Critical Reading With John Green

As part of the Crash Course, a great video by John Green on why we read critically:

I know that in middle/high school, I also asked, “But did the author really mean for us to analyze all this?” I like that John points out that authors are trying to use precise and layered and interesting language to communicate deep emotions, not just to torture English students. (That’s a bonus, of course. Mwahaha!)

Can’t wait to read the see of this series!

Darkness and Hope: the History of Fairy Tales

Very interesting article about fairy tales by Joan Acocella over at the New Yorker. One part I found especially interesting:

“The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic.

I wonder if fairy tales have to be hopeful or realistic. Many tales end with the villain defeated (even if it’s a violent manner, ala The Goose Girl), which suggests hope. Maybe it’s not as bright as Zipes would like, but I think it balances with the realism and darkness Acocella mentions. Cruelty and violence are real. We need to confront the world and its violence. But I think folktales also reference how goodness can prevail, even if death is inevitable.

Make sure to check out the whole article through the link. Lots of engaging history and literary criticism.

(image: Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mrs. Edgar Lucas, translator. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909, via SurLaLune Fairy Tales)

Don’t Be Afraid to Say “It’s Boring”

Writer and my former workshop-mate Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevitch has a suggestion for critique groups–let someone know if their story is boring.

Okay, that might sound harsh. But “boring” is a major reason people outside of your workshop will set aside your story. I’m guilty of not pushing my characters and plot enough, too, and I always appreciate it when my critiquers tell me that things need to move faster or more needs to be at stake. Usually when I revise with that in mind, the story is more engaging and doesn’t put the reader to sleep.

Still, it can be hard to hear that your story isn’t compelling. To protect fellow writers’ feelings, Alexandria offers this idea for workshop notes:

“So how about this: a small circle in the margin of the page, to signal a change in the reader’s attention level at a given point. The circle could be filled in all the way for moments when the reader was rapt, put to half-mast for moments when the story was inching along well enough but the reader was fighting the impulse to check how many pages remained, and left empty for the moment the reader actually did put the story down, not to be picked up again until, say, the night before workshop.”

I really like this idea. A series of circles feels less than a jab than it does a way to track your story’s momentum. Plus, it’s so helpful to see how a reader actually interacts with the story. You may think that readers will be stunned by a particular line of dialogue or scene, but they might not get enough emotional resonance for the scene to have the effect you want.

Make sure to click through for Alexandria’s whole post.

Critique Groups and the Importance of Constructive Feedback

At Swagger Writers, Kathy has a great post about being part of a critique group. She mentions that she know someone who is afraid to join a critique group because of the potential for negative feedback. Kathy points out that feedback of all kinds–even negative–is crucial to the writing process:

“The key word there is constructive. There’s no point in offering a critique that isn’t helpful. I also believe a critique should begin with something positive. Telling a writer what’s working is at least as important as telling her what is not.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a member of two very constructive critique groups, and I think that the feedback is invaluable. I’m a big fan of Kathy’s point about beginning with the positive–it can overwhelm a writer to get bombarded with negatives–but also really appreciate knowing what doesn’t work in a given story. Whether it’s positive or negative, feedback should inform you about how to make your story better. If one part is working really well, that’s fantastic, and maybe you can bring the same kind of focus and features to the parts that aren’t as strong.

Also, I think knowing how to workshop is enormously helpful. Assuming your goal is to get published someday, you’ll probably have to deal with feedback from an agent and/or editor. If you’ve never heard anything bad about your work before, it might be disheartening to get an editorial letter full of suggestions for changes. If you’ve had experience with a critique group, you know that constructive criticism is an essential part of the revision process.

As Kathy says, this all depends on the particular group. But having that kind of sounding board and support system is awesome.

Make sure to check out the full post for the rest of Kathy’s thoughts on critique groups. Also, in case you’re curious about my YA/MG critique group, check out their sites: Tara Sullivan, Lisa PalinKatie Slivensky, Julia Maranan, and Lauren M. Barrett. Rock on, writers!

(image: Wikipedia)

Like Having a Cool Lit Class Discussion via Youtube

Sometimes you see people online and think “Man, I wish we were friends in real life.” You think about all the awesome things you’d do and all the cool conversations you’d have. That’s kind of how I feel about the YA Subscription crew. Their discussions about YA literature are my new favorite thing. It’s like hanging out with very cool, very thoughful people who also love YA*. What more could you want?

Currently working through their videos on The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. If you haven’t read the book yet, you really need to.

*Granted, I have a couple of groups like that in real life, so I shouldn’t complain. But the more, the merrier!

Royal Role Models in YA/MG Literature

In response to Disney Princess week, Bailey Shoemaker Richards at SPARK counters with her own list of awesome princesses from MG/YA literature. As Bailey says: “The main characters in these books are, become or interact with princesses, and all of them have to deal with the implications of femininity in their own worlds.”

I have to admit: I was crazy about Ariel, Belle, and the other Disney princesses when I was little, and I think these characters still have a lot to offer girls. But when the princess line is marketed as just focusing on the fact that these ladies are princesses and wear pretty dresses, that’s a problem.

Bailey’s list includes three of my favorite MG fantasy heroines: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Alanna from The Song of the Lioness. All such awesome choices and complex characters outside of being royalty or near royalty. Bailey talks about each character and what makes her compelling, so click through to read more.

A couple of other suggestions I’d add:

Ani (aka Isi) from The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
This is one of my favorite fairy tale adaptations. Ani has a hard time being a princess and manages to find her own strength when her position is challenged. I love seeing Ani’s progression from awkward and uncertain to a confident, sensitive leader. (Shannon Hale has a bunch of other strong female characters in fairy tale adaptations, so Ani stands in for them as well.)

Beauty from Beauty by Robin McKinley
I especially like Beauty’s relationship with her family in McKinley’s retelling. In the original tale, Beauty’s sisters are selfish and spoiled, but here the family gets along well. Leaving them behind means a lot for Beauty, and I like how McKinley reinforces Beauty’s quiet bravery.

Who are your favorite women from MG/YA fantasty?

Race and Responsibility in YA

Sarah Ockler has an excellent post up about the issue of race in YA. Like most other genres, the characters are predominantly white, and so are the authors. Sarah looks at the problems associated with this and what YA authors themselves can do to fix these problems. One part I especially liked:

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Oh my lord, I remember so many almond-shaped eyes and caramel-colored skin from books I read as a preteen/teen, it was ridiculous. Obviously Sarah adds a good dose of humor here, but her points are still valid. You can’t just throw in stereotypical details and assume your non-white character is covered. Or include a non-white character just to fill in your racial gap. It reminds me of how sitcoms about white families always feature a kid with a non-white best friend, whose job it is to show up and be sassy/awkward/etc.

It's a small world, after all.

Sarah also takes on the excuse of “I’m not black/Asian/Mexican-American so I can’t write about those people.” She says:

“I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.”

This is something we don’t see very often. It can feel like you’re overstepping boundaries to write about, say, a Muslim girl living in Chicago if you don’t have that background. There’s pressure to capture her cultural and religious background accurately, and it can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t experienced that. But, as Sarah says, how is that different from creating any other character? If you’re only writing about characters who have had your exact experiences, you’re going to run out of stories pretty quickly.

At NESCBWI, I took a creating magical worlds workshop with Cinda Williams Chima. One thing she mentioned was that, in creating your magical world, think about what different races/religions/backgrounds might be represented. She encouraged us to look for opportunities to make our worlds diverse. Fantasy novels don’t get off easy, either!

There’s a lot more in Sarah’s post, so make sure to check it out. As she mentions, we’re the ones who can bring so many other voices to YA.

(image: NASA)(H/T bookshelves of doom)

Reading with Open Eyes

As part of TLT’s Why YA series, author John Corey Whaley talks about why what YA fiction means to him. One of my favorite parts:

“But one thing we all have is the memory of being a teenager.  We remember how it felt, how awesome it was sometimes and how much it sucked other times.  We remember discovering things for ourselves and making mistakes we knew better than to make in the first place.  We all share so few things, but being a teenager and knowing what it means to be one is a damn important one…They’re just waiting to grow up and become more bruised and cynical by the ways of the world.  I write YA because teenagers read with open eyes and, you know what? Maybe more adults should do the same.”

High five, John Corey Whaley. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I think YA could easily be classified as coming-of-age novels. So many great works of literature–To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Piece, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, etc.–are about first encounters with the larger, complicated world and having to come to terms with oneself. As a teen, so much is new and imbued with importance. Why wouldn’t someone one to write about those experiences?

Links Galore

A few more links for the afternoon:

  • I don’t know how I’m supposed to vote for just one blog in the Independent Book Blogger Awards. At least it’s a great place to find new blogs to follow!
  • This letter from Keith Richards to his aunt is both adorable and filled with hip 60s Englishness.
  • Should academia be the “day job” path for writers? (My opinion: teaching is an entirely different skill than writing. Don’t teach unless you actually enjoy it.)
  • A close look at the literary merits of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Read Free or Die

Between certain New York Times articles claiming adults shouldn’t read YA, this article on why kids should read Homer and not Walter Dean Myers and this Slow-Books Manifesto that pushes the classics, it seems like there are a lot of opinions out there about what is worthy of being read. I’m sure part of the intent for these articles was to be incendiary and get attention. But they do raise the question: should people be reading something in particular?

Fortunately, there are a few more rational voices around to address this issue. At Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, Sarah makes a lot of fantastic points. One part I liked in particular:

What you read does not make you smarter than everyone else.
Just as how the books you read don’t define who you are as a human, the books you choose to read likewise do not make you more or less intelligent than the next person. Little aggravates me more than the assumption that people read genre fiction or YA novels because they are not intelligent enough or educated enough to comprehend highbrow literary fiction.

Amen to that. I hate discussions about books that end up being a game of literary one-upmanship. You like reading about 18th century German philosophy or experimental fiction published by independent houses? Great. Enjoy that. But it’s ridiculous to assume that reading those books automatically makes you smarter than someone who picks up a graphic novel or middle grade fantasy book. As Sarah later points out, people read for a variety of different reasons. Not all of it has to be to ponder the depths of literature.

Similarly, Stefanie at So Many Books looks at the the slow reading article and asks why this would make someone love reading. She says:

“Just as we cannot live on only broccoli and spinach, readers cannot read only broccoli and spinach. It also doesn’t inspire those who don’t read to want to read. We do not need to read in order to live or have a good life or be a good person or make a significant contribution to our community. If we surround reading with rules and turn it into work, why would anyone, after working all day at a job, want to come home and work at reading? “

I like Stefanie’s point about having a well-rounded reading diet. Lots of classics are really wonderful and engaging and touch on the human experience in a way that we can understand across centuries. But even if I love Jane Eyre, it can’t satisfying all of my reading needs. Sometimes I want a book of humorous essays; sometimes I want historical fiction; sometimes I want a retold fairy tale or contemporary family drama. Combined, these books provided a much more complete view of the worldand can keep you happier as a reader.

Both articles touch on the joy in reading. It’s great to stretch your reading limits, but shouldn’t books also provide you with a certain level of pleasure? There’s so much fun and meaning in language. Why do we need to destroy that in order to create an unsatisfactory reading experience that limits our view of the world?

In short: Read. Have fun.