Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Verdict: tragic

I liked it.

But probably not as much as I wanted to.

Disclaimer: I am not a John Green expert. I loved Brotherhood 2.0 when they were doing that vlog-only-communication experiment, enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines a great deal–probably because of the nerdiness of it–but I am afraid to read his Printz-Award-winning Looking for Alaska maybe for the same reasons that got in the way of my really falling for Augustus and Hazel.

Sure, when things started getting tragic halfway through Amsterdam my heart started palpitating for them. (Anne Frank references kinda do that to me–she was my first tragic love. See Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, inspired by her and utterly heart-cracking.) And I was clinging to the bitter end, my fingernails ragged, very much feeling the hopelessness of it all. It is a very emotional book. And that’s probably why I liked it as much as I did; if I don’t feel a book, I have no reason to care what the heck happens in it.

But ultimately, it was a sugar rush. Once it metabolized, I felt kinda empty.

The metaphors were great. (I think I started to like Augustus when he revealed his belief in metaphor.) The Fault in Our Stars, titled after a correction of a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, has great ideas. Really great ideas, ones I’ve been exploring in my own writing: struggling with the inevitability of death, whether it’s worth it to love in the face of such death, not wanting to be “a grenade,” a Green so wonderfully puts it. The idea of a hamartia, a tragic flaw, and just where that comes from.

But, as Ray Ferrer, my new favorite stencil artist, says in his artistic statement:

I am vehemently opposed to using art as a means to rely on overly-complex theories or ideas to prop up mediocre images. I believe that the quality of the actual work is what is paramount.

I felt it just wasn’t enough. The ideas were great, there were some fantastic lines, Augustus and Hazel were hilarious, observant, and intelligent, but the entire package just didn’t support those ideas. As much as their words tickled me, the characters didn’t feel real. (They felt like Mary and Harry Sues. There. I said it.) It was too pat. It didn’t make me think. It made me nod my head and agree, but that was the depth of my thoughts: “Yes, yes, I totally hear you. That is exactly how it is. You said it, brother.” I had nothing to chew on.

Maybe the pace was too fast. YA, outside of an age bracket, is often dictated by pacing, which makes for quick reads. (And I read this in like a week? Super quick for me.) But I felt like Green was breezing past so many things I wanted to linger on, wallow in, reflect on. (Is it because he wouldn’t have anything to say in these reflections??) Maybe the problem was not enough character introspection. Hazel experienced lots of things and colored the prose with her judgments, but there weren’t a whole lot of reactions from her.

Writing instructors say “Show not tell” like a mantra, but they leave out the part about telling, when done right, being able to synthesize pages and pages of showing, like an attorney’s closing argument. You already saw all the evidence. Now here is what that evidence means, through the eyes of the character. It’s absolutely essential for connecting with a character, in my opinion. It wasn’t until I got over my fear of telling that my own characters stopped being transparent papery creations driven hither and thither by my authorial ideas. (This isn’t a movie, for goodness sake, it’s a book, so get inside your character’s head and analyze crap.)

The writing didn’t sing. It wasn’t art.

Maybe I’m being too picky. Passages in Amsterdam were gorgeous (maybe because he actually went to Amsterdam to write), and so were certain philosophical reflections. But I didn’t see the world, feel it, hear it, taste or smell it. True, description drags, and can be a pace-killer. (And some of my favorite YA/MG authors are probably considered painfully slow: Donna Jo Napoli, Rosemary Sutcliff, for goodness sake, Jean Craighead George!) I gotta have poetry. I gotta have figurative language. I gotta have little metaphors–the kind like make you see things, not just that link ideas within a narrative. And similes. Things are like things. All the stinking time. (Also, the dialogue sucked. Everyone was too smart, too clever, too quick with comebacks. Even parents. Fine in a stylistic book or, like, a cartoon, but this was supposed to be gritty and real.)

To sum up, let me just say I have to agree with my brother’s girlfriend, who loves books and has intelligent discussions about them. When she told me her 13-year-old brother read The Fault in Our Stars, I felt the sudden urge to defend myself. Of course he read it, he’s 13 and it’s YA, but you know, YA can have some big ideas. I explained what it was about.

And you know what she said?

Oh, so kinda like A Walk to Remember.

“No, no,” I said. “This is way cooler than Nicholas Sparks.”

Except, it kinda isn’t.

(Hey, I liked A Walk to Remember when I was like, 13.)

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Update on That Asking Permission Thing

Photo by Les Jones

Remember that time I told you I was going to start being more assertive, take risks, and stop being afraid of things that interfere with achieving Greatness?

Yeah, well, here’s the thing. I’m a wimp.

There’s this pretty infamous abandoned gas station in our county that I pass by all the time. Back at the end of the last century, the owner, somehow suspecting he was about to be robbed, staked himself out overnight to ambush the burglars. When they broke in, he attacked them with a shotgun, killing one as they fled the scene.

I can’t remember exactly how it ended up but I’m pretty sure the owner was convicted of some type of murder, and the convenience store has been closed for years. It’s prominently placed at the top of a hill next to a crossroads, quite spooky, roped-off and overgrown. Every time I drive past I can’t help but think about misguided intentions, so when I needed a building for my stencil graffiti artist main character to vandalize, I knew exactly which one.

Well, last night was a dark night, and I was in the area. Before I wrote the scene in question I sat in the parking lot of the abandoned strip mall across the street and took copious notes. (Our county sounds like it’s all abandoned but I promise you it’s actually quite nice.) But the most important part happens in the dark, at night, when I’d never stopped for longer than the length of a red light.

So. Greatness. That was my goal.

I turned at the light and it was extremely dark. So dark I didn’t see the car until I was about to turn into the strip mall. My headlights bounced off the reflective lettering: County Sheriff. Lights completely dead. I didn’t even put on my turn signal, just kept right on going.

Which is so dumb because when I turned around in a subdivision and drove back toward the gas station, he was gone. And I was too chicken to turn into the parking lot and sit–very legally might I add–for five minutes trying to absorb sensory information. I wasn’t even planning on getting out of the car. What were they going to do, arrest me for imaginary application of graffiti?

So there you go. Too wimpy to not break the law for the sake of my art. If this story ever gets published, my main character will be too embarrassed to be seen with me in public.

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Never Trust a Writer Who Doesn’t Read

I would make a terrible professional reviewer.

For one thing, I’m too slow. I’d never get paid.

Also, I only read things that interest me, and if I lose that interest, often I won’t finish the book.

(Take, for instance, the painfully beautiful The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I read the first chapter online, got sucked in, asked for it as an anniversary present and then stopped halfway through, just as it was getting good. Why? Maybe Mabel’s completely justified negative attitude toward nature finally got on my nerves, who knows. Perhaps I’ll pick it back up someday and find out.)

I don’t read deep enough within the confines of a genre to be any sort of expert on anything (except Sub-Roman Britain, I am proud to say, and who the heck even knows what that is?)

I don’t even read new books, or popular ones. My ticket for the bandwagon got lost somewhere with my notice for what exactly is a hashtag. And important books? Calling someone “the most important author under 35 writing with a quill in the second decade of the twenty-first century” is more than enough to make me press the snooze button.

My opinions on the books I read aren’t even that reliable. My first impressions are almost always wrong. Either I’ll love a book and later realize I was delusional, or I’ll slog through something, only to come to the conclusion that it says everything I wish I could and should be embossed in gold and preserved in amber. Maybe I read with my Empathy Switch turned up to eleven, I don’t know. My head and my heart aren’t always connected.

(Another example: back in 2007 I wrote a review for a now-defunct YA blog about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that pretty much revealed how much I didn’t get YA at all. I liked the story, but the writing annoyed me. Since then, I’ve reread the book as well as dipped into Alexie’s other work. Suffice to say I was definitely wrong the first time around.)

Even so, I feel compelled to talk about the books I love, as well as the ones I just don’t get. Not because I feel my opinion is important, but because I love books. Never trust a writer who doesn’t read, and how will you know if she reads if she doesn’t talk about books?

So every once in a while I will bring to you a book report of sorts, less of a Kirkus and more of a personal reflection, how I reacted to the story and what it means to me, from a writer’s perspective. Since everything that comes out had to first go in, everything I write is because I absolutely cannot stop myself from reading. Isn’t that the point of books? It’s communication. I’d just like to add a little to the conversation.

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“All Happy Writers Are the Same. . . .”

photo from article

Novelist Craig Nova, himself quoting Robert Graves, is the first person I’ve discovered to so accurately describe what happens when I write. The idea is in there, but to even understand it myself, I end up exploring it from every angle. He writes and rewrites until it feels right (or as right as possible), exploring multiple POVs and producing a stack of manuscript pages in the process. I’m glad I do most of my drafting on the computer, because facing a stack like that would surely leave me depressed.

Today I’ve been trying the opening scene from Cindy’s POV–the only POV I’ve never really thought about. Over the past six years, she’s gone from plot device to mother to stupid mother back to being a plot device before morphing into something resembling Gertrude in Hamlet.

Interestingly, T.S. Eliot said that “Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son.” Never once have I thought what that guilt could do for me, even though I’ve recognized Hamlet as a major influence for a couple months now.

So far it’s been working wonders. I got a thousand words out yesterday and another thousand today, with more to come before the scene’s climax. Maybe part of it has to do with the fact that the climax was never intended to go into the book, even though I’ve dreamed it countless times–from a different POV, of course. So much different now that it’s coming from her.

Nova points out, however, that at some point, you have to stop. Endless permutations will no longer improve your work but will most likely make it worse.

Hard to know when you reach that point, though.

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August 29, 2013 · 1:01 pm

Ancient Ruins and Conducting “Research”

This shoe:

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broke the law last week. But only a little one:

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Nevertheless, it is a criminal, a repeat offender even. This is not the first time it has gone places it’s not supposed to go in the name of “research.”

(Dinas Emrys, an Iron Age hillfort and Norman tower outside of Beddgelert, Wales and protected by the National Trust. Taken by me, 2006. Click for closer inspection.)

This time, “research” dictated a trip to Lanierland, a defunct music park in rural North Georgia that in its heyday hosted such acts as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, and most infamously, Kris Kristofferson, whose band inspired a riot because of some unsavory language. It closed in 2006.

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While this was the shoe’s first visit, I had been there once before. In 2005, one year before the park’s demise, I accidentally attended what should have been my high school graduation.

Look me up in the local papers. They’ll tell you I graduated from South Forsyth High that year, but only because the photographer the school hired to take senior pictures delivered mine along with everyone else’s to the editor doing the graduation piece. My family bought a full set; how was he to know I never attended a day of my senior year? In actuality I graduated from a little correspondence school, for no reason other than I didn’t want to keep explaining myself to people asking about all that “college stuff” I hadn’t yet figured out. (As if I was the only teenager in the history of the world with no clue what she wanted to do with her life.)

Despite all this, the universe decided if I was going to pretend to get my diploma from South Forsyth High I had better be there for graduation–even if it was only just in passing. Because that very Saturday morning I really was passing by–creeping, actually, because of all the cars parked alongside the road and the people milling about them. Some I recognized, in blue caps and gowns, clutching shiny new diplomas, hundreds of kids who probably thought I’d either died or gotten pregnant if they even remembered me at all. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

But last week, it was empty.

Normally I don’t like breaking laws (neither does my shoe). However, as I mentioned recently, if I’m seeking greatness, I can’t always ask for permission.

(Though I don’t rule out asking forgiveness! Every two seconds I expected a police cruiser to pull in the driveway, because in my worst-case-scenario brain, they install alarm systems on derelict ruins. Surely they wouldn’t arrest a cute little girl with a camera and an Accelerated Reader t-shirt her baby brother gave her, would they?)

Greatness involves taking risks. Greatness involves putting yourself out there, setting yourself up for possible failure, all the while working toward possible success. I’ve been afraid of things my entire life. Stupid things. If I’m ever going to accomplish anything of worth, I need to start getting over myself.

(This is a promise: someday I’ll finish the Wales story, just as someday I’ll finish the Lanierland story. I can’t be risking my life like this for nothing!)

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Packages Shaped Like Kindles!

Someone’s dear sweet husband just bought her a Kindle. It’s nowhere near our anniversary.

AND he made sure he was in his boxers when the UPS guy rang so I’d have to get it, expecting another one of his quality handcrafted heirloom wardrobe essentials. (The guy at the leasing office knows us so well he just rolls his eyes when we come in and gets up to go rustle up our missed packages.)

It’s sparkly and new, waaay lighter than I expected, like something I’m probably going to sit on and break without even realizing it. We snuggled on the couch while I set it up, got used to the navigation, marveled at how they make adult Etch A Sketches now and we somehow got duped into buying one. I scrolled through the list of free books, downloaded a couple, flipped the pages back and forth just to see the liquid paper molecules rearrange themselves like magic, and giggled more than was necessary.

Fifteen minutes later, I was back on my Chrome Book.

“Why aren’t you reading your Kindle?” my husband asked. Continue reading

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Why the Past is Prologue

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Me in Venetian bookstore Acqua Alta, which has bathtubs and gondolas full of books. Taken by a friend, 2006

Even though I published my first post on Sunday, What’s Past is Prologue was created, WordPress records inform me, June of 2008–something I only vaguely recall. The one draft languishing in a forgotten stream of ones and zeros proudly declares:

Forget everything else. It’s all in the past, it’s superfluous, it’s a dagnabbit prologue, and how many people read those anyway? We’re talking here, we’re talking now, and we’re talking serious.

It’s time to get down to business.

For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been a struggling writer of fiction. And while I have felt my craft grow and strengthen and blossom like a bunch of bleedin’ petunias

Not even a period. How’s that for commitment?

The thing is, even though I’ve written my entire life, most of what I have to show for it was created while still a teenager, or in the few months of my early twenties that weren’t complicated. Oh, I’ve actively written: several drafts of most of a novel, several drafts of most of another novel, about a million drafts of that first serious attempt at a novel, never-to-be-abandoned, a couple collaborations with writer friends, half-finished stories, my proscribed million words of utter crap–but what have I to show for it?

I posted it yesterday.

Part of the problem is I’m afraid of failure. Have been all my life: I’d sooner run away from home than bring my parents a B on my report card. It translates to my creative endeavors. If I never finish something, no one can reject it, right? If I spend eternity tinkering and rewriting, there can be no confirmation that I suck.

I know I don’t suck. But no one else can tell me that, because how would they know? High school English teachers loved me, I had a couple stories published in a local independent book store anthology. (Had a book signing and everything–didn’t I think I was special). But now I’m 26, newly married and a preschool teacher, spinning stories in my head I wouldn’t dare tell a toddler but have no one else to tell. If I finish something, maybe that can start changing.

This is my attempt to finish something.

The things I don’t want to lose are my passion for the written word and my love of stories. Life is going to kill them, if I don’t get my act together. So this blog is the sum of all I’ve experienced in life, posted here for the world to see, even if that world is a few scattered Internet People blowing in from who knows where. (Still not sure how this whole networking thing works, another reason for the blog. By the way, hi Internet People! Thanks for reading!)

Someone posted this on Absolute Write yesterday, and it hit me hard. I used to post on that forum all the time, but then the posting became more important than the writing, so I quit. When I regain enough confidence maybe I’ll try again, but until then, the quote:

Never mistake activity for achievement. -John Wooden

I looked him up. He’s considered the coach of the 20th century. Surely he knew a thing or two about success and failure.

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