Sunday, March 27, 2011

To politic or not to politic?

I never blog about politics on my writing blog. I've heard it's a bad idea. People may be turned off to you because of political reasons, but nobody will love your writing just because you agree with them about politics.

At first this felt like betrayal. If you believe what you believe is important for human life, it seems wrong not to speak about it frankly. And yet, I've polished my fiction writing again and again. While I've given a lot of thought to politics, many of my ideas are similar to those I hear from 'my half' of the politicosphere. I don't condone lying for my side, I just feel much less angry than when I see it done by the other side. Perhaps my political beliefs are not yet truly ready for prime time.

There is one story I want to share though, about a local election. I kept getting calls from supporters of the party I would usually support. When I asked them what their candidate would do different from the incumbent, they didn't tell me, just how nice she was and how much time she spent working for the community. They actually said they didn'tknow about policy, even though they were making calls on the candidate's behalf.

Her opponents were a bit more specific. They said that the local big cheese was using taxpayer money to pay for twenty four hour limousine service, which most politicans on his level don't have, and they were fighting it. The big cheese was calling for cuts but not making them in his own area.

So I broke out of my rut.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Critique Groups: In Person vs. Online

I've been writing with critique groups for about six years, both online and in person. I love working in both arenas for various reasons. I'm a pretty social person and love collaborative work, so that makes a critique group a great fit for me. Also, I don't let my husband, or my sister, or my parents read my work. If you're letting your family read your work, don't believe a word they say. Just thank them and find a critique group. Or, an editor. And I'll bet that if you seek an editor too soon, s/he will tell you to find a critique group. Because you need to hear the truth about your writing.

Truth Telling
The truth about your writing will come out differently online than in person. One of the things I like best about my online critique group, is that I don't ever have to look anyone in the eye. Because I can't see anyone on the verge of tears, raging, or rolling their eyes, I'm a lot more direct in my suggestions. Because everything is written down, you can choose your critique points very carefully.

In person, I'm much more careful about what I say and how I give suggestions. The "sandwich method" is recommended: praise, criticism, praise. It can be laborious. But, there is usually someone to back me up or refute my suggestions as needed. Discussion ensues. Perhaps we discover a new idea altogether. It's easier to ask questions and get answers.

Quality and Specification
I write contemporary young adult fiction. That's pretty niche-y. I also live in a flyover state where conferences are sparse. I'm extremely lucky to have found a writing group that meets in person, and that can give me insightful feedback on my genre-specific writing. I've been in groups that looked at everything from poetry to non-fiction to fantasy to picture books, and while there may be sparks of insight here and there, getting solid feedback regularly was impossible. Besides that, I learned very quickly that people have widely varying goals for their writing, and are at widely varying stages of the publishing game. You get all kinds in person.

An online critique group pulls talent from all over, which makes it much easier to find people that are writing similar things, and that have similar goals, and are at a similar talent level. Writing forums such as NaNoWriMo and Verla Kay's message board are great places to start looking for writers with similar needs.

Timeliness and Deadlines
I've found its easier to keep motivated in my writing with my in person group. I have to go and actually fact these people, so I prioritize my critiques for them. I also know that if I want feedback, I've got an actual deadline. I have a stack of papers that I physically see. I know I need to attend to it.

While the deadlines are technically the same online, I tend to be more willing to shoot that email that says, "Hey, I'm backed up. Will get to your critique soon." Again, I can't see the rage and eye-rolling. And the typing of the critique just takes longer. I swear I read slower when I'm reading on screen, too. I'd much rather read and critique on paper. And when that paper isn't sitting in front of me, it's so much easier to ignore the work.

So. To get the most out of myself as a writer, I use both kinds of critique groups. I also hit the conference scenes, attend workshops, keep my eye on a few writing blogs, and attend some Twitter chats now and then. Writing is no longer for the solitary.

Jody Sparks is a struggling writer who knows her craft has improved because of numerous critiques and critique groups. Follow her on twitter @jodysparks

Friday, March 11, 2011

"An Irish Vocabulary" by Erin O'Riordan

Words are fun, aren't they? You would think the English language would be enough for any writer. It does have 400,000 words, after all, far more than any other language on Earth. That's why the Oxford English Dictionary, originally supposed to take 10 years to complete, became a 49-year project. Allegedly, five years in, the compilers of the OED had gotten as far as the word "ant." (I learned these fun facts from a little book called Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara?)

Yet in the course of my writing, I've dipped into Chinese, Croatian, French, Italian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish for vocab words. My favorite foreign tongues, though, are the Celtic ones. I have a fascination with Welsh, even though it's not my ancestral tongue. It's nearly St. Patrick's day, though, so the language of the hour is Gaeilge (pronounced gale-ga), which we English speakers know as Gaelic.

The ubiquitous Gaelic phrase on St. Patrick's Day decorations is Erin Go Bragh, or Eireann go braugh, which we all know means "Ireland Forever." I'd like to say that my father, whose ancestors came from Derry, Northern Ireland in the 1840s, purposely named me after our island homeland. The truth is, my mom named me after an actor on The Waltons. But I digress. Another common Gaelic phrase is 'S Rioghal Mo Dhream, oft translated as "Royal is my race."

Other helpful Gaelic phrases:

Slainte! ~ Cheers!
Go raibh mile maith agat ~ Thank you very much
Pogue mo thoin ~ Kiss my posterior midsection
Beannachtai na Feile Padraig ~ Happy St. Patrick's Day

Note the Irish form of the saint's name is Padraig, which is why I abbreviate the holiday as St. Paddy's Day, the Irish way, and not St. Patty's Day, the Anglicized way. Not that I have anything against the English way of saying things; it's my stock and trade, after all. But we're all Irish on March 17.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

XWave and The Journey to Wild Divine

Imagine a video game powered by your mind. You stare at an empty fireplace and try to meditate. You don't really know how, but when your brainwaves indicate some slight success, little flames start to burn. Partly through conscious learning and partly through unconscious conditioning, you acquire the ability to still your thoughts. At first the exhultation of partial success breaks the mood and douses the embers immediately. That stage passes, and eventually you stare at a roaring fire without even thinking about not thinking.

This finale is also a beginning, because it opens the rest of the game. You roam an imaginary world and play with symbolic toys that aid you to even more esoteric states of mind, which are also sought by some real Hindi and Buddhists.

Sounds too amazing to be true? I own this game, sort of. Journey to the Wild Divine comes with sensors that attach to your fingertips. Based on the electrical conductivity of your skin and other factors (I forget, it's old) the game attempts to measure your state of mind.

Does it work? Well. Since everyone's brain and skin is different, you calibrate it before you start playing. The first time you may be excited about your new game, creating more contrast and making it easier to convince the game you've achieved meditative quiet. In the future it may be different, making the game harder. Is it cheating to breath hard and try to feel excited while you calibrate the sensors, or is that how you're supposed to do it? Maybe just try to feel normal and average. What is that? The instructions don't say.

So one day you've having trouble, wishing you could find some cheat codes to light the fire with a blowtorch. Just as you're ready to give up and pull the sensors off in disgust, flames blaze up! Perhaps your acceptance of failure was a breakthrough.

More likely you moved your hand slightly as you got ready to pull off the sensors. That's the easiest way to make the flames blaze up. It would be silly to cheat yourself deliberately, but success conditions you, perhaps without your even being aware.

Will the Xwave sensors now being made for the iPhone change anything? They go on your head, so you don't have to worry about moving your hand. I wonder what happens if you move your head, and how you calibrate it.

Still a mind blowing concept, and I hope we don't have to wait for the sort of technology in my book. My novel is set in the future, and the nanotechnology in your blood can work with a helmet on your head to image and communicate with your brain. It's used for accelerated learning, communication, research, and as a collaborative tool. Gonna be quite awhile until that happens though, and my real interest is in human nature, our hopes and fears. Should we fear becoming Borg, or hope to unlock human potential?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dance With Dragons

According to Entertainment Weekly, the next book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is coming soon! I quote:

A Dance With Dragons will be published by Bantam on July 12, 2011. The manuscript is huge — the publisher estimates the hardcover edition will run more than 900 pages, putting it about the same length as the longest book in the series, A Storm of Swords. Schedule your summer vacation accordingly.

For those of us who want to create awesome, these books are worth thinking about. Of all the fiction stcuk in my head, this is the only one currently in the process of being created.

It shares many excellent features with lesser books. Fascinating characters, vivid description, vast scope, and wonderful adventures with many twists and turns. I don't think these are enough to keep the series in my brain for the six years since the previous installment though.

These books are extraordinarily real, and also a sort of reversal of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's trilogy is about ordinary people discovering extraordinary strength. Martin's books are about normal well meaning people, who we can sort of imagine being, coming to do horrible things. It feels so real, and so little like a fantasy, that it makes suspension of disbelief very easy. Yet there is catharsis too, in knowing we could never be quite as bad as some of these apparently well meaning people.

Each character is ripped open, and each stereotype of high fantasy. Just as we want to believe one of them is good, not only do we learn the things they are capable of doing wrong, but we see why it should have been obvious in the first place.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Great Books For Women's History Month 2011 (by Erin O'Riordan)

The month of March is so much more than an excuse to drink Guinness and pinch people who don't wear green on the 17th. It's also Women's History Month...a great excuse to look into these fascinating books. Each of these titles is from my personal library.

A Woman's Book of Life by Joan Borysenko. This explains all the big transitions in a woman's life in a way that makes sense biologically, psychologically and spiritually. My other favorite Borysenko volume is A Woman's Journey to God.

Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara G. Walker (HarperCollins, 1996). Includes classic fairy tales most Americans will recognize from childhood, rewritten without the sexist overtones. They're more fun that way. Walker also wrote the incomparable encyclopedia mentioned below.

Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen (Harper & Row, 1984). Another book that totally gets me--I'm a Persephone, big time. Using classical Greek goddesses as archetypes, it posits a theory of various female personalities. (It also works on fictional characters, like the ones in Twilight. Bella Swan is a Persephone too, Esme Cullen is a Demeter and Rosalie Hale is a Hera.)

Letters to Ms. 1972-1987, edited by Mary Thom (The Ms. Foundation, 1987). Okay, this is just an old book I bought for a quarter at a library cast-off sale, but it captures a huge variety of women's issues in voices from all around the country. It's remarkably intimate and diverse. The intro was written by Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, whose work I respect and admire. (Also, I have a crush on her stepson, Christian Bale.)

QPB Anthology of Women's Writing, edited by Susan Cahill (QPB, 2002). Poetry, nonfiction, fiction and personal letters make up this more-than-600-page anthology, which covers women who wrote in English from Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1423) to Sandra Cisneros (born 1952).

Sacred Voices: Essential Women's Wisdom Through the Ages, edited by Mary-Ford Grabowsky (HarperCollins, 2002). Composed of prayers and other spiritual writings from many cultures, ancient times to modern. Priestesses of Inanna share its pages with Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, African and Native American oral tradition, and modern Hindu women.

She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll by Gillian G. Gaar (Seal Press, 2002). The title pretty much says it all. It starts with Big Mama Thornton and ends with Britney Spears.

The American Women's Almanac by Louise Bernikow and the National Women's History Project (Berkley Books, 1997). With all its vintage photos, artwork, quotes and fascinating sidebars, this one's tough to put down. The best section is the last one: "25 Things Women Have Done For Each Other." Examples: Alice Walker, appalled by Zora Neale Hurston's unmarked grave, bought her fellow writer a headstone inscribed "Genius of the South." Lucille Ball used striptease to cheer up a friend who'd had a miscarriage.

The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr (Beyond Words Publishing, 1995). Waldherr wrote and illustrated this beautiful, multicultural children's alphabet book, with a goddess or goddesses for every letter of the alphabet.

The Great Women Superheroes by Trina Robbins (Kitchen Sink Press, 1996). Sure, you know Wonder Woman, but what about the other leggy costumed super-sheroes whose ideals little girls have aspired to? From Miss Fury to Action Girl, Robbins covers them all. Trina Robbins has also written Great Women Cartoonists and, one of my all-time personal favorites, Eternally Bad: Goddesses With Attitude.

The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker (Harper & Row, 1983). This is my go-to source for Pagan mythology, and I also sit around flipping through it, reading it just for fun. It's fascinating! If you've ever wanted to know the mystical meanings of lilies, the Himalayas, the moon...just about anything, it's in here, and so much of it connects to goddess-worship suppressed by the rise of patriarchal Middle Eastern-based religions.

Wild Women by Autumn Stephens (1992, Conari Press). A gallery of notable and infamous women from American history, arranged into categories like "Hatchet Queens and Pistol Packers" and "Holy Terrors and Pope Perturbers." Some of these women, like Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, are still well-known. Others make for fascinating historical footnotes.