Archive | January 2012

Realism and Upbeat Endings: on reading K.L. Going

I’m not a big fan of paranormal tales. I prefer stories, in general but especially in YA, that portray a world that seems, well, real.

And, I admit it, I prefer a story that defies everyday reality and offers up that truly newsworthy moment when the good guy comes out on top.

Inconsistent? Fine. I am content with the weirdness that makes me, me.

I ran across K.L. Going’s name in a blog post singing her praises, and stopped by the library to see what I could find. I ended up reading both Saint Iggy, for which she won lotsa kudos, and King of the Screw-Ups. I loved both of the protagonists in these two stories. If anyone is looking for great examples of what agents mean when they say they are interested in ‘a fresh voice,’ go directly to Going. Unusual leading men, without a doubt, and absolutely distinct in the piles and piles of paper that might come across an editor’s desk.

But I couldn’t bear the too-real ending of Saint Iggy. I can find that in an urban newspaper, should I happen to find one left behind at a campground or fallen out of the recycling bin behind the fairgrounds. I guess that’s why I prefer to live in a place like western Wyoming, with the space for upbeat possibilities still surrounding me, cushioning me from the trillions of wrong moves our species has been making for the past coupla thousand years or so.

Let me praise then, the right moves that the King of the Screw-Ups starts to make after he is thrown into a trailer park in Nowheresville to learn his way in the world. I needed stories to point out intriguing paths when I was searching for the one(s) to take me toward adulthood. I continue to need examples of success to offer me ways forward, even after my 18th birthday has faded into dust.

Reading Rural

Do they still have this category on 4-H membership forms? Rural non-farm. That was the box I had to check when I joined up. In fact, I must’ve checked it twice, once for the Equestrian Cadets, where one of the world’s absolute Sheroes led a group of horseless kids, letting us ‘lease’ (for a dollar a year), a horse from the riding school her family operated, and again for the Maple Leaf 4-H Club, which was open to all the 4-Hish subject areas and offered me the chance to learn about baking apple muffins (which I fed to the horses on their birthdays), and how to build birdhouses.

So my rural roots planted themselves firmly, and though I know 82% of the U.S. population (52% worldwide) now live in urban areas, that means 18% don’t, and we have stories too. Even stories that urban people might find intriguing, from worlds and circumstances foreign to them. These are the stories I like to find, and to share.

Since the ones I’m putting on paper are taking so long, I’ll share thoughts on a couple that I’ve read recently instead.

Summer of Silk Moths by Margaret Willey, won a Green Earth Book Award, and that recognition helped me continue reading beyond the slightly slow beginning. Cuz you know, sometimes this rural world spins slower than the urban chaos, and in the long run, I think that’s a great thing. I didn’t like the cover, either, I have to admit, in its pastels, though they probably ‘fit’ the fuzzy nature of silk moth wings. What I did like–plenty, actually. First and foremost, I suppose, I love that the viewpoint character does real work, like hauling around lumber to build fences and overlooks at the new nature center (yes, this place also qualifies as rural non-farm). I love the contrast of this standard ‘male’ work with Pete’s artistic nature, and the contrast of the brash city girl he learns to soften, while learning to soften toward her. I also love that Pete is ‘doing’ science, exploring the unexpected world of night-flying creatures. Are these things relevant to story-line or writing technique? Yes! The work one contributes to the world presents its own prism for understanding many of life’s mysteries. And since we operate—consciously sometimes, subliminally other times—on metaphorical levels, one’s work offers opportunity for tuning a reader to new instruments. Of course, the metamorphosis of moths is clearly at work here, with two people, in their different ways, unfolding from their cocoons.

Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdochattracted me initially because of the bold black and white design on the cover, and I was hooked into the story from the get-go with the fittingly bold narrator’s voice as well. D.J. gets to do real FARM work too, actually being the one to run the family dairy while her father is injured and her older brothers away. She has responsibilities, and she has competencies, and these things provide her the strength to experiment with her unconventional passion:  football. Yes, there’s the quiver of romance here, but not from some simpering lipsticked cheerleader. So for anyone looking to see some ‘country’ reflections in their fiction, or with a yen for that fragrant world out beyond suburbia, I say grab a haybale and sit down to a great read.

a recommendation for teen writers of young adult fiction

The Bloody Jack series

i think, after the Harry Potter series, the adventures of Jacky Faber were the convincing collection that spurred me in the direction of writing for young adults. These are fabulously, riotously fun stories with a gutsy modern heroine who seems not at all anachronistic in the turbulent historical settings L.A. Meyer has crafted for her. Sure she has to start out impersonating a boy, but that wasn’t at all unheard of ‘in the old days,’ and it got her well-started at sea, where she quickly proves her competence, and over time her leadership capabilities grow.

Why do I think these are great for young aspiring writers? Because they are so deft? So daring? So unafraid of convention, including stifling moralities? Yes yes and yes. I love that a man has created such a kickass girl protagonist (who morphs into an intrepid young woman of course, over the years). I love the nitty-gritty shipping details; they model the way to create a clear picture of a world that is probably unfamiliar to most readers. The historical research Meyer does is no doubt fun for him as well, and I think poses an example of how to balance imagination with exploration when we craft our stories so that they ring, like a dinner bell, with authenticity.

True, with ten books (as soon as the 2012 one is released) in the series, he has a formula going now. I actually don’t find that a turn-off, though I know some who do. Meyer keeps plumbing world events from that time period and sending Jacky off across the oceans and continents to get herself immersed in everything from wars to scientific experiments to international economic expansion. None of this feels forced! Jacky was a London street urchin, after all, and those Brits were everywhere at the turn of the nineteenth century. What a way for new authors to think about every headline they see as a potential storyline.

If all of these reasons don’t convince you, don’t read these with writing in mind at all. Read the books simply because they will make you laugh and inspire you to bolder living. Ain’t that enough?

Fall of Rome

Thoughts on reading Ship Breaker, Paulo Bacigalupi, published by Little, Brown

This is by no means a book review, because i really liked the book. This is a response to the book, and to my response of liking the book. So it may seem odd that this piece should sound negative–but “I am faithful to ebb and flow…” as Denise Levertov described paradox in Stepping Westward. It is an apt enough metaphor for ruminations on a wonderfully multicultural story set on the flooded southeast coast of a slightly futuristic North America.

Let me start by plucking some words from the back cover Praises. Riveting, breathtaking, tense, gripping. When you’re writing a dystopian thriller, those are descriptors to die for, aye? And all writers are schooled in ways to maintain tension, to keep readers riveted and turning those pages. Typically, thriller isn’t a category i turn to, but as a student of writing, and YA writing in particular, i’m a bit torn by the creative tension between keeping an audience interested and allowing an audience to explore and experience and play. Sure high stakes almost guarantee my own interest–and that of millions of readers world-wide. So why the discomfort?

i admit to odd flashbacks to late Roman times that we’ve come to characterize as morally bankrupt. Why this label? The human atrocities carried out in front of thousands in the name of public entertainment….And like this social flashback, i think too that we in the publishing/entertaining business may fall back too our biological/evolutionary history by shooting people in the head with strong reptilian response triggers. The mammalian layer is evolutionarily younger, not so deeply ingrained, and includes the warmer-blooded emotional textures that make a story something to savor, learn from, return to. As a writer, i hope to offer something for our full evolutionary selves.