Saturday, December 31, 2011

Writers are Readers

--By Stella Atrium

Joni Mitchell claimed once that she didn't listen to music of her peers (or competitors) because she didn't want the melodies or rhymes to impact her style.  Music is in the air, and composers can imitate without realizing the source.Joni

I knew a singer-songwriter who performed twice a month at a small club.  One week he sounded like Steve Goodman, and the next time he sounded like Kris Kristofferson, and later his voice had the quality of Fred Holstein.  I saw him perform again about a year later, and the young songwriter had found a method of phrasing that suited him, really and amalgam of all his heroes.

By emulating those who came before, he met audience expectations and began to step out on his own. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Writers are always experimenting, and a turn of phrase borrowed from another writer shows that he reads, at least. Except fantasy writers borrow magic from other stories, and borrow powers for vampires from other stories; even slang in urban fantasy is often borrowed from other writers.

I had a writer friend who refused to read the Harry Potter series because she didn't want her own work to appear derivative.  This concern is real — I can tell after devouring a fantasy series from a single author if she read Shakespeare or not.

HamletThe word skulking is from Hamlet, for example.  The young prince and his buddies skulked around the rampart until the king's ghost appeared.

We learn to address the world by using models of success and following lessons learned by elders shared as cautionary tales. We feel engaged with the group when we identify with players or singers or actors. Rick Perry wants to be the Tim Tebow of the debates.

We know we have succeeded when the boss enters a meeting wearing your same tie. 

Ray Bradbury claimed he wrote well when he fed his soul with good reading. His imagination was alive and ready for making new characters and new dialogue. Perhaps the operative word here is GOOD reading.  It's not enough to read; what we read counts for quality writing, just like museum art or music that isn't rap.

We write what we know. The first science fiction stories grew from the experiences of engineers who were veterans of WWII and had seen the horrors people can do. Remember GI Joe comic books? Remember Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut? GI Joe

So it's fine to capture words and situations from reading and re-purpose and remediate (my word of the day, he, he). It's also fine to research and dig deeper to find your truth spoken in your voice that you delineated by comparison to all those other voices, like a soloist in a choir.

Just don't write any more vampire stories, 'kay?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Left to Tell: A Review with Partial Answers

by Stella Atrium 12/28/11

Did you ever sit with a big question for a good long time? Maybe you found the easy answer, or the glib answer, or the partial answer from an outsider. But the truth about motivation and outcomes still doesn't fit.

petrifiedI have puzzled over the big questions often, a pleasant way to spend the quiet time.  Like, why does the Great Plains have no trees? The soil is deep and fertile, made verdant by centuries of buffalo dung deposits in the gazillions. So why are the Great Plains not called the Great Forest?

I actually found an answer for that question that sits well with me. A forest was burned away when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs crashed into the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan.  There's a petrified forest, in fact, in Arizona with tree trunks that were made into rock by the event. Then the grazing animals, eating all the seedlings, rose in great numbers before the trees could overtake the acreage.

One puzzle piece of my world fits snugly into place.

The cyclic massacres of the Tutzis and Hutus in Rwanda was another big question that came around in quiet moments. How could neighbors who were cousins indulge in widespread massacres every 12-18 years? What was the motivation? What were their explanations for the outcomes?

This is a heavy topic, not light banter for the dinner party. I could just ignore the question of relative motivations. Or I could explore the grievous actions and utilize some underlying truth to provide motivations for characters in my novels. The issue is relevant in many countries just now.

CollapseI read different partial answers that fit the rhetorical stance of the writer or organization more than the participants. I read much later the neo-Malthusian chapter by Jared Diamond in Collapse.  His argument called for more trees and fewer babies, and the relative responsibilities of developed countries.  But the example illustrates his articulated themes, rather than some open-ended investigation of inductive reasoning.

But what about the participants in the Rwandan massacres?  A GoodReads friend suggested that I read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza in which she describes her experience as a Tutsi hiding in a Hutu's bathroom with six other women. To my surprise, this was a book of Catholicism and the power of faith, except the proofs of faith were thin. 

Immaculee claims a Hutu killer turned away when he saw her face, I suppose like the visage of Moses could bring conviction in the spirit.  She claims that God helped her onto a path of compassion and forgiveness so she could get past urges of revenge. The author was remarkable indeed, but what about the other Rwandans who participated, and will participate again in a decade or so?

LefttoTellThe author claims that her prayers covered her friends so the killers didn't attack the defenseless group while she hurried toward them with French peace-keepers.  Except this scene happened late in the four-month-long massacre when passion was burned out and outside soldiers were armed with guns, not machetes.

I enjoyed the writer's descriptions, and I thanked God more than once for my easy lifestyle. Her statement of faith seemed true but too glossy in print form.  I'm certain Immaculee Ilibagiza is an inspiring motivational speaker, and I admire her work with orphans and raising international awareness through the UN.

One woman's answer for how she survived the nightmare doesn't speak to how we, the human race, can indulge this horror or how we prevent future massacres among neighbors and cousins.

Unfortunately, I'm still seeking that big answer for my big question.
It's Like a Caucus: Struggles with Self-Publish Marketing

by Stella Atrium

When the Iowa caucuses roll around every four years, voters are subjected to complaints about retail politics, how candidates must visit every county and shake hands in living rooms, backyards, and coffee shops while they endure litmus tests about narrative, purity and electability.  And this is BEFORE voters review the candidates platform on his website or position statement on various issues.

I know how the candidates feel.

I found some easy comparisons with marketing for the self-publisher. Retail marketing, we'll call it. The various author websites where authors gather to promote indie books, for example, are similar to the early debates where candidates are allowed to hold up a hand indicating positions on topic as defined by the liberal press. The only visitors to these sites are other authors checking their own progress, just like the only viewers of the early debates are other commentators who have the next debate on a different network.debate

Some candidates have been working at reaching presidential campaign level for 10 years, (after serving in house or senate or governorships or charity groundwork), and invested a fortune of family money and donor money. And that's before the opening bell. Writers also have invested "blood and treasure" in the book or series (along with university work, screenplays, ghostwriting, jingle writing) long before joining Twitter.

What's another comparisons? Soliciting reviews are like making promises for future connections so the candidate can gain a public endorsement, and sometimes takes as many visits to the endorser's home for dinner.

buttonThe writer's giveaway is like campaign headquarters where hats and pins and banners are stacked in a corner waiting for the volunteers to embrace the novel and spread word-of-mouth good will.

The first blog tour where the writer engages a real time chat or printed interview with the site's manager are similar to the grip-and-grin first meeting with potential supporters and fundraisers.

Expanding beyond bloggers in one's genre to begin selling to your own university or book club or alma mater is like moving from Iowa to New Hampshire for the second round of primaries. Can the candidate build a ground game to perform in a different arena?

Developing a YouTube video to start a second buzz once the book is released is like those TV commercials that tout the candidate's family and long record of service, and just as expensive.

And the results are sometimes just as screwy. 

The weighted bestseller list that floats the list-maker's favorite book type to the top is like Ron Paul who is winning in early states, but cannot gain the respect of the liberal media who claim he cannot win, so why interview him?PerryPaul

A book with a few enthusiastic readers on GoodReads gains a bump in ratings and to-read lists until other readers discover the grammar and diction are so poor as to work against the book's good ideas.

It's possible to push this analogy too far...  But in my genre Neil Gaiman is the Mitt Romney (we like him, kinda) and Steven King is the Newt Gingrich (full of big ideas the unravel in the plotline).

Okay, I'll stop now.  What comparisons did I neglect that you can see?

Monday, December 26, 2011

There's Always Horses

by Stella Atrium

Did you ever notice in fantasy stories, no matter how extreme the otherworld appears, there's always horses?

In many fantasy stories there's usually castles and magic and mean women, and a cook who used to be a woman warrior.  But, no matter what the wild animals or domesticated animals look like, horses are everywhere. sandworm

In Dune there were no horses, but the hero learned to grab joyrides on the sand worms.  That was unique.

In Avatar the horses had six legs, but they were obviously horses, and were not nearly so interesting as the banshees.  Maybe the needed augmentation helped with carrying the oversized blue people.

apehorseIn Planet of the Apes, the apes that were soldiers rode horses. The apes had evolved, but not the horses. That was explained in the 2001 rendition with Mark Walberg that spoke to apes as test subjects in the lab where horses were spared.

In Narnia, the horses could talk, but so could all the other animals. The horse the oldest brother rode was a unicorn but did no fencing with this blade. Some of the fighters were centaurs — or men with horse parts below the waist.  None of the centaurs were women, though.  I noticed that. centaur

In Alice (the most recent movie with Johnny Depp), the bad guy's horse could talk.  The white queen's horse was just a prop, though, and I think she rode side-saddle.  How antiquated is that? 

queen horseWhat other exceptions can you name of fantasy stories where the writer thought about changing the looks or abilities of the ever-present horse? 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Seven Christmas Things I'm Surprised I Don't Like: My Grinch List

by Stella Atrium 12/20/11

In the spirit of writing a blog as a list (the newest route to securing blog traffic), I thought I would write out my Grinch list.  There's a plethora of these lists circulating, so please view mine with a grain of salt.fuzzy lights

1)  Articles Written as Lists:  Too obvious to explain.

2)  Andy Williams Christmas Specials: When I was a kid (I'm giving away my age here), we waited all day for the hour of the Andy Williams Show with the in-jokes and set decorations and his colored voice that everybody recognized.  The Osmond Brothers were introduced on that show. Now a mock-up of William's voice is used for Target ads.  The old hour-long episodes are faded and jaded, looking sadder than "Lawrence Welks" or "Sing Along with Mitch" from a decade before. 

old lights3)  Christmas Blow-out Giveaway on Twitter:  Think about lead time, folks!  Twitter is for last minute planners, I know, but a Christmas list is not.  Any woman who plans for a large family knows the gift packages were wrapped ten days ago.  She's now in the stage of polishing silver and making fruitcake before the real cooking begins.  She may not return to Twitter until time to return gifts starting on Monday.

4) Politically Correct Stance against Saying Merry Christmas:  Deal with it, and may God bless...

5) Warnings about a Hard Chicago Winter: Supposedly, the hardest winter in twenty years is coming, touted with images from last year's blizzard just for good measure, when it's 44 degrees outside. This is why everybody's so dissatisfied; the doom and gloom of the news broadcasts.  We had one hard freeze and no snow. The grass is still green and making buds. Let's enjoy the moment.  starlights

6) Over-cheerful Helpers at the UPS Store wearing Santa Hats: Don't you just want to slap them? They're celebrating the slow death of the US Postal Office so they can charge three times as much for the same services. 

7) Dry, Smelly Christmas Trees; The Most Grinch Dislike of all:  At least the men no longer chain smoke in the same room, because I make them go outside. Next year the men can decorate a tree outside, and maybe light the gas grill and cook their own holiday meal.  Just my luck, though, it will snow in Chicago in December 2012.

lightsMerry Christmas, all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Night Circus: A Review of Sorts

12/16/11 by Stella Atrium

The opening of "Night Circus" promises an experience similar to "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury, but delivers smoke and mirrors instead.  I found a long series of vignettes where the reader must guess at the hidden action behind the few gestures in each tableau.Night Circus

***Spoiler Alert***

There's no protagonist to follow. The only real person is Bailey (Get it? Bailey and circus?)  Bailey is the touchstone as much as a fire or a tree. 

Time stretches out reminiscent of "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", except there's no eternal struggle between good and evil, and the fate of society doesn't ride on the outcome. 

My final reaction is sadness.  So much talent was resident with the characters with magic, but they could think only to play a game of one-upmanship.  The weight of decadence, exemplified by the contortionist, was more like the society of vampires that Louis finds in Europe in Ann Rice's "Interview with a Vampire."

Lovely writing, though, if the reader has a taste for sorting through old tintypes where the viewer must guess the meaning behind the many pained expressions of ancestors. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ella Sykes: Why no Bio-Pic?

Stella Atrium 12/12/11

Why am I surprised that on the same day I stumbled across two women who are ignored for developing bio-pics about their adventures? 

Sykes crowdElla Sykes traveled widely with her brother, Sir Percy Sykes, on his diplomatic missions in central Asia. She was the first western woman known to have ridden from the Caspian Sea to India, and published five books on the topic. 

Ella Sykes paid two visits to Persia, spending nearly three years there in all. The first took place in October 1894, when Percy Sykes invited her to accompany him on his trip to the districts of Kerman and Baluchistan, where he was being sent to establish British consulates. She spent two years in the interior of Persia and was one of the first European women to visit these parts. Ella also traveled with her brother on his subsequent missions along the Persian Gulf, visiting the major coastal settlements on the way, and spent the winter of 1896-97 with him in Tehran before returning to England at the end of February 1897. She paid her second visit to Iran some ten years later when she stayed with her brother in Mashad.Percy Sykes

Ella shared her brother's interest in and affection for Iran and its people. This is evident in her three books about the country. In, Through Persia on a side-saddle (1898),she vividly describes her first visit, her long horseback travels and life in Kerman where she was probably the first European woman ever seen. The book received favorable reviews as "a very readable narrative" (The Times, p. 7) The Story Book of the Shah (1901), intended for young readers, recounts some of the legends in the Shah-nama. The book is well illustrated and has decorated chapter headings by her sister Ethel. Persia and its People (1910), was written after Ella's visit to Mashad and is a useful, though dated, introduction to the country, with chapters on its history, government, religion, antiquities, flora and fauna, Mashad, etc. Subsequently, she published several articles and lectures including "Persian family life" in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society for 1914, where she had been a founder member since 1905 and was twice elected to its council, in 1916 and 1921.

In 1911, wishing to discover what opportunities there might be in Canada for Britain's "surplus" of educated women, she worked there as a home-help for six months. In the spring of 1915, she again accompanied her brother, this time to Chinese Turkestan where for six months he was in charge of the British Consulate-General in Kashgar. Ella did not marry or have children and towards the end of her life gave much time to volunteer work with girls, primarily as honorary secretary of the Girls' Friendly Society in South Kensington. She died at her home in London on 23 March 1939.


Sykes PersiaThrough Persia on a Side-Saddle is a notable travelogue of the first recorded land journey of a western woman from the Caspian Sea to India. With a keen eye toward the lives of women she encountered on her way, Sykes wrote a detailed account of an adventure that no other woman had experienced. The freshness of her observations comes through in her fluid and empathetic style. Starting her observations with the preparations in London, Sykes takes the reader on a lavishly descriptive journey of a world that no longer exists. Tracing her route to Tehran, she offers a full disclosure of her experiences in the capital of Persian. From there the reader is taken along to India and back to Tehran, and eventually, London. Giving a woman's perspective on an ancient center civilization, this volume proudly joins the Gorgias Historic Travels in the Cradle of Civilization series.

Ella Constance Sykes (d. 1939) was a world traveler and the first female member of the Geographical Society. She was also a member of the Central Asian Society and served as secretary to the Royal Asiatic Society.
Mildred Cable: Why no Bio-Pic?

Stella Atrium 12/12/11

And here's another adventurer who was overlooked for a bio-pic because she was a woman -- actually three women who explored China and the Gobi Desert for 20 years and wrote extensively about what they learned there as missionaries. Cable

Midred Cable, Eva French and Francesca French worked together as  missionaries with an inspiring story largely related in Cable's book "The Gobi Desert".

From an early age Mildred wanted to be a missionary in India. However in 1902 she went to China . Eva French was already there, she had joined the China Inland Mission before the Boxer rising of 1900 in which many Christians were killed. Her sister, Francesca joined them later on.

The three women worked in China for nearly twenty years, setting up schools and a rehabilitation centre for opium abusers. But they began to feel the need to take the Gospel to new areas where the missionaries had not been to.

In 1923 the three women went to Kanchow, traveling on the Silk Road and evangelizing as they went. There they trained Christians and traveled throughout the region holding tent meetings. But they knew that their destination would be the Gobi desert, a most inhospitable place with few inhabitants who were scattered throughout the area.

Cable and friendsIn 1926 they returned to England and their story caught the public imagination. Less than two years later they returned to the Gobi desert and stayed until they were forced to leave in 1936 during a time of political uprising. They had survived in a hostile environment and successfully proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region.

The three women returned to England after 36 years in China and worked for the British and Foreign Bible society for the rest of their lives.


Learn more by following a group of today's adventurers who are undertaking a similar journey.  Maji Shan

Threads in the Sand