On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing as a part of my continual “professional development,” training myself to be a better writer. Though King talks about how maligned he is by critics, none of that snobbery was to be found in my creative writing program. He was spoken of with admiration and envy, especially concerning how prolific he is. I read and enjoyed The Shining as an assignment for an MA class, and have seen several of the many movies based on King’s books, along with most Americans. Many of the things he says about story being most important, about letting characters take the lead and direct the story, about sentences and paragraphs, about good reading fueling good writing, were things that I’d heard before in my program, but which are good to remind yourself of every once in a while.

It was gratifying to read King expressing sentiments about good writing that I agree with and that I’ve even expressed here. He says that characters should be described once, and not in meticulous detail; my rant against repeated, overly detailed, and sexualized character descriptions can be found here. He cautions that research shouldn’t overwhelm the story, something that I fear might have happened to the Earth’s Children series.

Only about about a third to a half of the book is about nuts-and-bolts writing advice. A good portion of the first part is a memoir of King’s childhood, and the ending is about the effects of the car accident that nearly killed him. He has some interesting stories to tell about his life, but readers focused primarily on learning craft would be justified in concentrating on the middle section of the volume.

The Mammoth Hunters

The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel

The Mammoth Hunters suffers from some of the same problems that earlier books in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Valley of Horses, did. A confused, poorly written presentation of sex, overly detailed descriptions of Ice Age life, and too little conflict make the novel much longer than it needs to be and much less fun than it could be.

Again, the novel is full of textbook-like passages explaining Ice Age weather patterns, craft-making, animals and their behaviors, and many other elements of setting. I like learning while I read, and the information is interesting. Auel did plenty of research, which I admire. These passages make me wonder which of these details are fictional and which are backed by anthropological evidence? Many of these scenes have so much detail that it’s hard to imagine that there is hard evidence to support every minor point. For example, we may know that Ice Age people used certain tools, but do we really know the exact process they used to make the tools? Sometimes I wondered, in Auel’s writing, which came first, the research or the scene? Did she do research to back up creative ideas she already had, or did her research drive the writing, so that she included things that she learned about regardless of their impact on the main plot?

Auel has a sad tendency to over-explain characters and their motivations. Rather than allowing readers to infer a character’s feelings and motivations, Auel breaks them down in excruciating detail, often using three sentences where one would do. In the process, she rarely tells readers anything they didn’t already know or couldn’t have guessed, while drawing out scenes unneccessarily, and contributing to the length issue. It’s almost like she doesn’t trust her readers to put two and two together. Maybe this issue is related to the teacherly tone she adopts for the anthro textbook passages; once you’re writing in that mode it might be hard to phase out of it, even for sections that don’t need so much detail.

One result of this overexplaining is a bunch of textbook examples of bad sex scenes. Auel uses both horrible euphemisms and horrible anatomically correct words, as well as a plethora of cliches and generic descriptions. Given the horrible prose of these scenes, they should never have made it through edits. I find them particularly objectionable because only very few sex scenes needed to be in these books: the plot-relevant ones. In the entire series, I count about one sex scene per book that contained information that changed the plot. The sex only needs to be described in detail if something about the particular way the couple has sex is important to the plot, if they communicate something new to each other that they could only do in that way. Very few of the book’s sex scenes fit this criteria, so they should have been cut. If the mere fact of two people having sex is what’s changing the plot, then the typical soap opera trick should be used: show the couple getting into bed, let us know they’re going to do it, then fade to black. I don’t say all this because I hate sex scenes; in fact I really like well-written sex scenes, which are usually ones that both use great prose and show a relationship evolving. Decently written sex scenes that don’t change anything about a relationship or the plot can be ok, but if the scene is poorly written it had better contain plot-relevant information to justify putting me through it.

Besides the awful sex scenes, most of the rest of the book consists of happy episodes of life in the Lion Camp. Ayla cures the sick and learns the ways of her new people. There’s just not enough conflict (and that’s a pet peeve of mine). One reason there’s so little conflict is that the main character, Ayla, is very nearly perfect. Her only flaws or mistakes come from her upbringing and cultural training, not her character. It’s kind of grating after a while how everyone loves her and she never does anything wrong. (Well, some people don’t like her, but it’s clear that the only reason is that they’re bigoted against the Clan, and they change their minds eventually.) All she ever does is invent useful tools, share innovative knowlege, and save people’s lives. Seriously, I wish I’d kept count how many children’s lives she’s saved over the course of the series. The number must be ridiculous. It became kind of predictable, and it started to feel like Auel was recycling events from the previous books. There’s a cry for help and you know Ayla is about to save someone, and it will make people accept her even though she’s so unusual. And once again, we’re asked to believe that one person first invented the needle and thread, and the horse bridle, and first domesticated a wolf.

The little bit of conflict there is comes mostly from a love triangle between Ayla, Jondalar, and a new character, Renec. But really, the only thing keeping this conflict alive is the fact that Jondalar and Ayla don’t talk to each other about it. If they took five minutes to express their true feelings when the misunderstanding began, then it would have been settled in the first third of the book and wouldn’t have gotten nearly so bad. Their refusal to talk to each other goes on so long that it’s just frustrating, and not in a good way. I have little sympathy for conflicts like this, caused only by poor (or worse, nonexistent) communication. It’s hard to root for a couple when the problem they’re having is based on a serious deficiency in a skill they’ll need to survive and get along over the long term. I much prefer to watch a couple fight, rather than to see them ice each other out for months on end.

Another weakness in the conflict is Auel’s continued manipulation of sexual mores in the service of her plot. The conflict begins when Ayla sleeps with Renec basically because she doesn’t know how to say no when a man asks her for sex, because in the custom of the people who raised her, women always consent as a matter of course. Then after that she stops sleeping with him because she learns that she can say no. Later, Jondalar has forceful sex with her, and tears himself up thinking he raped her, but really she consented. If it weren’t for the need for Jondalar to be angsty, he would have realized that during their sex she was helping him and not resisting, and that she would not have said no or called it rape because of the same mistaken belief that caused the conflict in the first place. There’s also a kind of long passage where a shaman explains sexuality to a soon-to-be-initiated young woman, and I really don’t know what to make of it. The superstitions are patently absurd, but I don’t know if they’re meant to show how progressive this ancient tribe was, or how repressed, or just how weird. Basically, Auel makes her characters believe whatever her plot needs them to believe, when it comes to sex, rather than letting the plot evolve organically from a coherent belief system.

At this point I’m pretty invested in the series, so I’ll read the next one, The Plains of Passage. It seems like this book will bring Ayla to Jondalar’s people, but I hope future books will eventually bring her back to the Clan, because I’m interested in seeing what happens when she sees Broud, her rapist, again. My prediction is that the Clan is suffering because of Broud’s terrible leadership, and Ayla will save them. Because she is perfect and saving people is what she does.

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

I was excited to read this book because I really liked The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s gender-bending adult sci-fi novel. This is one of those children’s books that I’m not sure how I missed reading as a child, since I was totally into the genre and it was definitely published long enough ago (too long to be on my radar?). The really sad thing is, I probably would have liked it more as a kid.

The most striking characteristic of this book for me was its language. It uses a high fantasy/fairy tale style that is very, very distinctive. There are words and syntax that you can only find in this kind of setting, dealing with this subject matter. It’s a style I like and can appreciate for its poetry, even if it doesn’t say or mean much. It’s kind of over-the-top dramatic and very easy to mock, but there is pleasure in it if you allow yourself to take it seriously for a minute. Here’s one of my favorite examples of the style:

All power is one in source and end, I think. Years, and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly being spoken by the shining of the stars.

Pure poetry, right? As much as I liked the style, I somehow felt that the book didn’t have much of that elusive quality critics call heart. I didn’t feel much of a connection to Ged or the other characters, or urgency about his quest, or sympathy with his struggle or his relationships with others. Maybe Ged’s quest was too abstract and solitary for my taste, his enemy too vague and shadowy. Maybe he was too caught up in problems of sorcery and self-recrimination to have relationships and interactions with other characters that were engaging enough to me.

I listened to this novel on audiobook in the car, so it’s totally possible that this method of delivery made it harder for me to follow certain plot elements, drawing my attention instead to language, and ultimately biasing me against the book. While listening to the book, I found myself sometimes simply letting the words wash over me without attending very closely to meaning, reading in much the same way that I read Virginia Woolf. It’s entirely possible that my reading this way was lazy and I didn’t give the book enough of a chance. It would make me sad if it were only my poor reading that made me have this reaction, because I do like this style, and would have liked to read the whole series.


Wench by Dolen Perkins Valdez

Wench is set in an Ohio resort town in the 1840s and 1850s, where Southern slaveowners would vacation, bringing their slave mistresses with them and living with them as if they were married. The main characters are four of these women, tantalized by the prospect of freedom, set apart from other slaves by their relationships with their masters, but not considered human beings by their lovers. The resort town itself is a strange in-between zone, populated by both whites and free blacks, in a free state that’s nevertheless under the jurisdiction of the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s a place where the slaveowners can dress up their slave lovers and take them out in public, but where the women are still subject to beatings and threats from their masters and other white men. Sometimes the novel feels like a list of violations and tragedies: a woman is anally raped in public as a punishment for attempting to run away, another is raped by a fellow slave while in chains on the deck of a riverboat, a third is punched in the face by her master at a dinner party, the last loses three children in an epidemic and cannot even say goodbye. The novel focuses on Lizzie, the one of the four whose master has the kindest surface, and who seems to feel something like love for her master, at least in the beginning. The friendship between the women was a beautiful vision of hope in a dark place; their care for each other helped them endure their abuse and suffering. At least one of them does reach freedom; the ending is kind of undetermined about Lizzie’s fate, but she gains at least a kind of inner freedom. Wench is an affecting story, told in lyrical dialect, with sensitive attention to language and the heartbreaking contradictions of master/slave relationships.


MissRepresentation, a documentary film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Jennifer Siebel Newsom started making this documentary for her daughter, wondering about what kind of world she will grow up in. It’s about how the media objectifies and demeans women, and why, and what we can do about it. The film is spliced with thousands of clips from TV shows, movies, and commercials that perfectly prove the point about how pervasive objectification is. This TED talk gives an idea of what those montages of objectifying images are like. It also gives a great overview of why this issue is so important.

The documentary also includes lots of clips of media insiders like producers, directors, and actresses discussing the industry, young girls talking about the media’s effect on them, as well as academics and prominent feminists commenting on the whole phenomenon. Despite (and perhaps because of) so many voices participating, the argument is fairly coherent and definitely compelling and urgent.

Some of the film’s best points are about the way the media insists that female leaders must be attractive as well as full of great ideas and charisma. It’s an impossible standard, and the level of scrutiny they’re under is insane. Why would a young woman want to be a leader when she knows she’ll be treated this way? When she knows it will be headline news if she gains a few pounds or is seen in public without makeup? It’s a point that’s made very well in this sad, but realistic essay by a young woman who claims that her generation’s aversion to leadership does not stem from apathy, but from a rational assessment of what public women’s lives are like. Here’s another great bit of writing on how Hilary Clinton has admirably refused to play into the media’s insistence on feminizing her through discussions of fashion, baking, and similar topics.

The film is trying to make a connection between the way women are objectified and taught that their beauty is what makes them valuable, and the dearth of women leaders in government, and I think it does not completely succeed because of abrupt transitions between the two topics. I totally believe that the two things are connected, and the evidence is there in the film, but I’m kind of afraid that doubters (those blinded by male privilege) will feel that it’s a stretch because the film’s transitions between the topics are sometimes awkward, which makes the rhetorical connection seem more tenuous than it is.

This Ted talk gives some of the main talking points of the documentary in a nutshell:

As in the Ted talk, the film’s final message is one of hope: let’s take back the media and get women in charge of it, so that we can tell our own stories and create a better vision of the future for our daughters. MissRepresentation is an enjoyable and important documentary that should be required viewing for every Girl Scout troop, media criticism class, and family with preteen girls.

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I should have read this book in high school, or college at the latest. There were so many parts of this story in which I recognized myself, or at least, a younger version of me on a particularly bad day. Like Esther, I wanted to write, but felt like I had nothing to write about because I hadn’t lived yet. I also felt it was a social necessity to prove my worth through being coupled, while feeling anxiety about being subsumed by a relationship, unable to achieve my own dreams because a man’s would take precendence. At nineteen, I, too, felt that the world was split between virgins and non-virgins, and this was the most important way to categorize my peers. It’s astonishing that Plath was born the same year as my grandmother, yet wrote something still so relevant to me fifty years later. I’m not sure what I would have made of this book if I’d read it while I was still in the midst of that turmoil, if it would have seemed like a ray of hope, or a nightmare, or just someone showing me I’m not the only one. Reading it now, I guess I see the book from the same perspective Plath had when she wrote it: in her late twenties, looking back on a hard time about 10 years earlier and exorcising it like a demon.

So, yeah, when I like a book all I want to do in the review is quote it at length. These first lines below are something that could have come from my journals of five to seven years ago, but I couldn’t have made this extended fig metaphor out of it:

The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was at an end.

I felt like a race horse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like a date on a tombstone.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet

I remember feeling like my best years were over, though I was so incredibly young. I had gotten addicted to the routine and praise and feedback you have as a student, and letting go of those things was scary. Leaving academia was exactly like leaving my “days of glory” behind. There was a sense of vertigo because I couldn’t choose what to do next, and the possibilities seemed both endless and quickly closing in. At the same time I felt cheated that it was turning out I couldn’t do everything at once; it seemed like I’d been told once that I could eat all the figs. I remember feeling that same aversion to learning practical skills (like shorthand, or teaching) because depending on and using skills like that would be an admission of defeat, settling for becoming less than I had the potential to be.

And here’s a line that chills me to the bone from where I sit in my life right now:

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

I don’t even know how to react to that, it terrifies me so much and hits so close to home.

I can totally see why The Bell Jar made it into the feminist canon. It made the political personal in a way that was really affecting and riveting. The way Plath recognized and expressed the subtle way sexism can trap a young woman, and the effect it can have on a particularly fragile psyche–a psyche that has been made fragile by patriarchy to begin with–it was a wake-up call, a concrete demonstration of the end result of forbidding women from being fully human. At the same time, it also showed that denying women their humanity cannot truly succeed: even at her lowest, most defeated, Esther is nothing if not a full, real person. That makes The Bell Jar a vision of triumph in defeat.

The Opal Deception

The Opal Deception by Eoin Colfer

As I promised myself I would after attending Eoin Colfer’s reading and talk at the library, I picked up the fourth book in the Artemis Fowl series. This volume had all of the things I remembered from the first three books: a lightning-fast action plot, seemingly inescapable predicaments, prickly heroes sniping at each other. In this volume, villain Opal Koboi, fueled by obsession, breaks out of the asylum where she’s supposedly in a coma, and tries to start a war between the fairies and humans. On my audiobook she had a hilariously evil baby-talk speaking style. She exacts revenge on our heroes, and there’s even a death of a major character in the beginning, which serves to prove that things have gotten serious now. I think that pretty much had to happen, sad as it is, because it’s hard to sustain a series like this over so many books without having several major characters die. After the bloodbaths in Harry Potter’s last three books, no one can write a long adventure series in which no beloved characters die anymore and be taken seriously (I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer, with your over-hyped battle-that-never-happened in Breaking Dawn. You didn’t have the stomach to kill a single Cullen, but Fred Weasley had to die?)

One reason I like the series, and one thing that made me quit it for so long after the mind wipe at the end of book 3, was the moral development of Artemis. I appreciated how he learned and grew and became more selfless through his adventures, and it seemed such a shame to lose that through a memory reboot. At the beginning of this book, though his mind had been wiped, Artemis hasn’t totally reverted to where he was at the beginning of the series. He still enjoys stealing and doing bad, daring, risky things, but it’s somewhat tempered by his love for his family. It takes only one life-threatening episode for him to learn to trust Holly again, and his memories come back quickly once triggered. He comments on how he feels warring impulses inside him, pulling him between good and bad, and says with surprise that good seems to be a stronger motivation. At the end he’s even musing about becoming a sort of Robin Hood figure. It seems clear that this moral development is something that’s intended to spread over all 8 books of the series. One of the things that attracted me back to the series is that I heard that in book 8 Artemis truly becomes a hero. I’m interested to see what that will mean. He’s already pretty heroic in that he makes smart decisions that save everyone just in the nick of time, often risking himself in the bargain.

The characters in this series are cartoonish, but not necessarily in a bad way. They all have certain qualities that are exaggerated, played for laughs, and used strategically in the plot and as fodder for witty banter. Mulch Diggums is one big fart joke. Opal’s vanity and devious plotting are deliciously over-the-top. At the reading, Colfer said that the first book is finally being made into a movie by Disney. I wonder if it’ll be Pixar, or more traditional animation, or live with tons of CGI, or what. I think a somewhat cartoonish art style would be fitting to the humor and tone of the story, and there are certainly lots of story elements that could not happen in real life. So I guess I’m rooting for Pixar to handle this one. And after meeting Colfer and seeing how hilarious he is, I say he deserves a part or a character to voice, or at least a cameo. I could see him as Artemis’s dad or as the voice of some fairy beaurocrat.

Overall, it’s a fun book and a fun series for action-packed adventure and humor. If you ever have to buy a book for a boy age 8-13, this series is a good bet.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I wish I had a better way to track the recommendations that I get, because then I could give credit for directing me to good books. The Mysterious Benedict Society might be my favorite children’s book I’ve read this year, but I haven’t read many. (My excuse for not reading this one as a child is that it came out when I was 23.) It brings together the boarding school tradition with a somewhat fantastic/sci-fi problem, a dash of political rhetoric and madcap characters.

The beginning of the book is really ingenius, characterizing the children and proposing a new definition of intelligence through putting them through a series of strange tests. The members of the Mysterious Benedict Society are Reynie, a natural leader and problem-solver, Sticky, who has an encyclopedic and photographic memory, Kate, always-prepared action girl, and Constance, a whiny brat. Their mission is to infiltrate “the Institute,” an island-based “school” run by the villain Mr. Curtain, whose ultimate goal is world domination through mind control. The school’s “lessons” sound like a combination of 1984 and Fox News (they’re being indoctrinated by evil ideas). The mystery is how to foil Mr. Curtain’s diabolical plot, even though they’re just kids. Toward this end, the book is constructed like a puzzle, with pieces from the beginning coming back to fit in place later. As in many children’s books, the protagonists are orphans. And by the ending, they find a home and family.

The writing style is cute, a bit hyperbolic, and riddling. The whimsical tone is sometimes paternalistic toward the characters, exaggerating their personalities. For example, several idioms are taken literally for laughs, and that reminds me of my dad’s sense of humor. It is a children’s book, though, and this style seems appropriate for storytelling. It’s a book that would be fun to read aloud; I enjoyed my audiobook very much. It would be a great book to begin conversations with children about teamwork, independence, bravery, multiple intelligences, and even the socially constructed nature of what it means to be smart.

Even better: it’s a trilogy!

Lord of Misrule

Lord of Misrule by Rachel Caine

Lord of Misrule is the next in the Morganville Vampires series. I’ve reviewed previous installments, Feast of Fools and Midnight Alley. This volume is heavy on the action and fairly light on the romance. There’s a vampire war in Morganville, with humans either caught in the middle, or using the chaos to pillage each other and rebel against the vampires who have oppressed them for so long. Characters are almost constantly on the move, making sure others are safe, looking for lost allies, running from foes. It’s almost hard to keep track of the characters and who is on which side, and the chess metaphors are getting overused. I might be tiring of this series; it feels somewhat shallow, perhaps because of the non-stop action. In this book there was no progress on the mystery of why the vampires aren’t able to reproduce. However, I did like that a minor villain, Monica Morrell, was partly humanized. This one had another great cliffhanger, with the baddies in control of the town and even heroine Claire’s mind. That’s promising. I like mind control. Mind control is great horror.

In the Hand of the Goddess

In the Hand of the Goddess: Song of the Lioness Book II by Tamora Pierce

At the end of the first book in the series, Prince Jonathan chose Alanna to be his squire, even though he just found out she’s a girl. This volume features her growing relationship with him and a thief named George, a war, Alanna’s ordeal of knighthood, and the uncovering of a treacherous plot by the villain Duke Roger.

Alanna says that she never wants to fall in love or get married; while she eventually caves on the first count, she’s holding strong on the second as of the end of this book. And at the end, she leaves the prince behind to seek adventures on her own. Her independence and strong-willed nature make her a feminist heroine to inspire girls to break gender barriers.

It’s a very short book, and though my copy came from the “young adult” section of the library, a nine-year-old could easily read it. Probably the subject matter is what keeps it from the children’s section. It features the protagonist sleeping with her friend the prince with the protection of a charm to prevent pregnancy, and that seems remarkably progressive in a book aimed at young people. I was surprised to see that this book was published the year I was born, 1984. Surely books like Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series could not be written today without precursors like this.

One of the things that made the book short was a lack of depth and development in the relationships. There are several important scenes that are skipped entirely, or glossed over, not given the weight they deserve. (This is partly because the novel covers several years, but it’s barely 200 pages, so it could stand some more length.) Jonathan in particular is a cipher. He and Alanna love each other, and have great adventures together, but the real meat of their relationship is left behind closed doors. (Surely a big reason for that is to hide the sex.) Apparently he’s going to have to marry for the good of the kingdom, but we never find out how he feels about that. The focus of the plot was on the adventures and on the conflict with Duke Roger, but I would have been more interested to learn about the relationships. I hesitate to log this criticism because of course it’s a good thing that Alanna’s relationship does not define her; too much focus on the relationship might have made this a book about a girl who falls in love with a prince rather than one about a girl who becomes a knight and has adventures. We already have plenty of the first; the second is refreshing.