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Archive for May, 2008

I’m plowing my way through my final essays for the semester and for that I require music. I’m listening to Juliana Hatfiled’s Made In China and thinking how different it feels from In Exile Deo, which I was listening to last week at this time. And it hits me:

Juliana Hatfield is like femme Neil Young. She can go hard, she can go soft, she can run punk or stream commercial, she does what she wants, she endures out of the limelight. Granted, she hasn’t had the same level of popularity, never was part of an eponymously named supergroup, but maybe if you put her together with Susanna Hoffs, Aimee Mann, and Mary Lou Lord — all people she’s sung back-up for — maybe we’d see something to rival CSNY.

That’s all I’m saying, totally random and nothing to do with writing. Juliana Hatfield is like Neil Young.

And Neil, by the way, is more jazz than he is rock and roll.

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I finished a book today that I initially hated when I picked it up.  Review books, they’re hit or miss, with the ratio being ten-to-one in favor of the miss factor.  Some just don’t speak to me, some are atrocious, and others rub me the wrong way for whatever reason.  But there was this one title — which I think I’m going to write up early in June — that caught me in my blind spot and then had me strap in for the rest of the ride.

Back in my film review days we used to call movies like this Big Dumb Movies.  Some call them popcorn movies, other give them less flattering names, but they’re all the same thing.  You don’t have to have them explained to you, you know them the minute you catch a preview.  Plot and character are going to take a back seat to action.  Budgets and special effects will be huge.  Things get blowed up real good.  You can study all the cinema you want, sample all the art house fare your delicate palate can consume, but every once in a while you want a movie that tells your brain to shut the hell up, and while you’re at it, make it a pair of hotdogs and some double-buttered popcorn with that trough of soda.

Books are more genteel.  Hollywood may call them blockbusters but the equivalent in books is called genre, and usually spat out in a way to indicate it is somehow less a “real” book.  You know how it is, there’s literature and then there’s Westerns, or Thrillers, or something else that somehow gets placed in its own ghetto away from the other fiction titles that hold their head high as “pure” fiction.

Bah.

So what happened with this one book was that it started off preposterously and only got weirder.  Something in the tone and pacing didn’t really catch me.  I found myself studying the cover of the galley for clues.  It wasn’t necessarily badly written, it just seemed to be failing me on some level.  Then it hit me that I had gone into it with the wrong perspective.   If I had gone into Jaws thinking it was like a Jacques Cousteau documentary, well, obviously I’d be disoriented.  What had happened was I entered into the book thinking it was out to deliver me into something with a slightly higher brow than its intention.  Once I’d grasped that it was a Big Dumb Book I was able to hop on board, hands and arms inside the vehicle, the smell of churro carts somewhere nearby.  It wasn’t a book, it was an invitation to a theme park ride.

Big and Dumb isn’t Trashy.  Trashy revels in the mud, and winks a casual eye at the reader who is savvy enough to know better and goads on the reader who doesn’t.  Trashy has it’s place as well, but requires a different level of sophistication to appreciate.  In high school cliques, Trashy books may be the cool kids but they also tend to be snobs; the Big Dumb Books are the freaks and geeks who are the socially functional misfits that everyone gets along with.

The problem, the danger of the Big Dumb Book is that it isn’t meant to be part of a steady diet.  Same with Big Dumb Movies.  People who consume a mono-cultural pop diet of any kind suffer from intellectual rickets, they honestly think calf-length denim shorts hanging off their ass and a backward ball cap is getting dressed up for a night on the town (I couldn’t give you the equivalent for the ladies, though pegged capris with scabby shins and a sleeveless blouse tied in front comes to mind).

So let’s sing the praises of the Big Dumb Book, the kind of book that if made into a good movie would be number one at the box office… for at least a week.  Once in a while you just don’t want bran, you want Frosted Flakes.  With sugar added.  In chocolate milk.  You don’t always want a fancy sit-down meal, occasionally some scary looking stuff from a cart on the sidewalk actually becomes your new cuisine du jour.  Big Dumb Book, though you may be nutritionally void you are still full of calories and can please the palate.

Hail to thee, Big Dumb Book, you make us appreciate the good, the bad, and the ugly by providing us with a holiday from reason and the tyranny of good taste.

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Problems.

I overnighted the workshop piece, the short story “erosion,” last Thursday morning with the promise of a 3 PM delivery on Friday. That’s what I paid for. So why didn’t it get one state over until Tuesday? Five frickin’ days for overnight delivery? I could have walked there in less time!

But the manuscript doesn’t look right. According to the lovely ladies in the program office it doesn’t look like it’s double-spaced. There are 26 lines per page instead of the average 22 that most manuscripts come in at. It either needs to be edited or submitted to workshop missing its ending.

Crap.

Can I blame Microsoft for a moment? Their 12 point fonts actually vary quite a bit from one another. Some seem to be measured across while others are measured vertically. And can I get technical? Their rendering of some fonts includes some extra play with the x-height and leading that wouldn’t pass muster in a type foundry. As a consequence not all double-spaced lines are created equal among fonts.

It shouldn’t matter to me, I dumped Microsoft long before I got the Mac. I’m a fan of open source and find my quality of life is quite high without being slave to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Except that the rest of the professional world can’t seem to handle non-conformity. My 20 manuscript pages of NeoOffice, when opened as a Word doc, suddenly balloons to 22 pages. Actually, once I corrected the margins for the conversion I ended up with nearly 25 pages. (If I’d gone Courier instead of Times Roman it would have come in at 28 pages!)

That’s nearly five pages out of the manuscript I had to cut.  That’s after the previous edits my advisor suggested.

This is beyond tweaking. I know it’s not a perfect manuscript, and once it goes through the workshop it might get completely overhauled, but what I originally sent had already been whittled down. I wasn’t condensing sentences, I was completely eliminating story details, bits that added humor or background. I fully expect some of these areas to show up as “I think you could insert something here” comments in July.

As I said when I submitted it last, running that razor’s edge between cutting and gutting.

So I downed the sweet tea, powered up, and went ruthless. I had to find those extra bits, average one sentence a page, hack out anything that didn’t speak directly to the story. Bit by bit, nearly 1000 words vanished into the electronic ether. In fighting trim, loose around the margins, it’s still 20 pages on my end but with enough wiggle room to conform to the damn Microsoft Word box comfortably.

I hope. So far I haven’t heard that it’s still too long.

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That’s a deliberate typo, in honor of my revision work on my short story “Erosion.” I could have gone with “erision” but that actually looked more like a real word. Or a brand name.

It looks like this is going to be my workshop piece for the next semester. I thought the first draft as about five pages too long — about 2500 words — and my advisor thought it could drop down another 500 more. I don’t think in word count when I write, I usually don’t even check unless there’s a reason, but it did feel long-ish.

Because I threw in the kitchen sink. It’s a pretty broad piece of YA humor and I was interested to see what stuck. First major cuts included: the marijuana farm, the environmentalist conspiracy, wife cloning, the history of California wildfires, and the odd little one-liners that interrupted the tone.

The thing is still too long for workshopping. I need to play with margins a bit because the workshop pieces have a page maximum. It’s only a page and a half, so that’s a fraction of an inch all around. No sweat, I’ll make the page count.

Except…

I need to work on the motivation of the two main characters. That means adding words. Which means I’m going to have to go in and tighten paragraphs, shaving sentences her and there, maybe even a bit of over-cutting just to make the page count. I hate to work that way — things should be as long as they need to be — but perhaps I’ll feel differently once it’s sculpted into fighting trim.

I’ve got two days. That’s plenty of time. I like it the way it is, and it can’t really get any worse.

When is it safe to start thinking about shopping a story around? I only ask because I’m worried that once I get into the workshop it might feel like it’s impossibly bad. I’m looking to inoculate myself in advance by thinking positive.

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The weirdest things bother me. I suppose everyone has their pet peeves. Today, however, what chuffed me was landing on the following:

Xc%(*y$e(wy!!!!!!!!!!

That’s very interesting… but what does it mean? Were it not attached to a post discussing a common writing device as an obscenity, as a failure of ability — You know “Has X become a dirty word?” — I’m not sure I would recognize it as anything other than a keyboard scramble. The problem is, as a visual representation of an obscenity, the example above offends.

Yes, I do believe there is a correct way to represent profanity, and I learned it from reading comic books.

There are two elements necessary to create the appropriate substitute profanity, length and symbol. Length is merely how many letter characters are being replaced in the original word with symbols. So for example if you were replacing the work dren or zark you will require four symbols. Similarly, frinx or grife require five symbols, and so on. You can find the meanings of these words, and many others here or, if you prefer, the Classics of the English Language.

Now, as for symbols, the only proper ones available are “caps lock numbers,” those symbols you get when using the caps lock on the number keys. The exception is the exclamation point, a common feature above the 1 on modern computer keyboards that replaced the cent symbol. (Why we haven’t eliminated cents in our daily lives is beyond me, because a penny doesn’t buy anything but a pocketful of dead weight, but I digress.) Basically, anything between the 1 and 9 keys are what you want, non-letter and non-punctuation symbols that serve as your stand-ins for the letters you are replacing. So the available symbols for cursing are @ # $ % ^ & *.

There are two reasons to avoid punctuation. First, you want to reserve them to actually punctuate the profanity in question. Second, adding punctuation in the middle of a word only confuses the reader. Parentheses are considered punctuation as well, because our eyes have been trained to see them outside of words, as something that groups something else. As a result, when used in the middle of a substitute profanity the flow of reading is interrupted while we try to figure out why the word has suddenly been broken down into an algebraic formula. In conjunction with this last point, since we do use letters to represent numbers in mathematics they shouldn’t be pressed into service in representing profanity as well.

Unless, of course, the above example is really a cypher. Hmm. I hadn’t considered that. No, I can’t think of any 11 letter profanities. At least not any with a repeating letter represented by (.

The order and representation of symbols is totally up to the writer, though consistency is always best. For example, if in one place you were to write “Get the #^@* out of here!” it only makes sense later to have the character ask “What the #^@* is wrong with you?!” Unless, of course, what they are saying is “What the &*#@ is wrong with you?!” because that’s a totally different thing.

As a final note, comic books have a wider set of characters to choose from because they employ symbols not found on the keyboard. The inward spiral, for example, or sometimes a simple smudge. But even then, the same rules apply, and when they are broken those word balloons don’t look right. You get the idea, but it’s like when a kid uses a word wrong and doesn’t realize it; the intent is undone by the ignorance. Unless you happen to think that sort of thing is cute. I can’t help you there.

There. I got it out of my system. Now it’s off to farking work.

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Old news here for some, perhaps, but I just crawled out from under my recent school deadlines and have some catching up to do.  So this company, Renaissance Learning, put out this report called What Books Are Students Reading in Grades 1–12? It would stand to be a fairly useful report for educators, parents and even the occasional writer, to see what kids are drawn to and what is popular.  This “report” is their collected data, taken from their Accelerated Reading program that tracks the reading and interests of kids who read books from their approved list.

Monica over at Educating Alice has her take on it, as does Susan over at Chicken Spaghetti.  Okay, so let’s all just agree that the data is controlled, that the report doesn’t really give anyone an accurate snapshot of what’s read outside of their proprietary Accelerated Reading program.  Good.  Fine.  Still, I can’t help but puzzle over the information concerning YA readers.

According to their data the quarter of a million or so participants across the spectrum tended to read near or slightly above grade level, but only to a certain point. There are a few oddities — The Lemony Snicket books are listed at a 6 or 7 grade level but they begin charting around 4th grade and continue into the YA charts, that’s simply an issue of popularity.  No, what’s odd is that starting at 7th grade the reading levels of the titles read flatten out and rarely reach an 8th grade level.

How is it all these “accelerated” readers are pushing to read older books when they’re younger but once they hit junior high they stop pushing?  Most of the titles on the list reek of assigned class reading — Oliver Twist, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies — with a couple Dan Brown titles thrown in — The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons.  Okay, so that’s a bit odd.  But none of these books breaks the 7th grade reading level, and we’re talking ninth graders at the least. Holes is number four on the general list; four also happens to be its reading level.  Shouldn’t we be seeing something a little more challenging from “accelerated readers?”  Kafka, perhaps, or maybe some Camus?  Dostoevsky ought to be right in there for a 10th grader who is ready to move beyond the warm comfort of the 6th grade level To Kill a Mockingbird.  Did the conservative educational reformists finally succeed in removing Slaugherhouse Five from high school curricula?  What gives here?

Criticism of Renaissance aside, what I’m worried about is something larger, a vast reading cliff where otherwise solid readers are coddled and nestled securely in their middle school comfort zones.  Every year it seems we read more and more stories in the newspaper (NYT is a 7.8 reading level paper) about colleges complaining that students don’t have the basic skills necessary to function.  Their writing skills are atrocious, they aware of the basic canon of cultural literacy — by any measure of that hotly contested phrase — to function in basic literature classes.

Could it be the “as long as they’re reading” attitudes from adults who worry that pushing a student too hard might send them running from books for life?  I’m not suggesting that high school students (and adults) can’t occasionally enjoy a Harry Potter or some other genre fiction, but should that be their steady diet?

Has anyone done a study on whether the growing field of YA literature has had the effect of keeping readers from progressing into adult books, essentially retarding their entry into more sophisticated reading?  I got questions, does anyone have any answers out there?

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