Weekly Musing: Picture This

This week I thought I would do something different. Something hopefully less wordy then my posts of late, a little bit more fun, and something more visual because sometimes that is the best way to express a thought. Or in this case just to brag a little bit about my writing space.

A while ago I found a link with pictures of 40 creative people, most of whom were writers. What’s so neat about looking over these pictures is how these people were either completely messy or completely organized, nothing in between. Granted some of these spaces have been preserved and thus tidied up for tourists.

My own writing space has evolved over the years and continues to do so. In our old house I took over a spare bedroom that overlooked the park behind our house with a boring view of the desert.

Now my writing space is different. When we were looking at houses, one of the requirements was that I had to have my own space and it had to be fairly good size. What I got was a loft all to myself although it is technically considered a bedroom since it had a full bathroom.

As you can see I have not one but two desks. One holds my laptop and is nothing more than a simple heavy-duty plastic table. Messy but still somewhat organized if only for me. It’s odd having a messy space because I’m a pretty organized person and can’t stand to have things out of their right spot. Yet when it comes to the space I spend a good chunk of my day, a little mess is fine. I can still find things including the desk top itself so no harm, no foul. Computer Desk

My other desk, free of electronics, is my actual writing desk. Admittedly, though, there are times I write in other places but this is my primary spot. As you can see, it’s a bit more organized as the space itself is an actual proper desk. I love it and the chair is really comfortable. Although it isn’t open like my other desk, I think the closed in space works well for me. Makes for mostly distraction free writing. I also have on it reference books I use most often. Tucked away in a drawer are legal size pads for when I’m just brainstorming or revising. Writing Desk

Since my writing sanctuary is a loft space, the one thing I didn’t get was a view. All I have are a couple of windows that look out to the side of the neighbor’s house. At least the cat enjoys the view. Windows and bookcases

As you can see I do have somewhat adequate room for bookcases although if I don’t stop acquiring books I’ll run out of space. I also have filled up pretty much every available piece of wall space with various things including 2 white boards, a map of the United States, and a dry erase calendar to help me keep track of deadlines and events. I’ve even tacked stuff up on the closest door but that’s as part of research for a book I’m working on. Corner Whiteboards

There you have it. My lovely writing space. Not my ideal but it’s more than functional especially when I consider the floor as additional work area. I love it for its openness and being completely separate from the rest of the house. Definitely my own personal corner of the world.

 

Weekly Musing: Retirement Home

This week’s musing is inspired partially by a book I recently in addition to my own observations and discussions of writers and general readers alike. Of late I’ve been thinking more and more about tropes I see in books or in the shows and movies I watch. A few months ago I touched upon tropes in romance that make me not want to read much in that genre, but this musing is much more general.

Recently I finished Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett and while it kind of confused me and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not as a reader, as a writer I appreciated what the author did. The book centers around a trio of witches and it is immediately clear these are not your typical witches and this book isn’t going to be your typical mash-up of fairy tales and fantasy. He twists so many of those tropes on their heads that it honestly keeps the reader guessing at how it will end.

This got me thinking about tropes I see a lot of that really annoy the hell out of me. Below are some of those I wish would be retired, or at the very least, if they continue to be employed, take a cue from Pratchett and others and flip the script.

Lying: I don’t know why but I’m noticing this in a lot of late. When I say lying, I’m referring to the kind where one character doesn’t want to tell another character, usually a loved one, a secret because they want to protect them. Yet they have no problem being truthful to a relative stranger or a new acquaintance mainly because that new person has quickly figured out what the big secret is from the start. Naturally wayyyyyyyyyyyy too much time is devoted to whether or not the loved one(s) will find out/be told the secret. Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, they will. They always do unless they happen to die.

So why freaking bother with this crap? I know it’s about drama but it’s so colossally annoying. I’m not saying people need to be 100% because no one is, but to string the truth out for hundreds of pages for no reason other than to manufacture drama is damn taxing. How about layering the lies? Or telling half-truths? Or slight omissions? Or if a character must go down the lying route, delve deeper into the motivation beyond the character believing they are protecting others because we know they aren’t.

Perhaps the character should start with the truth from the beginning. That, in and of itself, can generate all kinds of drama. When we think about our own lives, there are times when we feel comfortable telling the truth to someone that later on it turns out to have been a big mistake. Yet for some reason when it comes to literature and TV and movies, characters constantly lie, lie, lie. The burden is enormous and causes bigger problems then there really needs to be.

Nerds: While I believe the geek shall inherit the Earth, I would like many of the stereotypes and tropes associated with nerds to be retired. As a nerd I will admit that while it’s nice seeing my fellow geek brothers and sisters represented, it’s also annoying because so often the various degrees of nerdiness is ignored.

Some nerds are born, gifted with high intellect and naturally drawn to certain things. Some nerds are made, discovering the older they get they really are a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan because that stuff resonates finally. Not all nerds wear glasses. Fun fact, near-sightedness is actually the dominate gene, not perfect vision. Not all nerds are dateless and sexless. Not all nerds are adverse to showers and personal grooming. Not all nerds are stick thin or morbidly obese and have a diet which consists solely of Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Not all nerds are fashion adverse or horribly awkward.

Like every other stereotype out there, yes, there are people who fit the mold but by and large, nerds are a diverse group of people. Some are really into comics but not computers. Some are really into computers but not into science fiction. You get the idea. So let’s try to retire the nerd trope especially as more and more things associated with a fringe group have become mainstream and socially acceptable.

Angsty hero/heroine: While I’m all for a well-rounded and well-developed character, I’m getting a little bit tired of a hero/heroine who either starts off full of angst or through the course of the story becomes more emo. Oddly enough this is usually related to all the lying the hero/heroine does. Hmmm, wonder if there might be a correlation?

I think this became popular because it’s a quick and easy way to add depth to a character. Kill off someone close to them or have them be forced to kill someone, bam! Instant guilt and darkness. Oh, but some of us in the audience are getting tired of that. Again, it comes down to how to add drama to the story and make the hero’s life as trying as possible. But for all the darkness very little thought is put into bringing light into the hero’s/heroine’s life unless through a love interest. This in and of itself is something that should be relied upon less.

Heroes don’t have to be Mr. or Miss Happy All the Time types of people because no one is. The appeal of a hero is how they pick themselves up when things get bad. The hero’s journey can inspire us, but if you make the hero too full of angst we just don’t care.

Women Who Kick Ass: Let me preface this by stating I have fond memories of 1990s/early 2000s TV as having a lot of great female characters. It was awesome and great as a girl growing up seeing women who had something to offer beyond looks. However, partially as a result of this I noticed a trope developed. It was Women Who Kick Ass. The main problem I have with this is it gives the impression that the only way to be a strong woman is to literally be a strong woman. Apparently a woman who isn’t physically strong isn’t a strong woman even if her strengths come in other areas.

I get why this became popular especially over the last couple of decades. For too long history, society, culture, literature, TV, and movies have treated women as something so weak physically that this must mean women are the lesser.

So how do we fix this problem especially with the massive social and cultural upheaval the 1960s and 1970s bring us? Go in the complete and opposite direction. Yet even with women embracing the idea they aren’t weaklings, there is still a struggle on how to present a strong woman as feminine.  Xena may have been a warrior princess but let’s face it, her outfit wasn’t the most practical. We can kick ass as long as we look good doing it.

Hmmm, but what if you are un-athletic? Or not cute? Or both? What if you are the quiet female? Not necessarily passive and full of no self-esteem but just someone who’s more introverted? In an attempt to pump up the self-esteem and image of women that we can do anything that somehow got translated into in order to be able to do anything, you must be physical and kick ass. I get not wanting little girls to grow up believing they need a man to solve everything for them. Or to give little boys the impression females are dumb but Women Who Kick Ass ignores other things that make a female strong.

 

Like everything else, these tropes are what I see most commonly that I’m getting tired of. These things are cyclical and a few months or years from now it’ll be another set of tropes that will be popular. Granted the reason why these exist and continue to be used is because as a reader or viewer we still respond to them. I’m not trying to say that using any or all of these tropes are a bad thing for a writer because there are plenty of writers who do a great job with tropes to make them feel fresh and still relevant. Again that’s when taking a trope and adding some kind of twist to it.

Yet part of me can’t help but think buying into these tropes is just cheap and lazy writing. It’s far easier to go with people’s expectations rather than digging deeper and deeper into characters and story. It feels like to me it’s a way to shut the door on the endless possibilities that exist within the infinite universe of a writer’s mind. For my own works, there are times when I do make a conscious decision to at least try something different. Sometimes I think it works but admittedly there are times it doesn’t work. At least it’s worth giving a try.

Weekly Musing: Frustration

Of late I’ve been frustrated. Not necessarily so much with my work per se although a couple of stories have been giving me revision fits. No, what has been gnawing at me are comments and discussions I see on the internet about the level of accuracy in books. In particular criticisms leveled at historical fiction.  Admittedly reading comments and participating in discussions on the internet is a pointless exercise since a good chunk of people are stuck in their ways.

I guess why it’s been bothering me more and more is because I’m getting closer to starting the arduous revision process of my historical fiction book. Seeing how petty and nitpicky people get over relatively minor flubs angers me. It gets tiresome to keep pointing out that authors are humans too and therefore things will get overlooked. What I mean by minor flubs are errors that don’t have an actual effect on the overall plot or story. Just little things like a particular dagger wasn’t in style in year XYZ but a couple of years later. Or an article of clothing was out of fashion by a few years before a character wears it. People harping on things like that drive me nuts.

Granted there are times to get legitimately annoyed with errors. For example, an author referencing a character using a gun that hadn’t been invented at that time. Or assuming everyone knew or was using a piece of technology that, while may have technically been around during the time period in question, wasn’t well-known.

Another source of frustration, and this one isn’t anything new but is a huge pet peeve, is when people complain about a female character displaying ‘modern woman’ characteristics. Usually this character fits the trope of being feisty, headstrong, unwilling to accept the societal norms, smart, and who may or may not desire to be a wife and mother. Apparently there is this incredibly flawed assumption that the idea of women desiring to explore their potential beyond a narrow scope is something that is only unique to last 50 to 100 years of human history.

Let’s open up a history book shall we? Look at how many women through history have behaved in direct opposition to societal norms. Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, famously never got married no matter how much her council pressured her and no matter how much the lack of an issue could throw the governing of the country into chaos upon her death. Ancient history shows Queens ruling just fine thank you very much. Women have been heads of states in countries such as India and England while the US hasn’t even come close. Joan of Arc led a freaking army. Mother Teresa wielded quite the influence when she was alive. Well-behaved women rarely make history indeed.

Expanding our net beyond queens, we have Harriet Tubman constantly risking her life to help others to freedom with the Underground Railroad. If caught she would face death but it didn’t faze her and this was during a period in American history where only wealthy white men mattered. Or to some of our First Ladies known for actually being involved in helping the world rather than being a fashion icon. Scientists such as Marie Curie, winner of not one but two Nobel prizes.

These are just a scant sample of women who have defied what was normal so why is it so difficult for people to wrap their brains around that a woman in the lower classes, for lack of a better term, could feel and act differently from what society tells them how they should behave? Yes women in lower classes lacked the socio-economic resources to better themselves but it doesn’t mean none of them couldn’t or didn’t at least try.

While we have all sorts of laws and other evidence showing what was expected behavior for both genders and all classes, think about it this way. In our own modern times, do people follow laws? Follow what society expects? No. So why do we think that our ancestors were all such goody-goodys? They weren’t and some of us wouldn’t be alive if they had been. Granted, the stakes for failing to fall in line could result in death or banishment from the community but people did it anyway.

And it’s not just female characters I see getting criticized. To a far lesser degree a male character considered enlightened for his views on women being more than just being on this planet solely for their amusement gets called out for not being realistic. Apparently men have been nothing but thick-headed, abusive asses until the last few decades when a bolt of lightning or something struck them in utero and rewired an enter gender’s brain.

It’s insulting and again, while laws are still largely created and enforced by males does not mean that all men follow societal ‘norms’, past or present. It’s asinine to believe no man in the whole of human history didn’t appreciate a non-doormat woman or didn’t appreciate a woman who was his equal and treated her with respect.

Another source of frustration and concern are when readers can’t, or who flat out won’t, either look at the historical context of when a book was written or the world the story is set in. There are attitudes and language which today wouldn’t fly but which were somewhat normal in other places and times. As a reader it is your responsibility to read something in the context of what makes sense for that world. This is regardless of genre. If you want to read books which agree with your view of what is right and wrong in the world then there are plenty out there but don’t be surprised if you read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Gone With the Wind and they use the word nigger and treat blacks with zero respect. Or if you read The Scarlet Letter and are puzzled as to what the big fuss was about Hester Prynne and that damn A she had to wear.

These things bother me as a writer because people get way too upset too easily nowadays over the silliest crap. I also see way too much pressure from some in the general public for everything to be 100% perfection even though no one is perfect. From my own experiences in research I can tell you I’ve encountered discrepancies. Historians can’t agree so why expect authors to be perfect? As far for personality types, we’ve had a rainbow of differences going back to the caveman days.

Instead of harping on the little things, instead look at the content and context of the story. Really using critical thinking skills to analyze something while keeping in mind there may very well be changes from what we think we know of the history of a time period. Feel free to check the accuracy of something but before going off on an inaccuracy, look at it. Is it something that was a simple mistake? Was it a big change and if so, why do you think it was done? Was it done to help the fiction of the story? Chances are the author did it knowingly but it’s not as if it changes actual history. After all, friction equals fiction.

Weekly Musing: 2015 Rock Hill Writers Intensive

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending my first conference/writers workshop of 2015. What made it even more pleasurably was that it happened to be in my backyard. The 2015 Rock Hill Writers Intensive presented by the SCWW association was one day but as the name suggests, it was intensive.

My day started with me thinking I was late as I thought I overslept. In reality I was on time which allowed me the opportunity to get settled and talk to the people at my table. What was quickly apparent to me was just how many people attending it weren’t locals. For some reason, several people from Greenville, SC made the nearly two hour drive as well as people from small communities in both North and South Carolina.

After the opening address it was time for the first session. For mine I choose a topic called Whose Head is This? presented by Barbara Evers. It was about point of view and determining which one is appropriate for the story. Ms. Evers gave simple questions to think about for our characters such as how do they speak, think, what traits they use in life, etc.

Another suggestion, and one that I am still shy about using, are finding pictures of what we think our characters sort of look like but also pictures or physical objects which represent something about a character. For example, if a character wears a fedora, get a fedora and keep it nearby while writing.

Along with other reminders about making sure characters sound and think differently from each other, using a scene break if switching POV within a chapter, and whatnot, she gave a great suggestion. When going through the revision process, change the font for each character. For example, I’m working on a novel with two POV characters. Their chapters alternate in telling the story. By using a different font for each, it not only gives your eyes a break but it also is a visual representation of how much each character contributes to the story. This doesn’t mean the book should be 50/50 necessarily but if you thought character A had as much equal time as character B but they don’t, it can help you make some decisions.

The second session I went to was another one put on by Barbara Evers. This one was regarding the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and how to use that for developing characters. I’ve been pretty familiar with the Myers Briggs test since high school when I was first took it. Since then I have taken it several times during my life with the same results. INFJs unite!

But this wasn’t a presentation on our own personality as just a very condensed version of what the components that go into a MBTI personality. The main focus was how writers can, and should use it, with our characters and their stories. One of her suggestions was to try and take the MBTI test as one of our characters. I can’t honestly imagine being able to do that without my own personality biasing the test. However, because of the presentation I am more interested in picking up an official book on the different types. I also want to challenge myself to have characters who aren’t so introverted like me yet I do worry that I will go over the top and write a one-dimensional character.

After lunch was the third session. Unfortunately this was the dullest and least helpful one of the four I attended. It was also the one I was looking the most forward to. It was simply titled Historical Research and presented by Tally Johnson a very well-informed and knowledgeable presenter about South Carolina history.

This was one of the biggest issues I had with the presentation. In the program it wasn’t listed as being specific to just South Carolina history but general historical research. I was looking forward to perhaps getting some advice for different resources, how to go about approaching experts in a particular field, challenges of writing historical fiction, things like that.

If I was interested in South Carolina history, and I may very well be down the line, I have a very exhaustive list of resources I can turn to.

The fourth and final session I attended was titled Breathing Life Into Setting presented by Barbara Claypole White. Late in the afternoon after a long day, she still managed to have lots of energy which propelled her lecture.

I picked this session since setting is one of those things I feel is tricky to get right. Depending upon genre, setting might be just as important as characters, acting as another character if you will. That being said, setting, or world-building, can quickly take over the narrative in a bad way something Ms. White admitted is one of the things in her own writing she has a tendency to do.

She gave us some advice to think about as we revise:

  • Setting should never feel too comfortable and calm all the time for the character
  • Objects in a story should have some kind of meaning for the character
  • Opposites in preferred setting can provide a lot of conflict for the character. For example, a character who loves the beach goes nuts being holed up in a ski chalet.
  • Memories a particular place evokes in a character, whether good or bad

I was glad she went beyond the typical use of the five senses and went more into how setting helps the psychological make-up of the character and the story.

Since this was a local conference, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people attended as well as the overall quality of the sessions I attended. It was incredibly well-organized, must have been run by authors who are outliners rather than pantsers, and had a very welcoming atmosphere. I’m looking forward to next year’s intensive, knowing it will cover a variety of topics.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

This month’s selection, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel that’s been out since the early ’90s. I had read part of back in college as part of a Holocaust Literature class and have wanted to read the complete story since. I picked it to read this month because April 15th was Holocaust Remembrance Day and felt it was an appropriate time to read it.

The Complete Maus is part memoir for Spiegelman and part biography of his father, Vladek. The story goes back and forth from Vladek recalling his life to the present as the author struggles with not only getting the story right, but also with his father. The novel is broken up into two parts. The first one starts with Vladek’s life in the ’30s and ends in 1944 as he and his wife, Anja, are sent to Auschwitz. The second part picks up with their arrival in Auschwitz and ends just before Vladek passes away in 1982.

It’s hard for me to pick just one thing I loved most about The Complete Maus. The illustrations are brilliant as Spiegelman portrays the Polish Jews as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish citizens as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Whenever Vladek or any other of the Polish Jews tries to hide what they are, they are drawn as wearing pig masks to blend in. By telling the story through such a visual medium, it has more impact on the narrative. It also has more of an impact on the reader because it forces the reader to pay attention and think of the characters people even though they are drawn as some kind of animal. I think if Spiegelman had chosen the more traditional road of drawing the characters as human beings, I think the emotional impact of it would be lost. It would feel too typical when clearly Vladek’s story, and everyone who went through the Holocaust, is unique.

Another thing I greatly appreciated was Spiegelman’s willingness to include uncomfortable conversations. There is a lot of unpleasantness between Spiegelman and his father, between himself and his wife, and between himself and his stepmother, Mala. He was willing to share with the reader that his mother committed suicide when the author was twenty-years-old and that his father’s second marriage is not a happy one.

Spiegelman and his father have a very tense relationship because Vladek is a very difficult man to live with and growing up he made his son feel like he wasn’t good enough. He includes in the narrative a scene where he confesses to his wife that there were times growing up he was so angry with Vladek that he wished he had perished in the Holocaust. Then there is the constant arguing Vladek has with Mala. Why those two people got married is beyond me. I think it was a case of it being convenient for both of them so neither would grow old alone.

Yet despite this tense relationship, and Vladek’s tendency to manipulate others around him emotionally, there is respect between father and son. It develops over the time Spiegelman wrote and recorded his numerous conversations with his father so that by the time Vladek is dying, they have reconciled. That reconciliation, while not shown to the reader, is one of those things you know happened through read the story and seeing how their relationship changed. Why else would Spiegelman be willing to portray his father in a sympathetic, flawed light as well as himself? There’s no need for some big dramatic scene because that’s not the point of the graphic novel.

Overall, I loved The Complete Maus. It’s emotional, powerful, and shows the lengths people who are persecuted will go to try and survive. The Holocaust, like all systemic genocides, brought out the absolute worse behavior in people. Not just the Nazis, but the victims as well. Vladek recalls how prisoners lied and harmed each other just for an extra bit of food. Harrowing to read and see people being reduced to such a feral state.

On a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Complete Maus 5 pencils+. Wonderful book and an absolute read for everyone.

Weekly Musing: Book It!

Nope, not talking about the awesome program from the ’80s/’90s where you read a certain amount of books and got to go Pizza Hut (I think that was it) and make your own little personal pan pizza. I loved that program. Combine reading with food and I’m there.

What this week’s musing is inspired by is something I attend once a month: A book club. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a book club but it was something I always wanted to. Thanks to the internet I was able to find more than one. I tried a couple of others before settling on the one I regularly attend.

I really enjoy my book club. Our focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, or horror books. This isn’t unusual since most book clubs are centered on a particular theme. The people are fairly smart, someone brings baked goods (again food + book = good times), people’s t-shirts are interesting, and it’s just neat being around a group of people where we have at least one thing in common. I enjoy listening to other people’s thoughts about the book regardless of if I agree with people’s opinions or not. I enjoy the thought provoking questions asked by the group’s leader which usually revolve around issues today.

Yet for all the positives I get out of it, lately I’m beginning to wonder, as a writer, if it is good for me. I think it’s just my own neurosis but when I listen to what the average reader thinks of the story, the characters, the writing style, what have you, I start to wonder. Wonder about people’s critical thinking skills and if some people really, truly cannot grasp the idea of something must be impossible because it doesn’t jive with how they understand the world and therefore it’s a failure of the author. Heaven forbid the reader take some responsibility to think a little harder or admit “Hey, I just don’t get it.” I’ll readily admit I don’t get what authors are doing sometimes.

I guess as a writer and knowing authors I get a little bit defensive. Especially when I hear a reader criticizing a male author for trying something new like having a female main character and not writing her ‘feminine enough’ and that he should stick to what he knows. Or people not understanding that when the story shifts to a different character that the writing style should naturally change. What I mean by this is the grammar of the character changes, speaking and thought style, and how the character views their world. Some people apparently can’t appreciate this and quickly launch into how the author is a bad writer for doing this. I guess they prefer all their characters to sound exactly the same regardless of life experiences and origins.

At times this mentality gets to me as I’ll sometimes examine my own work and my own ideas and wonder if the average reader will ‘get’ it. Should I trust a story with ugly, unlikeable characters as the focus when it feels that so many average readers don’t like that? Will a reader truly understand the aim at realism which means the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uncomfortable?  Does the average reader care about subtext and depth a good story should have?

Granted some of this is dependent upon genre and the expected tropes but I see online people up in arms over an author who dares to defy those tropes! Again, I think a lot of these thoughts and worries are a byproduct of my naturally anxious nature. It’s one of those things where I know intellectually to stay true to the story and the characters and the audience will be there for my work (hopefully). Or to not care if everyone gets it because not everyone will. I certainly don’t as a reader. Yet emotionally, and because of the chemicals which make up my personality, I want people to completely understand and appreciate nuances a writer has puts into a work. When someone doesn’t, it irritates me.

So are book clubs a good thing for a writer to attend? Those writers with thicker skins and who can separate the reader you vs. writer you, then yes. If you can’t, then perhaps not. For me I need to work more on just enjoying the discussions as a reader and leave the writer on the pages it is needed on.