So it's looking more and more likely that our last-minute family vacation this summer will take us to Chicago. My husband has driven through the city any number of times but never actually stopped for a visit; I've stopped once overnight on my way to somewhere else, but arrived late and left early without doing any sightseeing, so I am as clueless as a clueless thing. But several people I know strongly recommended Chicago when I asked for suggestions, so here we are.

Which leads me to ask, is there anyone still following me (ha ha, like anyone is still reading this) who lives in the south-central Michigan or eastern Illinois ballpark (or Chicago proper) that would be sad to hear I had passed through without stopping to connect? I'd be up for lunch or coffee if anyone is interested!

And also, as folk who know and share my interests, is there anything in the Chicago area that you'd particularly recommend I check out? I've already had one person alert me to the current Inklings exhibits at the Marion E. Wade Museum, which I'd love to check out even if I have to dump my husband and sons and go all by myself. Other than that, though, I've just got the usual "Things To Do and See in Chicago" guides to work from, and I'd hate to miss something of particular literary or fannish interest just because it isn't on the list...

Today an unsuspecting soul on Tumblr reawakened one of my old pet peeves by reblogging a post about the supposed psychological trauma of the Pevensie children after their experiences in Narnia, a subject about which I have been ready to rant about for a long, long time.

So here's the original post, including the one relevant addition:

What she says: I’m fine.

What she means: I understand the Chronicles of Narnia was at its heart a fairytale with theological analogies for children. But why did Lewis never address how they had to adapted to life on Earth again. Why does no one talk about how the Pevensies had to grow up with a kingdom of responsibilities on their shoulders, only to return to Earth and be children. Take Lucy, she was youngest and perhaps she adapted more quickly-but she had the memories and mind of a grown woman in an adolescent body. Edmund literally found himself in Narnia, he went from a selfish boy to mature and experienced man. He found a purpose and identity through his experiences to come back as just Edmund, Peter’s younger brother. Did people wonder why the sullen, sour boy came back, carrying himself like a wisened king? Did his mother wonder why he and Peter suddenly got along so well, why they spent so much time together now? And Susan, the girl of logistics and reason came back with a difference in her. She learned how to be a diplomat and ambassador, Susan the Gentle had to live to endure not-so-gentle circumstances. She had the respect she wanted, only to be just another teen girl. And Peter, he entered the manhood and maturity he so wanted. He earned the responsibility and stripes he yearned for. He learned to command armies and conduct the menial tasks demanded of a king to rule a nation. But he came back, appearing to be just anther glory-hungry boy. Not to mention the PTSD they must have struggled with. Especially Edmund. How often did he wake up in a sweat, screaming a sibling or comrade’s name? His parents believe it’s the war, but it’s an entirely different one he has nightmares about. How often did he have trouble with flashbacks and mood swings? And how many times did he and Peter sit over a newspaper or near the radio listening to reports on the troops. How often did they pour over lost battles and debate better strategies. Did their parents ever wonder why they seemed to understand flight war so well? How long was it before they stopped discussing these things in front of people? Why does no one talk about this??? 

Why does no one talk about how the Pevensies had to grow up with a kingdom of responsibilities on their shoulders, only to return to Earth and be children

It’s not addressed because it’s understood. It was the shared experience of the generation. You are describing coming home from World War One, battle wearied and aged beyond belief, but walking around in the body of a youth. C S Lewis went to the front line of the Somme on his nineteenth birthday and went back to complete uni in 1918 after demob.

And here's my reply to the above comments:

It’s also not addressed for a much simpler reason: the Narnia books are not written for adults, they were written for children. And they were never intended to be “realistic” fantasy in the gritty vein of Game of Thrones or even serious epic fantasy in the mold of Lord of the Rings, they were written (by Lewis’s own admission) as fairy tales.

This is what Lewis says about fairy tales, and how the conventions of that particular subgenre affected his writing of Narnia:

As these [mental] images sorted themselves into events (i.e., became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the fairy tale. And the moment I thought of that I fell in love with the Form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas.’ I was now enamored of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as of the hardness of the stone pleases the sculptor or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer.

To explain Lewis’s slightly old-fashioned vocabulary, “gas” is a slang term meaning “to talk at length, esp. boringly or pompously” (see The Oxford Dictionary of Slang by Ayto and Simpson, 2nd ed. 2008).

Which means that from the very beginning, Lewis had it firmly in mind that he was not going to dig into the psychology of his characters, the Pevensies included. Lewis certainly knew the horrors of war and the effect that it has on the psyche, and he was neither shy nor incapable of exploring psychological trauma in his adult SF novels*, but he had no intention of weighing down the Narnia books with it. 

So while he describes several battles over the course of the series in which many people (including good people) are killed, Lewis never uses these experiences to fundamentally change his characters’ outlook and personalities. They may be shaken and momentarily overwhelmed by the brutality of combat (as when Peter kills the wolf Maugrim in LWW, or Shasta gets caught up in the battle with the Calormenes in HHB); they are sobered by the loss of good comrades and the imminent threat of losing their own lives (as Eustace, Jill and Tirian are in LB). But when the battle or the adventure is over, the children quickly regain their equanimity and their sense of humour. Despite all the violent battles and duels Edmund takes part in during the events of Prince Caspian (which include cutting a man’s legs out from under him and then walloping off his head), his biggest lament at the end of the book is that he’s left his new electric torch in Narnia.

Older readers of the Narnia books may feel compelled to speculate about how the children’s adventures must have “really” affected them, particularly once they returned to England as children after growing up in Narnia during the events of LWW. But Lewis had no such interest, and with good reason. This is what he says about writing for children:

We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from our child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests which children would not share with us.

Lewis chose not to explore the deeper effects of trauma on his characters, not because he was unaware of or indifferent to those effects, but because he knew that his younger readers — the children for whom the Narnia books were really intended — would not be interested in hearing about them or even (yet) capable of understanding them. 

As a child of six or seven I blithely read gruesome fairy tales and never paused to imagine what it would feel like to be one of Bluebeard’s murdered wives or shoved into a barrel of nails like Cinderella’s stepmother and rolled downhill until I was dead; in the same way, most children will cheerfully read any amount of hacking and slaying without the least thought of what it would feel like to kill or be killed themselves. The last thing they want is for some boring old adult narrator to interrupt the battle between good and evil with a lot of “gas” about how being stuck with sharp objects hurts and that sticking other people with sharp objects makes you feel bad.

It’s not that children take pleasure in violence as such, or that they lack empathy, but their perception of violence and their expression of empathy is simple and abstract compared to an adult’s. They rejoice to see the heroes triumph and the baddies soundly killed, and they consider that a happy ending. And to push them to grow up too soon, to perceive pain and suffering the way adults do, is no kindness to them. Nor is it fair to take away the pleasure they take in fairy tales by rewriting those tales -- Narnia very much included -- to conform to “realistic” adult expectations.

That is the out-of-universe explanation, however. The in-universe explanation for the Pevensies’ lack of angst is far more simple: Aslan is not a cruel torturer who wants the children to suffer, but a just and merciful Lion who brought them through the wardrobe for their good and the good of Narnia itself. To leave the Pevensie children damaged by their experiences in Narnia, rather than wiser and better off for them, would be totally out of Aslan’s character. So it is quite reasonable to believe that the same magic which reverted the Pevensies to childhood also left them with a child’s perspective on their adult memories — innocent, optimistic, and blithely untroubled by the painful empathies that cause us such sorrow as adults. The Pevensies therefore remembered the facts of their stay in Narnia, but not the feelings (or at least, not any feelings that would hurt them). And if you look at the children’s behaviour on their subsequent visits to Narnia, their behaviour is exactly what we would expect if this were really the case.

I’m not saying fans can’t come at the Narnia books from any angle that suits them, because that’s what fandom is all about. I am saying, however, that Lewis was neither ignorant nor oblivious to the ramifications of what he was writing. He knew very specifically and deliberately what he wanted to do with his stories, he was writing with the interests and needs of children in mind, and the reason he left out any hint of psychological trauma in his portrayal of the Pevensies is because no such trauma occurred or was ever intended. That is the part of the magic of Narnia, and if modern adult readers find this too unpalatable to swallow, they will be better off leaving Narnia behind and seeking out books that are more to their personal tastes.

* Pretty much the whole point of Ransom’s portrayal in That Hideous Strength is that he has become the Fisher King, deeply and painfully wounded by the events of Perelandra in a way that (to quote Frodo to Sam at the end of LotR) “will never really heal.” Lewis could absolutely write psychological damage when he chose to; in the case of Narnia, he chose not to.


Mar. 29th, 2018 08:47 am
rj_anderson: (Knife - Green)
Sorry for the confusion this morning; I finally managed to sign back in to LiveJournal so I could copy over a few old posts that hadn't made it in the switch to Dreamwidth, and I thought that back-dating them would be enough to keep them from showing up on people's Reading pages, but obviously not. Please feel free to ignore them (but to those of you who already commented, thanks!).
[Crossposted from Tumblr, because I never seem to post anything here otherwise...]
Never mind all the books on your To Be Read shelf, because who knows why you’re reading them or if they’re going to be any good. I want to know what’s on your To Be Re-Read shelf — the books you loved so much you’re planning to revisit them for the second, third, or mumbletyseventh time.
My TBRR shelf right now consists of:
  • Till We Have Faces, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
  • The Golden Key and Other Stories and The Lost Princess by George MacDonald
  • The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis (published hardcover, previously read in manuscript)
  • Something Dark and Holy by Emily A. Duncan (still in manuscript, but final draft -- to be published in 2019)
And I’m also re-reading Elizabeth E. Wein’s The Sunbird aloud to my youngest son.
What’s in your TBRR pile lately, if you have one?
[Crossposted from Facebook, feel free to ignore if you've already seen it there...]

Well into the second week of working on a new short story, and enjoying the writing process more than I have for a long time.

It's taken me eighteen months on sabbatical to get over the deeply ingrained habit of checking every few minutes to see how many words I've written, of feeling anxious that it's taking so long to get through a particular scene, of worrying that my time and effort has been wasted if I end up having to cut some or all of what I've written and start over the next day. Not to mention the voice of my Inner Editor nagging, "That scene is boring! That description is sappy! That conversation doesn't advance the plot! Nobody's going to like this. Give up and write something else."

It's not that I don't care anymore about making progress, or writing the best story I can. I'm just not measuring my work by the same rigid, merciless standards that used to suck away all the pleasure of writing for me. I don't have an outline for this story, just a vague notion of where I want it to end up and a few scattered ideas about how to get there -- and that's fine. I don't know who the audience for this story will be, or where I'm going to publish it once it's finished -- and that's fine, too. I'm writing it because I want to, not for the money or the market or the fear of losing my career if I don't. And that's the best feeling of all.

But it's taken me all this time to get there, because I drove myself so hard for so long, running on fear and guilt and sheer bloodyminded determination, that I couldn't remember how to write any other way.

Creative burnout is a real thing, ladies and gentlemen. Don't let it happen to you.
I don't know why it possessed me to check Catherine Fisher's website today, but I was curious to know what her next project would be and... and...

I am also thinking seriously about a third Incarceron novel, and have already drafted a synopsis. I once thought I had said all I needed to about this world, but there has been such a constant demand for more about Finn, Claudia, Keiro, Jared and Attia etc that I have been forced to think again. And yes, now that I'm working on it, it's a very exciting prospect. But it all depends on the publishers. As soon as I know anything definite, I will post news here.

I am SO EXCITED now. And also terrified, because I am about 99% sure Fisher doesn't care about Claudia/Jared nearly as much as I do (actually, Catherine Fisher does not appear to care about romances of any kind, period, even on those super-rare occasions when she seems to be trying to write one).

But still, more of these characters and this world would be AMAZING. *hyperventilates*
I've been having weird pain issues since last Christmas, starting with an aching tension in my cheeks and jaw and then nerve pain radiating around the back of my shoulder and down my arm into the fingers. I'd also had some bad (though short-lived) shoulder pain last August after carrying a heavy chair across camp. So it's taken me a long time, even after months of physiotherapy and an ultrasound, to discover that when I slipped on the ice and fell back at the end of January, I tore my rotator cuff tendon and that, not typing or lifting or bad form doing push-ups, is the real reason why I haven't been able to sleep without pain for the last six months.

I can't lie on my side -- either side -- because it hurts my shoulder, and I can't lie totally flat either, so I have to lie partially propped up on pillows with another pillow underneath my arm. Even at that, I sometimes wake up stiff and sore and have to get up for an ice pack two or even three times a night. During the day I can't lift anything heavier than five pounds with my right hand, or I'll pay for it (which means Monday nights are always bad for me, because that's the day I get groceries). I can't spend much time on the computer either, because mousing and even typing is uncomfortable.

It's frustrating, because before this happened I'd worked so hard to get my arms in shape. As a lifelong non-athlete, I was proud that over the course of the past two years I'd gone from not being able to do even one modified push-up to doing 22 military push-ups in a row. Now I can't do any kind of arm exercise without worrying that I'm damaging myself (and judging by the pain I have at night if I do anything more than the stretches my physio gave me, that fear isn't unwarranted).

The ultrasound shows a partial thickness tear, only 4 mm, but it's not getting better despite months of TENS, acupuncture, ice packs, and dutifully doing the exercises my physio gave me to strengthen the surrounding muscles. And today I found out that these kinds of tears don't heal on their own, so if I want a chance of recovery rather than just trying to manage the symptoms, I'm looking at surgery and at least six weeks with my arm in a sling.

I don't really want surgery -- I don't even know how I would manage if I had it. It would be hard on my whole family, not just me. But I'm so tired of being in pain and not sleeping properly. I'm tired of painkillers not working at all, and even ice only helping sometimes. I would love to believe that if I can do this, if I can get through this, I might be able to get back to something like my old state of health and fitness (even if I still have to be careful about how I move or how much I lift sometimes).

But then, there's no guarantees even if I do have the surgery. 80% success rate is good, but there's always that 20%.

I don't know.
Having finally seen the reveal of the new 13th Doctor, I will reserve my judgment on how well this particular regeneration is going to work until I've seen Jodie Whittacker's performance and her dynamic with her companion(s). Just because it's not something I personally felt the need for doesn't mean I might not end up enjoying it in the end (see also: Missy).

Also, given that the premise of the show is built around the Doctor getting a completely new and unexpected body with every regeneration, and that the concept of Time Lords regenerating as a different sex has been a canonical part of New Who ever since the offhand mention of the Corsair in "The Doctor's Wife" back in 2011 (a possibility which Moffat & Co. have underlined with increasing emphasis at least once a season ever since), I really don't have a lot of sympathy with the people complaining that the announcement came out of left field and violates the True Spirit of the show. The spirit of Original Who, maybe. New Who, which has already spent over ten years breaking almost every unwritten taboo of its predecessor, not so much.

In fact, as soon as Capaldi's departure was announced I felt pretty sure that the next Doctor was going to be either PoC or a woman -- but not both, because that would be an even more dramatic and controversial change, and therefore far too much of a risk for cautious TV executives worried about losing large segments of their traditional audience.*

But for those who are claiming that Steven Moffat only made this move due to pressure from more enlightened third parties and would never have thought of it on his own, I'd like to share a friendly reminder that in the 1999 Red Nose Day comedy skit Curse of Fatal Death, which was written and aired six full years before the return of Doctor Who to television in any serious form (let alone under his control), Moffat had the Doctor regenerate** into a blonde woman.***

Oh, and she was the 13th Doctor too.

*As it is, I will be quite interested to see the ratings for Jodie Whittacker's first few episodes as the Doctor. Whether they go up or down or stay much the same, I think it's safe to say that a significant number of the people watching will not be the same people who watched Capaldi and his predecessors. I've already seen one post from a former fan who considers the casting of a female Doctor as the last nail in the coffin of her (yes, her) waning interest in the show.

**After starting out as Rowan Atkinson and regenerating into Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant in rapid succession, and don't get me started on how much I loved Rowan Atkinson's Nine and how sad I am he wasn't canon because we'll be here all evening.

***Played in this case by Joanna Lumley.
Having now binge-watched all seven seasons of The Great British Bake-Off, S2 and S3 of the Australian, 1x01 and 02 of the Irish, most of the Great Holiday / American Baking Show and half of S1 of the South African, I feel somewhat qualified to rank the various English-speaking versions and make some observations about which ones are definitely worth watching, which are just OK, and which ones you might as well give a miss.

First, though, I want to talk about what makes the original Bake-Off and its derivatives special in the first place. Feel free to skip this bit if you already know )

Anyway, here's my personal ranking of the various Bake-Off shows I've watched so far:

GBBO and its spin-offs rated from 'bleh' to 'YEAH', with accompanying reasons )

* * *

There is much more that could be said, especially about my favorite contestants and bakes over the seasons, but I wouldn't want to spoil the fun for those who have yet to watch and enjoy the delights of Custardgate, Selasi's unflappable cool, or the Amazing Bread Lion for themselves. (I can totally be induced to burble about those things in comments, though, if you're a fellow fan.)
Things I wish I had known before we bought a ball python* from our local pet shop last year:

1. You don't need an expensive glass tank. In fact, that expensive glass tank with mesh top that the pet store will sell you is actually a lot WORSE for keeping snakes than the $20 plastic bin with lid that you can buy at any Wal-Mart.

2. Ball pythons may be gentle and shy, but they are also super finicky about their environment and if you don't have the right temperature, humidity, and shelter conditions it will throw them off eating for weeks, or months, or even until they starve to death. THIS IS NOT NERVE-WRACKING AT ALL. *obsessively checks tank temperature again*

3. Those stick-on dial thermometers are nowhere near accurate, and at best they can only tell you the ambient temperature in the tank anyway. You need at least one thermometer with a probe to monitor the heat at surface level. Ideally two.

4. Heat lamps suck all the humidity out of the tank and are a terrible way of regulating heat. Under-tank heat mats are much better, but you need a thermostat to properly monitor and control the temperature (which the pet store did NOT tell us).

5. Ball pythons DO climb, and indeed quite enjoy it if they're given the chance. Unfortunately glass tanks make it difficult or impossible to set up any kind of safe climbing apparatus that won't topple under their weight. See #1.

6. The boy who bought the ball python is very fond of it, but not nearly as obsessive about python husbandry as his mother, who now lives in perpetual fear of the poor thing freezing, boiling, or starving to death.

* Yes, I know a lot of people don't like snakes and are horrified that anyone would want to own one. So if you're planning to say so in comments, there's no need and I'd really rather you didn't...
It's hard sometimes to know what to write in a post like this. Add too much detail and it sounds like oversharing (or worse, whining); not enough and it may come off as maddeningly cryptic and frustrating to those who want answers about what I'm up to. So I'll try to find the middle ground.

Briefly, the situation here is tough and getting tougher. The muscle pain in my shoulder has been going on long enough to puzzle both my physiotherapist and the sports doctor that my GP sent me to last week, and though it changes and moves around it doesn't seem to be getting that much better. I've figured out a way to arrange several pillows around me so that I can sleep at least part of the night in bed, but I still end up migrating to the living room recliner most nights, and I still feel uneasy about going anywhere for more than a couple of hours without ready access to an ice pack.

So that's pretty distracting, as you might imagine, and makes sitting up and typing for a few hours every day not all that comfortable or fun. But even so, I could work around that if it weren't for everything else going on.

I've already mentioned (in a previous, f-locked post) that my father is 92 and increasingly frail, and that I'm having to arrange more in-home care for him. In the last couple of weeks I've managed to get most of his daily needs looked after, but my mom is also feeling the strain and her health is suffering in ways that need extra attention as well. So with trying to do my best by the two of them and also not short-change my own family in the process, I've been pretty busy.

A number of people I care about are also going through difficult times, not least of them the family of a good friend of mine who died last week at the age of 48. I was at her funeral last Friday and it was lovely, just what she would have wanted, but it's going to be a hard adjustment for her husband and four kids -- three of whom are friends with my sons -- and my heart goes out to them. That's just one of several tragic and complicated situations that are going on around me right now, all of which leave me wondering and praying about what more I can do.

Plus I've got a bunch of upcoming school visits and other appearances I signed up for weeks or months ago, before all of this other stuff came to a head. I don't feel I ought to cancel any of them and I don't even want to unless it's an emergency, but it does make it difficult to get back into a regular writing routine even if I had the energy to do so.

I'd hoped to end my planned sabbatical and start writing again in February, and have a viable first draft of a new book by no later than September. But so far everything I've started, no matter how eager or positive I felt to begin with, has fizzled out. Either it wasn't quite ready yet (as with my epic YA fantasy) or I was keen to write but kept getting derailed by circumstances (as with the third Ivy book, which is still very much on my heart, but I haven't touched it in weeks now).

Anyway, I've got enough to deal with at the moment without making more work for myself. So I've come to the conclusion that for the time being, however long it may be until life calms down, I'm not going to worry about writing. If on a good day I find myself with time and energy and desire to write, then I will. But I'm not going to angst over deadlines and word counts, or fret about the prospect of not having a new book in 2018 (or 2019, or even 2020).

Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is that people are more important than things. My parents and family and friends in need are people, and my writing is a thing. It would be different if my family was counting on my income to pay the bills, but we're not. So to me the choice is pretty clear and I feel at peace about it.

I'm still a writer. I always have been and I always will be, published or not. The stories and characters inside me aren't going anywhere, even if I can't put them into words right now. Before too long, I hope, I'll be able to get back to them again... but not at this time.

And that's okay.
And the twain shall meet in my kitchen, apparently. Or at least they have been since last fall, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

I am making another wholegrain loaf from the recipe in James Morton's Brilliant Bread, since my first one turned out so splendidly. For those of you who aren't already weary of hearing me (t)witter on about this book, here's my review from Amazon:

I read this book cover to cover like a novel, and enjoyed every second of it. My few attempts to make yeasted doughs had nearly always failed, and I'd given up even trying anymore, until I started watching Great British Bake-Off this past summer. James Morton made breadmaking look so simple and enjoyable, and seemed so confident that anyone could do it, that I was inspired to try again with the help of his book -- and I am SO glad I did. He clearly and helpfully explains how yeast works, what various kinds of flour are best for, and all the basics I'd been unaware of that had been sabotaging my efforts (if I'd only known that yeast will rise just fine, if more slowly, in a cool environment! I'd been killing my yeast by making it far too warm!).

If you don't have a bread-making granny or other helpful relative/friend to show you the ropes, or even if you do (because I've met veteran bread-makers who didn't know some of the practical tips James shares in this book), it's absolutely worth the investment. Also, there are beautiful full-colour pictures with every recipe, and also to show you the steps of kneading, shaping and other important techniques. I couldn't ask for a more practical or useful cookbook for a beginning bread-maker than this one.

P.S. I particularly recommend the wholegrain loaf recipe. Best brown bread I've ever eaten, and practically no kneading!

* * *

The down side to homemade bread, though, is that it doesn't stay fresh very long, even in my bread box (which my husband bought me several years ago to keep my cat from chewing through the bag, as she invariably does if I leave it out on the counter). So I'm going to slice this loaf and freeze the slices with some wax paper between, so they can be thawed and used for sandwiches and dinner accompaniments as needed -- hopefully that will solve the problem!

How many of you bake bread as a hobby? What are your favorite recipes?
 As you may or may not know, I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter/producer Matt Hales, otherwise known as Aqualung. [ profile] renisanz introduced me to him some years ago, and I've been eagerly buying up his albums ever since. His most recent (and maddeningly hard to find) album 10 Futures features a single called "Be Beautiful", and when I first listened to it just over a year ago I heard the following lines:

Perfection is silent
And elegance is still
Beauty won't catch your eye
The way that passion will

I was really struck by that, seeing as I was struggling a lot with perfectionism at the time, and finding my pleasure in storytelling blighted by fear that my prose wasn't lyrical enough. That I didn't have enough witty similes or sumptuous metaphors or breathtaking turns of phrase for my writing to make an impression in people's minds. I thought sadly of Peter S. Beagle and Patricia McKillip and other magnificent prose stylists of my fantasy-reading youth, and I cast a wistful eye at Maggie Stiefvater and Erin Bow, and I heaved a mental sigh for my own competent but seemingly unexceptional writing style.

Of course I knew that plenty of successful and well-loved fantasy authors write prose that is functional at best (*cough*JKR*cough*). But because I get so much pleasure from smart narration (when I was reading Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series aloud to my children, I kept stopping mid-paragraph to yell about how good he is), it was hard to convince myself that striving for a more literary style might not be crucial to my development as a writer. That my own natural storytelling voice, plain as it might seem to me, could be good enough.

But that stanza in "Be Beautiful" made me think again. What really grabs people and makes a lasting impression on them? Is it perfection in the aesthetic sense -- in which case any catalogue model or finely designed piece of furniture should do -- or is it the spark and vitality that come from an idea, a picture, a story, that the creator is genuinely passionate about?

Not that passion on its own, especially divorced from any element of skill or craftsmanship or good judgment, is always admirable. There are plenty of terrible artists, and terrible human beings, who feel passionate about what they're doing. But passion is memorable, for good or ill, in a way that mere artistry can't match.

So I decided that if I ever wrote another book, I would hold out for an idea that was not merely interesting to me or potentially saleable to a publisher, but one that I felt truly passionate about. I would try to hold onto that urgency, that conviction, and let it shape the words I was writing instead of trying to force myself to write in a way that doesn't come naturally.

Amazing, isn't it? The power of music.

* * *

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was singing along to "Be Beautiful" in the car and realized I had no idea what half the words actually were (to be fair, the guest singer on that particular song does not enunciate well). So I decided to look up the lyrics when I got home and...

You can see this coming, can't you?

I'd misheard that stanza. It's not "beauty won't catch your eye / the way that passion will," it's "the way the bad stuff will." 

And I have zero idea what that means.

* * *

But that's okay. I heard in that song what I needed to hear, the truth I was already grappling with inside. Good writing isn't about doing all the technical bits perfectly and silencing all your critics with the elegance of your prose. It's not about copying the style and content of other authors you admire. It's about writing what really matters to you, to the very best of your ability, with the voice God's given you. I believe that firmly now, and if mishearing Matt Hales' lyrics helped to cement it in my mind, that's not a bad thing.

(Anyway, I still think my version sounds better and makes way more sense in context. So there.)

At this time last year, I was worn out. I'd just finished substantive edits on my latest book and was cautiously pleased with how it had come together, but creatively I was exhausted. I’d written nine novels in eight years, and by the fall of 2015 I felt like all my mental energy and every scrap of pleasure I’d ever taken in the writing process had dried up and crumbled away.

None of this should have come as a surprise. Even before I got published I knew I wasn’t a book-a-year writer, but more of a book-every-eighteen-months-to-two-years writer. I needed significant chunks of fallow time in between projects, and sometimes between drafts as well, to feel good about the story I was writing, let alone come up with an idea for the next one.

Still, when you’re writing for children, and especially when you’re writing a series, there’s a fear that if you don’t keep the books coming at least a year apart, your audience will age out of the books before you can publish the next one. Publishing is not known for its patience with children's authors who haven't hit the NYT bestseller list or won at least one major award, and sometimes the only thing that keeps your career going is being able to deliver the goods on time.

But fear is a terrible motivation to write, especially when it’s the only motivation you’ve got. Fear can keep you hurling yourself at the wall day after day until you manage to scramble over it and make your deadline, but the wall will still be there when you think about writing the next thing. And when I realized that my desire to write had withered to the point where I actively dreaded the act of putting words on paper -- not just for publication, I mean any words -- I knew I couldn’t deny it any longer. This was the career I’d dreamed of having since I was four years old, the career I’d worked toward for nearly twenty years before my first book was published. If it was making me miserable every time I thought about doing it, something had gone badly wrong.

So I decided to take a sabbatical for the next twelve months, and not write anything at all.

This is how it turned out... )

* * *

TL;DR: Here I am, a year after I started my sabbatical, and I can confidently say that I made the right decision. Today I wrote my first new scene of original fiction in well over twelve months... and finally, finally, I felt good about it.

Good News!

Oct. 19th, 2016 10:48 pm
rj_anderson: (Nomad - Ivy)
First, thanks to all who weighed in on my earlier post about my cat possibly having arthritis. I did call the vet to make an appointment, but the receptionist recommended that I buy a package of TheraBites (a once-a-day cat treat which contains supplements for hips and joints) and try her out on those for a while to see if there was any improvement.

Well. Not only does Snickers LOVE the treats (so no need to trick or force her into eating them), we're not even halfway through the bag and she's already moving much more comfortably. In fact, the other day she was up on the bed chasing her tail, which I hadn't seen her do since she was a kitten. Phew! Problem solved... at least, as long as I keep giving her a treat every morning for the rest of her life. Which is doable. So I am much relieved.

Second, I was surprised and delighted to discover that A Pocket Full of Murder is one of the ten Canadian middle-grade novels nominated for the Silver Birch Award this year. That means a whole bunch of 9-12 year olds will be reading my book this winter, along with at least four more other nominated titles, so they can vote for their favorite in the spring. I've always longed to be nominated for this award, and it's a big boost for the book generally, so I'm very thankful.

I'll be reading from Pocket and talking a little about the sequel this weekend, at the Local Authors reading portion of the Stratford Writers' Festival. All the other events are ticketed and this one is free, but it's also up against the #CanLitPit session where aspiring writers get to pitch directly to editors, so I'm not holding my breath too much for a big audience... still, it was nice to be asked and I hope the Festival does well.

* * *

And thirdly, speaking of Stratford and festivals, I had the pleasure of attending a matinee performance of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at the Avon Theatre with my youngest son's school group today. I'd really been hoping to see the play, especially after my fellow Narnia purist [personal profile] grav_ity  gave it her enthusiastic thumbs-up, but didn't think that I'd ever get the chance... except it turned out a few of the kids in P's class weren't able to attend, so the teacher entered all the interested parents in a draw for the remaining tickets and I was one of the winners. Which is a minor miracle, because I never win anything.

Anyway, I ended up sitting beside P and one of his friends, and we had excellent seats -- about five rows from the stage, bang in the centre. Where I proceeded to tear up halfway through Mr. Beaver's speech about Aslan in Act One and spent most of Act Two desperately wishing I'd brought tissues, because the production was fantastic. I'm so glad they stuck close to the original story, including a lot of the dialogue, instead of introducing a lot of flotsam for the sake of novelty or a false notion of drama (*side-eyes the movies of Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader*).

I'd read an early review that complained about the songs being intrusive, but I didn't find them overly long or distracting at all, and the one about coming to Aslan's table pretty much killed me (as I said on Twitter, "I was not prepared for the communion metaphors").

And tomorrow Adrienne Kress is coming for our annual tea-and-catch-up, which is always a treat, and will be an especially happy occasion this time with her new MG adventure novel The Explorers coming out in 2017. I really enjoy Adrienne's narrative voice and my boys are big fans of her writing as well, so we're looking forward to this one.
... I don't have a cat icon. In fact, I now realize, I have NEVER had a cat icon. This seems like a totally bizarre oversight given my lifelong love of kitties, but anyway...

I've noticed over the past couple of weeks that my eight-year-old calico, Snickers, has started moving quite tentatively, even gingerly at times. She still jumps up onto beds and couches and so on, and jumps down as well -- but when she gets down she stretches herself as close to the floor as possible before making the jump.

If she's in pain, it doesn't seem to stop her moving freely around the house all day, including up and down the stairs, and I can't see any evidence that she's favouring one particular leg or side of her body. She doesn't yelp or yowl when she jumps up or down, only meows at me now and then in a conversational way. Her eyes are clear and bright, her coat sleek, her appetite's as good as ever, and she loves to be petted (even head-butts me until I stroke her). She flexes easily and sleeps in all kinds of positions. But I do get the sense that she's not as comfortable as she should be when walking -- a little wobbly and a little stiff.

Has anybody else had something this happen with one of their cats? I know eight is middle-aged for a cat, but it still seems a bit too young for her to be moving like an old lady.

If she were showing any more alarming symptoms, or seemed to be deteriorating, I'd take her to the vet. But we just spent an unfortunate amount of money earlier this year trying to save our 22-month-old kitten who died of (I think) congenital kidney issues, so I'm hesitant to go that route unless it's really necessary.

Fellow kitty people, any thoughts?

News! News!

Sep. 10th, 2016 10:03 am
rj_anderson: From a quote by Pamela Dean (Book Book Book)
My local paper came through with a lovely interview just in time for the upcoming release of A Little Taste of Poison on Sept. 27th:

There are a few tidbits for those who are wondering what's coming next -- and [personal profile] kerravonsen, there is a shout-out to you in there as well. :)
[personal profile] sartorias aka Sherwood Smith has a fascinating discussion going over on her LJ about when you only like one (or, if they're prolific, two or three) of an author's works and bounce off the rest. So far the responses have mostly been people commisserating and sharing which authors and which books affected them this way, but there's also been some discussion of why this happens.

I don't think there's any one answer to that question myself -- the reasons are as diverse as the individual readers. Sometimes the author undergoes an ideological or philosophical transformation between books (or even just becomes bolder about expressing the views they already had) which leads to a irreconcilable conflict of my thinking and theirs, or pushes my tolerance for those differences over the limit. (See: Philip Pullman.) Sometimes it turns out that the things I loved best about the author's first book -- the style, the tone, the atmosphere -- don't carry over into subsequent novels because they were a feature of that story, not the author's writing as a whole (such as Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which I mentioned in the comments of Sherwood's post). And sometimes I eagerly expect certain things from a series or sequel to a book I really loved, only to find that the author had a completely different plan and veers off in a direction that doesn't interest me at all (I've heard several readers say this about Maria Snyder's Study books, for instance).

Then there's the rarer phenomenon when you love an author's prose but not their poetry (or essays, or what-have-you); or you think them brilliant scriptwriters (or lyricists) but terrible novelists, or the other way around. The ability to put together words in an arrangement that pleases you in one medium doesn't always carry over to others, and that can cause this kind of dissonance as well.

What about you? If you have a much-loved book or books by a certain author but found that most or all of their other works left you cold, what were your reasons for feeling that way? Feel free to comment on either my post or [personal profile] sartorias's as it pleases you; I'll see it in either case.
So this week Naomi Novik's Uprooted won the Nebula Award, and as a result a lot of people are reading it. And the reactions, as they have been pretty much ever since the book came out, are... mixed.

On one hand you have readers (myself among them) who wouldn't go so far as to call the book perfect, but who really loved it and thought it worth recommending to other fantasy lovers. On the other hand, you have people who were so horrified by the book's seemingly dismissive attitude to sexual assault and the hero's lack of respect for the female MC that they either DNF'd the book a few chapters in, or they found the whole experience of reading it to be irrevocably tainted.

Some of those people who disliked (or even hated) Uprooted are my friends, and I am not here to tell them they're wrong to feel that way, or to try and argue them into liking it. But there's a strain in current fictional discourse that's been really bugging me over the past few months, and some of the critiques of Uprooted suffer from it -- the difference between "I didn't love X, and this is why," which is perfectly legitimate and fine (and can even lead to interesting discussions) and "I didn't love X because it's gross and problematic, and if you like X anyway, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU." 

I don't mind hearing that not everybody likes the same things I like. I do very much mind being made to feel that I am a lesser person, indeed a morally inferior one in desperate need of enlightenment, for liking them.

I am not here to defend Novik's choice to have her heroine sexually threatened, because I don't think it was necessary to the plot nor do I think that it added anything to the story. I did notice it, it did bother me, and I would have enjoyed the book a great deal more without that aspect. Nevertheless, it wasn't the dealbreaker for me that it was for some of my friends, and I think I know why.

Because I'm over forty, and I grew up reading different fantasy novels than they did. 

That may sound flippant, but it goes deeper than you might think. In fact, I feel fairly confident in suggesting that the majority of people who loved Uprooted despite its faults are 40+ and/or grew up reading "classic" fantasy novels almost exclusively, while the majority of those who disliked the book enough to DNF or strongly criticize it are 35 or younger, and in their childhood and teens had a much wider, modern pool of fantasy to choose from.

In other words, the twenty and thirtysomething readers didn't grow up having to swallow the occasional bitter pill of sexism or casual racism in order to read books in their genre. They could afford to be picky, and that's why they find it baffling and even upsetting that older fantasy readers don't seem to hold books like Uprooted to the same high standard.

But for me, the habit of overlooking story elements I don't care for in order to enjoy the ones that I do was drilled into me decades ago. When I was a teen reading fantasy novels -- or any kind of novels, for that matter -- it was practically a given that the heroine would be sexually menaced at some point. How else would the villain reveal the true depths of his depravity? What other fate, barring death, could be serious enough to make our hearts flutter anxiously on the heroine's behalf, and make our satisfaction all the greater when the villain was thwarted? And how realistic would it be, really, if the possibility of the heroine being raped was never even acknowledged? You might be able to get away with that in juvenile fantasy, but come on, we're grown-ups here...

I'm not saying this is how it should be or that it's the only way to write a good story, I'm simply stating a fact: this is how it was in 1970's and 80's fantasy (and historical, and crime, and a lot of other genres). You had to be prepared for that, or resign yourself to not reading any fiction at all.

So those of us who grew up reading fantasy learned to adjust our expectations. To see sexual threats or assault as a warning sign (because the way it was handled could often tell you whether the author was indulging a fetish, or merely bowing to what s/he thought were the rules) but not necessarily a dealbreaker. For me, a dealbreaker was having the hero commit rape (I'm looking at you, Lord Foul's Bane) or having the villain rape the heroine on-screen (hello, The Fionavar Tapestry*), whereas having the heroine merely threatened or finding a way to fend off the assault seemed like a positive triumph.

None of this explains, or excuses, why Novik bowed to this particular old-fashioned convention in a decade where sexual assault in fiction can no longer go unquestioned or be easily overlooked. But it does explain why those of us who loved Uprooted were able to do so. Because we weren't surprised to find such an element in a classic-style folklore-inspired fantasy. We could sigh or grimace or roll our eyes as necessary, and then move on.

Furthermore, because Uprooted is so very clearly a tribute to the great female fantasists of the 70's and 80's -- authors like
 Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Ursula LeGuin, who made me think not only "I want to write these kinds of stories" the way Lewis and Tolkien and MacDonald had, but "I want to write like this" -- the overwhelming feeling that reading Uprooted produced in me was a deep nostalgic fondness, and a strong sense of faith in Novik's ability as a storyteller. Because if she'd read and loved the same books I loved as a teen, and her writing was giving me the same feeling as reading The Forgotten Beasts of Eld or Beauty or A Wizard of Earthsea, then I could trust her to tell the rest of her story in a way that would make up for the bits I didn't like so much.

And in the end, my belief was that she did.

So yes, my friends who didn't warm to the book immediately as I did, and felt that certain male characters' treatment of Agnieska was too offensive to ignore or forgive -- I understand, and I'm not trying to change your opinion. But I think it's important to understand how the generation gap between younger and older fantasy readers, and the books that most influenced us, play into this.

It's not that we don't see the flaws and the problematic elements, or that we don't care about them. It's that we can see virtues and delights in Novik's novel, many of them based on the older fantasies to which Uprooted is paying tribute, that make us love it anyway. Which is why Uprooted won the Nebula this year, because the people doing the voting are fondly remembering those older novels -- many of them also flawed, but nonetheless deeply resonant and influential -- as well.

Oh hey, both those "classic" epic fantasies were written by men! What a surprise! No wonder nearly all my favorite 80's fantasy authors were women.
 Two lovely surprises in as many days!

First, a friend on Facebook pointed me to a recent article at featuring Quicksilver as one of Five Books With Asexual Protagonists (and furthermore declaring my post about writing Tori's character to be "excellent", which was a nice bonus).

Then today I got a package in the mail containing two US hardcover copies of A Pocket Full of Murder which, at first glance, seemed no different from the author copies I already had. I was mystified at first, but then I spotted the note tucked inside:


Your book has reprinted! Please find a sample copy enclosed.

Best wishes,


And sure enough, when I checked the title page it turned out to be the SECOND edition. Whoop!

I am so, so, happy and relieved to know that the book is doing well enough to exceed my publisher's expectations -- and I suspect making this year's CLA Top Ten Best Books for Children shortlist probably had a good deal to do with the bump in sales, so I am grateful for that all over again.


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