things about reading a wide-range of books is through others’ stories we can hope to learn the why behind such illogical actions. And if we are smart, we then apply those lessons to those we come across in our real lives, hopefully viewing them with a little more understanding.

We as writers should always remember to keep the story, characters, and language authentic no matter how repulsive it will be to some people. This isn’t to advocate for going overboard to shock and anger as many people as possible just for the hell of it. Ultimately the reader has the choice to close a book and move onto something that doesn’t offend them.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders

Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders is the first book in the Daughters of Shadow and Blood series as well as Mr. Saunders’ debut book. The novel is a complicated story crisscrossing not only time periods but also countries as well to tell the tale of Yasamin, a former lover or “bride” of Dracula. The story bounces between Berlin in late 1999 and parts of Eastern Europe from 1599 to 1601. The main characters are Adam Mire, an American history professor who is an expert on Dracula and believes he is a real figure. He’s on the hunt for Yasamin Ashrafi who had a long relationship with the famed Dracula yet they parted ways some years ago for unclear reasons. Adam and Yasamin’s paths intersect as both are looking for Dracula’s missing medallion. Adam tracks Yasamin down, thinking she must have it or know its whereabouts; however, she’s just as curious to know its location.

The book is a cat and mouse game on multiple levels. The game is not just between Adam and Yasamin but the people who have brought them together. Adam is chased by several different organizations who want him dead for obtaining information that will lead him to Yasamin and Dracula’s medallion. Another example of the cat and mouse theme is Yasamin’s flashbacks. Slowly the reader gets her story of how she started out as the mouse but later becomes the cat, helping Dracula manipulate events throughout Eastern Europe.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and letters, a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact there are many nods to Stoker’s Dracula and the original manuscript is treated as being more of a historical text rather than as a piece of fiction. It is also implied that Yasamin is probably one of Dracula’s brides or temptresses as portrayed in Bram Stoker’s novel.

I found myself more fascinated more by Yasamin’s story then Adam’s because hers carried the historical aspects of the novel. I also found her background and circumstances more interesting. Her transformation didn’t feel forced, unexpected, or rushed which I think is what a lot of authors would have done. I also liked Yasamin because she’s threatening in a quiet way and very rarely it seems does she resort to the tricks of mind control and using her sexuality readers often associate with vampires. Overall I thought she was the more complete character.

Adam is just sort of there for me. He’s lost loved ones due to his search although that seems to be more of a minor issue and doesn’t stop him. I wished Adam’s background and stakes had been developed more because it would have added more to him for me as the reader. I think the fling he has with a mysterious woman who saves from him from getting killed the first time was forced.

I appreciate reading a book centered on vampires to feel more like what traditional vampire novels read like. These are traditional vampires so nobody sparkles, walks around during the day (although they may be awake during the day), and garlic, silver, and crosses will affect them. I also appreciate it being set in the parts of the world where the legends first bubbled up and a cast that is non-American and even non-Christian as one of the groups after Dracula’s medallion to destroy it is a Muslim organization.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Even though it was a fast read, it was a bit difficult at times to keep track of the various timelines and locales.  I think it would have been nice for the novel to have had less side characters. It was sometimes confusing as to which secret group was after Adam and what their beef was with him as I think that detracted from getting to know Adam more. I also would have liked to have spent more time in the past especially since I’m personally not as familiar with those. It felt like as soon as I was starting to get immersed in the past, the chapter would end and I would be forward to 1999.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I’d give Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin 3 pencils out of 5 and would definitely be interested in reading the next book.

Weekly Musing: Remake, Reboot, Remix, Re-whatever

Over the last decade plus, there’s been an explosion of remakes and reboots. Sometimes the remake/reboot is a way of updating an older TV show or movie. Sometimes it’s a case of a successful franchise being rebooted probably just so the studio can make more money. Mostly it is at the movie theater where we see these but TV is starting to pick up the torch. In the 2015 – 2016 TV season there will be a limited run of The X-Files and Heroes Reborn will pop up on the schedule. There’s also been a smattering of bringing back shows for a limited run like 24 but by and large, TV has been safe from this remake/reboot fetish.

One of the biggest reasons why remakes/reboots are popular is there is built-in brand recognition. This is coupled with nostalgia you can see why remakes and reboots are big business. Look at how many TV shows and movies from the ’70s and ’80s have already been released or in the works. No matter how truly god awful these things are, still Hollywood makes them because studios make back the stupidly ridiculous amounts of money they spent. But the problem with using nostalgia as a business model is that most people view the past through rose-colored glasses.

This isn’t to say that no reboots/remakes should ever happen. Some have been incredibly well-written and well-received both on the small and big screen. 21 Jump Street was hilarious although it only vaguely resembled the TV show. The Batman franchise on both the small screen and big screen has been wildly success. And the granddaddy of them all, M*A*S*H is probably more well-known as a TV show first then as a movie even though the movie came out in 1970 based on a book that had come out 2 years prior.

So, just for fun, what shows would I like to see come back? Keep in mind this list is purely for fun as there is a huge part of me that would truly shudder if anyone actually decided these were a good idea. And yes, my list is based purely on nostalgia.

Punky Brewster: Oh, yes, this should come back. Although if this were updated, Punky would probably be from a different country, it wouldn’t be an elderly man as her adopted father, the dog would be some messed up breed like a Goldendoodle, and Punky’s awesome bed would disappear. The show would probably be ruined by bring in a love interest for Punky’s adoptive parent and then more focus would be on that rather than the relationship between Punky and her adopted parent.

Out of This World: I think I’m probably the only person from my generation who watched this show. It was quirky, odd, and science fiction which I didn’t realize at the time. Evie, the show’s man character, was part human, part alien and could freeze time. Who wouldn’t want that ability? Given how popular extra-ordinary people are this is one show that maybe could come back. Naturally I think the tone would change from gentle, family-friendly to dark, gritty, and Evie would suffer from way more angst due to dad never appearing here on Earth. Also, Evie would probably be written to kick ass and fight crime instead of just being sorta normal. On second thought, maybe this shouldn’t be remade.

Daria: This is one show I truly, desperately wished would come back. Daria Morgendorffer’s biting and highly accurate social commentary is much needed. I’d love to see her as a grown-up, though not necessarily with children of her own, can’t see her as a mother. Instead of being jaded by her fellow teenagers, she would be jaded by her fellow co-workers and neighbors. I also think Daria’s take on gender roles would be refreshing and rational rather than the emotional Social Justice Warrior crap that currently populates the internet.

I can’t honestly think of any other shows it would be fun to “what if” they were remade. By and large I prefer original ideas or quality book adaptions to just digging up what worked in the past. I guess when millions of dollars are on the line, it’s better to go with the safe bet even at the risk of fatiguing audiences.