Hi, all! I hope you’re all having a very happy Winter Holiday season. Today is Boxing Day in Canada, the day we all put on our gloves and punch each other in the face. Good times. Helps us stay mild and inoffensive for the rest of the year. You wondered why Canadians are so polite? Boxing Day. You may quote me.
I’m really just popping in to let you know we have a North American cover, at long last. It is beautiful – I can’t stop staring at it – and Captain Editorpants says I’m to sit on it until the new year.
So yeah, I’m just here to tease you and make you wonder. What could be on it? (Hint: not a girl in a prom dress!) Will I like it better than the British version? (Hint: it’s ok to like them both; they’re very, very different) Why is Rachel TEASING ME?? (Hint: Boxing Day!)
I’m off on my holiday again – my friends aren’t going to punch themselves, you know! Meanwhile, here’s a nice little review from Laura Gjovaag, geared toward Amy Unbounded fans. Catch you in 2012, cover in hand!
Well, friends, the holiday season is upon us. I shall be taking a break from this space for the next couple weeks, that I may celebrate Saturnalia with my family. It’s a full-contact holiday, and will take up all my time for a while.
I tried to find a good Saturnalia song to share with you, but this silly thing is really all there is:
Whatever you celebrate, have a good one. See you in 2012, if not a bit before.
An article from the NYT: Art and the Limits of Neuroscience.
Very interesting. I suspect I have things to say in response, but I’m going to have to let it stew for a few days. Also, the dog is whining to go out, which really has to take precedence over almost anything else. Whatever else is true, dog pee on the floor is not art.
That question, more than any other, seems to be a bugbear for writers and other artists.
I find it embarrassing, myself. Not because it’s hard to answer, and not because the answer (from my brain) is so obvious and anticlimactic. It’s because I inevitably hear a question behind the question: why is it that you have good ideas and I don’t?
It can’t be true that the asker has no ideas, or really doesn’t know where ideas come from, right? Those aren’t possibilities I can entertain, and I am the queen of entertaining possibilities. The question, as asked, doesn’t make much sense.
The unasked question, on the other hand, is awkward. It puts a chasm between me and the asker (Rachel = full of glorious ideas; asker = full of stupid ideas) and I feel pretty sure the asker didn’t quite mean to ask it. Is it rude to answer what was not explicitly asked? I usually make up some kind of funny answer that is also true: where don’t I get ideas? Ideas are like a fire hose to the face, and I wish I could turn it off sometimes.
Here’s what I’d rather say, though:
I don’t have good ideas, or at least, not any better than anyone else. What I have is a willingness to entertain ideas. I don’t dismiss them out of hand. I have them over for tea, and if we get along well enough, maybe dinner. The ones I really like end up staying over. And maybe I should cut that metaphor off right there; you get the idea. My “good” ideas are simply the ones that interest me most, just like my friends are the people I get along with best, rather than the best people.
I will entertain any idea, no matter how ugly. Sometimes the ugliest ones are the most fruitful; sometimes they’re ugly because they’re full of other ideas. Scary ones are harder to face, and I will sometimes put them off, but I’ve never yet regretted looking one in the eye. Insipid ones, boring ones, cliched and tedious ones – I get plenty of those. I’m happy to let them in because sometimes a more unusual idea is hiding underneath them.
I don’t marry my ideas. There are always, ALWAYS more; that is an article of faith for me. I let go of the ones that don’t grab me or I can’t use – and I get so many I’m not sure I even see them all – but what I never do is label them stupid or bad. You start putting those kinds of labels on ideas, and maybe the ideas will get the idea that your mind is an unsafe place to be. Why should they come around, if you’re going to be so mean to them? (and yet I bet some of them still do).
What I’m trying to say – in the most circuitous way possible – is that ideas invite more ideas. I think the really interesting ones only come around after you’ve shown a certain willingness to entertain the lesser ones. You can’t just dismiss the little ones; it’d be like dismissing a rock for being boring, when you could have built Chartres with enough rocks just like it.
It’s not a question of where I get ideas, but of how I treat ideas.
There’s probably more to it. Different minds probably generate different flavours of ideas. Some may be more suited to other purposes, like philosophy, or business, or physics. But again, I think the willingness to consider possibilities – even the ones that inner Grendel-voice would like to dismiss as stupid – would be a useful trait of mind in any field.
Before I go, let me just invoke the classic(al) example of a “stupid” idea. Have some Beethoven:
Duh-duh-duh-DUUUUHHHHNNN. That’s a musical idea. It’s pretty ludicrous, on the face of things. It seems barely an idea worth having. But old Ludwig, by golly, he invited it in. He talked to it and listened to what it had to tell him. He built a mighty edifice from that stupid stone.
O hypothetical asker! Talk to your stupid ideas. They’re as full of potential as any of mine.
(I look at these five stars and think, no way. This book cannot be measured with stupid little stars.)
(I will just mention, too, that there are spoilers ahead. This is a book worth not being spoiled, so please do read it first before reading my review. You’ll need a box of tissues, and your blankie.)
As always, I start from my own eccentricity: I am interested in the Monsters of the Mind. We all have them, the Grendels, the Keepers of the Eternal Shame, the beasts blocking the exits in the dark rooms of our neuroses. Their identification and eradication is a particular hobby of mine; you may picture me as a grizzled old gunslinger, hunting them down and shooting them daid.
That was my preconceived notion, going into this book. Having heard merely that it was about a boy with a dying mother who is visited by a monster, I thought, “Here be Grendels, sure enough! I’ll get my gun!”
And indeed, there IS a Grendel in the book, but it’s not the eponymous monster. It’s the nightmare monster in the bottomless pit, the shame so terrible it will surely kill Connor if anyone ever finds out about it (or so he believes – shame monsters cannot really kill us, and that is a secret worth knowing).
No, the main monster in this book was entirely surprising to me, something I don’t usually think of as monstrous, but of course it is. Of course. He’s The Way the World Is, personified (monstrosified?). The Truth, who is the opposite of Shame (who is always, ALWAYS a liar).
As I was working on this review last night, I got really stuck trying to talk about the monster, because of two things. One, part of the beauty of a story like this is that the reader gets to decide what the monster really is, and so all my attempts to say, “The monster means THIS!” are necessarily going to fall flat and miss the mark. And two, the thing that the monster is TO ME, is hard to talk about in any kind of straight line.
(Everything I say from here on out is predicated on a big “TO ME”, ok?)
The monster is the truth, but the truth often encompasses a paradox. The yew is poisonous, and it can heal. The boy can’t let go unless he holds on. Bad men can be good kings or healers; good people come to bad ends that they deserve (and not getting what you deserve can be a miscarriage of justice or a mercy). Being visible can be lonelier than being invisible, but being seen is crucial (that was where I cried hardest, that note from Lily). There can be redemption (and connection!) in destruction. The world is unfair, but there is a fairness to the unfairness and a comfort in the impersonal nature of it all.
This was a very deep and spiritual book with no mention whatsoever of a deity, a book that speaks to the true heart of the experience without telling you what conclusion you’re supposed to draw.
(And there’s parts of it I’m still mulling over. What we think doesn’t matter? Really? I can bend my mind around to kind of getting that – with a great deal of sleight-of-mind THINKING – and I’m still not sure I agree. I suspect it’s a terminology issue, and that I DO agree if he phrased it differently.)(Sorry, getting hung up on nothing, as usual)
Anyway, the book is beautiful and absolutely gutting. I cried, though maybe at weird places. That note from Lily, as I mentioned, but also the moment where his grandma gets angry because she couldn’t find him — because she was WORRIED about him — and it’s finally clear she cares.
Reading reviews of this, there are a lot of people’s stories about loved ones who’ve died, how this book brings it back, how this book would have helped. And I won’t pretend I haven’t thought about various deaths (not just of people, either) during and after. And I have to wonder, because I’m always wondering stuff: how much sense would this book make to a kid who hasn’t been through the fire? Some, certainly. Note that I’m NOT planning to read this to my eight-year-old, because I think he’d be absolutely wrecked. He’s a sensitive kid. The sadness would come through, no question, but would the wisdom? I don’t know; I kind of suspect not, that you can’t really grasp these lessons until you have been a veteran of this particular war, but it might vary with the individual. I’m not going to run the experiment, so we’ll just have to content ourselves with speculating.
My own novel’s dedication page is in memoriam to a friend who died two years ago. He was part of my inspiration for dragons taking human form; he was our Irish teacher, cantankerous and scary smart, and he looked like a dragon to me. I am still sad that he never got to read my book.
[The following public service announcement is part of my sentencing, along with folding several loads of laundry, making lunch, and buying an external hard drive. And believe me, it's ALL better than having two months' work flushed down the toilet.]
Hey, kids! Back up your work!
I just about had a heart attack yesterday. Our main computer – the one I’m writing the sequel on – would not boot up again after being turned off.
For one horrible moment I feared I’d lost everything.
Once I calmed down a little, I realized I had e-mailed myself the file – 10 days ago. A lot has happened in the last 10 days, but it was better than losing everything. Then I remembered that I’d e-mailed the most recent chapters to a critique-buddy just two days ago. I could surely piece everything back together; I wasn’t completely screwed, but it was a close thing.
Then Scott came home and fixed the computer, because he is the God of Physics and all must obey his Righteous Laws. Or some crap. That’s not quite how he told me to phrase it, but you get the idea.
Anyway. Now we have an external hard drive. And I will back up my files
whenever I remember to every single day. And I will be grateful for my husband until he stops bugging me about it just like I always am, every day, anyway.
In honour of how grumpy I’ve been on and off for the last two months, here’s a comic strip I did for Strange Horizons, almost a decade ago:
I need to add, however, that actual writer’s block is very rare for me these days. Maybe there is a cure, or maybe the same phenomenon takes different forms (the aforementioned cantankerousness, for example). Maybe it’s a matter of experience: I’m more likely to rip out pages and try something new if I get stuck, and I’m less likely to give up if the going gets tough (which it does, inevitably). I’ve got more stamina now.
My friend Phoebe North (who just got a book deal! Yay Phoebe!) recently did a question-and-answer post. One of the questions I posed her (besides the one that made her call me “evil”) was “What’s the one thing you really, really wish you had known before you began?”
Here’s my answer to that question: I wish I had truly understood how much stamina this was going to take. Maybe that would have deterred me, but I don’t think so. I’ve never been one to balk at a challenge. Having a realistic sense of the scope of the challenge, though? Would have saved me some grief.
I could play coy and pretend I never stalk myself online, but that would be a big fat lie. Now that Seraphina is out in eARC form, a few YA book bloggers have read and reviewed it. I don’t know what the etiquette is for linking to reviews, so I’ve tried to be even-handed. Not all of these reviews are gushing and enthusiastic, but they’re all thoughtful, well-considered, and full of good observations. Here are the ones I’ve found so far. Please note: some of these have spoilers!
Cuddlebuggery (HI KAT!)
There are more reviews – both good and meh! – at Goodreads, of course. No bad reviews yet, but that’s a matter of time. I gave The Giving Tree one star, so I’ve got some karma lined up, surely. I’m sort of tempted to write a bad review myself, just to get it over with – because who knows how to poke me in the eye better than me? – but I suppose that’s cheating.
Today I finally fell in love with the sequel.
Ye gods that took a shockingly long time!
You’ve noticed me struggling (remember when I dropped 70 pages?). I like to bring my difficulties out into the light and examine them, partly because doing so can jostle new ideas loose, partly because I think it’s instructive for aspiring writers to see me struggle. Then you can say to yourself, Wow, if a chronic bumbler like that can write a novel and get published, maybe there’s hope for me after all!
There was something I wasn’t saying, though, because it was deeply embarrassing to me: I did not love this book. However many interesting ideas I had, however much I talked to my characters and made them real, the work still left me cold. I knew why (no love) but I didn’t know how to fix it.
This sequel has been a bit like an arranged marriage for me. It’s politically important – people expect it, I’m under contract, I’m uniting feuding kingdoms, etc. – but I’ve had many days where “write on and think of England” was the only way I was making it through. I held my nose, followed my outline, and forged ahead for the good of the nation. Old ladies told me I would learn to love this book eventually, but I kept wondering when?
It turns out there was a tiny little scene at about page 65 that I’d decided was too difficult to write. I skipped it in the interest of forward progress. Yesterday, when all forward progress had once again ground to a halt, I went back to look at it. There seemed to be no other course of action left.
The scene was difficult indeed – harrowing and honest and exposed. I solved it inelegantly, but I solved it
Today I went back and solved it better.
All of a sudden we have ourselves a novel, a proper novel, built on love. And that is an unfathomable relief.