Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What I'm Reading: Marvel Comics The Untold Story

Sean Howe has written this extensively researched history of Marvel Comics, from its origins around 1940 as a quick cash-in on a fad by publisher Martin Goodman to the present day.  He conducted more than a hundred interviews for the book and read seemingly every fanzine and industry press article on the company ever written.

Now I've read Stan Lee's autobiography and other histories of the industry so I was familiar with the general outline, and I've encountered a few of the stories the book contains, but the pages really overflow with material that's new even to me.  Despite that, the book is neatly organized and flows well.  Still, I have to imagine, a general reader with an interest but little familiarity with the subject would find the constant succession of artists, editors, and titles to be somewhat overwhelming.

What strikes me most in the book is how haphazard the evolution of Marvel Comics has been.  It seems my previous view of Stan Lee smoking a pipe and deciding after reflection to establish a new character, Iron Man or Dr. Doom perhaps, to be erroneous.  Nearly every creative decision was made amidst deadline pressures, personality conflicts, bizarre business edicts from the company's ownership, or general desperation.

A good example is the character of She-Hulk, who was created in the late 1970s when Stan Lee heard a rumor that the writers of the Hulk television program, produced by Universal, were to introduce a female version of the character.  In order to secure the trademark, Stan wrote a script practically overnight and hurried artists in producing the first issue so it could be rushed into print.  The ad hoc and somewhat arbitrary nature of She-Hulk's real-world origin seems typical of Marvel company strategy.

Personally, I really enjoyed this book but I don't think I would recommend it to anybody without a special interest in Marvel.  For something of greater interest to an average reader I think The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, is probably a better choice.  It covers the comic industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a panic about teen-age delinquency led to the imposition of the Comics Code (similar to Hollywood's Hays Code) in 1954 and the subsequent decimation of comics publishers who had relied on now-forbidden crime and horror stories.  Hajdu's book puts the comics story in context with explanations of how it fits into the politics and social mores of the time, which also give his book a wider appeal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Brings Rain, Extreme Laziness

With some out-of-town guests last weekend, the hurricane the last couple days, and Halloween coming up, I have gotten nothing done on my WiP for several days.  Those scary movies won't watch themselves!

I have been doing a lot of reading, so I'll have another post on What I'm Reading up in the near future.  Should be more productive in November--National Novel Writing Month!  I'm going to make an attempt to write or revise every day of the month.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What I'm Reading: Just Write Here's How

Children's author Walter Dean Myers has had over 100 books published.  He grew up in Harlem and his writing tends to take an inner city perspective, although he's also written fantasy, non-fiction, and other types of books.  This book is basically a description of his methods--how we writes and why.

This writing book is more practical than a lot I've come across--it's low on morale boosting, rather getting into Myers's daily schedule and his process from beginning to end of book.  And Myers does have a process.  He has a particular outlining method, a certain way to build characters and settings, a highly specific plotting technique, and so on.

I'm more of a seat-of-the-pants writer myself.  Myers knows writers like me, and has an opinion on them: "They take a lot longer to write their books than I do."  I found it notable that he says his characters never surprise him.  To me, one of the pleasures of writing is that sometimes my characters do things I don't expect.  A more rigorous method seems to take that away.

And yet, I'm glad I read this.  In fact, I may very well end up using some of his methods.   I have an idea for a somewhat more complicated novel than I've written so far, and after my current WiP, I will likely take it up ("Perhaps sometime in mid-2013," I think to myself with wild optimism.).  This more complicated book will benefit from having a structure I've worked out ahead of time, I think.

And who knows, maybe like Mr. Myers, I'll find that the more I plan my book, the easier it will be to sell.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What I'm Reading: Rare Beasts

Rare Beasts, a children's book by Charles Ogden, concerns Edgar and Ellen, twins who live more or less by themselves in a big house out on the edge of town.  The twins have rather nasty dispositions and the only thing they enjoy more than bedeviling each other is playing cruel pranks on the other children and residents in the town.

In this particular book, they steal all the town's pets and decorate them with paint, glitter, sticks, etc. to look like undiscovered rare animals that they hope to sell for great profit to collectors.  However, none of their potential marks, er, customers work out, and in the end their plan is disclosed publicly and the twins get their comeuppance.

I liked the amusingly cynical narration and humorous little details that are really for parents and may go over a lot of reader's heads (I'm assuming most readers of this are probably 8-10).  For instance, the absence of the twins' parents is explained by an off-handed remark that "they had long since departed on an extended 'around the world' holiday.  At least that's what it said in the note they left behind."  It reminds me of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events books, which I suppose was probably an inspiration.

My son hasn't read it yet so I can't get his opinion, but I think he'll probably like it.  It's got a kind of morbid but immature humor he'll enjoy and is scary, but not too much.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Importance of the Next Project

Sometimes I hear about writers who've been working on the same novel for years.  To me, that seems counterproductive.  No doubt you should polish your book to as high a sheen as you can, but after you've done that, tinkering with it for years only means you're not getting started on your next book.

I'm on my third.  The first was terrible, the second I'm shopping around, the third is my WiP and going really well.  I've learned much from the first two, but I've already explored those waters.  Why would I want to anchor myself there?  I want to sail on and explore new seas.

I don't think endless rewrites actually make the book better.  A thorough sanding smooths the grain, but after that you're cutting into the wood.  If you're worried about getting it published, just send it out, even if it's not perfect.  No actually published novel is perfect either, and not every novel is meant to make it to print.

And doesn't sticking to one project for so long kill your imagination?  As a writer, a novelist, I feel you should have the feeling of ideas bubbling over.  You should have so many you can't get to them all.  Periods between novels are for short stories or essays or poetry or what have you.  If you never let your novel achieve it's natural end, you never get to that in-between point.  Your imagination languishes.  Let it go, and move on.  To a writer in it for the long-term, perhaps the most important concept is that of The Next Project.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Query letter

So I did some editing on the hook for my query letter.  The old one wasn't inaccurate, exactly, but I think in tone it conveyed Dani as being something of a Bad Girl, and the plot as being a little grimmer than what it really is. Here's what I have now [edited on 11 October--NPB; and yet again on 13 October--NPB]:

Fifteen year-old Dani is positive she’s in for the most boring summer ever when she goes with her dad to the tiny Arkansas town he grew up in.  To her surprise, she soon meets three locals: two boys and a large black bear, who seems to share a mysterious connection with her via a bear claw her late grandfather left her.

As for the boys, she leans towards Eli, passionate and charming, at seventeen already a semi-professional musician and an expert on local Indian lore.  Before long she’s strumming and smoking pot with his bluegrass band and joining his buddies on beer-drenched canoeing trips.  By the time she notices his quick temper and penchant for settling disputes with his fists, she’s already fallen for him.

The other boy, straight-arrow preacher’s son Austin, is worried about her, as are her Dad and her eccentric Aunt Eunice.  Even their help may not be enough to protect Dani when Eli reveals to her a hidden Indian burial site and his plans to perform a ritual there to keep his sick father alive.  He needs Dani because he believes her bear claw allows her to harness the site’s spiritual energy.  Unfortunately, the ritual also requires a human sacrifice.

Dani must decide whether to turn against Eli, even if it means putting her own life in danger.  Worse yet, while dealing with him, the hours are counting down to her slot at the big bluegrass festival she’s been rehearsing for all summer.  But neither Dani nor Eli realizes the true purpose of the bear claw, or what its use might bring. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Favorite author at different ages

I was thinking about different favorite authors I've had in my life, and how that has changed over time.  The first author I remember as a favorite was Robert O'Brien, author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  Not that I knew his name, I just knew I liked his book!  That would have been around the second grade, I think.

At some point I started paying attention to authors names.  I remember knowing Judy Blume, and that a book by her would be written in a certain style.  She may be the first author I was really aware of.

When I was a little older, science fiction authors largely took over my favorites list: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and most of all, Frank Herbert's Dune series.  That would have been in middle school and into high school  When I was in my mid-teens and started paying attention to style as much as plot, Kurt Vonnegut came on my radar, as well as Roger Zelazny with his Amber series.  These were fantasy/SF authors whose writing equaled anything I was reading in English class.  (I should go back and see if Zelazny holds up as well as I remember.  Dune, which I revisited last summer, does not!)

In school, most authors didn't impress me too much.  Holden Caulfeld annoyed me, the Scarlet Letter was unreadable, Dickens was too melodramatic.  However, there were a few I enjoyed.  I went through a Hemingway phase (as do all teen boys of a certain literay bent, I think).  In drama class in my junior year, we performed Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen has remained a favorite ever since.  Odd for a male SF fan perhaps, but her writing is so clear, each phrase so well-chosen, I can't help but admire her.

Best of all, my eleventh grade English teacher assigned us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers.  This book knocked me over with its emotionality.  I read it at least three times in high school, and picked it up again a couple years ago to find it still had the same effect.  Her later books were more polished but its the raw emotional impact of that first book that still hits me.

In college, I was a German major.  Kafka was my favorite overall, but a book called Der Fremde Freund by Christoph Hein was the one particular work I liked best.  It's about a female doctor in East Germany in the 1970s who, after a troubled childhood and a bad marriage, has become clinical and detached from her own life.  She meets a passionate man who rekindles her zest for life, but he's killed in an accident and afterwards she discovered he'd been married.

Nowadays?  As I've gotten older, I've become less emotionally attached to books.  It seems like I've encountered every type of story, but I still enjoy books written in a beautiful, clear style.  Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Boswell's Life of Johnson.  Among YA authors, John Green's An Abundance of Catherines was really good.  He's also written something called Looking for Alaska that was well-reviewed, so I should seek that out.

How have your favorite authors changed over time?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What I'm Reading: Steven King's On Writing

This should maybe be titled What I've Read, since I finished it a couple days ago: Steven King's On Writing.  It came to me highly recommended by more than one person, and I found it well-written and entertaining.  Part auto-biography and part how-to guide, and all readable.  Alas, like pretty much every writing book I've ever read (Strunk & White being the one exception) there wasn't a whole lot of advice I found useful.

Read a lot.  Write a lot.  Know your grammar.  Have a place set aside.  All good recommendations, all familiar to any writer whose read more than one of these books.

There were two things in the book I did find helpful, one a piece of advice, one a bit from his biography.  The advice bit was that you should write your rough draft all the way through before going back to edit.  He's not the first person I've heard this from, but I've decided to follow this with my current WiP.  It's always tempting to go back and edit before you're really done with the first draft, but it's probably faster his way.  Might help make some of the middle part of the book (always my least favorite part) less of a slog if I'm not writing and editing at the same time.

The biography bit was finding out the he'd written three books before his first, Carrie, was published.  Stephen King himself, the man with seeming 1000 books on the shelves, didn't get a bite from a publisher until book #4!  And once he was well-known, he was able to go back and sell two of the earlier ones, which actually weren't that bad.  It's just that selling anything as a first-time author is tough to do.

Gives me hope--just keep on writing, and if the current book I'm shopping around doesn't attract an agent, it may still end up published later on.  Perhaps as part of a package deal?  Actually, if it keeps me writing and upbeat, I suppose On Writing did exactly what is was supposed to.