Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Event on Thursday in Naperville, IL, and Other News

NEWS ROUNDUP:

At 7:00 on Thursday of this week, I will be at Anderson's in Naperville, IL with four wonderful authors: Leigh Bardugo (Shadow and Bone), Dan Krokos (False Memory), Susan Dennard (Something Strange and Deadly), and Erica O'Rourke (Bound).  


Also, there are (only) 240 booklets with exclusive content from each author available to those who order 2 or more books, and there's more information about that here! (Get on it fast, because once those 240 are gone, that is it.)

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I will be at two stops on the Smart Chicks tour this year (which I am really excited about!): the Las Vegas stop (September 11th) and the Edmonton stop (September 13th). For more information about location and times, go here: http://smartchickskickit.com/schedule.html

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IF I LIE by writer friend Corrine Jackson came out today! I posted the cover and summary here awhile ago, but now the book is finally out in the world. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I read a portion of an early draft and, whoa. Girl can write.

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I recently read two books that I really enjoyed: THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater (out September 18th) and THE LIST by Siobhan Vivian (out now!). They're two completely different books, but the writing and characters in THE RAVEN BOYS were to. die. for., and I found THE LIST really thought-provoking and engaging (with an interesting exploration of the harm of reducing people to their physical appearances, even if the reduction is supposedly "positive").

I will probably discuss The Raven Boys at length in a later post, because there are some great things to learn about writing and character development from examining it closely.

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I am plugging away at book 3 and that's why I've been somewhat scarce for awhile, but I update my tumblr more frequently because it's easy (I can do it from my phone!), so if you're hungry for my random thoughts, go here: theartofnotwriting.tumblr.com

Monday, August 13, 2012

Loud, Ugly, Wild, Free

I was in my high school choir. I was a second alto. We had a pretty competitive choir program, packed to the brim with extremely talented singers. Was I one of them? Uh...not really. My voice is competent at best, the sort of voice that sounds good in a choir because it blends and there's very little vibrato, but not so great in solos. I also can't read music.

But I like to sing, so in high school I was also in a girls barbershop quartet and, what is more relevant to this story, I took voice lessons for four years. One of my biggest struggles in voice lessons, which should not surprise you at all if you know anything about me, was to loosen up. I tried to control my pitch and tone quality by bearing down as much as I could on my body and my voice, and, far from improving things, it made my tone quality and pitch worse.

My voice teacher, who was a patient man, devised many exercises that might help with this problem, and as I sat down to write today, I remembered one of them in particular. He told me to sing the scale as loudly as possible. As ugly as possible. He told me to go completely overboard, throw everything I had into it, without worrying about how awful it sounded or how loud it was or how "on" it was.

I sucked at this exercise. 

I do not willingly submit to error. No way, man. I am a perfectionist to the very core of my being. I scrutinize every single thing I do. That includes writing. That includes writing first drafts, which by their very nature are supposed to be shitty.

I use the word "shitty" because there's a wonderful chapter in Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird called "Shitty First Drafts." Here is a quote from it (emphasis mine):

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.

Here are several truths that I know but simultaneously cannot convince myself of:

1. A first draft will always, always, always need to be revised, and possibly rewritten. This cannot be avoided.
2. Perfectionism harms the creative effort, not just because it impedes progress, but because it restricts the creativity itself.

Or, to put it simply: perfectionism actually makes your art (whatever it is) suck more.

So, hilariously, my attempts to make my first drafts perfect actually make my first drafts more shitty than they would have been if I had just loosened up and let myself be creative.

Case in point: I wrote Divergent with all the wild freedom of someone who believes that their writing will never be seen by anyone. I wrote Insurgent with all the neurotic controllingness of someone who is aware that their writing will be seen by people-- a lot of people.

Guess which one required more extensive revisions?

If you guessed Insurgent-- DING DING DING, you are correct!

If we can return to the vocal exercise for a moment: yes, I was terrible at it-- I was terrible at being terrible! Who knew? But I always found that after that exercise, when we moved on to something else, I sounded much better than before. Even the tiny amount I was able to loosen up made me so much better at singing. Basically, the louder and uglier I was able to be, the better my voice became.

The crazier and wilder and freer I am with my first drafts, the better they turn out.

I have known this for awhile, so I try to write by just letting the errors happen, but I think that's maybe not the right way to think about it, for me. For me, it doesn't really help to decide to write a shitty first draft and let that be the end of it, because it goes completely against my nature and the core of my person-- it's too hard for me, in other words, to just say "oh well. It's going to be bad." That means traveling too far away from who I am.

I think, instead, that I should try to make it as BIG and as LOUD and as CRAZY as possible. Just like in voice lessons, when I was honking out those notes as loudly and as comically ugly as possible, like a goose with a throat infection, and somehow, I found my way to something more beautiful. The trick for those of us who are such strong perfectionists that we can't even conceive of writing something deeply flawed on purpose is not embracing error but embracing something else: freedom.

This is true of every single creative effort. My mother is an artist, and I have watched her migrate away from careful, meticulous watercolors and a kind of internal desire to make things pretty, and toward a style that is nightmareish and, frankly, a little weird-- and it is so much more beautiful. And how many episodes of So You Think You Can Dance does a girl have to watch before she realizes that the brave, free dancers who are able to let go of perfect technique are the ones that make Nigel tear up-- the ones that create something truly genius?

We think, somewhere deep inside, that we are helping ourselves by being perfectionists, but what we are doing is squeezing ourselves so hard that barely any air can escape.

I, for one, would love to stop doing that, but it's not as easy as wanting it to happen, is it?

Part of it is finding a way to get lost in the work, I think. To submerge yourself in it and let it get messy and ugly and insane and oh my god no one should ever read this and why did I write that paragraph and this section is downright hilarious and what does that word even mean and this is ridiculous and this feels amazing and somehow, from a particular angle and in a peculiar way and maybe only to me, this is

beautiful.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Erudite, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Overlap Between the Writer and the Story

*Divergent spoilers everywhere in this post. And mild Insurgent spoilers.*

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Oh, Erudite. You get a bad rep, don't you? Let's talk about why.

First: Divergent is written from Tris's point of view, so you have to keep in mind that the things you see, you see through her lens-- and she has biases. The bias against Erudite came from her father, who emphasizes only how power-hungry and corrupt they are. These biases seem to be confirmed at the end of Divergent when the Erudite do exactly what Tris's father taught her to expect-- they make a play for control over the city.

However, we also see that Tris's father is pretty close-minded. He just assumes that his children will choose Abnegation. He scolds them any time they fail to live up to their faction's ideals. When Tris leaves Abnegation, her mother is proud, despite her sadness, but her father is enraged. He won't even visit her on Visiting Day. So you have to take what he says with a grain of salt, even though Tris doesn't.

A lot of Divergent involves Tris waking up to the truth. Realizing that the Dauntless are more than just a pack of adrenaline junkies looking for a rush, as her father told her. That murder does actually happen within the city limits. That her mother wasn't always Abnegation. That not everyone fits into a faction. That selflessness and bravery aren't all that different.

Unfortunately, she doesn't really wake up to the truth about Erudite, which is this: that they are just like Dauntless. They have a morally corrupt leader, and a few seriously warped members, but there are many of them who hold to the real values of Erudite, which are open-mindedness, innovation, creative thinking, knowledge, and most importantly, using that knowledge to better other people's lives. This seems to me to be echoed in real life, with a lot of our groups in this country: a small minority happen to scream the loudest, and we identify the rest of the group with that minority without realizing the variation and the nuances of belief that exist beyond them. It's natural, I think, but also something we have to fight against.

Tris begins to realize the nuances in Erudite in Insurgent when she encounters Fernando and Cara and the others who have taken refuge in the Amity compound. That whole scene, really, is supposed to show how Erudite is when Jeanine is not around-- how its members strive for accuracy and clarity in their speech, and how they gently (or humorously) correct each other, how they make jokes, how they delight in information, and how they take an interest in what other people believe, even if they don't agree. Here's the quote I'm really referring to:

(Cara is talking about the stunner.)

"...I made it so that the Amity would have a way of defending themselves without shooting anyone."

"That's..." I frown. "Understanding of you."

"Well, technology is supposed to make life better," she says. "No matter what you believe, there's a technology out there for you."

What did my mother say, in that simulation? "I worry that your father's blustering about Erudite has been to your detriment." What if she was right, even if she was just part of a simulation? My father taught me to see Erudite a particular way. He never taught me that they made no judgments about what people believed, but designed things for them within the confines of those beliefs. He never told me that they could be funny, or that they could critique their faction from the inside.

Cara lunges toward Fernando with the stunner, laughing when he jumps back.

He never told me that an Erudite could offer to help me even after I killed her brother.

(p452-453)

To go a little deeper, I think it's interesting how our lives and our struggles creep into our writing. When I wrote Divergent, I did not have a particularly good relationship with the Erudite in my life. I was in the creative writing program, surrounded by (at least what I perceived to be) scorn for commercial writing, while also engaging in that scorned writing in secret. I was also struggling with my relationship to a family member whose intellect had made him elitist and condescending. If Divergent has an anti-intellectual bent, it's because of a combination of things-- because Tris is the protagonist; because if you're going to have a mastermind behind a take-over plan in the world of Divergent, the most natural mastermind ("mind," get it?) is an Erudite; and because I was wrestling with some things.

By the time I wrote Insurgent, I had found a way out of that place. I was dating my husband, who loved to read and think and talk about his thoughts, and I was re-learning my fascination with the world and everything in it. I have always loved learning, and found it to be one of the most valuable pursuits available to us. I think that knowledge can arm people against evil in a thousand different ways, each of them worthwhile. But this is a perspective I had to re-claim, and am still re-claiming. As I wake up, I find that Tris also wakes up--not because she and I are the same, but because I often work out my struggles in my writing, without really knowing it.

With things like this, it's easy to agonize over what I wish I had done-- I wish Erudite had been more nuanced in the first book, I wish there were more Erudite characters, I wish I wish I wish. I think this happens to every writer years after they write their first book-- it's something you finished and grew from years before, but that people are just discovering for the first time. But I try not to agonize-- I try to just know that every book will reflect a different part of my journey through life, and that means every book will be a bit messy in certain ways, because I am a bit messy in certain ways.

In the past few years I've learned that I need to develop a compassionate attitude toward myself and my work. It's in my nature to be very critical of myself and what I've done, and while that's necessary for growth, it needs to be blended with gentleness. So, if there are any writers reading this, remember to be kind to yourself and to your old work. Delight in the things you did well, and if nothing else, value your old work for the little pieces of yourself and your struggle that are buried in it. It's a piece of your personal history.

So, the Erudite: they are becoming one of my favorite factions, over time. But it's taken some time for me to get there.

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