Monday, July 29, 2013

The Power of Names

I believe in writing with specifics. I tell my students all the time: call it by it’s name.  A stand of trees is a different image than a stand of birch trees.

Two recent events, though…

I committed at a radio interview (six weeks from now) that includes a reading.  That is, the author reading from her own works.  I’m not very auditory – I hate talking on the phone, for example.  I attended author readings maybe five times in my life and hated all of them, except once I heard Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient read from his short stories. I’m a sucker for a crisp accent. 

Except, I’m from the American Midwest living in Chicago.  I have no respect for the letter ‘t’.  With us it’s all dese, dems, and dose over dare. What will my reading sound like over the radio?

Moreover, what scene shall I select for the 5-minute spot?  I review chapter one of the new release StrikeStone that is Book III in a series.  The scenes are sharp and push the story along nicely, engaging a reader who maybe has not picked up the first two novels.  Several sentences in the paragraphs, though, are used to identify characters, such as:

I had seldom contacted Kyle Rula, but received messages through the convent turnkey Sarah, and the Cylay administrator Vera who had been a childhood friend.”

The reader catches up with Sarah later, and also with Vera, but not in this scene that I want to read for the radio.  I need to delete those sentences for the excerpt.  But I start to scan the pages and find a wealth of energy spent signifying on the characters and their back stories.  I don’t want to overwhelm the radio piece with introducing characters that don’t make an appearance in the allotted five minutes. 

To me, the story seems flat after editing, like the remaining characters are acting without responsibility to those who I redacted temporarily.  Actions in the scenes are not undertaken in front of community because I removed the names of people – brother, auntie, daughter, leader –  to whom the actors are responsible.

So I start thinking about how reading in pubic is different from reading in private.  A short piece is different than a novel that’s part of a series.  Adjustments are needed. 

Funny thing, though.

In 2005 I was teaching freshman how to write in complete sentences and asked students in one course to keep a journal.  Since they were required to, I also started a journal – three 3-page entries each week that were reflective and confessional.

Recently, I posted some of the short writing pieces from that effort on a new eblog titled Writing in the Short Form, intended for my current creative writing students (in September) who I will guide to write short fiction in their own voices. “Bare yourselves; dig down to the bone; throw away caution; expose the dark side for fear and jealousy.” Sound familiar?

I sent the few first posts to a friend who said, “Yes, the posts are too personal, and you should change all the players’ names.” 

I hate the idea. 

I know this feeling is only process frustration. The end-reader knows little about my lofty goals and my compromises. So I changed them, (Marty for Michael and like that). The re-naming effort takes all the hurt out of the paragraphs, like it’s somebody else’s story now.  Marty isn’t responsible like Michael was. Go figure.

What’s in a name? Designer names for our clothes; names of countries we want to visit; names of villains in Spiderman movies; the name for the pill needed to stop my skin from itching.  Names are everywhere, and if we cannot recall them, we cannot have the benefit of the fashion or geography or camaraderie or healing.

Sri Lanka was Sinhala in India, and Taprobane to the ancient Greeks. On a store-bought globe, the island country was identified as Ceylon until 1972.

You tell me.  Sample the short works on the eblog that my students will use. Do the names have power?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Thief: a Master Class in Pacing

I read The Thief on recommendation from Lois McMaster Bujold who claimed in a FaceBook post that she was frustrated with finding a good read so she returned to something familiar that she knew was good.

I wanted to review The Thief for the Worlds Without End 2013 reading challenge for Women Writers in Genre Fiction, but Megan Whalen Turner was not on their list of women writers, probably because as a Young Adult (YA) writer Turner had won none of the name sci-fi awards.

TurnerOf course, with a recommendation for Lois McMasters Bujold, who needs the awards system?  I always thought the awards ran in trends anyhow. The current trend is castle stories.

The narrator of this castle story is the thief named Gen who keeps secrets from his companions and from the reader until the end. For a YA book, this reader is relieved to find little assassination gore and few battlefield scenes. The dungeon scene is about deprivation more than torture.

The Thief is economical in that all elements are used to work out the plot, and the story unfolds as it must for exposition while four adventurers (who know each other slightly) journey to find a stone that lends immortality to the holder.

For my writing students, I recommend this book as a master class in pacing for inserting elements at the right moment. The story is kept small since the four travelers must avoid towns to remain secret. The quirks of each character are revealed through pranks of one-upmanship. A system of gods is introduced through campfire stories, and the back story of each character, while relevant to the plot, is meted out in morsels only.
Turner books
Because of the first person narration, the scene about how Pol sacrifices himself to get rid of the traitor in their group was glossed over (since Gen wasn’t there). Pol’s internal struggles to fulfill his mission were interesting but undeveloped.

A satisfying read with believable special skills for the travelers and different-but-familiar gods. Three more books complete the series. Highly recommended, especially for young readers.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Interview with Stella Atrium

Q: How is it going with the release of Book III in a fantasy series?

Atrium: StrikeStone just entered the pipeline for distribution the first week of July 2013, so sales can’t be tracked yet. We did a Goodreads giveaway for Book I -- titled SufferStone -- that got great response, though.

Q: What are the drawbacks to writing a series?

Atrium: Well, my stories are about the women, so there are fewer battle scenes and gory deaths. Characters include the fate of the set-aside wife, or a tribeswoman who maneuvers behind the scenes to promote her son as leader, or a businesswoman who courts the men while she ignores the talents of her niece.  The battles mostly take place over the hill while the women try to gather remnants to hold together a society.

Q: Sci-fi fans don’t like stories about women?

Atrium: That depends on where you look for fans.  Not to speak against Reddit, but I’ve had more luck with engaging fans on GoodReads and World Literary Cafe.  Also some readers don’t start with a fantasy series until at least three books are in print.

Q: Are more books planned for the Dolvia Saga?

Atrium: Book IV -- titled SignalStone -- is mostly written, but I’m polishing the last section to foreshadow Book V that’s just underway this summer.

Q: Does the reader need to read the first two books to understand events in StrikeStone?

Atrium: Thanks you for asking. Rabid Readers Reviews read an advanced copy claimed she understood StrikeStone just fine without the first two, but she wanted to go back, then, and pick them up to read. I hope other readers have a similar reaction.

Q: How many books in the series are planned altogether?

Atrium: Six is a good number. It’s important to complete some story threads for each book, but leave the reader wondering about what happened to other characters.

Q: How do you balance all those characters and keep them clear in your head? 

Atrium: Each character has her own quirks and way of seeing the world. Tribespeople on Dolvia have a tight community where each is needed to balance the harmony. I like to allow them to grow and see how each acts in a crisis or as an adult after some catastrophe. The characters are people to me, so I’m always returning to see what happens next.