An Upsetting Book With a Happy Cover

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Some of my favorite books are books written for children around 10 or 12 years old. Decades after I discovered them, I still love to re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, The House with the Clock in its Walls, and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues. As an adult, I sometimes dip into today’s kid’s lit in hopes of coming across something to add to my favorites list.

This is how I wound up reading Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder. It’s a bored-rich-girl-becomes-challenged-poor-girl story where both her parents are alive and also redefining themselves. It was both silly and real, and it was a fun read. The main character Penny loves books. Most of what she knows about the world she learned from stories she’s read. So it isn’t surprising that she constantly comments on things around her in terms of children’s books.

I laughed out loud when I read this:

Maybe Duncan was like an upsetting book with an ordinary, happy cover. Maybe he was Bridge to Terabithia. —in Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder.

I remember being floored by the tragic story in Bridge to Terabithia when I read it as a kid. It is most certainly “an upsetting book with an ordinary, happy cover.” Penny Dreadful was full of passing observations about children’s books that I know well which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. It was fun to read a new story while be reminded of old ones.

I know there are lots of other adults reading young adult and even children’s fiction for pleasure. Which kid’s books are your favorites? Are you still reading kid lit today?

Tyrion Lannister: Impolite is Not Boring

I just finished reading A Game of Thrones (by George R. R. Martin) for the first time. I’ve been hearing about it ever since the TV series hit the air in 2011. As a fantasy fan, I should have checked it out right away, but I was leery. Some things with masses of devoted fans leave me disappointed or even angry. (Hobbit movies, I’m looking at you.) Nothing is loved by everyone. But A Game of Thrones was a pleasant surprise. Despite the challenge of being engaged by a story that jumps between multiple characters with every chapter, I was quickly pulled in. And now I’m hooked. As soon as I finished Game, I started reading A Clash of Kings. I am probably in it for the long haul.

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Guaranteed to keep you up late.

The most embarrassing thing about enjoying these books isn’t admitting I was snobby enough to think I wouldn’t like them. It’s admitting that I am fascinated by the character of Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t know, he’s the dwarf brother of a reprehensible queen and member of a family that engages in distasteful practices like poisoning and incest.

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Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage)

Tyrion may be my favorite character, because along with his willingness to manipulate, lie, and otherwise trick his way to where he wants to be, he is also an underdog. He is small, weak, ungainly, and racked with physical pain. In a world where swords and strength decide men’s fates, he is at a huge disadvantage. There is no question if he will be able to fight his way out of a trap — he can’t. What he can do is sweet talk someone else into doing the fighting for him.

The way he thinks and the clever ways he finds to use the people around him to get what he wants makes for fun reading. It does feel a bit like not being able to look away when driving past a car accident. It’s not anything we would want to experience ourselves, but some part of us wants to see the mess.

No one wants to read polite. It puts them to sleep. — Anne Bernays

Tyrion is not polite. He constantly speaks brutal truths, exposing the reality of the situation no matter how insulting to the hearer, or how much danger he will face as a result. When he does speak politely, even kindly, I find myself wondering: Doe he really mean it? I want him to mean it, but I’m not sure he does. There’s no telling when he is playing someone. And that makes for fun reading as well.

There’s a lot more about the Song of Ice and Fire series that is “impolite”: betrayals, slaughters, intrigues, rapes, and murders. Seeing an arrogant and cruel would-be king meet a violent end was one of the most satisfying moments in the first book. There’s no question about it: the car wrecks are riveting. I want to live in a polite world; but when it comes to reading, let everyone misbehave. Please.

What about you? Are you attracted to “impolite” characters and stories?

Who is the True Hero? Frodo or Sam?

Thanks to Hollywood, the word “hero” conjures a definite image: a muscular, stern-faced man, who is taciturn, courageous, and determined. He faces impossible odds, risking what matters most to him, in order to save others. His most prominent characteristic is his strength — physical and mental. Without it, he cannot hope to succeed.

Most heroes look something like this...
Most heroes look something like this…

But not all heroes fit this model. The ultimate heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are two hobbits, smaller than the other races living in Middle Earth. Hobbits spend their time eating good food, smoking their pipes, and enjoying life in the rural Shire. Their strength is in their sense of humor and their gentle ways, but Frodo and Sam wind up journeying to a distant land to destroy a magic ring in order to save their world from enslavement.

Sam and Frodo, on their way to Mordor.
Sam and Frodo, on their way to Mordor.

Some say that Sam is the true hero of Lord of the Rings. He literally does the heavy lifting as they get closer and closer to Mount Doom, getting Frodo out of the tower after he’s been captured by orcs and carrying his master up the mountain when Frodo is exhausted by the weight of the ring. If you think a hero is all about action and strength, then Sam does look heroic. He also has many heroic qualities, including unswerving loyalty, a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of others, and the determination to keep going no matter how hopeless things get. Certainly, Frodo could never succeed without Sam’s help.

Frodo’s actions, on the other hand, suggest that he is not the hero. He has vowed to destroy the ring, but at the last moment, he fails to do as he promised. When he finally reaches Mount Doom, the ring overpowers him and he decides to keep it. The whole purpose of going to Mordor was to throw the ring into the fire. To not do so is to doom the world, because no matter who has the ring, it will eventually lead him to evil. Frodo and Sam’s quest, however, does not fail. Gollum, who carried the ring for years and has traveled with the hobbits, attacks Frodo and bites off his finger along with the ring. Gollum falls into a chasm of fire and the ring burns with him.

The untrustworthy but pathetic Gollum
The untrustworthy but pathetic Gollum

Despite all this, I am positive Tolkien considers Frodo the hero of the piece*. Gollum would not be there to take the ring if it weren’t for Frodo. When the hobbits catch Gollum following them to Mordor, they know he means them harm. Sam says they should tie him up or kill him outright, rather than let the creature follow them. But Frodo won’t let him.

Gandalf has told him of all the evil Gollum has done and Frodo wishes his uncle Bilbo had killed the creature when he had the chance. However, when he sees the wretched Gollum for himself, Frodo is filled with compassion. He understands how the ring has twisted and hurt Gollum. Sam doesn’t trust Gollum, and neither does Frodo. But unlike Sam, Frodo is unwilling to kill him. He follows his compassionate impulses, and protects Gollum from Sam while they travel together.

Without Gollum, the quest would have failed. Sam could never have stopped Frodo once he decided to keep the ring and put it on. But because he showed compassion towards Gollum, Frodo ensured their ultimate success. His kindness saved them all.

Frodo and Sam return home dressed like the heroes they are.
Frodo and Sam return home dressed like the heroes they are.

One would expect a warrior like the one I described above to be a better choice to carry a ring into dangerous country. The hobbits prove more stout and determined than one might expect, but strength isn’t the reason they succeed. Compassion is.

Who do you think the true hero is? Frodo or Sam?

*Those who only know the movies, please note that Frodo is much stronger in the book. He is more successful at resisting the ring’s power throughout and more than once his ability to resist is commented on.

Fiction for Shakespeare Fans

One of the bad things about adoring the work of a deceased writer is that eventually you have read everything that person published. I’m in this boat a lot, because most of the writers I like have been dead for decades or even centuries. There will be no more books from Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens. Nor will there be any more plays from William Shakespeare.

Granted, I haven’t read everything Shakespeare wrote (the historical plays are heavy going and then there are all those sonnets to get through), but I’m familiar with a lot of his work. I love Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, but Hamlet is my all-time favorite. I imprinted on it as a teen, watching Derek Jacobi’s glorious ranting in the BBC version we taped off PBS. (Star Trek fans: Patrick Stewart plays Claudius covered in gray curls. One look and you will understand why he shaved his head.)

Fortunately, lots of people are like me: in love with Shakespeare. It means that when I am not reading something by Shakespeare, I can read something that incorporates Shakespeare. In the past, I’ve enjoyed mysteries by Ngaio Marsh that involved Shakespearean actors (Final Curtain) or performances of his plays (Light Thickens) or even Shakespeare’s personal life (Death at the Dolphin; Killer Dolphin in the U.S.). Thanks to her many experiences with the theater and acting, she weaves Shakespeare into her mysteries with a loving hand.

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But just recently, I came across something new to me: Shakespearean fan fiction. The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert tells the story of Gilly, one of the three witches who meet Macbeth on the moor and set him on the bloody path described in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Gilly wants revenge on Macbeth and talks the other two women into helping her. Reisert has taught and directed Macbeth many times, and her love and knowledge of the play shines through. Reading her book is like seeing the play from behind the scenes. You get to watch familiar characters move outside the bounds of the play, but unlike Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this fan fiction clarifies and enhances the motivations and actions of all the characters involved in Shakespeare’s play. Best of all, despite the understandably dark overtones of the story, the author brings Gilly through the tragedy to a good end, one that is prepared for and fits well with Gilly’s actions throughout the story.

One of the wonderful illustrations from William Shakespeare's Star Wars; illustration by Nicolas Delort
One of the wonderful illustrations from William Shakespeare’s Star Wars; illustration by Nicolas Delort

Only days after I finished reading The Third Witch, I came across another wonderful example of fan fiction, although this is more of a mash-up. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope is Ian Doescher’s re-telling of the famous space opera using the structure and style of Shakespeare’s plays. I have not read this book cover-to-cover yet, but I’ve opened it repeatedly, and every line is a gem. Not only do you know exactly where you are in the story, but you recognize the way it’s been bent by Doescher’s Shakespearean lens.

I’ll prove it to you. Here’s a bit of the text, selected by opening the book at random:

[Luke continues to practice with his lightsaber against the remote]
OBI-WAN       Remember, Luke, the Force doth smoothly flow
Within the feelings of a Jedi Knight.
LUKE               But doth the Force control one’s ev’ry move?
OBI-WAN        ‘Tis somewhat so, but also shall the Force Obey thine every command, young Luke.
LUKE               [aside:] This Force, by troth, I’ll never comprehend!
It doth control and also doth obey?
And ’tis within and yet it is beyond,
‘Tis both inside and yet outside one’s self?
What paradox! What fickle-natur’d pow’r!
Aye: frailty, they name — belike — is Force.
(page 91, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope)

The best news of all: this isn’t just a book, it’s a series. I can’t wait to get my hands on The Empire Striketh Back. What could be better than Yoda’s wisdom In iambic pentameter? Sure to rock it is.

Do you have favorite books about Shakespeare or his plays? What are they? I’m always on the lookout for a good Shakespearean read. 

Why I Want to Be Kristen Lamb When I Grow Up

A few weeks ago, I ordered Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer directly from social media maven Kristen Lamb. I’d already read and loved her book Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. I’ve been struggling with my blog lately, so I was eager for some new ideas about how to approach it. I couldn’t wait to read Are You There Blog?, because I was sure it would inspire me.

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I sent off my check and then I heard the news. Kristen was sick. Really sick. An allergic reaction had triggered an episode of shingles. She was in pain, medicated, in and out of the ER. As I followed her posts on Facebook, I told myself not to expect the book any time soon. She was not going to have time for something so trivial while her body was causing her so much trouble.

To my astonishment, the book arrived promptly. Not only did I get it long before I expected to, but it was signed with a personal greeting from Kristen that thanked me for supporting her. I was flabbergasted.

And then I was awed.

Kristen walks the talk. She tells us writers that we must behave as professionals in order to succeed, that we must be disciplined and do what needs doing, no matter what. Despite the many excuses she could have used to delay filling my trivial order for a single book, she took care of it at once, and she even made the effort to sign the book thoughtfully when she must have been feeling rotten. She refused to let what she was feeling at the moment keep her from achieving her long-term goals.

Health issues have been a limiting factor for me for many years. so Kristen’s example is a powerful one to me. I’ve had many days when I’ve had to lower my expectations and take care of myself rather than accomplish the things I hoped to because I wasn’t well enough to do them. Fortunately, the last year has been one of healing, resulting in steady improvement in my energy and health. I can get through a packed schedule now without being too tired to move the next day.

Knowing that Kristen is still getting the job done despite her illness is inspiring to me. I know she’s had to get help and delegate a lot of her usual duties as mother and wife in order to keep up with her career while dealing with her health, but she’s done it. If she can do it, so can I.

For the record: Are You There Blog? It’s Me Writer has given me more ideas about improving my blog. I’ve also read Rise of the Machines three times in order to dig out every diamond of advice she’s packed into that book. (You can read my review of it here.)

I have a new role model to look to as I write my novels, learn more about publishing, and keep working on my blog. Kristen Lamb leads by example and there is no question that what she does works. Time for me to put her great advice into action.

How about you? Who are the role models you learn from in pursuing your life goals? What about them has inspired you?

My Favorite Dinosaur: The Thesaurus

Notice what's right in the middle? Yup. My trusty Roget's.
Notice what’s right in the middle? Yup. My trusty Roget’s.

The first time I handled a thesaurus, I was about 11 years old. I flipped through the book, trying to understand the purpose of the collected words. I found the section on color and read through the lists. All those words just to describe a shade of blue!

It was love at first sight.

As an adult, I am amazed at how down on the thesaurus writers can be. The only mention of the thesaurus I have ever found in writing books is always negative and boils down to a single rule: Don’t touch it.

The argument is that, in the search for a different word from the one she fears to repeat, the writer succumbs to inaccurate word use as well as ostentatious writing. But that doesn’t give the writer any credit for intelligence, nor does it allow for those cases where the writer is looking for a word because the one she has isn’t quite right.

My thesaurus has a place of honor with the other critical reference books that sit on my desk and I will always treasure it.

Here are the reasons I think a thesaurus is so valuable:

1) Finding unique terms for a familiar concept. I write fantasy stories and fairy tale adaptations and the challenge to say something new starts with the terms I use. “Witch” is loaded with pre-conceived meanings. The connotations that go with it may fit my character and her story but they may not. When they don’t, I dig out my thesaurus and search for some other magical term that might do the job. Sorceress? Enchantress? Hag? I can count on my thesaurus to suggest words related to “witch” that have different meanings. A word I find might even inspire entirely new ideas about my character or story.

2) The lists. Kinds of ships, types of trees, gemstones, colors, flowers, mammals. I adore the lists. I mine them for ideas as I name my characters, towns, harbors, ships, and kingdoms. They keep my story settings dazzling.

3) To uncover connections. Sometimes opening the thesaurus to get help with a particular word can make me aware of meanings I hadn’t considered before. I learn by accident something interesting about where the word I am pursuing fits into the big picture of language. My world expands.

4) It’s a great excuse to open my dictionary. Sensitive to the accusation that thesaurus users are imprecise, I will look up any words I am not sure of and learn more about their multiple meanings and cultural origins. Just like the thesaurus, the dictionary is a word playground, a place a writer loves to be. How lovely that they play well together, too.

Are you a thesaurus fan? Do you have a treasured tool that others consider out-of-date, ineffective, or obsolete? Feel free to share your love here; I promise not to laugh.

It Came From Left Field: The Enjoyable Challenge of the Unexpected Plot Twist

My all-time favorite writing experience is a collaboration I did with my friend Kelleen a few years ago.  Kelleen suggested we try writing something using the method Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer did to write Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. They started out by playing a game and wound up writing a book together.

In the appendix of their book, they describe the Letter Game: two players take turns writing each other letters “in persona”, as if they were the character they are writing about. The only rule is that the players cannot discuss their plot ideas with each other. Each person responds to the last person’s letter until the story has been told.

Kelleen and I agreed we were not writing a book for publication. We were out to have fun, so we made up our own rules. Instead of writing letters, our characters would be together for the story. We would write alternate chapters of narration using first person from the point of view of our “persona” characters. We agreed that we were not allowed to do anything irrevocable to the other person’s character. We promised not to use the fast-fix cop-out of waking from a dream to cancel out events that we didn’t like from the other person’s chapters. And we would follow Wrede and Stevermer’s rule; we were not allowed to discuss the plot.

We each wrote up a short backstory resume for our characters for reference purposes. Kelleen wrote the first chapter to get us started. My Samantha was visiting Kelleen’s Jennifer in Texas and they were at the Renaissance Festival. We took turns and wrote 14 chapters in all. Before we were done, Sam and Jen were transported to a medieval world where they had magical powers and dragons. Princes helped them and wizards chased them. In the midst of it all, they had to figure out how to get home again.

Our first two chapters were each about eight pages long. By the time we reached the end of our story, our chapters had tripled in length. For one of them I wrote 146 draft pages by hand, considering five different plots and writing material for two of them in the process, all to produce a typed chapter twenty pages long.

What inspired me to put so much effort into a story I was writing for fun?

The unexpected.

While we might not have been talking about the plot, both Kelleen and I had our ideas of what kind of story we were writing, what kind of things might happen. Our general ideas about our story matched well, but the specifics as detailed in the chapters we wrote constantly surprised one another.

For example, in chapter three, Kelleen had our characters meet conveniently unmarried princes. Then Sam and Jen were arrested and locked in a dungeon to await their executions. I didn’t mind the princes, but I had not planned on a dungeon. In accordance with the rules, we didn’t talk about what we thought might happen next. I did my best to get our modern American characters out of the dungeon realistically, even though dragons and magic were involved.

In the next chapter I received, Sam had been kidnapped by a terrifying stranger. There was no explanation of who he was and minimal explanation of what he wanted. I wasn’t planning on a kidnapping, but I had to find a way to get my character out of this horrible situation, right after I figured out how she’d gotten there in the first place.

This pattern became the norm. A new chapter would arrive. I’d read it, be surprised, shocked, stumped. Once I got over the novelty of all the unexpected material that had been handed to me, I thought hard about what came next. Eventually I’d have an idea of how to solve the current problem and I would do my best to come up with a devil of a plot twist to end with so Kelleen could sweat for a bit.

At first all I could think was how hard it was to try to write this way. But with time I came to enjoy it. We were two animals harnessed together and trying to reach different destinations. The story lurched along as a result, first going this way, then going that way, constantly getting dragged back to a sort of middle road that wasn’t what either of us was actually aiming for. We had to work like crazy to squeeze in the moments we had dreamt up for our characters while also dealing with all the things we hadn’t planned on that had been dumped on us by our co-author.

We got really good at this. Our later chapters are amazing. We created dramatic moments, interesting characters, funky magic, and a fairly coherent story without once discussing the actual plot. Our story even had a happy ending, although that was one thing we would definitely have agreed on if we’d been allowed to talk about it ahead of time.

It was a glorious, hair-pulling, that’s-the-ticket, how-can-I-make-things-worse?, I-did-it ride. And absolutely the most fun I have ever ever ever had writing. Thanks, Kelleen.