Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There Are No New Stories

I recently sat down to add an oldie but a goodie to my library, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I don't know how I managed, but I missed this one in high school and college. After finishing it last night, I am in awe.

I always thought Shelley's work was groundbreaking, even if all I'd ever seen of it was the parodied Mel Brooks version, Young Frankenstein. The tragic monster hero shines through, even there.

I'd even read about it some before. That is was and still is touted as the first science fiction piece. New. New. New.


In all fairness to Shelley, not even she labeled her work as new. She actually entitled it, The Modern Prometheus. Yep, that really really really old Greek guy who had his liver eaten out every day (he also happened to create life from clay). 

There are no new stories.

Shelley did have a new take, though. It's not often that man creates life. Woman, yes. Man? And then he turns on it. Deplores it. And that creation goes out in the world to be despised and hated. And yet it only wishes to be loved and show love. It's external hatred that turns the outwardly monsterly creation into a monster on the inside. 

Clever. Very very clever.

By the time I got to Frankenstein the man's death, I wasn't rooting for him. I was rooting for the misunderstood monster. How could I not? The monster pleads with Frankenstein to understand his plight. To give him someone to love and to share his life. Frankenstein, however, cannot get beyond his own external revulsion at the outward appearance of his creation. He cannot see that ugly on the outside does not necessarily mean ugly on the inside.

In today's world of increasing preoccupation with external appearances, it's a classic idea. A classic tale. It's still cutting edge. That's saying a lot for such an old tome. Wouldn't it be amazing to write something that rings true for such a long time?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Happens After...

I have been thinking long and hard about what happens after I finish grad school in writing. What is the expectation? I'm already published, so it's not getting published per se, although I would like to move out of the minor, small press houses and up to the major, bigger houses. Is grad school a surefire method of doing that?

How I wish.

Still, there is a certain level of expectation that grad school will help me figure out how to make my writing better.

So I was kind of surprised to read a rant on MFA writers the other day by an anonymous editor. God knows, we writers have enough paranoia about the world of publication, but now to read that educating ourselves in writing is a waste of time? Yeesh.

As a university educator in an entirely different field, political science, please let me say that I wish, wish, wish, it were required that politicians have a degree in political science, rather than law--as most do--or maybe even both. Perhaps then, they might have a deeper understanding of the history of interaction among nations and how best not to repeat past failures, rather than repeatedly making them.

Clearly, I'm all for educating yourself, which is probably why I'm in a writing MFA program. What I'm not for, and probably what an anonymous editor has against those with MFAs in writing, is attitude. I've had students who believe that just because they sat in my classroom, they had a right to a passing grade. Maybe that's what the anonymous editor has seen, writers who feel that since they have the MFA they deserve to be published.

If only it were that easy. Like any job, writing takes lots of hard work. In my experience so far, getting an MFA in the field means putting in more hours in a shorter time period and thus shortening the time spent figuring out how to write publishable stuff. Do you need an MFA to write? Absolutely not. A person can teach herself any craft. ANY. Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect and his home, Monticello, is still standing. But I wouldn't hire an architect today who went only to the school of hard knocks (unless, maybe, he were Thomas Jefferson).

So what does an MFA get you if it's not a pass-go-and-head-straight-for-publication card? A lot of experience in a condensed period of time. It's another option in the learning-the-craft scenario. In the end, it might-like any degree-get you a little more notice from editors and agents (say, 5 seconds instead of 3), but really, it's for me, the writer, not them, the outside world. Unless I figure out how to improve my craft, and then everybody wins. I'm guessing a lot of writers see it this way. I hope more and more will as we continue to educate ourselves. I hope, too, that the anonymous editor runs across some of them and changes her position on MFAs in writing. Education isn't a bad thing. It's what we do with it that measures what we've learned.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What I Love About Graduate School

I never thought I'd see myself writing those words. My first go around with graduate school, ending in a PhD, was not exactly something I loved. It was a painful process with a lot of angst. When it was all over, I was convinced someone would show up one morning on my doorstep demanding my diploma back. It took a year to figure out they were actually going to let me keep it. How relieved I was. But I wasn't relieved enough to ever think I'd set foot within the ivory tower again.

Age heals all wounds. Here I am, back in the graduate school saddle again. And this time around, I'm really loving a lot more of it. Honest. 

Don't get me wrong, there is definitely pain involved with all of this learning to write. I mean, I could seriously do without the sick feeling deadlines stir up in the pit of my stomach when there is that "other life" of mine (kids, house, husband, dog, school visits, conferences, etc, etc, etc) jockeying for time and attention or the brain ache I get from trying to come up with new ideas for critical papers.

There's a big difference, though, that makes this whole go at grad school different. Feedback. I got plenty of feedback the first time around, but grades were the be all and end all of the program. I had to keep them up to keep my scholarships. This time, no real grades. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance philosophy to teaching prevails. Add to that, feedback. Writing is such a lonely world. Doing an MFA in writing makes that world infinitely less lonely and less confusing.

I've sent off enough manuscripts to have compiled a select and diverse collection of treasured rejection letters ranging from "it's not right for our list" to "I was confused." There are the acceptance letters in there, too, which is fantabulously awesome, but it's the rejections that get under my skin. It's not only because my work was rejected. That stings, of course. But actually, it's because I don't understand exactly why. Unfortunately, the publishing world is an incredibly busy place and if editors write you anything personal, it's a boon. Deciphering it, however, is an art unto itself. Bottom line, however, it's not working.

In grad school, I get the why behind "it's not working". I really really appreciate that. I'll do anything-probably because of all of the past rejection letters and the burning desire to minimize those and maximize the acceptance ones-to make a piece better. If my advisor says, X isn't working, I'm thrilled. Sure, I have an emotional response to not having gotten it right, but all of those rejection letters have taught me to value the explanation that follows the critique. I spend the entire next packet figuring out how to make X work, or throwing it out and going for something new. I sometimes wonder if there wouldn't be more published authors if the game of writing and publishing allowed for more in-depth comments in rejection letters.

In the end, I guess it's about finding my own path, but I am thrilled I have a guide for this portion of the journey. I feel like I might actually make it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Book Review Club - Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
by Grace Lin
middle grade

Move over brothers Grimm, there is a new fairy tale weaver in town, Grace Lin. And the tales aren't scary! No cut off thumbs. No drown children. No wolves cross-dressing as grandmothers. Instead, the reader is whisked off to the mountains of ancient - but not too ancient - China as Minli travels to the Neverending Mountain to ask the man in the moon how to change her family's fortune. She meets a dragon who cannot fly along the way. He too, wishes to change his fortune, and joins her. They meet many many more interesting characters on their trip - greedy monkeys, a green tiger, a boy with a water buffalo, a prince - to the Neverending Mountain that help Minli and Dragon or vice versa, and sometimes, both.

The tale is full of tales within tales - The Story of Fruitless Mountain, The Story of the Paper of Happinesss, The Story of the Village of Moon Rain. For those looking for a few craft points to walk away with, Lin eloquently moves from third to first person as she moves from Minli's story to these fantastical stories. Interestingly, she doesn't always switch voices. For the last story within a story, The Story of Wu Kang, for instance, Lin stays in third person. There is a paper in there somwhere...Even more importantly, though, the form is ideal for bedtime reading. These short stories within the story  create natural stopping points that make the book ideal for short reading periods. 

In this age of to buy or not to buy a book, this is a book worth purchasing in hard back. It is a work of art. There are color illustrations throughout, and four point color within the stories. It really is like a modern day, unscary fairy tale book rich with fantasy, Chinese fantasy. What a boon for American readers. Asian fantasy is, as yet, an almost untapped source of ideas and stories. There is so much to get lost in and enjoy.

I cannot wait to read this aloud to my daughters. I have a feeling it's going to be one we read over and over and over.

For more great reads, hop over to Barrie Summy's website to see all the writing world has to offer this month!

Friday, April 2, 2010

You Might Be a Writer If...

It has been so long since I had any revelations about being a writer. I think it's the trees blocking out the forest conundrum. I don't ever get out of the insular writer bubble to see how quirky I really am.


While I was in Virginia, I did manage to escape for a little bit. Ironically, it was during one of the school visits I did there that I came across this little insight:

You might be a writer if...you hide extra copies of you WIP like horcruxes.

A child asked me if I keep extra copies of my manuscripts that I'm working on. I had to suppress maniacal laughing. Extra copies would be sane. I keep a gazillion copies stashed all over the place because, you know, what happens if my hard drive crashes? I need a copy not on my computer. So I put one on my husband's computer. But that might crash too. So I also got an Apple Time Machine that backs up his computer, my computer and anything else we connect to it. Okay, but what if the house burns down? Or we get one of those tornadoes Oklahoma is so famous for? Forget the house, the photos, the musical instruments, I need a safe copy of my WIP! Seriously, when we practice tornado drills in our house, my laptop is right after my kids. Nonetheless, I also keep a copy on a little zip drive I carry around with me. Ah, but that's not foolproof either. What if I lose it? Okay, so I need to periodically email myself a copy of it. Yes, safe in cyberspace.

Or not. My email could get lost. Things like that happen in cyberspace, you know.

Okay, so I make a hard copy of it. But this gets back at the "What if the house burns down?" issue. So, I send my WIP to a close friend (name not to be shared because, of course, that would defeat the purpose of keeping it safe, right?).

This friend is a screenwriter who has worked on blockbuster movies and understands the (I will not use the word "paranoid" despite how applicable it may seem) overly cautious first parent attention an author pays to her little, developing WIPs. This person keeps my WIP in a safe. A fireproof safe. Ah, finally, my little baby is safe.

Of course, getting rid of that hard copy is just as hard as getting rid of a horcrux. My friend recently had one destroyed for me. Believe me, this person is a gem. (S)he understands my need for total secrecy (which is not silly or extreme, is it?) with an unfinished piece. (S)he works with a company that does nothing else but destroy such types of writing. The WIP was shredded first one direction. Then the other. Then burned. And I can get the ashes if I really really want proof.

If you think of a WIP as being a little piece of an author's soul, then I think all of the--what may seem--nutty behavior makes sense.


I hope.