Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Write what you know."


  The seemingly over-used advice, "Write what you know," is a mystery to a lot of young writers. What on earth does that mean? One objection I always raised to it was something along the lines of, "Well, I don't know about fantasy creatures, but I sure do write about them. So that advice is kind of dumb." Recently, I realized what it actually meant. 

  It's not kind of dumb. It's really kind of awesome. 

  I honestly don't feel up to giving a discourse on when we can truly know something (I'm on break, classes don't start for another two weeks), but what I can say is this: you can't read that advice at face value. Expanded and paraphrased, it actually means this: "You can't write everything, so know your limitations and write what you write best." 

  That may be as cryptic as the original advice. <sigh> Okay. Personal example time! 

  For years, I couldn't figure it out. I tried writing in many different genres and forms. I tried writing serials, I tried fantasy and time travel, I tried essays and so on ( may or may not have even tried fanfic. But those were dark days, my dear readers). However, after many fruitless efforts and self-evaluative therapy sessions (with Ally, of course), I came to realize that just because I could write didn't mean that I could write anything. 

  Boom. I felt like a failure. So for a while, I gave up creative writing altogether. I suppose I thought it a superfluous and childish thing. But then I realized that although it was a crushing revelation, the fact that I had limitations was actually a very liberating thing. If you know what you can't do, it becomes quite clear what you can do. 
    I realized what I do best is children's literature. It's not something that I've really exhibited on this blog because again, I thought it was childish and silly. It's not childish. It's a noble calling. Children need stories, as a very dear friend of mine told me. They need them because it is often through stories that they first encounter things like suffering, virtue, heroism, and basically, the drama of life. Children are imitators, so when you give him a book about a virtuous hero, he's going to imitate the virtues of that hero (albeit subconsciously and in their own way).

 So children's literature - good, wholesome literature - is what I'm going to be focusing on in my writerly life. Pretty much from now on, too.

  Except when I have to write papers. Thems gotta be written too.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Unanswered Questions of Dystopia | Book Review

A true child of the times bears the mark of his era on his personality.  The era--its strengths and weaknesses, quirks and fashions, problems and solutions--is embedded into his experience like an emblem.  The times have irreversibly formed him and made him, at least in part, who he is.

Amanda Gibson's Children of Guerra leaves metaphor behind in bringing this idea to life.  Eight children are made, quite literally, in a laboratory by science for use by the government faction called the Guerra party.  The children are born to be undercover spies.  From birth they are secluded and trained; from the age of twelve they are sent on missions to target and expose rebellions, helping the government keep complete control over the people.  These eight children, children of war, exist for only this purpose: to be used as tools and then disposed of when no longer helpful.

The book follows Milena, one of the eight children, on her mission to infiltrate one of the biggest brewing rebellions in the country.  Milena is successful at what she does; she is the best of all eight spies and is given the hardest tasks.  However, as a sixteen year old without parents (and without the possibility of ever finding who her parents are), without a home or anyone to go to, she understandably struggles with where to place her loyalties when she begins to see those around her not as her targets but as real people.

Children of Guerra is a compelling read.  The style is easy to follow and engaging although somewhat unrefined at parts.  The story is largely character driven and has realistic depictions of human feelings and emotions.  However, the cast of characters as a whole is not strong enough to carry the weigh of the story on its shoulders.  Some characters need more definition; their motivations and distinct personalities need more demonstration and less verbal indicators about the inconsequential particulars of their actions.  The plot is solid.  The beginning is well-paced, though the middle and end drag, peppered with some long or unnecessary scenes.  The cliffhanger at the end, founded on several unrealistic circumstances, leaves too many questions unanswered.  Nevertheless, the book can boast general consistency of plot and a captivating writing style.

Dystopia is the setting for this story and as such there is the constant theme of righteous rebellion against an oppressive government.  However, here the story leaves something to be desired.  The story substantiates an understanding of the wide range of human emotions and experiences in such a context, but it is difficult to abstract an overarching sense of purpose.  It skims the surface of deep questions, but somewhat fails to follow up on what is fundamentally at stake under the Guerra party's regime.

There are multiple themes that materialize on the surface, but each theme is left unsatisfactorily explored.  The omnipresence of new technology brings up the question of how much the technologically advanced society is toying with the humanity of its people.  Flippant intimacy between high-schoolers questions the purpose of sexuality and reveals the emptiness that results from exploiting sexuality.  The curious upbringing and lifestyle of the eight children innately questions whether or not such children, begotten by the government and literally grown in a laboratory, can achieve authentic happiness, especially by being the governmental pawns that they were born to be.  Melina's yearning for belonging and love suggests that strong family is important for human happiness.  But none of these issues is dealt with enough to contribute to a full bodied message.  They are only hints at a deeper meaning left unexplored.

Children of Guerra asks probing questions that teens can identify with.  Young adult readers aren't necessarily children of war, but they are children of a technological age where sociopolitical and moral issues are very much at the forefront of modern life.  As such, a young adult audience can identify with some of the problems Milena encounters and the choices that she makes.  However, Children of Guerra leaves the questions that it asks largely unanswered, and leaves the inquisitive reader searching for more.  But if you're looking for an intriguing, low-flying adventure with dramatic flare and a dystopian flavor, you won't be disappointed.

Follow Amanda Gibson on Twitter @_amandagibson or on her blog, Writing the Good Write.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Debunk Jane Austen Swoongirl Stereotypes

We have a longstanding history of Jane Austen analysis on this blog.  Take a brief moment, if you will, and reference our Austen-related tags here and here and here.  Jane Austen analysis has been a part of my personal life since I was twelve, when two of my friends introduced me to the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.  Yes, we sat down for the six hour series with periodic trips outside to the tree fort.

I distinctly remember walking out to the tree fort between episodes two and three, stewing--nay, reeling--over the new cultural experience.  My friends, who had already seen the series at least once, asked me with anxious smiles what I thought of the movie and specifically what I thought of Mr. Darcy.  I responded, in the typical Ally fashion of pragmatic skepticism (the twelve year old version), that I hated Mr. Darcy.  I didn't exactly have a reason at the time, and up until now I attributed this hatred to the awkwardness of puberty.  But I just recently re-watched this series with my roommate and, as a result, have a new-found grasp on the essence of Austen and of Mr. Darcy.  And I realized that WELL I SHOULD HAVE HATED THE MAN'S GUTS BETWEEN EPISODES TWO AND THREE.  Between episodes two and three, Mr. Darcy IS NOT MEANT TO BE LIKED.  He's a jerk.  Elizabeth herself isn't the picture of virtue, either, I might add, but she's charming so her faults are more easily masked to twelve year olds (and also probably to a lot of other people).  My pragmatic lack of sympathy for hopeless romanticism innocent middle school spidey senses sort of picked up on Darcy's jerkiness.

This is simply an anecdotal story reiterating my point that Jane Austen's books are so much deeper than the world credits them to be.  Jane Austen is not chick lit.  Not one bit chick lit.  Chick lit does not contain a consistently Aristotelian application of morality, a deep understanding of the human person including individual strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, feelings, actions, etc., or a fundamental grasp of how the intricacy of human actions affects individuals, families, societies, and the world at large.  Not to mention the permeating theme of a love of true beauty, the beautiful prose, and the humor of characters and situations. Etc., etc.

And so, for anyone looking to debunk Jane Austen stereotypes--and I assure you, this is a profound calling--there are many ways to go about this, so I will not tell you specific details of how it may be done.  But I will give you some resources which will help start you off because this is my gift to you in this season of giving.

#1:  While browsing the shelves in my favorite section of the school library (unofficially, the Dead English Author section), I found a fantastic collection of GKC's essays.  One of these essays, in particular, is entitled, "On Jane Austen in the General Election."  You can find it in about a jillion places online.  Read it.  I know you'll love it.

#2:  Also, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz.  This is the author's personal testament to how Jane Austen's books very directly influenced his life, his education, and his career, so it is full of the personal details familiar to autobiographies.  But Deresiewicz (no, I don't know how to pronounce that in real life) perfectly grasps the genius of Jane Austen, particularly in the two chapters which contain his analyses of Emma and Pride and Prejudice.  Interestingly enough (and this is my favorite part), in these chapters, he does not use romance at all to prove his points but examines the stories strictly from an analysis of the goodness in the characters and in their actions. The book is a little lacking in context of the era, but other than that and some long-winded parts, it is a fairly good read and a great resource for debunkers.

I realize that this list is small, but I want to recommend only the best sources, so I will update this list as I come across more.

And before I digress into a separate contemplation on the question of why the heck everyone is so in love with the broody, stalker Collin Firth version of Darcy, I will end with a picture of the one and the same.

(^This is his face for 94% of the whole series and mostly he's looking at Elizabeth. Rich? Hot? Creeper much?)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

'Tis the Season

It's that time of year again, folks.  Time for Ally to go visit her fairy godmother.

I need the Aunt Lillian to my Rosa.  I need a good dose of Purple Magic, sneezes and all.

I'm going to bring my fairy godmother goodies and presents wrapped up with bows and ribbons. She likes things like that.  But mostly we just like to spend time together.  That's the nice thing about fairy godmothers.  They'll see you even if you don't bring presents.

To any skeptics out there, fairy godmothers do exist.  I know because I have met one.  I didn't believe it until I had met her.  But she is one of the most wonderful persons to walk the face of the earth.  She knows where the magic begins and she doesn't mind telling.

I highly suggest that if you have a fairy godmother, you go to see her this Christmas season.  It'll do you both good.  Bring her your problems, your happinesses, your daydreams, your plans, your insecurities, your dumb ideas.  Fairy godmothers thrive on the stuff.  And this is their best time of year.  They specialize in Christmas cheer.  So go see your fairy godmother and tell her just how awesome she is.