So…another fiction contest?

Now that I’ve turned in my short story for the Wordstock Short Fiction Contest, I’ve got two choices:

1) Obsess about it daily until I find out if I am a finalist or not.

2) Move on to the next thing.

I’m consciously opting for #2.

Writing this short piece has really gotten my creative juices flowing for working on an expanded version using these characters/storyline. So I started researching other fiction awards/fellowships/grants for novel length pieces. And I came onto a literary award that I had already heard of: The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The award was started by author Barbara Kingsolver and it seems like the partnering with PEN American Center is a recent development? Not sure. In any case, this might be a good fit for my story. I like the kinds of fiction that Kingsolver is trying to support.

But the stakes are pretty intimidating. In addition to $25,000, the winner gets a book contract with Algonquin Books. Whoa. I immediately start suffering from Is-my-shit-good-enough-to-even-try? Syndrome.

Then, I think of all the books I see in bookstores. Some are wonderful. Some are okay. And some are awful. To me. There is always a story that will touch someone, in some way.

While the PEN/Bellwether Prize is on my list, I’ll keep researching. Make a list. And choose an award to pursue. That is my goal.

First draft done

At 3600 words. The word limit is 3000. I’m not sure why, but it felt like a monumental task to write a first draft. It wasn’t. The hardest part is editing, but with a first draft you have to allow yourself to write it all out and cut down in subsequent drafts.

DH is the designated guinea pig for this project. He liked it and gave some good feedback to carry into the second draft. Funny thing is, he does not generally like to read fiction. He kept saying, “Just take what I say with a grain of salt.”

To give an idea of what grabs his attention: Pride and Prejudice (because he was forced to in college and he just ended up liking it) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are on the list of maybe 50 pieces of fiction he has read. What he actually liked? Not sure, maybe the above two are the only ones!

The Broken Bridge

Another worn library copy

I love discovering new books. A recent one is The Broken Bridge by Phillip Pullman. It’s about a mixed race teenager living in Wales with her white father. It is a book for young adults, but since I am a bookaholic, I do not discriminate by reading level. I enjoyed it.

Bridge, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (by Heidi Durrow) and Nella Larsen short stories are the few pieces of literature that I have sought out lately about the mixed experience. Obviously being black, I never gave much thought to the mixed experience until I had mixed children. Now, I am very aware of it and seek out books of all kinds that I’d like to expose my children to.

Book Discussion Pt. 2: The Neverending Story

During the first half of The Neverending Story, the reader is given a peek into Bastian’s life as his thoughts sometime wander while reading or he takes breaks. We find out that his mother died not long ago and his father emotionally neglects him. Teasing is a constant, not only by his peers, but some teachers as well. And at some point, Bastian was put back a grade.

Here, Bastian recalls his time in the classroom:

“The clock in the belfry struck ten. Bastian was amazed at how quickly the time has passed. In class, every hour seemed to drag on for an eternity. Down below, they would be having history with Mr. Drone, a gangling, ordinarily ill-tempered man, who delighted in holding Bastian up to ridicule because he couldn’t remember the dates when certain battles had been fought or when someone or other had reigned.”

Most people would say that Bastian is not a very good student. He is a prime candidate for being labelled with some type of learning disability.

Yet, Bastian was an avid reader and loved making up stories.

He simply didn’t enjoy school.

But by reading, Bastian exercises his imagination, learns all the concepts of English, grammar and storytelling; plus the endless topics and subtopics that come up in whatever book he is reading at the moment.

Education doesn’t have to happen in a classroom or with your nose in a workbook. Reading a novel, playing with plastic dinosaurs or romping around in your backyard isn’t slacking off; yet we’re taught that it is and that doing anything that you enjoy is not learning. We’re also taught that everyone must be forced to learn the same set of specific subjects, or they will not be a well-rounded person. Your personal interests mean nothing and you’ll never possess the motivation to learn anything.

I think Ende was trying to get the reader to think more on their assumptions about learning and education. These people would definitely agree that formal, mainstream education is not a guaranteed path to personal happiness or financial success. If you really get this, you’re one step ahead in the game.

Book Discussion: The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, is one of my favorite children’s books. But when people usually think about The Neverending Story, they remember the 1984 movie that has garnered a pop culture following.

Both the book and the movie is about a ten-year-old boy named Bastian who gets magically transported into the book he is reading. The world inside the book, called Fantastica, is quickly being destroyed by the Nothing (basically parts of this world start disappearing). The only way Fantastica can be saved is if a human gives their Chiildlike Empress a new name. As Bastian reads this story, he realizes they are talking about him.

Bastian does save Fantastica, but that is where the book and the movie diverge (there are other areas in which they diverge, but I won’t get into it now). In fact, the movie is only 50 percent of the book. The second half details Bastian’s adventures in Fantastica and his journey back to the human world. I like the movie, but when I first read the book, even as a kid, I was blown away by the richness of the story. It truly surpasses the movie.

Bastian’s time in Fantastica allows him to at last accept the person he is. At the beginning of the book, he was a very unhappy little boy that only found joy in reading books and making up stories.

I’m going to write a few posts about the themes I found in this book. The first will be about the assumption that if a child is getting bad or mediocre grades in school, they are stupid or not applying themselves.

Book Review: Push by Sapphire (SPOILERS)

I now realize that just because everyone says a book or a movie is good, doesn’t make it so.

There was so much hoopla over Precious, the movie about a black, abused, illiterate teenage girl living in 1980s Harlem, this past winter. Earlier this month, the move also received four Oscar nominations. While I didn’t see the movie, I thought I would re-read the book the movie is based on, entitled Push by Sapphire.

The story of the main character, Precious Jones, is so heartbreaking that it made you feel like you had to at least like the book about her life. Precious is sexually abused by her both her parents, impregnated twice by her father, is overweight and, as was mentioned above, cannot read. Her life is pretty much hell until she starts going to an alternative school where she gets literate, learns to express herself through writing and starts building her life into a semblance of normalcy.

The story itself is gripping; who doesn’t want to read about someone who overcomes these odds? But the manner in which Sapphire tells Precious’ story feels like a rather bad imitation of The Color Purple (Precious even references that book’s main character, Celie). It’s a soap opera, in which characters act the way they do because the story needs to go in a particular direction. Some scenes are so melodramatic to the point of being satirical, at which point I’m trying not to laugh because the subject matter is quite serious.

The depiction of Precious’ mother, Mary, is a perfect case in point.

She is an evil, nasty person that doesn’t even seem like a human being. All she does is eat fattening foods that she forces Precious to cook for her, watches television and collects welfare checks. In every scene, she is either berating Precious about “stealing her man”, beating her up (she even beats her while she is going into labor with her first child), or threatening to beat her up.

Oh, and for some random reason Mary has terrible body odor, too. Because, you know, if you’re evil, you have to be smelly, too.

When we come to a point in the story where the author could shed some light on why she abused her daughter and allowed her to be raped, Sapphire lets us down. Mary’s rambling excuses make no sense and the reader walks away from the book thinking Mary is just completely insane.

Mary is the typical, one-dimensional, super-duper evil person, and therefore, not a very interesting character. Why? Because there is no clear motivation for her behavior. This is weak storytelling. Everyone has a motive for why they do something, even when that something is very, very bad.

People like Precious exist. But the very real issues of child abuse, poverty, drug abuse and illiteracy are unfortunately overshadowed by all the melodrama and bad characterization.

The Elements of Style

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little).

There are probably millions of books out there on writing, but very few actually offer solid advice. Elements is one of the solid ones. The main idea of the book is that no matter what you are writing be concise, clear and refrain from fancy language.

Some other books on writing that I recommend include Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster and On Writing by Stephen King. These two are more geared toward fiction writing, while Elements is useful for any type of writing.

Aspects is a series of discussions that Forster delivered at Cambridge compiled into a book. He talks about story structure, characters, plot, writing for fantasy and even critiques of writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. The best part is his descriptions of flat versus round characters (flat characters aren’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the story, but round characters are way more interesting).

Even if one isn’t a fan of King’s work, you can still appreciate On Writing. The first half is a mini-bio of King up to the time he suffered severe injuries after a car accident several years ago (actually, a van hit him while he was taking a walk). The later half is what he describes as the “tool box” that you need if you want to be a good writer. I’ve always liked King’s non-fiction writing; he’s down to earth and his humor runs between dry and sardonic.

I’m sure there are a few other books out there that I am not thinking of now. But Elements of Style is a must have for any writer.

King disses Meyer

I am beginning to realize that being published and popular doesn’t say much about your writing abilities. I point you to Stephen King’s total dissing of Stephanie Meyer, author of the popular Twilight series.

King attempts a save by giving the books some redeeming quality, but overall Meyer’s writing sucks in his opinion. This re-awakened my interest in deciding whether or not to read these books. King himself has been accused of being a hack writer, but I think his opinion has some value (personally, I think King is a good writer. He also said Dean Koontz is inconsistent, which I totally agree; Funhouse was a hot mess).

However, I decided to do some additional research and see what other people thought of Meyer’s books. I found that King is not alone in his opinion. The consensus? Twilight is sophomoric, horribly written, has a weak plot, an unsympathetic protagonist and glorifies abusive relationships.

Well, I can’t possibly agree with all that when I haven’t read the book. So I decided to read an excerpt from Twilight on Amazon. This can at least help me get a feel for the writing. My determination? The writing is bad. I’m actually wondering if the first draft got published by mistake and they’re all laughing about it.

But even considering all of these opinions, I still may read Twilight. But I now wonder what makes a good story? It’s popularity? Because everyone says so? What about these so-called “classics”? I thought about this a few months back when I re-read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (I was in high school when I read them the very first time). A lot of people believe that these stories are where the bar is set for fantasy fiction.

And I agree. To a point.

Here’s the thing: I adore The Hobbit. It’s a great story, the pace is perfect and I care about Bilbo’s journey. However, certain parts of LOTR are insane. The first book, Fellowship of the Ring, was great. But after that, I feel the story spirals out of control. I can’t count how many times I got bored with the endless descriptions of hills, rock formations and…walking! We’re talking long details about someone walking. The poetry is lame, for the most part. Towards the end, I almost didn’t care what happened to Frodo or the ring (BTW, the fate of the ring, in my opinion, wasn’t even worth the build up throughout the story).

But something, much like the power of the ring you might say, compelled me to keep reading to the end. That’s why I said I almost didn’t care. There is something magical about the world Tolkien created and that kept me going through the, quite frankly, very bad parts.

So even though it is universally agreed that LOTR is one of, if not the, greatest fantasy story, I beg to differ just a teeny, weeny bit. I think it’s a good idea to reconsider some of these books that people love to say are the greatest of all time. Most of them probably live up to the hype. But, just maybe, some of them are simply okay.