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Whitney Rules Update

September 22, 2009

Robison Wells has posted about a couple of new rules for the Whitneys:

1-there will be no finalists for Best Novel and Best Novel by a New Author, so that the books nominated in that category will not automatically skew the voting for the genre categories, and
2-Everyone has to read all the books they vote about, and check a box saying that they’ve done so.

Makes sense to me.

And now, Whitney-eligible books I’ve read so far this year (not enough, I’m sure; I was scrambling to read them all last time), with a brief assessment:

Warbreaker. Brandon Sanderson. Brilliant, of course. I loved it. Should Brandon Sanderson be eliminated from consideration if he wins too often? Just wondering. It hardly seems fair to anyone else writing in the science fiction category.
The Princess and the Bear, Mette Ivie Harrison. Oh this is a good book. It started slow for me, but I ended up loving it. Elegant writing.
Princess of the Midnight Ball, Jessica Day George. This was cute; I found myself wanting a couple more layers, but it was a fun read.
The Hourglass Door, by Lisa Mangum. A quick Google search on reviews reveals that most people compare it to Twilight, and that’s exactly what I thought of it–it seemed to be a new take on Twilight themes, with a teenage girl falling for a handsome and unkissable stranger.
Tower of Strength, by Annette Lyon. Love the strong female protagonist! Go Tabitha! May all the other historical fiction nominees be this much fun. Or maybe not quite this much fun. 🙂
The Chosen One, Carol Lynch Williams. Oh my this is a haunting book, but the writing is stunning, and everyone should read it. With a box of kleenex.
Brandon Mull, Fablehaven 4–my son loves these. I enjoy them too, although I am not quite the fervent fan he is.

On my to-read Whitney eligible list:
Shannon Hale’s books, The Actor and the Housewife, and Forest Born.
Ann Dee Ellis, Everything is Fine.
Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz #3 (not released yet)
J. Scott Savage, Farworld: Land Keep
James Dashner, 13th Reality #2, and his other new book out from Delacourt
Dan Wells, I am not a serial killer.
Josi Kilpack, English Trifle
That’s what I come up with off the top of my head. I know there are plenty more eligible books out there, but these are the ones I am probably going to read (and possibly even shell out money for) before all the nominees are announced.

Edit to correct the title of The Chosen One (blush). At some point I will probably stick in a bunch of links as well.

What are you reading now? I know I’m missing out on some great titles.

A Rant About Crafts

September 22, 2009

Why are Mormon women supposed to do crafts? Is there something inherently divine about the doing of crafts? This is something I am struggling with right now, because I’ve been asked to make a sale-worthy craft to donate.

Here’s the thing: I have never in my life made a craft that I would ever ask anyone to pay for. Even that blanket I took a picture of, which turned out pretty cute, is not saleable. Why? If you look at it, and you don’t have to look close, the stitching is crooked, and the corners aren’t quite right. I would make it and give it to someone, because the person I gave it to would say “Aww, Emily made this, and she doesn’t even sew very well. Bless her heart. It’s soft, and my baby won’t mind that it’s not perfect.” And I really would feel my heart being blessed.

But ask someone to shell out money for it? Heck no. And the same is true of every other craft I’ve ever made in my life. I don’t mind doing crafts at Enrichment nights. I like working on a project and chatting. But if I don’t get it done that night, I never finish it on my own. I threw away an old box of Enrichment crafts from the early nineties. When I do finish a project, it’s rarely good-looking enough that I would want to display it in my own home, let alone say “hey! pay money for this!” Besides, crafts get dated easily; in ten years all the vinyl lettering that’s so popular now will go the way of Relief Society glass grapes.

I admire and respect the women who made this request, which is why I will humiliate/humble myself in attempting to make a pathetic little contribution. But I guess I chafe at being forced into a craft-mold. I’m okay when other women do crafts. I am even okay doing them myself, as long as someone else figures out the project and shows me how and doesn’t evaluate the final result. I just struggle with mandatory sale-worthy crafts.

I spent two minutes searching for a blog mocking bad crafts, but I couldn’t find the one I was looking for, so I gave it up (the internet has shortened my attention span). But here is my kind of maudlin blog from Segullah about mean girls and charity.


September 18, 2009

I fell down in yoga today, several times, when I was trying to do crow. I cannot fall quietly. I scream and then it messes up the breathing of everyone around me. I am new to yoga. I am, predictably, pretty bad at it. But I’m enjoying it. It fills my tae kwon do void, and my leg is just not up to the pivots and kicks of tae kwon do yet.

So my instructor says I am supposed to breathe through falling, and not scream, but I don’t know if I can do that. I’ve never been able to breathe through falling. I hate falling. I have always hated falling. I can’t breathe through it. I anticipate falling with tension, and when it happens I scream, and it takes me a while to get back up again.

There are larger life lessons in this, I know–this inability to fall with grace, to breathe through the fall, shows up in just about every other area of my life. I dread falling and then react badly when it happens, as it inevitably does.

On Swearing

May 15, 2009

I hate it when a good book swears swears a lot. It hurts my brain and my spirit to swim through a lot of language muck. I don’t know how much of this is a Mormon cultural thing. But my bias in reading favors books that are story honest without necessarily being true-to-life in their language.

Is that a contradiction in terms? I don’t think so. In fact, according to Robert McKee (Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting), writers place too much importance on words as story building-blocks, rather than events:

[W]riting also demands two singular and essential talents. These talents, however, have no necessary connection. A mountain of one does not mean a grain of the other. The first is literary talent–the creative conversion of ordinary language into a higher, more expressive form, vividly describing the world and capturing its human voice. Literary talent is, however, common. … The second is story talent–the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. Pure story talent is rare. (Story page 27)

In another place, he says (I paraphrase; I can’t find the quote right now, but when I find it I will come back and replace this) that too many writers believe that their stories are made up of words. No; stories are made up of events.

And the final McKee quote:

The “personal story” is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” But “T” truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life. (Story 24)

I have heard an argument in favor of including swearing that goes something like this: Real people talk this way, characters need to be real people, therefore they need to talk this way, or else they will not ring true, and no one will believe they are real.

The problem with this argument, I realize after reading McKee, is that the truth of a character is much more about what the character does than the words the character chooses to express himself. Based on the idea that verisimilitude can actually blind us to the truth of life, you could make a case for cutting most (if not all) bad language from many stories. I will concede that a choice word may be necessary on occasion (Rhett Butler and Lady MacBeth agree there). But I really can’t think of too many stories I’ve ever read that have had their story truth enhanced by abundant bad language. I suspect that it’s actually a crutch: it’s much easier to fill a character’s mouth with swear words and call it real than than to create a real, believable character whose actions are True, whether or not the words are true to life.

Disclaimers: 1-The McKee book is fabulous. And, ironically, contains some bad language here and there. Sharlee Glenn introduced me to the joy of inking out swearing; it’s very satisfying.
2-McKee never advocates limiting swearing; this analysis is mine.

So-so Sewing

May 14, 2009

IMG_6617This is the adventure of my baby blanket sewing. Before I begin, let me state that I can sew straightish lines. That is all. Every so often I get the urge to use my amazing ability to sew straightish lines and actually make something. The last few times, it’s been one of those minkie baby blankets that have mitered corners (ooh! ahhh!) and are pretty easy to sew together, after just one crucial step is complete: both pieces of fabric, the flannel and the minkie, must be perfectly square. If they are not perfectly square, the blanket turns out like the reject blanket in my son’s dresser. That one I made last time I got the sewing urge, and it was so misshapen upon completion that I ended up keeping it and making a whole nother one. I should donate it to a shelter or something. They could use it. But then, I would feel bad about donating something that looks like that, even if it is soft.

The last few times I’ve made these, I have spent hours and hours trying to square fabric. I get it almost there, and then I measure and it’s not right, so I cut it smaller. The fabric gets smaller and smaller as I attempt to make it more and more square, till finally I give up and realize that no blanket is going to happen at all this way, so I take whatever squareness I’ve got and try to turn it into a blanket.

But this time was going to be different. Because I have an amazing super sewing genius in my ward, and when I was whining about this to her she kindly offered to help me square fabric anytime. So I called her, and went over that very morning, and left triumphant, with my fabric all squared, and the comforting knowledge that even a sewing expert can get just a bit frustrated when squaring fabric. Just a bit, though; she was on top of it. (It did occur to me, though, that “square” and “swear” rhyme. For a reason, I say.)

I got home, I sewed almost an entire blanket, and then on the last overstitch I realized that it had huge buckling problems and so I unpicked the whole thing. And then, worse still, I realized that I had neglected to prewash my lovingly squared fabric. Having committed this sin before, I know that unprewashed fabric becomes distorted the first time it gets washed. So I washed all my nicely squared fabric, for the blanket I had sewn and the others I planned to make. And then I had to square it again, myself (I was too embarrassed to call her).

But it turned out! In spite of my imperfect squaring, it turned out!

And now the sewing urge has passed. Whew.

(note: I should mention that the blanket pictured is not the one I had already sewn almost all of. That fabric… still needs help. But at least this one turned out.)

LDS Fiction: Character Agency (Writers should be like God, not Satan)

May 9, 2009

In an earlier post, found both here and here, I talked about how good writing is honest, and allows the reader agency. I would like to add another point to that: good writing also allows its characters agency, meaning that it allows them the freedom to make bad choices (sometimes really bad choices) and experience fully their consequences.

That is also a supremely Mormon doctrine: our agency existed in the pre-earth life, and part of the reason we followed Heavenly Father’s plan was so that we would be allowed to keep our agency, and not be forced to be good.

You see the parallel I’m going for, I’m sure, but I’m going to talk about it a little more anyway. I think it’s kind of ironic that, even though allowing full expression of agency is a core part of our theology, inherent in the most basic outline of the Plan of Happiness, there can be a tendency among some LDS writing to either 1-not allow their characters to make bad choices when faced with a moral dilemma, or 2-not allow their characters to really feel the weight of the consequences of those choices.

Now, sometimes writers get around this dilemma by having their LDS characters face problems created by others. The Mormons do not make bad choices themselves, and all the problems in their lives are the result of others’ bad decisions. While this preserves the illusion that these characters are perfect people, the problem here is that no one has a life free from self-created problems. No one. It is not an honest portrayal of characters, and the conflict is all external. And the characters here are living out one of the great lies: if you are a good person, you will never make choices that contribute to your own unhappiness. The only unhappiness you experience will come from the way other people hurt you. But this is false; we all experience unhappiness as a result of bad decisions we’ve made. And we do ourselves, our literature, and our doctrine a disservice when the primary opposition Mormons in novels face is created by people who don’t like Mormons.

So, if a novel does not allow its characters to make tough choices themselves, and then experience their consequences (not just the consequences of others’ bad decisions), then … that’s Satan’s plan: compelling all to be good.

I would add to this the idea I expressed here, which is that choices and consequences can also follow the conventions for the genre. Meaning that the moral dilemmas a teenager resolves in a light teen romance are going to be different than those an adult makes in a mystery/thriller, which will in turn be different from those resolved in a work of historical fiction. But in each of these genres, there is plenty of room for characters to be faced with moral dilemmas, choose badly (but still stay true to character), and then deal with the consequences.

What concerns me, though, is the idea that LDS fiction should portray its LDS characters as above the fray, as though being Mormon made it so that they always made good choices, always perfectly implemented the things they have been taught. If our own scriptures allow our heroes to write irate letters to innocent people (Moroni to Pahoran), wrestle with deep anger and resentment against murderous brothers (2 Nephi 4, Nephi to Laman and Lemuel), and choose to deliberately disobey God’s counsel in the face of peer pressure (Joseph Smith, Martin Harris, 116 pages), why should our literature save its Mormon protagonists from making these and other errors, and fully experiencing the results of their decisions? Not only does forcing Mormon protagonists to be perfectly good make less effective writing, it also denies them agency.

In LDS fiction, more than any other place, we ought to portray a moral universe that reflects our deepest core doctrine: we are moral agents unto ourselves.

YA Fiction: Evolution, Me and other Freaks of Nature

May 2, 2009

I just finished this book, about a high school girl who is alienated from her evangelical peers because (spoilers, I’m all about them) she writes a letter apologizing to a gay boy who commits suicide after they try to convert him. Post-alienation, she makes friends with a fan of their amazing wonder science teacher, and clashes with her previous pals as that science teacher teaches evolution instead of intelligent design.

I liked it; it made me think. About Mormons, and all our varying views on evolution. And about the way it’s so easy to treat people badly because that somehow proves that you are righteous and they are not. The romance was very well done; nice zing, and it was my very favorite kind of romance in all the world, even better than the Darcy Pride and Prejudice plot done well: it’s the kind where the guy and girl are friends first, real friends, and they are kind, and they don’t lie to each other or play stupid tricks, and then finally they get the courage to tell each other how they feel and they fall in love. What does that romance sound like? Hmmm? Oh, that’s right. Real life! I love it when art imitates life.

Here are my questions about it: 1-Why are parents of teens so often distant from them in YA books? Is it genre convention? Is it the need for an antagonist and parents are just the most likely villain? Is it that teens and parents are notorious for not getting along? Or a combination of all three?

Every time I read about bad teen/parent relationships, it makes me sad. I had some tiffs with my parents as a teenager, but overall they were good to me and I knew it. I guess that makes for no story, though. In the writing I am contemplating right now, the protagonist is estranged from her father. And I realize it’s been done to death, but ah well.

2-I really wish the author, Robin Brande, had done a bit more to make her evangelical villains more well-rounded, more likeable. She did allow one of them, Bethany, to be sincere, with a good heart. But I think more of them had a good heart, or at least good intentions, than she allowed us to see. By portraying all the evangelicals as nutty publicity-hound closed-minded posturing idiots, except for one sincere one, she undermines Mena’s struggle. Wouldn’t it be even harder for Mena to leave her group of friends if we’d been shown a little more kindness between them? Wouldn’t it be harder for Mena to accept their fundamental closed-mindedness if she had seen some true goodness? And why would Mena’s parents have been duped for so long into believing in this pastor who was such a jerk if he had not had some goodness in him as well, or at least attempts at goodness?

I feel that a more nuanced portrayal of the evangelicals would have strengthened the book a great deal. Yes, they can still be closed-minded, they can still be the villains in the end, but grant them a bit more redeeming value, is what I say. I speak as a devout Mormon, and as someone who hopes that when writers depict my faith and culture, they take the time to paint a layered picture of us, not just a one-note song. I think Robin Brande is talented enough that she could have brought more depth to her villains, had she so chosen.

It’s worth reading, though. Reminded me also of the talk my brother just gave on balancing religion and science at BYU’s Life Sciences commencement. He quoted President Eyring’s father, the scientist Henry Eyring, something to this effect (I paraphrase): “God, who created the heavens and the earth, knows about evolution, and is apparently not disturbed.” I love that.

LDS Fiction: A Good, Clean Read

April 29, 2009

One of the things I most enjoyed about H.B. Moore’s Whitney-winning historical novel Abinadi is that (and I will be blunt here) Alma the Elder has nonmarital s-x (gotta foil the search engines and bowdlerize my post. So much for bluntness.).

This is not because I am a big fan of gratuitous s-x. On the contrary. I skip over graphic scenes, and I have been known to quit reading books altogether, even books I was really enjoying, because of content issues.

But Moore’s descriptions were not graphic; they were, however, scripturally based — King Noah’s court had wine-bibbers and an abundance of loose women. The scriptures are pretty clear on that point. And yet, it would have been tempting to gloss over that while writing the book. Just make Alma a little drunk, you know. Don’t make him really consort with women.

Kudos to Moore for taking the larger view of the situation: Alma the Elder needed to experience sin, and the sin that the scriptures alluded to, so that his healing could have more power.

Which brings me to the essay Tanya alluded to in an earlier comment, by Orson Scott Card. The gist of it is this: depicting evil is not the same thing as advocating evil. But Mormons get mixed up, and think that because something bad happens in the book, the book is promoting sin.

I agree with this as a writer. You’ve got to show depth to be able to appreciate light. Books that never allow sin feel shallow and fake to me.

But my agreement only goes so far. In my personal reading habits, I hate objectionable stuff, even when it’s in a moral universe that gives it weight and depth. Most of all I hate swearing; if I have to break out my black sharpie too often I just put the book down. If it’s a library book, I stop reading it.

I do waive my objections depending on the book and how effectively it’s done. It’s kind of a case by case basis. But when I feel the depiction of objectionable material start to affect my spirit, even if the book itself does not advocate evil, my goal is to put the book down. Doesn’t always happen; books are my weakness. But that is my goal. And I have quit reading many books because of it.

Here’s the thing though, and I think this is important: every person’s spirit responds differently to this kind of content, and I think it’s important to respect that. A work of art or film that I can’t sit through may have lasting, life-changing impact on another person (this has happened more than once with a book I hated and a dear friend adored).

I’m a big believer in honest writing. And, I’m also a big believer in writing that does not offend my spirit. Are the two mutually exclusive? I don’t think so; I’ve read plenty of books that feel true and not Spirit-offending at the same time. And I think that LDS fiction is getting better and better that way. For so long it leaned towards the not-offending side, at the expense of story truth. I do think things are changing, though. Abinadi shows that Moore made what might have been a tough choice–to tell the truth of the story–at the expense of possibly offending someone who wanted to believe that Alma the Elder was never really caught up in all the doings at King Noah’s court. The book was stronger because of it.

It’s a tough balancing act though, especially because “doesn’t offend the Spirit” is such a personal standard. I don’t yet know how to navigate it as a writer. As a reader, though, for me the key is to have respect for those who will read a book that I can’t get through, and hope that they will respect me in turn, and not think I’m being a goody-goody. I won’t judge you for reading the book if you promise not to judge me for needing to put it down. And vice versa.

LDS Fiction: Whitney Shoulda Woulda Coulda

April 28, 2009

Let me begin by saying again CONGRATULATIONS to all the Whitney winners. Way to go, you have worked hard, and it must be so gratifying to have so many people love your work and vote for it. You are all farther along the path I hope to get on at some point.

There are a bunch of books I wish could have won something too, though, and so I’m going to write a little about them, in no particular order. Note: this is not to diminish or take away from the winners, or second-guess the decision of the Whitney Academy. As has been written elsewhere, everyone who won deserved to win, because they wrote stories that compelled interest and loyalty. I just that I wish all the books I loved could have been recognized with awards. I know that’s not possible, so I am going to write a bit about them here.

Seeking Persephone: Annette Lyon blogged about this great book here. I read through the .pdf I was sent in one sitting, it was so compelling. And this is my Amazon review of it:

What a fun read! I very much enjoyed Seeking Persephone. It had well-developed protagonists, a resonant plot that combined the Hades/Persephone myth with Beauty and the Beast, and above all, that zing! that a good romance brings. Recommended!

If you like clean Regency-era romances, and character-driven conflicts, this will be the book for you. I was quite impressed. Reading over my review of it again, I remember how much I enjoyed it. And I start second-guessing my decision to vote for Taking Chances. Ultimately, I went with Taking Chances for this reason, which is personal to me but nevertheless part of my judging rubric: I wanted the books I voted for to reflect Mormons in a way that I agreed with. I liked the Mormons in Taking Chances; I liked the healing. Because what I most want is a literature that depicts Mormons in an honest way, any book that does this gets bonus points for me. This may not be fair, but it’s my bias nonetheless. But I have to say, it goes both ways: I am much harder on books whose depiction of Mormon characters irritates me. And I’m easily irritated. So, because I liked the Mormons and the healing in Taking Chances, I voted for it over Seeking Persephone. But I LOVED Seeking Persephone too; it had a pretty sophisticated, resonant plot, and great characters.

Taking Chances: you know I loved this one, so I’ll just refer you to my earlier review.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
: ah, I loved this book. I really, really loved it. So much. Great writing, a faithful retelling of a fairy tale I love, and so many great Norwegian touches. But Jessica Day George does not overplay her research: it’s just a detail here and there, enough to give it authenticity without going overboard. So hard to do, but so well done.

Alcatraz and the Scrivener’s Bones:
Brandon Sanderson has the coolest magic systems, and Alcatraz is no exception. The coolness of the magic system, its sheer originality, was what made this book a high-ranking one for me, even though the snarky tone got a bit grating sometimes.

Fablehaven: If we ranked books based on what our kids liked, which is another perfectly legitimate way to choose in the youth fiction category, Fablehaven would be right up there. My son loves these books. Devours them.

Farworld: See my previous comment about Fablehaven. While I enjoyed this book, my son has read it about three times. He’s very excited for the sequel.

The Reckoning: Wow. I was amazed by its authenticity of setting and characters: an American journalist imprisoned in Iraq. But it’s not just an adventure story; the protagonist has to confront her childhood demons here too. Very well done.

Keeping Keller: It’s the story of a couple seeking to care for their misdiagnosed autistic son, and each other, in the face of prejudice and lack of information. The voice is distinctly fifties, and very well done, I might add. It was so unique, I really wanted to see something good happen with it.

The Wyrmling Horde: Made me want to read the rest of the series. I’ve never read any David Farland before, and now I have a whole new series to enjoy.

The Host: Not a Twilight fan. But I did like The Host, quite a bit more than I expected, and well enough to say hey, Stephenie Meyers deserves some props here. If you’ve been overwhelmed by Twihards enough to not want to read those books at all (*cough* raises hand), then I have to say, read this anyway. It’s a fun beach read, and it raises some interesting questions.

Master: Okay, I will be frank: I thought I would hate this book. That is based on its cover, which is a style of art depicting the Savior that I dislike intensely. But I actually enjoyed this book very much. I learned a lot about the New Testament. I liked her choices to make all direct quotes from the Savior actual scripture; I was so relieved by it, I can’t tell you. And I liked the main character, Almon. It felt… more like an extended parable to me than a novel, though. Almon’s arc didn’t quite work for me. But. It’s still a book I would recommend reading, in spite of the cover art, because the prose is pretty tight and there’s a lot to be learned from it. It’s an impressive book.

Legend of the Jewel: I loved Isabel! I loved her spunk! I loved that she met up with a Mormon guy and made polygamy jokes in her head! I loved the mystery, and the tight plotting. This was a great read.

I realize that it’s a bit scary to put Whitney favorites out there publicly like this: I realized that when hardly anyone commented with specific choices on my Segullah post or on Robison Well’s similar post. The LDS writing community is small, and everyone wants to be friends. And I guess that by writing about the books I liked best, I’m automatically generating a list of books that weren’t my favorites. Sigh. But I just want to applaud a few more books that I was grateful to have discovered through the Whitneys, even if they were not official winners. I loved my experience reading all of them–even the ones that were not my favorites really helped me analyze what I like and dislike in writing, and I’m grateful for that. I’m learning to read as a writer, and that has been very valuable for me.

Go Whitneys!

And the Whitneys Go to…

April 26, 2009

Here are the winners (you can read the liveblogging transcript here)

Best Romance: Spare Change, by Aubrey Mace
Best Mystery: Stephanie Black, Fool Me Twice
Best Speculative: Brandon Sanderson, Hero of Ages
Best Historical: Abinadi, H. B. Moore
Best Youth: James Dashner, the 13th Reality
Best General Fiction: Waiting for the Light to Change, Annette Haws
Best Novel by a New Author: Angela Hallstrom, Bound on Earth
Best Novel: Traitor, by Sandra Grey

Okay, so, um, I got three right in my Segullah post: Stephanie Black, Annette Haws, and Angela Hallstrom. I felt very strongly that those three books deserved to win something (each was nominated more than once), and I’m so glad they did.

Congratulations to all winners, and finalists, are in order. Way to go!

And to those who didn’t win, if you read this, and it’s any consolation, you can know that I (and I’m sure many others) was pulling for you. I hope to read you in the finals again next year.