Friday, July 27, 2012

Forming Opinions on Books We Disagree With

     Have you ever loved a book, but also disagreed with it on some level? You were hooked, but...something about it grated on your spirit. Your soul felt raw and charged after reading it because your beliefs were under attack.
     How do we deal with such bothersome books? We must figure it out for our own personal sanity. Some of us, like teachers, parents, librarians, book-reviewers and members of book-clubs must also decide how to review and whether to recommend books. The only thing to do is to form a careful opinion.
Settling it in Your Spirit
     "We need to be really bothered once in a while." Montag said this in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. He was referring to books; books should bother us. I couldn't agree with him more. Sometimes books affirm our 
beliefs, and other times they test our beliefs; they even give us new ones! When considering a tough book, think about what exactly the author is saying. Don't just ban the book: pick it apart and mull over it. Wrestle with the points it makes. Think critically--you'll be glad for the effort. Study the subjects, and write down your thoughts. If you're a Christian, pray about it and study the biblical stance.
      It's okay to like a book, even if you disagree with it. It's the same way with people: you'll never agree with them on everything, but you can still appreciate and like them. Books are peoples' thoughts on a page. Powerful, popular authors have something to say, and they say it hard. You're expected to disagree with at least some of it. 
     The Recommendation Question
     So how do we review books that bother us? Should we recommend them? Recently I read a book called Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore that gave me this problem. I struggled with rating it.
     Bitterblue was fabulously written, from a craft standpoint. It's everything I like in a book--a strong heroine, multidimensional characters, grand adventure, high stakes, plot twists, political intrigue, magic, fantasy, love, visible imagery, fully-developed setting, and compelling mystery.
     My problem lay with two of the author's agendas. They can be summed up with the phrase "sexual sins." As a Christian, I have very strong opinions about sex. It bummed me out that the author (whom I greatly respect) so forcefully pushed my boundaries. I won't go very deep into it, because that's not the purpose of this blog, but I'll briefly explain my problem. Cashore pressed her readers to accept two ideas: that it's just fine to have sex before marriage, and that homosexuality is normal and right. I can't just ignore what the Bible says on these topics. If you'd like to know why I believe what I believe, please email me, and I'd be glad to explain. More than glad--thrilled.
     So how am I supposed to review this book?
     Recently I asked a dear friend about how to review books that give me this problem, and this was her advice: Be honest.
      And I will be. Bitterblue was a beautiful book about a young queen trying to help her country heal from it's terrible past. It grated on a few of my moral sensibilities, but I enjoyed it very much despite that. Books are written to make us think. I gave the  presented issues some thought. Eventually I decided Bitterblue deserved four stars, rather than five, simply because I think the author is wrong about one of her minor subplot-agendas.
     As far as recommending it to people, I will tell them the same thing as I did in my review. Fantsay-lovers will probably like this book.
     If you would like to read my review of Bitterblue, click on the book on my bookshelf to the right of the page.
     Tip: Reviewing books is generally easier if you can separate the reviews into sections: 1) writing craft, 2) how you liked it, and 3) its message. Or something like that. That way, you can give it the full respect it deserves!
     Scribblers and Book Bandits: do you ever struggle with books in this way?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Inpiration and Writer's Block

Inspiration Lake by Bala Sivakumar
     Scribblers, I know the pressure to create can be incredible, so let's take a certain weight off our shoulders. What weight is that?
     That of being "inspired."
     At times, inspiration comes in waves, but other times, it seems the dams have drawn up. This is often refered to as "Writer's Block." How do we kick it?
     I've identified two kinds of writer's block. (1) Have you ever found yourself staring at a completely blank page, knowing you need to write a story (or whatever), and having no idea where to begin? We just write. I've found is the eaiser kind to cure.
     What is our job, as writers? Writers find a truth, and make it accessible to the reading population. Sometimes if we're good enough, we can do it in an entertaining fashion. That's the point: getting our points across. Stories and non-fiction alike are all about conveying truth.
     But where do we find these truths? By looking around, and thinking. Just by doing these two things, writing material comes to us. The material is already there; we just have to notice it, and write it down. For the most part, we don't "create": we capture.
     Two weeks ago, I wrote about the writing process. We talked about the 5 stages: Observing, Researching, Recording, Organizing, and Touching Up.
     The first kind of inspiration has mostly two do with the first three stages. For some people, the third stage is made up primarily of this first kind of inspiration. Others have already planned out what will happen during the third stage of writing, and they only access this first kind of inspiration once in awhile, for spontaneity.
     Of course, I'm making it sound so deliberate. Nothing is quite so neat when you are in the midst of the process. Some people just plan more before writing than other. This dichotomy is encapsulated in the debate between "outlines and pantsers," which I'll talk about some other time.
     So, when you are searching for something to begin writing about, think about what has interested you lately. If you're lucky, you'll have been writing down interesting things in your notebook (I find this incredibly helpful) from which you can draw. I recommend tossing around several ideas, because not every idea is big or interesting enough to hold the weight of a novel or story. To make an interesting premise out of a couple ideas, ask yourself "What if?" You like crime shows? You're upset about NASA closing? What if you wrote a crime-mystery...on the moon? And, if you are just looking for what comes next in the first draft of your story, let it wander in tangents that interest you. It'll turn out differently than you expected.
     (2) And now, let's talk about the second, more frustrating kind of writer's block, the one that takes place in the fourth and fifth stages of writing: when we can't make things connect together, can't organize them right, and are out of ideas to try. This is when people give up. They figure they weren't cut out to be novelists, if they get stuck like this; it's too hard to think of something worth writing (or reading).
     I'm working on this part, myself. What I've found that seems to help is to just keep writing. I take a notebook that isn't the actual draft, and I brainstorm. I make lists of my alternatives, even the ones I know I won't use. I get it all out on paper. It looks messy, but it helps. Just keep writing; don't get "bogged down," even if it takes you days.
     If lists are helping, I take a break--not to give up, but to get some distance. I read books. I go through my notebook. I let it sit on the back burner. Sometimes, I'll write character bios or plot  outlines. I keep working on anything, even if it's not the problem.
     The key is not to give up. Maybe you need distance from the problem area, but you don't need to stop writing altogether. Something will come to you if you're patient.
     I hope this helps all the scribblers out there, because we all run into this problem from time to time. Happy writing!

Friday, July 13, 2012

CSI Teen Library Event

     Book Bandits, it's your day.
     Actually, if you're a teen BB, yesterday was your day. The library hosted a Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) program for teens. Two employees of the Sheriff's department (a Detective and a Tech with a very complicated official-sounding title) came and showed us what REALLY happens at a crime scene, and how crimes are solved.
     Below, we see some of the teens who attended:
They look bored because we haven't started yet...and because I hassled them
by taking pictures :)

     First, the sheriffs gave a fascinating lecture on the point of CSIs, and passed around several examples of finger print lifts. We got to see real evidence from real cases!  Next, the CSIs set up a "crime scene" for the teens to work in.
This was the entrance to the "crime scene." Notice the yellow sign on the
window. What a clever detective! He told us he's given several classes before.
No wonder they did such a great job!

Notice the small paper scraps on the bottom left. That's the
"broken window glass." Here, the teens are solving the
     Next, we all filed into the "lab" and lifted fingerprints off of several bottles and cans. We actually got to use real equipment!
I felt very lucky to be allowed to join the fingerprinting action, even though I'm not a teen anymore. It looks like I'm picking my nose, but really I'm being told that my face mask is upside it's just as embarrassing! ;)

     These are the two awesome CSIs who showed us all the goods!


     We owe them a huuuuuuuge thank you for coming to the library and teaching some basic nabbing techniques.
     If this looks awesome to you, know that it was just one of many teen events going on this summer. You can always come for the next event, which will be July 28th from 2PM-4PM. We'll be learning how to make solar ovens, and cooking s'mores! This is a handy tool for camping trips. Come have fun and learn with us!
     We're also hosting a photo contest. The winner will recieve a digital camera, and every participant gets their photos displayed at our fancy wrap-up party! Sound cool? For more information about other Teen events going on this summer, check out this post, or stop by the library any time and pick up an info packet. It's not too late to join!
     Hope your summer is going great, Book Bandits!

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Writing Process in 5 Stages

     Hi, Scribblers!
     The concept of writing or "creating" can be intimidating for the beginning writer, (more on that next week) so let's break it down. There are 5 smaller, more manageable stages in the writing process: Observing, Gathering, Recording, Organizing, and Touching Up. Some of these stages have "professional" names, which I'll use later, but the names I've used here describe what the writer actually does during each stage.
     This process may sound less romantic and flowery than what novelists like to say: if you write stories, you add in imaginative elements to your information; you may rephrase your words into story arcs and metaphors to make the message more accessible. However, it is the same essential process.
     The first stage, Observation, is fun and inspiring. It doesn't feel like work. Rather, it makes a writer feel...well, writerly! You carry around a notebook, and people wonder why you are always pulling it out and scribbling something down. You may not even be thinking about writing: you may have just been walking around town, or reading a book or hanging out with a friend. Little and big truths come to us in the form of observations like, "A strong wind blows, but only one of the many trees dances in it." From there, you can go a thousand directions. What kind of tree is it? Why does only that one dance? I strongly suggest writing your observations down in a notebook; it's been one of the most useful tools for me. Observations don't all get used--in fact, most won't--but they're a great jumping-off point. The great children's author Lois Lowry said in this fabulous interview that a writer who has lived in a small town for 50 years can get as much great content as they need, as long as they are observant. I have to firmly believe that, because as far as I know, I'll be living in Lake County for a loooong time! :)
     The second stage, Gathering, a.k.a. Researching, often stems from a writer's Observation. You take it a step further. First you see, hear or even smell something that interests you--a news cast, the strange new style of dress these days, the strong smell of curry from that restaurant across the street--and you may want to research it a little. You pursue what you've observed.  You buy a fashion magazine and laugh at the outrageous getups; you go ask the owner of the restaurant where he moved from, and pick up a menu; you check internet articles or read books. Often, more interesting tidbits will show up. Last week's post discussed how research helps engage reader interest through specific details. This is a great time to find specific details. This second stage of the writing process is ongoing--even while you record (Stage 3), organize (Stage 4), and touch-up (Stage 5), you might still be snooping around for more interesting tidbits to liven up your story.
     The third stage is Recording, a.k.a. First-Drafting. Really, you begin recording in the observation stage, but once you begin writing the first draft, you've stepped into the third stage officially. For NaNoWriMo writers, this begins strictly on November first.* Although there is some organization (Stage 4) involved in this stage, mostly you are throwing your research and ideas and truths and metaphors onto a page. You are making characters out of one-liners and internet images. There are many different methods to this stage: some writers take months or years, organizing as they go, and others do it extremely quickly. I prefer the quicker version, because the first draft nearly always morphs dramatically during the next stage. Lately, however, I've been leaning towards taking more time on the first-draft. Your preferences will change the more you write.
     For me, Stage 4, Organizing, a.k.a Revision, is the biggest, scariest of the all the processes. The biggest difference between this stage and stage four is the pace of the writing. Stage 4 takes up the most time out of all three processes. It consists of making decisions about content: keep this, toss it, or save it for later? What else needs to happen? Organization is overhauling the mad dash of Stage 3, and figuring out what unanticipated-but-lovely metaphors and themes showed up. Here, you have to shove all the parts of your story into a story arc. You plot. Let nothing go untouched or unquestioned in this stage--yes, question everything, even your inspiration. Deepen your characters--here, they should become more real. They should make decisions, like real people, and change your plot in unexpected ways. You can create a setting using details you've researched, and from your imagination. During this stage, it's important to remember that nothing is permanent. You can change or rewrite ANYTHING. Don't get too attached! Your specific details and research (which is still ongoing and getting deeper) might stick, but most of your first draft from Stage 3 will be revised away. Don't start "touching up" (Stage 5) yet. If you want some other great articles on revision, check out these two written by published authors: Mary Kole on Revision, and Nathan Bransford's Editing Strategies.
     Stage 5 is Touching Up, or Editing. This is my favorite part! Fun, fun, fun. Here, we play with the small picture, and make the words prettier. Grammar, sentence structure, specific images, snappy dialogue, etc. This is the part where you make the story beautiful--not just presentable, or even just passionate, but gleaming and sharp and delicate and strong. I recommend staying away from editing and touching up before your manuscript is in stage 5, because if you spend days on a passage, you won't want to let it be revised away...even if it really needs to be.
     Every writer goes through these stages a little differently. The best way to figure it out is to try it! Good luck, friends.

*Revised on 3/14/13: I've discovered that some writer prefer to outline using chapter summaries and scene lists instead of writing out their whole first draft. They do this because it saves them from writing out so many unusable scenes. For more information on this process, see the book Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. The Kindle version is only $4 books, and it's totally worth it to see examples of outlining.