Friday, August 24, 2012

When the Cavalry Ain't Coming

You know what's BS about Pandora's Box? 

You (or at least I) grew up hearing about how she opened the box and let every imaginable evil out into the world - war and death and disease and inner-ear zits and all the rest - but then she closes the box and hey, it's okay, because HOPE is still inside.

Well hold on there, Sparky: if Hope were still in the box, we wouldn't have it out here in the real world, right?

I've always preferred the scholars who translate that word, elpis, as Expectation.  Without Expectation - without actually KNOWING how we're going to die or what-all's going to happen to us in the meantime - we have a chance to go forward optimistically, to live the Eric Idle creed and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life... because hell, you never know; today might really be better than yesterday!

Which is why, when done well, historical fiction can REALLY put your emotional knickers in a twist.

Take this book here: Between Shades of Gray.  (And no, I don't know what Ruta Sepetys thinks about E.L. James, but I would LOVE to see a cage-match for title rights.)  It's about a young Lithuanian girl named Lina, who's taken from her home by Soviet police in the summer of 1941, and condemned to a brutal Siberian labor camp, along with thousands of other political prisoners.  At first glance, it's one of these Very Important Books that get big applause on the YA circuit, because it highlights and humanizes an especially horrendous period in history in a way that's accessible to young folks today.

So there I am, reading along with my 9th-grade tutoring student as the atrocities mount and the body count rises, and I start feeling my old Anne-Frank instincts kicking in.  "Come on, Lina - just hang in there 'til '45, and then G.I. Joe and the Allies are gonna come romping and stomping through there and everything'll be... wait, hold on."

I actually had to go look it up, because - come on, how much did YOU learn about Lithuanian history?

And I tell you what, friends, that one Google search got me right in the breadbox.  No stars and stripes for these poor souls: Lithuania and the other Baltic states were swallowed whole, annexed by the USSR (you remember, those other guys who were so helpful in blowing up the Death Star that we went halfsies on Germany), and the pathetic fraction of those millions of stolen citizens who survived internment weren't pardoned until 1954.   The Baltic states didn't reappear on the world map until *1991*. 

Which means that in all probability, Lina wouldn't live to see her country resurrected.  (No spoilers for the book here - its scope doesn't extend nearly that far.)  She and the millions whose experience she represents would have lived the remainder of their lives as second-class citizens, slowly smothered to death by age and unrelenting censorship. 

But okay, that's maybe not news: if you one-upped me and stayed awake in fourth-period history class, you knew all that already.  You would crack open this same book already knowing how the broader strokes of the story will play out, even if you don't know what will happen to the individual characters.  (There's that Expectation thing again: for the Baltic prisoners as a whole, it's already flown the coop - we know how things will turn out for them - but hey, Lina and her family might still make it somehow!  Turn them pages faster, damn you!)

Instead, what I want to point out is how, when we see tragedy like this in historical fiction, it's so often played in a "damn, just missed it" context.  All Quiet on the Western Front, Grave of the Fireflies, The Plague  - hell, even Titanic sucks you in with this timeless trope, that better days are just around the corner for anyone who can make it that far.

But I think we can get just as much moral mileage, if not more, out of stories on the other side of optimism: when the author (of the novel or the history book, either one) has made it clear that there's not going to be any reinforcements or armistice or vaccine coming - that with the course of history already set, any hope to be had must come from the characters themselves.

Anyway, that's my deep thought for the week, hope you enjoyed it.  And now to bed, cuz tomorrow is going to be exceptionally long on Hope and short on Expectation.

They took me in my nightgown.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Share-Bears II: Secrets of the Ooze

This entry started with two awesome folks who submitted their favorite blog entries after I'd already posted the others.

But then I left it alone in the lab overnight, and it started to mutate. The green bubbly goo overflowed the Erlenmeyer flask. Strange vapors curled their gaseous tendrils up into the air vents. And then there was no containing it.

Here they stand, terrible in their glory.

Jon Gibbs, author of "Fur-Face" and the forthcoming "Barnum's Revenge."  His entry is perfectly hilarious in its own right: Paperback Writer: Great song, but what if it was a real query letter?

But aspiring authors of the blogosphere, take note: THIS guy, you need to follow.  I don't care what you're writing.  This gent is a sterling example of how to blog: he is ALWAYS sharing links, running contests, hosting fun giveaways, interviewing up-and-coming new writers, and doing everything else under the sun to make this long and solitary road a little less so for all of us.  His mutant power is generosity, his emblem is an oversized smiley, and he is the kind of superhero you don't need a radioactive spider-bite to emulate.  Get on it!

Pamela Skjolsvik, aka The Death Writer.  Her post isn't what you'd think (in the words of one commenter, it is "comely and honest and blew me away"): D is for Daughter

Have you ever worked in a prison?  Quietly barfed in your seat during a Broadway play?  Interviewed an executed man's grieving mother?  Let's be real: trying to write for any kind of publication is the ego equivalent of a self-inflicted chemical burn.  But writing personal non-fiction, writing just what you've really done and said and experienced, and putting THAT out to be pooh-poohed, has to be like putting in your contacts during a sandstorm.  I'm not sure which part gives me more respect for Pam: that she's braved the world and done all those amazing things, or that she has the courage to write about them (and herself by proxy) and collect rejection not just for a story she made up, but for pieces of her own life.  All I know is, she makes real look GOOD.

Oh, and the better news is: she is accepting guest writers for her blog!  If you have experienced loss/grief or work in a closely associated profession, check out her blog and drop her a line - she has built a terrific audience, and is not stingy about sharing it.

Lastly, there is one person for whom I have no link, because she has no blog. In fact, she didn't request inclusion here at all.  But I'm going to shout her out anyway, because she has done so much to spit-shine my soul - quietly, selflessly, and mostly without knowing me from Adam - and for absolutely no return.

To be clear: I'm no butthead.  I got the memo about sharing, taking turns, and playing nice back in my juice-box days.  But I was amazed at how a single out-of-the-blue note from this lady *completely* made my week.  It was a walloping big reminder about how much power we have to affect other people - and I mean serious, major-league, lecture-from-Uncle-Ben POWER - and how easily one can drop a fifty-megaton sunshine-bomb on somebody, and with no more than a few minutes' time investment.  I need to do that to more people, more often.  In the meantime: thank you, Yorkist, for so thoughtfully irradiating me.

So, good people of the Internet, let me turn it over to you: who rocks YOUR world?

--Did you see that?
--That's the way to do it - that's old school.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Warm, But Not Fuzzy

I have a confession to make.

I live in constant, pulsating terror that somebody, somewhere Might Not Like Me.  I avoid confrontation like the hantavirus and My Little Pony fandom.

But even with my pathological drive towards Niceness At All Costs, I'm not sure I agree with this article here.  The thrust of it, sure: it's chiefly about self-published authors getting ragged on by those on the legacy track, and I absolutely agree that going to war over which end of the egg to break makes us all look like a bunch of slap-fighting Lilliputians.  But this part here:

Writers should be sticking together, not bashing each other.

And this part here:

The bottom line is we are all writers. We all dreamed the same dream. We all labor over words, agonizing when the writing is not going well and rejoicing when the words are flowing. I used to love and respect trade-published writers. I still do. In fact, I love all writers. No matter how they are published.

--give me pause, because I don't have anywhere near Ms. Shireman's vast platonic love for writerdom.   Not by half.  Why should I?  I mean, there's a reason why, if I told somebody I was self-published, their first thought would not be, "boy, I bet that's a stellar, top-notch professional piece of work you got there!"  There's a reason why, if I turned in an 800-page manuscript, the agent or editor's first thought would not be, "by Jove, this surely is a lean and stunningly taut epic odyssey - it must be mine!"

These people were not born prejudiced.  They got that way because other writers before me went and peed in the pool.  Not always deliberately, not always as serial offenders, but nevertheless, the failure of their quality-control sphincters costs us all.  In the fantasy section, for example, many readers have sworn off starting a series before it's complete, because so many series have met protracted, unsatisfying, or simply nonexistent ends.  Their reluctance is both understandable and a sure-fire way to strangle the market - because if readers aren't willing to spend money on a newly-released Book One, publishers sure as hell aren't going to lose more money putting out a Book Two, and where does that leave me with my thirteen-volume LegendSword of the Elf-Castle Prophecy saga?

So, okay.  Nobody is pretending that terrible books and terrible writers don't exist.  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, readers can brand such works with the Single Star of Infamy.  Meanwhile, the advice for writers is to comport oneself as an adult at the Thanksgiving table: don't ask about Uncle Jimmy's parole hearing or point when Grandma puts her sleeve in the gravy, but stick to safe subjects and keep things positive.

So, given that classy, successful people generally don't get that way by crowing "I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I", does criticism have any place in a writer's public persona?  Do we decry harmful trends but keep careful not to name names?  Can we criticize a book while scrupulously avoiding any dig at the author?  Is it ever acceptable to slam books like this, or do we just talk over their noise by loudly praising better ones?

I dunno - what do you think?

There's a dark side to the paradise of the pool.  A yellow evil that lurks in the warm spots created by the pee-terrorist known only as... The Urinator.