Friday, November 30, 2012

Bright Futures: An Interview with Dr. Caramine White

     Hey Scribblers and Book Bandits!
     You probably read this blog because you love writing or reading. (Unless you're my mom or something. Hi, Mom!). If so, isn’t it fun to see how our futures could involve these things we love?
     I recently interviewed my British Literature professor, Dr. Caramine White, over the phone about her life as a professor and writer. Dr. White has written two non-fiction works:  Reading Roddy Doyle, and Reading More of Roddy Doyle. She has also written a memoir called Running Naked Through the Streets about her experiences living in Slovakia as a teacher. On top of these accomplishments, she has written several articles and interviews. She is gifted with the ability to pick stories out of people and explain them to readers.
     And, let’s not forget that she’s an avid marathon-runner and animal activist.

Please welcome, for your pleasure, Dr. Caramine White!

1.      You’ve written a number of interviews. You mentioned once that good interviewers pick stories out of people. Do you have any tips about how to do this?
-Be interested in your subjects and you’ll be a good interviewer.
-Do research on your topic before you interview, because it’s hard to ask good questions if you don’t know anything about the topic.
-Keep the person talking. It’s like when you’re on a date—keep asking questions!

2.      You wrote a memoir about your experiences in Slovakia as a teacher. Why did you choose to write a memoir as opposed to fiction?
-I had never written any fiction before, only non-fiction. The memoir just occurred to me as a true story to share.

I thought this was a cool point for us, Scribblers and Book Bandits. In this case, Dr. White took the advice to “write what you know.” She wrote about her experiences in a comfortable medium. It’s good for beginning writers to step out and stretch ourselves sometimes, but we can write things in comfortable mediums as well. (Although I wouldn't call Dr. White a beginning author!)

3.      Can you share any lessons you’ve learned about writing?
-Since I write mostly non-fiction, the biggest thing I must remember is to make sure the facts are correct. Newspaper articles must be especially clear, meticulously so. I’ve gotten calls before about extremely minor things. Once, a musician told me his record had come out “recently.” I wrote that in the article. An editor called me and berated me for writing “recently,” because the musician’s record had been out for a few months already.

4.      How do you include your Catholic faith in your writing?
-Being ethical is important. When I’m writing up interviews, I must represent people accurately. My subjects are often afraid of being misrepresented because they have been so many times before. I can’t let my biases interpret people—I have to put aside my opinions as much as possible. Although…when someone is particularly rude, I just let them form their own image on the page. I don’t edit out anything—I leave in everything they say and do, so I present the truth. That way, they look like who they are.

5.      Are you planning to write fiction? If you did, what would it look like?
-My dream is to write accessible, best-selling novels that make people think. Serious fiction should make a person think. It should open up questions for people to think wonder about.

6.      When did you learn to write?
-Actually, when I was working on my PH.d. program, one of my professors was very tough on me when he critiqued my writing. He taught me a lot!
7.      How did you become interested in teaching?
- Originally, a high school history teacher told me that I didn’t write well, so I didn’t consider writing as a career. I was a Latin and Psych major at Duke for undergrad. Ater graduating from Duke, I served in the Navy as an operations officer. Then I went back to school to get a teaching degree. I eventually just decided to bag the Education degree and go for a PhD in English. My mentor said I was too eccentric to teach high school and suggested I teach college. I listened to her, and here I am!
I’m glad Dr. White listened to her mentor! I learned a lot about Literature in her class. One interesting topic that came up in our discussion about school was that Dr. White had graded AP Tests on a panel before. She asked about my experience with the AP Lit test. I said, “I don’t understand why I got a 3/5! I even wrote on Hamlet.” She laughed and told me, “Teachers should tell their students never to write on Hamlet. We graders groan every time a Hamlet essay comes up because we get so many. The essays never do the play justice, so they never get good grades.” In my essay on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she advised me about how to cover a topic more thoroughly in an essay. “A really good Lit essay explores every aspect of its thesis. So, if you’re writing on a character, you need to study him every time he appears on stage. It’s tough to do this in a short essay.” She also told me that when you examine a piece of literature in an essay, you must examine it like a lawyer. You must know everything about it and create a solid thesis using all the evidence the play gives you. You can’t just ignore something and hope no one notices. Dr. White's advice helps me every time I write an essay.

8.      What is the publishing market like right now?
-It is SO hard to get published right now! A lot of people are just e-publishing. Actually, I’ve talked to some editors who advise just that. The big publishers don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts*, and agents don’t consider you unless you’ve already got a traditionally published book under your belt. It’s tough to break into the market
     9. What book would you recommend for writers on the hunt for agents or editors?
-I would recommend Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishing. He publishes a new edition every few years.
* “Unsolicited manuscripts” are labeled as such because a publisher has not requested it. Sometimes, this only means that you need to send the publisher a query letter first. Other times, this means “Don’t send us anything.” Read a publisher’s “Submission Guidelines” page to find out. If they don’t have any guidelines, you can know for sure that they don’t even want to receive queries. Publishers like this usually require submissions to come from literary agents. It’s advised to try and interest a literary agent in your manuscript first anyway.
     We hoped you enjoyed the interview, friends. Don’t forget to leave Dr. White a thank you note in the comment section!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Principles for Reviewing Books

      Lately, I've been reviewing a lot of books because doing so helps me form opinions that would otherwise remain cloudy. It promotes critical thinking...and it's fun!
     But it's also an art. Do you like reviewing books? Do you want to give people the truth about books? Honestly, your reviews and opinions of books DO matter. They ARE important and worth the time they take to compose. I've discovered four important things to remember when reviewing a book:

1.      Be honest. It helps no one if reviewers are lying through their teeth. Lying helps no one: not the author, who wants the truth; not the reader, who also wants the truth; and not you, reviewer, who, I assume, want the truth. Readers won’t trust you if you mislead them in a review unintentionally or intentionally. If you liked Twilight, don’t lie and write a hater-review to impress your friends. It’s not tasteful—and it’s not even original because everyone is doing that. Why waste your valuable time being a Snark when you could be telling the truth? If you aren't telling the truth, you don't deserve free speech...okay, maybe that's a bit harsh! But the point is, Be Honest.
2.      Consider the author's intended audience and purpose. Sometimes an author writes a certain way because they are writing to fit in certain stereotypes called “genres.” (Ever heard of them? ;) If you read a genre novel, be aware of what stereotypes are acceptable. Genre novelists are writing to a certain crowd who expects certain things. If you start bashing these stereotypes, then you look silly, not the author. If the hero kills the dragon and saves the princess in a Fantasy novel, don't immediately dash off, "Seen it before. Booooring!" If you can see the outcome of a romance novel a mile off, think for a sec. In most Romance, you're supposed to know who to root for. On the other hand, if you are reading a book labeled as "Literary Fiction" and it's totally predictable, and the style is awful, you may have a beef worth voicing!
3.   Have an Objective Part. There should be at least some objectivity to your review. A lot of the content of book reviews is opinion—but not all. For example, if you are reviewing The Grapes of Wrath, remember that it is already an established classic. You can’t just say “It was awful, I hated it, 0 stars.” You have to admit: it is invaluable historically and the writing is magnificent, in terms of style. Certain books have undeniable quality. Those elements should be praised. Other books are...less worthy. They shouldn't be allowed to stick themselves in with the quality books without alarms being raised. If books have typos or terrible writing or are ridiculously repetitive and unoriginal in prose, please do mention it.
4.   And a Subjective Part. The Subjective section is where you get to say, “I don’t care how great (or terrible) this book was stylistically—I hated the story. And here’s why.” Please don’t forget this important “why” part of the subjective review. This is what readers are curious to read. Put in some of the good and the bad. Was the plot twisty and intelligent, or did it have holes the size of Texas? Did the characters become your friends? Did they at least succeed in impressing you? Or were they as plastic as your Barbie dolls? Also, did you agree with the moral or intellectual implications? Or disagree? These subjects are great to talk about. They’re interesting. Good authors write books that can be discussed for a long time, books that will make people think. Even The Hunger Games, popular fiction at its greatest, has study and discussion questions. So think, and write those reviews.
     Reviewers matter, and their words DO make a difference. Use both discretion and honesty in your reviews. But remember, also, that reviewing books is a learning experience, and it’s fun! Enjoy putting your opinions out there. The world wants to hear them.
     I adhere to these guidelines for my own reviews. I hope they help you, too!

Photo Credit: Julo. Edited from "Magnifying Glass." Wikimedia Commons. 10 Aug. 2007. 23 Nov. 2012.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Beginning With Character Archetypes

     If you are doing NaNo this year, my post may be coming at the perfect time--the beginning of Week 3, when you need inspiration to begin the ending.
     NaNo covers one step in the process of writing a novel: the first draft, or the beginning. You are creating a brand new story. You need inspiration and (if you're like me) a bit of structural advice.
     I'm working on creating a routine for myself to begin writing novels. I need a refresher on story-writing basics when I begin a new story. Refreshers help structure my thoughts, plan a bit, and motivate me to get writing. In my Writing Commercial Fiction class, I was assigned a great video to add to my routine. The video goes over the 8 character archetypes, or "jobs" that must be fulfilled by characters in a story. That doesn't mean you need 8 characters, mind you, but just that there are 8 jobs that need doing. For instance, someone must be the hero, someone must teach the protagonist (the teacher), and someone else should shift beetween sides to heighten tension (the shapeshifter). If you are curious about these jobs, you can watch the video, too! I actually watched it three times. Enjoy and learn, friends.


Thanks to Dr. Diorio of Regent University for highlighting this awesome resource!

Works Cited
Juszak, Rob. "Green Man." Wikimedia Commons. 1 Jan 2009. 16 November 2012.

PHSMr.Wood. "Hero's Journey Archetypes." 15 Nov. 2011. 16 Nov. 2012.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Deciding When and How Much We Should Write

     Lately, I've been struggling to reconcile the different productivity goals people tell writers to make:
  • Write every day.
  • Set a daily word count.
  • Set a daily hour count.
  • Set a weekly word quota.
  • Set a weekly hour quota.
  • Write at least 1667 words in a day because that's a normal writer's load.
  • Writing a NaNoload (1667) is at least 2Xs too much! Everything you write will be crud.
     How are we supposed to reconcile all the quota advice out there for writers? How can we live and write--happily--knowing that so many others would scoff at our own particular routine as not "productive" enough, or "too narrow"?
     I'm coming to the conclusion that each of us must figure it out for ourselves. I can't subscribe to everyone else's ways of thinking, because I'm not everyone else. I'm me. I'm slow, and careful, and I hate rushing things. I'm also impatient, so sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the wrong thing by taking my time.
     And you are you, not me, and not them.
     Your life circumstances dictate how much writing time you have. During my 9-credits-in-8-weeks school stints, I have ZERO time for "fun" writing. I just don't have it! It is my responsibility to be  thorough in my learning. And I better be, because my family is paying big bucks to put me through it! Luckily, those stints are only 8 weeks long, and I do still write during them. I just don't have time to write for fun. Recently, I mapped out my hours each week. Literally: how many hours per class, for my job, with Kevin, with Mom, etc. For now, I have 4-5 hours on Sundays to spend on my novel, my blog, and any other fun writing projects I'm working on. I usually edit blog posts on Thursdays or Fridays. Maggie Stiefvater admitted that she wrote her first novel in stints: two hours every Wednesday. What kind of time do you have? Map it out if you're curious, or serious.
     Right now, I'm in a learning stage. My priority is to learn how others write, and to learn what works for me. My main priority is not output on my novel. I've learned the hard way that it's good for me to have somewhat of a plan. Blog posts help me learn, so I make them a weekly priority. After I finish my degree program, establish some routines that work for me, and have formed opinions on various writing craft controversies, I will make novel-writing more of a priority. By that point, I'll have a better idea of how it should go for me.
     Writing enhances life, not the other way around. For some writers, writing is life. It's their meaning, and it's what they live for. Not me. God is Who I live for. I have to make sure I'm spending time with Him first. Then comes my husband, Kevin. Then comes work. Work is third. And my writing isn't even "work" yet, because it's not my "job." So school actually comes next, then my part-time work, then everyone else in my life. Then, and only then, comes my "dear hobbies" category: writing, baking, and other fun stuff. Keep your priorities in check, people. When writing becomes your job, you can put it up there. But don't put it above religion (if you have one), or above family. Don't even put it above friends. You need those, you know? Sometimes you may have to tell your friends you can't make because you have a deadline...but make sure you spend time with them.
     What do you think? Should we try to meet other people's guidelines to the "ideal writing life"? Or should we all just figure out what works for us?

     There are lots of other writing topics which people disagree on. I read recently that we must come to a point where we decide which expert to agree with because, "You can't please all the fiction writing teachers all the time" (Gerke 35). Eventually, after looking at every side of the matter, we must make up our own minds about how to run our writing.

Resources on Time Management for Writers: a great, encouraging blog post by Maggie Stiefvater, another, older blog post by Maggie Stiefvater, and the other, oldest blog post by Maggie Stievater. Every wonder why I quote her a lot? Because she's a best-selling writer several times over, as well as an artist, a musician, a mom AND a wife!

Work Cited
Gerke, Jeff. The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. Colorado Springs, CO: Marcher Lord Press, 2009.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: "Audrey's Guide to Witchcraft" by Jody Gehrman

     G'day Scribblers and Book Bandits,
     On the blog today, we have a book review of Audrey's Guide to Witchcraft by Jody Gehrman. I know what you're thinking (maybe): Why is Christy reading a guide to witchcraft? Firstly, because this is a novel. It is a cutesy work of fiction, in which the protagonist uses her blossoming witchy powers to defeat evil. Secondly, because the author taught my very first Creative Writing course over at Mendocino College. (She also teaches a few other courses.) She has written seven books and numerous plays.  If you'd like to find out more about Jody, you can check out her adorable website. Audrey's Guide is Jody's first self-published book. It is also the first self-published book I've ever read. The third reason I reviewed this book is because Jody honored me by providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review :)
     And now, on to said review:
     Audrey, until now a very normal teenager, knows from the first sentence of the book that her mother is in danger. But, she wonders, how does she "just know"? Turns out, her "witchy powers" have come to fruition! Better late than never? Not! As trouble mounts up, making her feel responsible, she soon wishes she had never found out about magic. Some freaky stranger is threatening her, on top of her other worries. Where is her mother? And how does Audrey fit into this picture?
     Before reading this book, I wondered whether I would feel secure in reading a self-published book. Would I feel like I was in the hands of an experience storyteller? Well, Jody Gehrman pulled it off! 2 points! There was definite skill in her craft, enough that I was not scared to continue reading.
     This book was like candy, as opposed to a hearty meal: pure fun (and it was fun), but containing very little meat or nutritional value. I didn’t learn from it, but I did enjoy the story. I think Jody’s purpose was to write a fun book, though, so I was not expecting much in the edification department. I expected fun, and I got fun.
     The story arc of this book was good. I like the plot! I reallyreally wanted the end to resolve the conflict; but Jody was smarter. She left just enough hanging that I wish I had the sequel in my hands right now.
     Naturally, in a book written for teen girls, there was a romantic angle. I liked Julian, if he was a bit flat. I loved the twists in Audrey's and Julian's relationship—especially the memory loss, precious and original to Audrey’s Guide. I admired the author for resisting to heap on the sexual humor. Such humor is often distasteful; conversely, I greatly enjoyed Audrey’s sweet, bubbly humor. I only mention this because a past book of Jody's did have some.
     My complaint about plot: in several tight situations, Audrey uses some humorous, lucky method to win the day, while the bad guy often makes some absurd oversight. For boys, it would be unacceptable. For Jody Gehrman’s audience (girl readers), it is excusable.
     As far as morality, my spirit says "Eh." There's good and there's evil. I disagree with some of what the "good" side says. Of course, that happens with every book. There is a sort of Christian presence in this book, which surprised me. I enjoyed the character of Bridgit (Audrey's sweet BFF) to some degree, but she doesn't act like an authentic Christian. Her parents are those horrid legalistic type. Unfortunately, there are some of those in the world. I felt they were portrayed a bit stereotypically, however. I hate saying that about a book, but it's true.
     There was quite a bit of light cursing. Nothing terribly vulgar, just the usual stupid teenager type. It was annoying rather than off-putting.
     Overall, I give this book a 3.5. I liked it for the story, and I’ll still read the sequel.
     Thanks, Jody, for the review copy! I hope my review was honest and up to your standards.