Saturday, September 27, 2014

There once was a one-star reviewer...

Okay, faithful readers, it's time for a little audience participation.  I'd like for you to contemplate the idea I'm about to suggest, and then send me your own versions, either here on the blog or by email or on Facebook.  I will then compile whatever comes in and feature your masterpieces in a future post.

Here's what I want you to think about:  What would the world be like if people who wanted to put up one- or two-star reviews on Amazon were required to do it in the form of poetry? 

Intrigued by this idea, I did a little experimenting.  I played around with rondeaus, sonnets (Italian and otherwise), and even a bit of terza rima, which works a whole lot better in Italian than it does in English.  

But I have a sneaking suspicion that most Amazon reviewers wouldn't want to bother with the more complex forms.  Perhaps some of them would even prefer not to have to rhyme.  For those who can count to seventeen, they could always attempt haiku instead.  For example:

Book beckons. Great cover, good blurbs.
Too bad - it costs more than two dollars.

 But really, I think our form of choice for this exercise can only be the limerick.  What else, after all,  lends itself so perfectly to the art form of writing negative reviews?

With that in mind, here are a few to start you off.  First, we'll continue the "I want it cheap" theme suggested by the haiku above:

The worst of this publisher's vices
Is the way it insists on high prices.
But I know how to reach 'em -
This one-star will teach 'em!
Now that ought to trigger a crisis!

 And another one for the folks I think of as Dumpster-Divers-of-the-Mind:

I'm returning this e-book for credit.
(Never mind that I've already read it.)
I get bad heebie-jeebies
When novels aren't freebies.
So there. Now I've come out and said it.

Here's one that uses that kiss-of-death phrase that is the reviewer's equivalent of "I'm telling you this as a friend":

If you value your immortal soul,
Don't touch this with a fifteen-foot pole.
Though the author can shove it,
I wanted to love it,
So that proves I can't be a troll.

And there's always the "I'm an expert" review:

This book claims to be a historical,
But the research is quite sophomorical.
I'm a pro on this topic
(I watched the biopic!);
My opinion is thus categorical.

 Then, too, there's the "This isn't sexy enough" review:

Some have said that this novel is gripping,
But I'd rather have hot bodice-ripping.
Though it's surely complex,
There's just not enough sex,
And it needs quite a bit more unzipping.

And its companion, the "This is too sexy" review:

The language is way too explicit,
There are couplings both hot and illicit.
Decent folks are refusing
To keep on perusing
Such garbage. So we'll just dismiss it.

I come by this sort of silliness naturally.  Years ago, when I was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I created a poetic alter ego named Sven Leonardo MacGeneric, who expressed himself in doggerel  (and was, in fact, once named Doggerel Laureate for the local barony).  Here are a couple of examples from Sven's notorious output:

From a long narrative poem about Tristan and Isolde:

Now heroes are bold, and they're brave, and they're noble, 
But "bright" isn't always a prominent trait.
Though his lady wife lied,
Tristan still up and died.
When his love stepped ashore, he was lying in state.

Or this snippet from a poem entitled "On Watching the Children at a Tourney":

In a hamlet called Hamlin, a long time ago,
A piper appeared one fine day.
He tootled a tune, played it high, played it low,
And the kiddies, they all danced away.
Oh, who was that sinister, dangerous man?
And why did the wee ones heed him?
And why has he never come back again?
And where is he now, when we need him?

Anyway, send me your limericks - you can tackle the reviewers who complain about the packaging, the ones who couldn't be bothered to read the book, the ones who completely missed the point, or whatever you like.  Extra credit, too, for finishing the limerick started in the title to this post.  Bring 'em on!  I can't wait to read them.

Picture at the top of this post is licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Mazeface, found in Wikimedia Commons Images.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In praise of older writers

Last night my husband and I attempted to watch a movie.  Within the first few minutes it became obvious that it was a young people's movie.  Within the first ten minutes it became obvious that it was only a young people's movie.  And within another five minutes, we had turned it off.

Did we turn it off because it was too edgy for us?  Because we couldn't keep up with its breakneck pace?  Because we were bewildered by its ever-so-clever, modern, cutting-edge repartee?

No.  We turned it off because we were bored.  Because all the characters were so full of “attitude” that they were utterly, yawningly predictable and shallow. 

And that got me thinking about age, and how it plays into this writing game.  There seems to be an assumption out there that you need to be writing by your early twenties, published by thirty, at the peak of your career by forty.  If you haven't done these things, it's never going to happen.

You know what?  It's a lot of codwollop. 

It's certainly true that we live in a youth-obsessed culture, where people are reading Young Adult books well into their 30s and 40s.  I have a friend in her late 60s, smart, multi-lingual, with a graduate degree, who reads almost exclusively YA and children's literature.  She finds excellent books in those categories, and they give her the kind of reading experience she's looking for.  I'm not trying to second-guess her preferences, but I do think they tell us something about our society.

Perhaps the message is that of a perennial starting over, the constant reinvention of self, in the form of one coming-of-age story after another.  But shouldn't there also be something out there for the person who wants to start from where she is?  From the place where she's already arrived?  And how can such a story be written by someone who hasn't yet lived her own life to that point?

The other day I saw a spate of articles around the web asserting that one must never, ever leave two spaces after a period, because that would make it obvious:  the author's over 40.  And nothing could be worse than that, right? 

It reminds me of a parody I once saw of Cosmopolitan, that breathless women's magazine, with articles like “Girls Obviously from Ohio.”

"Tell me again, boy - why can't I leave two spaces after a period?"

Who makes up these rules, anyway?  Who set in motion the thought form that says older people just starting on their writing careers are pitiable, pathetic, not to be taken seriously?  Or perhaps, if you're kinder, a little bit sweet and quaint? 

But we all know the cliché of the kid who peaked in high school, right?  The one who can't stop reliving the senior prom, or that one amazing football game? 

You want to talk about pitiable and pathetic? 

What, exactly, is wrong with waiting until you actually have something to say?

Let me hasten to say that I do know several young writers who are very talented.  Among them are indie, small press, mainstream-published, and not-yet-published authors.  They have a lot of promise, and I predict that someday some of them will be very, very good indeed.  But most of them have not peaked yet.  No, not even the ones who are published by a big publishing house and selling well.  They may be pretty good now, but they have it in them to be better – in the fullness of time. 

And that's one reason it's so painful to watch some of them listen to their own hype.  They start to think they're as good as their social media pals tell them they are, and then they start going back and pubbing early works that would be best left forgotten.  They start to believe they are already as good as it gets.

That's the kind of mindset that makes the 16-year-old down the street get as many tattoos as she can afford, because she just knows she's going to love them forever, whereas I have been around long enough to know that if I were to do something like that, I'd change enough to hate it in six months.

I recently read an interesting interview on the Huffington Post with Sonya Chung, one of the founders of the website Bloom, which features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  You can find the interview here.  One of the things she said that I thought made a lot of sense was this:
“But the truth of it is that the majority of writers take a lot of time to write their best work, that detours happen, and sometimes those detours can be very fruitful (whether they happen willingly or not).”
Not long ago I followed a string of comments on Facebook in which some young writer sneered about “sex scenes written by people over fifty.”

Oh, sweetie... if you only knew.  Do the math, luv.  When do you think the baby boomers grew up?  Could it possibly have been in the 60's and the early 70's?  Perhaps you think those times were the equivalent of the Victorian era (which, come to think of it, had a pretty racy underside of its own), since it's all so long ago you can't tell the difference, but let me assure you, that's not quite how it was.  We did know a thing or two about sex.  Some of us, believe it or not, are still at it. 

Sure, it feels odd to see a book set in my growing-up years classified as a “historical.”  But everything becomes historical if you wait long enough.  Even today's twenty-somethings. 

I have one writer friend who industriously talked to older people to get a sense of how they felt about things, as a part of her research.  I give her full marks for that, but believe me, if you think it's weird to see your childhood written up as “historical,” just try finding that you've become somebody's research.  Of course, while a young person may have to research what my experience is like, I can remember perfectly well when I was her age, so that does rather give me the advantage.

My own personal allegory for older writers is based on the oatmeal story.  For those of you who don't know it, it goes something like this:

A little boy grew up normal and healthy in every way, except that he did not speak.  His parents were bewildered; they knew his hearing was normal, he was intelligent, and they could find no explanation for his silence.  Yet, year after year, he did not speak.  Finally, one morning when when he was nine years old, his parents were amazed to hear him say with crystalline clarity, “This oatmeal's lumpy.” 

His parents wept with joy.  They hugged him and danced around the kitchen, overwhelmed at this new development.  Finally his father stopped celebrating long enough to say, “But son, why haven't you said anything before this?”

And the boy said, quite reasonably, “Everything was okay until now.”

That would be me.  Me, and most of the genuinely interesting authors whose work I've read recently.  We've spent a lot of years living as hard as we could, and now we've got something to say and we're going to say it.  Some of us, quite possibly, with two spaces between sentences.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the "Arts & Crafts" picture of the two aging hippies, which is licensed under the Creative Common Attribution 3.0 Unported license to Idran.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Researcher's Rant (or: Why won't all those dates hold still?!?)

In my home I currently have 28 books about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (including four library books and four on my Kindle).  Oh, wait - there's another one in today's mail.  Make that 29.  Many, many more, from the public library as well as the university library, have already been here, stayed a while, and then gone back home, leaving behind copious notes and photocopies.

Most are in English, some in Italian.  In addition, I have lots of books on the history of Assisi, and of Rome, and of the papacy, and of the church in the middle ages.  And there are literally thousands more books out there that deal specifically with Francis's life - page after page after page of them listed in the university's online catalogue, for example. 

Some of the current batch

So you'd think I'd be able to zero in on a few useful dates for my work in progress, wouldn't you?  Especially since Francis is not even my main character?

Nah... no such luck.  I'm pretty sure no two scholars would produce exactly the same timeline for Francis.  I tell you, it's enough to drive a researcher stark raving bonkers.

In the marvelously funny little book 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors take on the task of composing "a memorable history of England," meaning only the bits people (mis)remember.  Or, as the blurb says:
Comprising all the parts you can remember, including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.
Two genuine dates is about what I've got to work with.  Sellar & Yeatman had 55 B.C., "in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet" and 1066, "the other memorable date in English History," when "William I (1066) conquered England at the Battle of Senlac (Ten Sixty-six)."  That last one must have been very memorable.

13th century depiction of Fourth Lateran Council

And me?  I've got the date of the Fourth Lateran Council (it began in November 1215) and the date of Francis's death (in October 1226).  Pretty much everything else is contested.   

Giotto di Bondone, Death of Francis

What if I want to know when the famous Chapter of Mats, that great gathering of Franciscans, was held?  Was it in 1217, 1219, 1220, 1221?  Was it actually a compendium of several of the above?

According to my sources, yes.  Thanks, guys.

And what if I need to know how long Peter of Cattania was minister general of the order?  Good luck with that.  We know when he died, but not when he took over.  He either did or didn't hold the position long enough to run a chapter meeting.  I can find you people who will swear to both positions.

What about Elias?  When, exactly, did he go to the Middle East?  1216?  1217?  Earlier?  Later?  On a need-to-know basis, I need to know this.

And my own main character, Giacoma dei Settesoli:  when did she meet Francis?  When was she widowed?  Did she move to Assisi immediately after Francis died in 1226, or years later, just prior to her own death in 1239 (unless of course that actually happened in 1273...)?  Was she present at Francis's death, or had she gone home by then? 

Either she's there ...

or she's not there...

Well, that sort of thing may well be important, you may say, but surely you can fudge a few dates.   You don't have to mention an exact date when you're writing fiction.  Just tell the story.  

Okay, but when you can't even get agreement on the sequence in which things happened, it's difficult to keep your causal relationships straight.  If Event A preceded Event B, it is possible to hypothesize that something in Event A may have caused, exacerbated, or paved the way for Event B.  But if it turns out they happened in the opposite order, all bets are off.  And that's a simple one, with only two components.  Usually there are more.  

And of course it's not only the date discrepancies that matter.  I've got about a dozen different lists of Francis's earliest followers, the ones who accompanied him to Rome (in whichever year that was...) to meet with Pope Innocent III.  And did Francis actually meet Dominic, that other great leader of a newly-hatched mendicant order?  Some say yes, some say no.  And if they did meet, was it during the Fourth Lateran, or some other time and place?  I've got plenty of people advocating every possible position on this, including that they never met at all, and that neither one was actually present at the Fourth Lateran.  At least we can find them together in certain works of art:

So what's a fiction writer to do?  

Well, first you can make some distinctions among sources.  Some writers are more reliable than others, based on any number of factors:  what materials they had available at the time they were writing, whether they are specialists or generalists, and (in the case of Francis) whether they are writing under church auspices or not.  (That last one can be a two-edged sword.)  Some may just have a more readable style than others, and may appeal to you more.  

However you do it, it's usually possible to narrow the field down to a handful of sources you feel you can trust to some degree.  My experience is that they will still disagree, but you'll feel somewhat better about any choices you eventually make if one or more of these high-quality sources supports you.

Secondly, you've got to keep your story uppermost in your mind.  If you have to make strategic choices in order to get the story you want, then that's what you're going to do.  Ideally, you'll be able to keep your choices within the realm of plausibility, however.  If you can't, you're not really writing historical fiction any more, and I for one would find it less satisfying.  I wanted Francis present for the Fourth Lateran, so in my book, that's where you'll find him. But if any of my sources had managed to convince me that his presence then and there was not possible, I would not have used it.  

Thirdly, the choices you make will be influenced by your feelings about the characters.  You will not be neutral.  If you are neutral, I submit that this is not your story to write.  In my case, I needed to know not only Francis's history insofar as I could, but I had to evolve my own responses to him and to his message.  I had to know whether I thought Elias was the devil incarnate, as so many have implied, or a well-meaning scapegoat whose talents actually helped keep the Franciscan order alive.  Or, perhaps most likely, something much more complex, more involved, more thoroughly human than either of the extremes.  And whatever choice I made, it influenced how I saw his personal timeline - what he did, what happened to him, what made him who he was, or at least who I think he was:  if this happened, it would have affected him in a particular way, whereas if it hadn't happened yet, perhaps that would be more likely.  Dates are pervasive; they affect everything.

I've made my choices.  It was not an easy process, and nothing in it was a foregone conclusion, but I believe I have honored the demands of plausibility while telling a story that holds meaning for me.  

Maybe next time I'll pick a period where things are better documented.  Maybe there'll be newspapers.  Or detailed public records.  Or something.  But probably not, since I'm inordinately fond of medieval Italy. 

Do you suppose the akashic records have a decent search engine?

Illustrations in this post are all in the public domain.