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Archive for December, 2009

resolution evolution

My final ‘duh’ moment of 2009 came to me yesterday, and it concerns new year’s resolutions.  As with holiday cards, I’m pretty spotty about making and keeping resolutions because, well, I guess because I’m like a lot of people.  It’s easy to imagine the year one way in January and have it become something else by December.  Sometimes something way else.

The problem, I realized, is that a resolution is not a plan.  It’s a lot like a good intention or a promise; it needs something to back it up.  I know, pretty obvious.  Thus the sterling moment of duh.

What makes it particularly silly is that I know this and have for most of the last ten years.  My first trip to Europe back in 1999 came about after years of vague talk because I actually made a plan.  It was a year in the works – how much I needed to save, research on places to visit, how I was going to ease my way out of my job, pay rent while I was gone, the works.  It didn’t really need that full year, but planning it that way made it happen.  So after a decade of saying I would make the trip, setting an actual goal made it happen.

While I didn’t initially intend to make any resolutions this year I’ve decided to look at my vague goals, wishes – and yes, resolutions – for 2010 and see if I can’t change them into something a little more formal. Time to really think this thing through.

Oh yeah.  Next year’s gonna be big.  I can’t say I feel it, but I can make it happen I think.

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It is generally a sign for me that I’m not going to like a book if something pulls me out of the narrative early on.  It is usually a character voice that sounds wrong to the ear, particularly with first-person narratives where the voice must sound authentic.  Yes “sounding wrong” and “authentic” are slippery terms, but those are reader’s terms.  If I am reading as a writer then I would need to say something like “the narrative has interrupted the fictive dream through the use of an incongruous phrase that pulled me out of the story and sent my thoughts wandering elsewhere.”  Or something like that.

Latest book I am reading has a character – first person narrative, writing in a journal – conveying information that loops around on itself to the point of navel-gazing.  Literally, on page three the character is explaining his notes from page one, in a diary where the entries are 7 hours apart.  I suppose that any diarist is going to have those moments where they record what they are thinking and then go back later and try to decipher their notes, but these notes are reflective as opposed to expository, meaning that the character is infusing them with an understanding that they really haven’t had the chance to formulate in so short a span of time.  If the character were narrating from a time shortly after the end of the book this would work, but not when we’re talking hours later, hours the character admits to having sort of mentally blocked out as a way of processing the fear and horror in between entries.

And if that sounds like quibbling (or like I’m spending too much effort on a book intended for middle grade readers who are probably not sophisticated enough to know the difference) even all that wasn’t enough to break the narrative spell.  Nope, it was the line “Stairs are a bad omen in every Hitchcock film I’d ever seen.”

A bad omen?  Really?  And just how many Hitchcock films have you seen, young narrator, that you can generalize so?

I’ve studied film, I’ve seen my fair share of Hitchcock, and I could think of only three movies where stairs and the portent of evil came into play.  In only one of those films, Vertigo, the idea of stairs themselves leading to heights are enough to foreshadow something about to happen.  In the other two, Suspicion and Psycho, the stairs are simply employed as devices to heighten the emotional tension and aren’t, of themselves, omens.  No, what I believe our narrator (and author) mean to say is that Hitchcock employs stairs as a motif in his films to create tension and underscore the drama of a particular scene.  Or rather, this is the effect the author is going for but in pointing it out has undermined his own point.

Motif versus omen, is it really a big deal?  And in a situation where some idiot kid is going to knowingly put himself in peril by exploring a haunted place, isn’t that kid just not smart enough to know the difference anyway?

This is one of those areas where people get bent out of shape, where books for kids aren’t supposed to be held to a higher standard than adult books, or be given some sort of pass because the readership isn’t going to notice the difference or care, and as long as they reading then everything is okay.  True, I am an adult reading with the knowledge and sophistication of my education and experience behind me, but am I supposed to just ignore those things that pull me out of the narrative simply because no “average” reader would even notice?  Should I simply assume the character is “authentic” because teens are generally unsophisticated and make generalizations about things they know nothing about?  Or am I supposed to think the author is clever in creating an “unreliable” narrator in a story that relies on the reader to piece the mystery together through the use of external (online) media hints?

Bottom line, just like waking the over-tired as they’re finally drifting off to sleep, if you wake me from the fictive dream just as it’s starting I’m libel to be cranky about it.

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The same week I see Sports Illustrated‘s plans for an e-reader friendly version of their magazine – virtually sealing the fate of print magazines – Nielsen decides to shut down Kirkus, the book review journal, and the whole world (at least the world that cares about such things) is declaring a Brave New World and the end of books as we know it.

Okay, first, if you haven’t seen it, go check out the SI demo here.  Seen it?  Good, let’s move on.

That’s a pretty dynamic display of what is possible with electronic print media, and for magazines I think it works.  All the magazine features are there with the “value add” of personalization, videos, and the bonus of not deforesting the planet.  The really interesting thing to me is that Time Inc chose Sports Illustrated for this demo, not their namesake magazine or any other holdings.

Why?

Because SI is aimed at sports fans who are primarily male readers.  And male readers prefer non-fiction to fiction and respond well to non-linear narratives.  All those boys who struggle reading novels for school but could spend hours with The Guinness Book of World Records do so because they like the puzzle of putting a narrative together in their heads.  It’s why boys take things apart to figure out how they work.  It’s how their brains understand the world.

So how do people read magazines anyway?  Do they open with page one and read straight through, or do they scan the contents and go for what interests them?  Do they flip through the pages and land on something that catches their eye and read outward from there?  The fact is, no one considers a magazine’s narrative to be strictly linear, and so Time Inc. is wise to test this out on the market that would most appreciate the approach.

But what does this say for publishing, for books?  It says “Wake up!”

Linear narratives are a way to tell stories but we tend to think they are the only way.  It fits our natural sense of order, our understanding of time being forward-moving, our progression shuffling from point A to B.  But movies have shown us there are ways to tell a story that bend time with flashbacks and fast-forwards that are accepted without jarring our sense of order.  We watch as things flit around, follow different characters, shifting time and place in a split second, and in the end we can recombine the narrative in our head to make a complete story.

Even in our daily lives, when we recount an event that has happened to us, we backtrack and fill in details out of sequence as necessary in order to better fill in our audience.  We teach children history in a linear this-happened-then-this-happened-causing-this-to-happen way, and yet we expect them to recall all that information out of sequence in tests and when articulating themselves in essays.  Our constant need for linear order may be holding us back from lateral thinking.

Which is why I believe non-fiction is the new fiction.

Creative non-fiction and modern journalism have figured this out long ago.  Scan any at-length Rolling Stone expose or New Yorker profile and you will see a narrative construct that is non-linear.  There will be a telling snippet at the beginning that sets up the story and tantalizes, some background, the story-before-the-story, a side excursion, the story itself, and finally a bit that circles around and pulls it all together.  Sure, there are traditional storytelling elements involved  – conflict building tension toward a climax and a denouement –  but it isn’t bound to the straight through-line.

But how does this change publishing, or books for that matter?  Or children’s books?

I’m going personal for a moment.  I just finished a middle grade story about two goofy boys who manage to find themselves in a publishing war with a pair of mean girls.  The story is a traditional linear narrative.  However, if I was approached by a publisher and told “how would you adapt this for an e-reader?” I could think of ways to structure it so it would work.

First, the boys are creating (thought they don’t realize it) old school mini comics.  At the point in the story where they create the comics it would be too much to pull the reader out of a traditional narrative to show the boys entire creative process.  But what if, at that juncture, the reader could touch the screen and jump to an animated display of what the boys are creating, hearing their dialog as they try things out, watching the images that the book describes come to life as they talk about them.  When it’s over the “book” brings them back to the place in the text where the reader left off.  There are four such places in my story, four small little jumps that would enrich the story and yet maintain the story’s structural integrity even with interruptions. I have other ideas, but I’ll save them for the future.  Which might not be that far off.

Fiction revels in both rich language and visual details.  Writers must still know and learn the craft of storytelling, but they will also need to consider ancillary content as well.  For most this won’t be hard – many writers already do extensive backstories on characters and places that could easily be incorporated into a digital text.  If a writer is telling a period story, there are places to insert historical documents and background.  Imagine a fictional story set in war-torn Afghanistan that included images from photojournalists and military documentarians, giving readers with no real understanding of war or other parts of the world a deeper insight to the story.  And the elements of non-fiction – the non-linear presentation, the ability to jump focus, the visual presentation of data – can all be combined in this new reading experience that will, no doubt, change our views of what we now call fiction.

Books used to be only for the rich, objects to be owned and coveted.  And when paperback books were introduced they were thought of as disposable, like magazines, an object with limited use.  People would buy a pocket paperback book for travel and toss it when finished. The only books worth owning, it was believed, were hardcover.  Just as movies used to only be experienced in theatres.  VHS and DVD didn’t kill the movie theatre (though they keep trying) because, in the end, there is an experience that cannot be replicated in the home.  People still go out to hear music they could just as easily listen to at home.

The book will be with us always. But we’ll have to wait and see what shape it takes and how its content will evolve.  The way things are going, it shouldn’t be long.

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As the Impossible Boyfriend trend continues to turn YA into Romance Lite, I have come across the following description of a new book out this week entitled Fallen by Lauren Kate:

The contemporary story centers on an alienated girl torn between two charismatic young men, unaware that they are fallen angels who have battled over her for centuries.

A vampire who has waited 170 years for you isn’t good enough, oh no.  Now you girls must have two fallen angels who have been fighting over you for centuries.

To be fair, I haven’t read the book.  I’m sure it’s a fine work.  The first of a planned four-book deal.  Movie rights already optioned by Disney.

Without the vampire fight element, will the Twilight Boys follow the Twilight Girls into this morass?

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Yesterday I handed in my last packet of materials for grad school.  I still have a week to compile my final paperwork for my degree, but all the heavy lifting is done.  There’s also that little matter of a residency to attend in January – something about delivering a lecture and attending a graduation ceremony – but, yeah, done.

It feels so anti-climactic.

I’ve got some work in for my final workshop that I know isn’t up to the standards of the novel I just finished (hmm, need to start looking for an agent I guess) but I also didn’t have the time to make it top drawer.  Thinking about it, about its flaws and how much work it needs, makes me wonder if I can do it on my own.  For two years now I’ve had one-on-one responses from advisors who would ask the hard questions at every step of the way, making sure my manuscript took a nice, balanced, well-rounded shape.

From here out I have to rely on that voice being inside my head.

For the next month it will be easier to retreat into the world of school just a little longer, to mercilessly edit and refine my lecture and prepare for book discussions and workshops.  Then, come January 20th, the tether is cut and I’m set to glide free.

And that large land mass below, with its persistent and unfeeling gravity, attempting to pull me down flatten me on impact?

That would be fear.

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nothing to say day

It’s my birthday.  You’d think I’d want to indulge in a bit of blogging.  Maybe round up a bunch of things I’ve been thinking over the past month while I haven’t been blogging.

Nope.

Just a day to relax, a final breather before one last push at finishing the MFA.

My one (reasonable) birthday wish if for you all to have a super day.

Thank you for your kind attention.

~david

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Not that many in the world noticed, but I took the last month off (29 days technically) from blogging and social media activities.  I couldn’t cut the feed entirely, and I did manage almost four days in there without a computer at all, but for the most part I found myself needing to take some time away from the blah-blah of blogging and the twittering tweets and hunker down with school.

Every once in a while I would think of something to blog about, or stumble across something I thought would make a good tweet to share, but in the end I didn’t really feel the world would somehow be lessened by the absence of yet another piece of input.

I also began to consider this blog, its origins and purpose, and how I’ve sort of failed it.  This was to be the place where I recorded my journey as a student of creative writing, my MFA path in detail.  But it was also a catch-all blog for my daily life and musings, and along the way the idea of doing and writing about doing seemed like a redundancy.

I began to look forward, to where I’ll be as of January 20th, 2010, a newly minted graduate with an MFA in creative writing, and toward the prospects of transitioning from a student to an author.  Questions about how I present myself to the outside world through my internet presence made themselves known.  What sort of image do I want to present?  Is this the place to do it?  Do I need to start fresh with a new blog home?

And what of the other other blog, the review blog, whose third anniversary came and went without my realizing it back in October?  As I survey the kidlit blogosphere I wonder if that world isn’t a bit of a closed circuit full of concerned and specialized readers – myself included – who aren’t unlike a room full of conventioneers who are convinced their conversations and deliberations are the stuff of genius: if only the outside world would listen!  It isn’t that I feel blogging has no point or purpose (or audience) but that my efforts to perform at a certain level are diluting my time and efforts.  Or, more simply, I feel like my reviews are like epic tales in a short attention span world.

I feel like it is time to rethink what I am doing, maybe put together a loose plan for the future.  This is the soft relaunch, the slow shift toward the next phase.  In the same way that I couldn’t foresee this point in my life two years ago, I’m not quite sure where everything is headed.

But it’s a start.

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