Monday, October 31, 2011

by Sophie


Middle age is not the best time to start looking backward and wishing for a do-over, and yet it seems to be very common. The fabled crisis occurs, I think, when people get to be about my age and look around and wonder what the hell happened to the last two or three decades. Now, in this wobbly economy, a lot of folks feel like they don't have much to show for their hard work. Dreams and plans seem shattered and broken.

And there's so much "what-if" going around. Why weren't we the guy who sold high and hunkered down? Why did we think it was a great idea to leave a job, start a business, jettison a relationship, stay with a relationship, have kids, not have kids...and on and on and on? What if we'd studied harder, gone to the gym more, stayed out of the sun?

That's the perfect pond in which to cultivate all kinds of nasty scum. No better environment for wistful to turn into its darker cousin, regret. We would all be well served to keep our gaze firmly on the road ahead, and away from the rear-view mirror, but that's difficult to do, especially when life isn't going the way we'd hoped.


Sometimes, you get brave. Or circumstances make you brave. I really believe that the challenges of today are going to produce a lot of stronger people in the long run. Complacency has no place in lean, desperate times, and we are forced to adapt. To grow. To face up to challenges, even if on the inside we are a mess - resisting, grieving, afraid, weak. Some people don't make it. They sit down on the side of the road and cry and wait to be rescued. These are not my people. Oh, once they might have been, but there's been a lot of hard miles since the last time I did that, and I find I'm no longer all that sympathetic to the quitters.

About a year ago, Juliet and I were talking one day about this and that, like we do. And one of us came to the startling realization that we were both living our dreams. We'd quit talking about wanting to write full time some day - and started doing it. There was no magic switch that got turned; for both of us there was a fair amount of luck and serendipity, but there were also challenges and sacrifices and deadlines and scary moments. And yet we'd persevered. We'd kept at it. And one day...we were just doing it. We were writers.

The result is that, at a time when many of our contemporaries are feeling the weight of regrets crushing down on them, we get to be full of anticipation and hope about the future. Every day is a day full of possibility. And yes, sometimes the deadlines are arduous and the industry seems callous and the competition fierce. But it doesn't matter. We are living the dream of our own design, and there is nothing - nothing! finer.

I can't say that I would have gotten to this point if I hadn't been pushed and prodded by circumstances. But what I perceived as unlucky breaks, as unfair burdens, in the past, are actually what brought me here today. So I don't regret those, either. The burdens that weighed me down before, now make me stronger.

I'm certainly not immune. I too have days where it feels like I misplaced a decade. There are things I wish I'd done differently and changes I wish I'd made sooner. But the sum of the parts is splendid, because I'm doing what I want to do.

It's so simple, isn't it? I wish it for all of you. Do what you want. Not later, but now.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

If You're Going Through Hell, Keep Going (And Do NaNoWriMo While You're At It)

by Gigi Pandian

The first half of this post's title is a quote from Winston Churchill. I get sent a lot of quotes these days, what with the whole cancer thing and all. That quote is one of my favorites. If you're going through hell, keep going.

I'm not especially going through hell (truly, modern medicine is fantastic) but it's a great reminder than when you face challenges, it's ridiculous to stop and give in to them.

It's true you can hear me for miles around as I whine about how I can't drink coffee for another six weeks. But aside from my coffee deprivation whining, I think I'm doing a good job not only keeping on going, but stepping up the pace.

Now that I've done the grunt work to make Gargoyle Girl Productions official, it's time for an ambitious November: Turning a messy, overly complex YA novel into a brand new trilogy of novellas that each takes one of the original overlapping story lines.

Yup, I'm signing up for not only the National Novel Writing Month promise of 50,000 words, but I'm aiming for a total of 75,000 words this November. Three 25,000 YA mystery novellas.

Can I do it? Definitely. I never set out to do anything if I think I'm going to fail.

Am I crazy? Probably.

So why am I doing 50% more than the already arduous NaNoWriMo goal? I'll be done with chemo by the end of November. What better way to make the month fly by than throwing myself into a big project of literary abandon?

NaNoWriMo begins next Tuesday. Who's with me?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Martha Goes To Hell

I grew up Catholic, which meant one thing.

I was probably going to hell.

Sinful thoughts? Going to hell.
Disrespecting my parents? Going to hell.
Lying? Going to hell.
Stealing? Hella going to hell.

Doubting God? Totally. Going. To. Hell. (although if one doesn't believe in God and then one doesn't believe in Hell, this gets a little meta)

Point being, there were so many ways to hell, I really saw no way out. So by the time I hit six or seven years old, I'd accepted the inevitability of spending the afterlife in eternal, painful hellfire.

(Granted, this was after sitting around until the second coming.)

What shocks me as an adult is how okay I was with it. How I made peace with hell. Even though I tried to be a good person just because being a bad person sucks, I never thought I could do anything to be perfect enough for Heaven.

And to be honest...I kind of figured everyone around me was going to hell, too. I'd catch a friend cheating on her homework. Hell. Parents took the lord's name in vain 24-7. Hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell. Everyone seemed to be working on Sunday, despite it being a holy day. Soooo much hell to catch.

I couldn't understand people who felt they were going to see the Lord one day. Who talked about how excited they were that one day they'd be in the loving presence of the Father.

But uh...I'd think...don't you remember coveting my color pencils a while back? That's a hell offense if I've ever seen one!

For some reason, the fact that everyone was going to hell made it okay. It was going to be one big hellacious party. We'd burn together.

Because trust me, if I'm going to hell, I'm taking ya'all with me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hell: How the Devil (or Author) Works

The most fascinating thing about our perception of Hell is that everyone's idea of Hell is different.

This SNL skit with the Devil talking about his newest member of Hell makes the point perfectly.

The best and worst thing we can do for our characters is to put them through hell. Although this usually involves putting ourselves through hell while writing their story, the emotional resonance when they overcome their worst nightmare is worth every second of agony.

Each character's Hell is going to be different. It's our job as the author to find the most specific and detailed method for torturing our character so that they come out on the other side as newer, more improved, and hopefully happier people.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Musings on Hell

L.G.C. Smith

When I was a little kid, I totally bought the Santa thing. Completely. Never questioned it until the boy who sat behind me in second grade sneeringly informed me of the truth. Even then I didn’t believe him. But I asked my mom. And she told me the Truth. That was hell. However, I never for one second bought the Easter Bunny. That was clearly a crock, and while I was happy to go along with it because egg hunts and candy were part of the deal, I was nobody’s fool.

I had something of the same selective cognitive malfunction with respect to heaven and hell. Heaven? Okay. Sounds good. Kind of boring, but I’m on board. Hell? Are you kidding me? That’s obviously a story designed to manipulate the gullible into behaving in the here and now. I couldn’t believe that whole swaths of my own religion had a much more detailed and personal relationship with the torments of hell than the gauzy, vague-but-pleasant heaven. How screwy was that? (First person to reference that pun gets a free copy of one of my estimable and long out of print books.)

So now, with all these demons and angels in popular fiction, does it strike anyone else that these books are usually completely devoid of religious affiliation of any sort? I find that interesting. We get demons and some sort of spruced-up and/or reimagined Hell. Maybe it’s an alternate reality or another dimension. Sometimes Hell and various demons and angels are engaged in a nebulous war with Heaven, but Heaven is rarely well defined.

That seems to be a recurring fate for conceptions of Heaven. It’s like the very notion of a place where everything is good and true and pure is too alien for our minds to grasp. Hell is far more accessible. We all get Hell. And it’s interesting. Full of the stuff we need in fiction. Lies. Sin. Vice. Popular fiction prefers a fallen angel to a righteous one every time.

This may be a failure of imagination to some extent. Hell is, as one or two folks have pointed out over the centuries, probably the easier path. It certainly lends itself more readily to popular fiction. And, contrary to my youthful religious thinking, it’s far more real to most people than heaven.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hell Is Other People (we create)

So, I'm in revisions hell. As I said on my own blog, a revisions hell is a hell of your own making--literally. And, for once, in the correct sense of that term.

I am trapped by own characters, who force me to endlessly (or so it feels) change the minutiae of their lives just because books are supposed to make SENSE.*

The swines.

All of this left me thinking, how do I best encapsulate the hell which is Revisions Hell, without doing all that much work as I am, indeed, in Revisions Hell? And that's when I remembered Jib Jab--God's gift to those of us who have revisions to do.

So here is "my" interpretation of Revisions Hell. I put "my" in quotations, as it's mostly created by Jib Jab, who used Shelley's Frankenstein, anyway.

And Frankenstein is perfect, of course, as a metaphor for the artist's relationship to his or her creation. Not least because that book IS a metaphor for the artist's relationship to his or her creation. I know that, because I taught those words to second year students at the University of Edinburgh for at least three years.

Trust me, folks. I'm a doctor!

And here is "my" version of a metaphor for something or other. Ahhhhh, postmodernity. How I love thee.

*In reality I'm mostly smoothing out the love story arc, which means writing nookie. So yeah, a lot of this complaining is just for show.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hellbound Friday Nights

--Adrienne Miller

When I was in my early teens my friend, Mandy, and I had a weekend ritual. Friday night was horror movie night.

Mandy had the best house for horror movie watching. Her parents had a thing for weather-beaten farm antiques. Rusty scythes and pickaxes hung from the wall like a bad movie set. They also had one of those second garage freezers stockpiled with frozen pizzas and tv dinners. Put all that together with a pull out sofabed in front of the tv, and her place was heaven as far as my thirteen year-old self was concerned.

We would scour the video stores for titles. We went through what the big chain store had to offer quickly-- big name slasher film series and a few mainstream flops. The little local independents had better titles--everything from the campy B-movies(I was thirteen when I first fell in love with Bruce Campbell) to Italian art house horror.

I learned a lot from those late night vhs double features. Scene structure has to be tight in a horror story, more so than in other genre, for it work effectively. Don't be afraid to start big and end bigger. Make your protagonist relatable. If I don't care about them, I'll spend the whole time rooting for the killer.

Sometimes it's inevitable. Take Pinhead from Hellraiser, my favorite movie monster.

He's not even the real bad guy in the story. Frank is, but very few people remember him at all. Frank is a one-note character, all bad. He's necessary, but not interesting.

But, Pinhead? He's got pizzaz. He's not strictly a villain. He comes from another place where the code is different. He's even reasonable, in his own freaky way. Sure, he'll "tear your soul apart", but only cause you asked him to. Don't want "your suffering to be legendary even in hell"? Well then, don't open the freakin' box. Simple as that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


--by Juliet

I was flipping through a book of Italian paintings the other day, pondering chiaroscuro. (Seriously, this is the sort of thing I do for fun. I don't have a working television.)

Chiaroscuro, literally "light-dark", is an art term that refers to strong contrasts between light and dark in paintings or drawings.
Our eyes are attracted to the light, to what is easily seen, but our minds are intrigued by the mysterious darkness. And it is the darkness that makes the light shine as it does. Without shadows, there is no contrast. Each item fades into the next, until you can no longer see.

Is hell just such a concept? Without hellishness, how can we aspire to heaven?

And after all, are people really happy when they experience nothing but happiness? If all of our needs and desires are fulfilled, aren't we left with blandness, saddled with an unbearable lightness of being?

Painters use chiaroscuro to achieve a sense of volume when modeling three-dimensional objects. As writers, we can use that same idea to round out our characters. Put them to the test. Intensify the contrast between the light and the dark. Hold their feet to the fire, metaphorically speaking. See how they react to tragedy, fear, loss.

Put them through hell.

It's worth noting that most belief systems don't send sinners straight to hell upon their death. Rather, the deceased usually face a number of judgments and/or challenges they must triumph over before their final fate is sealed. They might have to climb obsidian mountains, be reborn in a lowly position, or endure pits of fire or ice, but they might still manage to atone and claw their way to heaven. Often, hell is seen as a place of intense shame and regret for one's misdeeds, a staging area for suffering and repentance...but ultimately, for redemption.

If that’s not a recipe for a compelling character arc, I don’t know what is.

So go ahead: embrace the chiaroscuro, and give those characters hell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ikea Hell

Hell is Ikea.

Really, Hell is any space occupied by:
1) a lot of people I don't know and probably wouldn't like if I did know and
2) large things for purchase piled the ceiling in dizzying quantities and colors with
3) open, echoing space in between these things.

So therefore, Hell can be defined as Office Max, Costco, or any other big box store.

But Ikea is a special kind of hell. I mean, really, what kind of store purposely confuses you? It's like they rub their hands together in glee and say, "Yes, we are trying to turn you around and around like the lines at Disneyland but there is no magical ride at the end! There are no fireworks! There is just you and a cart full of things you never knew you wanted and a line that winds almost all the way back to your house!" Then the maniacal laughter starts and it doesn't stop until you cry.

Or until you buy a car.

The first time I ever went to Ikea, I went alone. I was excited! A twelve dollar nightstand? Sure! I threw everything into my cart: pots and glasses and plants and tiny clear magnets I couldn't imagine using, but with the life I was creating with my New Ikea Things, I knew they would come in handy.

It wasn't until I standing in the back of of the interminable line, totting up the purchase price of my now-towering cart, that I started to panic. The child in line behind me, whom I'd seen entering the store, a cherubic blond with blue eyes, had taken on a demonic appearance. He gaped and screamed at me, all red-faced with bulging eyes. The demons were entering him, and I was next, I knew it!

I didn't need a single thing. Not one hanging photo frame or fuzzy floor pillow. But I was completely stuck. Once in the line at Ikea, you sign their contract: You are theirs. They own you. Look at everyone else's faces; admire the portraits of bleakness and despair. You must shuffle forward, always forward, fumbling for the credit card they will demand in exchange for your stuff and your soul.

There's no way out. You can almost feel the flames, can't you?

That day, I ran. I ignored the sticking-out tongue of the child-devil behind me, and I pushed my way past a man who was chuckling diabolically over a set of pleated polka-dot valances. I left my cart right where it was, in the middle of the line. I didn't care.

I ran out into the lot, got in my old beater Ford Fiesta and drove away blindly, still panicked, trying to calm my heart rate. I drove past the water into the heart of Oakland. Then I passed a used car lot. In the front row sat an older white convertible with a low sticker price. I pulled over, and within thirty minutes, I'd purchased a new-to-me car and had left my old car as a trade-in.

Let me repeat: Buying a used car was easier than buying popsicle sticks at Ikea. Less stressful. More fun.

So I know this: if I'm a bad person, when I die I will be trapped on aisle K-16 trying to lift pallets of porch swings with a broken forklift for all of eternity. The back up beep beep beep will never end. Therefore, I try to be as nice as possible. I'm hoping for the top-down on the convertible kind of afterlife, if you know what I mean.

Monday, October 17, 2011

House-Hunting in Hell

by Sophie


I find the concept of Hell absorbing. I don't think I ever believed in a literal Hell, at any point in my religious education or development. But a hell right here on earth - absolutely. I think my earliest concept was hatched while watching the Twilight Zone. They did an awesome and thorough job of exploring what the human misery-happiness spectrum truly looks like.

It's never what you think, is it? The things that please and torment us are so individual. Is Hell other people? Certainly. But it's also loneliness. It's silence, and it's noise. It's austerity and it's excess. It's having children and not having them. It's one thing at one moment at a time and another the next.

I'm looking for a new place to live at the moment. The other members of my household and I disagree on what would make a suitable home. Yesterday I stood in the second floor master bedroom of a rental house. The ceilings soared. The pale carpets had been vacuumed into tracks. Three bathrooms! There was a giant satellite dish. Outside was a golf course, and beyond that, miles and miles of rows of neat houses on cul de sacs.

Hell, people. Oh, the first time I moved into such a home, I thought something else entirely. I thought I'd arrived. I anticipated the arrival of the neighbors with self satisfaction. I spent a lot of time congratulating myself on my fortune. And it was lovely. For a long time, as my children grew up, that house saw scout meetings, craft projects, dinner parties...the writing of my first book.

But when it was over, it was OVER. Last night I clicked, surreptitiously and longingly, through Craigslist until I found studio apartments in Oakland. I found one for $675 (and friends in the midwest, save, if you will, the effort of telling me I can get a four-bedroom home for that in your town), which is essentially chicken scratch here. No parking, no kitchen, no charm.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Want to Read a Thriller? Try a Nonfiction Book on Art Theft

by Gigi Pandian

My fascination with the world of art theft didn't begin the day in 1998 when I was trapped in the Louvre with an art thief.

But the experience definitely solidified my interest.

How could thieves escape in broad daylight from a world-famous museum with a painting by French Impressionist Camille Corot?

When I set out to write a mystery novel, I knew I wanted to involve art theft in some way. But aside from my afternoon spent trapped in the Louvre and a few mystery novels I'd read that featured dashing art thieves, I didn't know anything about the real world of art theft. Since I love research, this wasn't a problem. I started reading up on the subject.

The problem? It turns out nonfiction art theft books are fascinating. I couldn't stop reading.

I ordered books written by FBI agents and journalists. When I realized how many books I was buying, I checked out books from the library. I followed art theft blogs. I interviewed museum curators. The stories of real life con men and the people on their trail were more fascinating than just about any fiction I'd seen.

I knew I needed to stop my research and get writing. But how? There were so many more books that would give me insight... It's all too easy to get bogged down in research, especially when one's research reads like a thriller, which is why I need tricks to get myself back on track.

The collective pressure of NaNoWriMo, coming up in a few weeks, is the trick that works for me. There's a time and a place for research, and National Novel Writing Month is not that time. I'm doing research on a different topic this month, but come November 1, it's time to write.

The subject of my mystery series evolved from art to treasure, but the crux of the issue is the same. The world is full of objects of such beauty, and thieves come up with ways to steal, smuggle, or forge their way to them. There are endless scenarios in both real life and in fiction.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Martha. Art. Pbbblt.

Everybody in my family is naturally artistic.

We showcase my mother's oil paintings of the Vietnam landscape in rosewood frames around our living room and everyone assumes they're professional.

My brothers all sketch. One does comic style japanimation. The other specializes in animals.

Everybody in my family is naturally artistic.

Except me.

I can't make a face, a line, a circle. Nothing. I can't see something and represent it on paper. I don't eveh know where to start and I assure you I had a first class education complete with daily art classes where they tried to drill the elementary principles of drawing into my brain.

I was left with one simple conclusion thanks to first year biology:

I'm adopted.

Growing up, I found other reasons to add to this list.

My mother and brothers favor their left hand.
My nose tilts up while theirs falls flat.
They love camping and the outdoors and I hate hate hate all of that business.
They are all naturally slim and muscular and I'm, well, let's use the word: zaftig.
They found academia difficult and I always found it easy - not that I was some kind of genius or particularly motivated, I just never had to try very hard to meet the minimum requirements of whatever it took to hit the honor roll.

We can joke about it, but growing up, in the haze of teen melodrama, I genuinely imagined that I belonged to another family - one that would understand me if only I could find them. Preferably one with a last name like Rockefeller.

I'm guessing I'm not unique. Not just in my art suckiness, but also in how much I felt like an outcast in my own family, and when you're a kid spending a lot of time with your family it means feeling really, really alone.

For years, it was so easy to see the things that made us different, that I never thought about what made us the same. Not until my husband got together with my brothers' wives and had themselves a complain-about-the-family pow-wow.

Turns out we all are party poopers when it comes to Santa (who wants to admit to having a kid who falls for that line o' crap?) and giving gifts (clutter, ugh), and feelings (don't have 'em, don't wanna talk about 'em) and apocalypse scenarios (prepare or die) and a whole bunch of things.

It's just enough for me to figure: Art. Pbbblt.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Working Artist

There's so many slants on the topic of Art. Frankly as it pertains to writing, LGC covered the Writer as Artist beautifully yesterday at the Pens. So let's talk about the Working Artist.

Here's a fun fact: I was in art school when I first moved out to California twenty years ago.

I was going to school for Interior Design but I still had to take the general art education classes which I LOVED, but no one will ever call me a visual artist. One semester I had two vastly different professors. They were both WONDERFUL artists. One, a painter of both oil and watercolor, who taught my Color Class. The other, an artist who did amazing still life in pencil, who taught Drawing 101.

The Painter lamented to us students day in and day out about how difficult it was to make a living. Being an artist sucked. He couldn't find outlets to sell his work. He couldn't support himself on his art alone which was why he was in the classroom teaching. Starving artist wasn't just a label it was his reality he would tell us bitterly.

The Line Artist (for lack of a better word) painted a picture of prosperity. He loved line drawings, he took commissions and people had begun to seek him out for specific projects. He was doing well, supporting himself, AND doing what he loved. He taught young students to share his knowledge and his LOVE of art.

If I'd had them separate semesters I might never have noticed the extreme dichotomy. But listening to them both made me realize that I wanted to be like the Line Artist. That it was possible to be commercial and be artistic, the two are not mutually exclusive.

And it really brought home that we all have a choice in how we perceive our life, our profession and our art. I choose to be a working artist. How about you?


Monday, October 10, 2011

Art Dodging

L.G.C. Smith

Very few of the fiction writers I know define themselves as artists. Most of us write popular fiction, which lots of people think is anti-art by definition. We’d have to be gluttons for public derision to stand up and say, “Yes, I’m a literary artist, and my preferred form is the cozy.” Yet, to my well-trained eye (all those degrees, research, and years spent teaching in universities occasionally add up to something), many popular fiction writers produce exquisite novels of substance, style, and beauty. Many of them are, gasp, the lowest of the low: Romance writers. Eek. Surely everybody knows you can’t be an artist if you’re writing romance.

Most of my writer friends distance themselves from viewing their work as art. In fact, a reputation as an artist in the world of working writers seems to carry more negative connotations than positive. The writer as artist is frequently perceived as having great faith in his own talent and skill (arrogance). He is dedicated to his own vision (lacking in perspective and awareness of audience, as well as being resistant to revision and editing). He is more sensitive than the average person (defensive and unable to take criticism of any sort), and subject to the whims of his frequently absent muse (doesn’t make deadlines and doesn’t give his editor a heads up). The writer as artist is, in short, a pain in the butt. He is not professional.

Several months ago I had an experience that brought home to me that without realizing it, I’ve drifted into viewing writers who think of themselves as artists as amateurs. I do a little freelance editing on the side, and I happened across a piece of ‘literary fiction,’ repped by a well-regarded agent, and worthy in many of the ways that popular fiction is generally assumed not to be. It was exactly the kind of book I could see being heralded as ‘art.’ I found many flaws in the manuscript. Really big, story level problems that had a lot to do with the lack of narrative skill, motivation, conflict . . . basic stuff.

I found myself thinking that if the piece had been popular fiction, I would never tolerate such sloppy work. But since it was literary, well, maybe it didn’t matter. Standards aren’t as high. Literary writers do all sorts of clumsy things in the name of art. A lot of literary writers are good at capturing a poignant moment or an arresting insight, and wrapping them up with catchy metaphors, analogies and whatnot. But, in my estimation, if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t put your language skills to good use at the story level, too, you’re an amateur.

I caught myself. Standards aren’t as high. In literary fiction. Really? Did I really just think that? It’s the complete opposite of the party line still believed by a lot of teachers, librarians, professors, and people who think about the relative merits of different types of fiction. It’s the opposite of what I was taught.

How did I come to this?

By reading a lot. Writing a lot. Teaching writing a lot. Teaching readers how to critique texts. Doing research in literacy communities, including non-academic ones like those of romance readers and writers. Talking to readers and writers of many sorts. Writing scores of novel reviews. Talking to other professors, teachers and librarians who find a wide range of popular fiction as meaningful, valuable and artful as good literary fiction. Listening to editors and agents. All that and more.

The issue isn’t that some literary fiction is amateurish. Of course, it is. That’s true of every genre. The issue is that there is such a rich array of art in the places where, as communities of readers, we still find it generally accepted that there isn’t much of value. Have those writers who have been barred from the Art Party created a successful dodge around how literary art is defined? It can be pretty convincing.

It wasn’t cool for me to allow a lower standard for that piece of literary fiction. I would be angry if an editor approached my books with the attitude that ‘it’s only romance, so why try to make it good.’ Everyone will be relieved to know that I revised my approach. All the literary fiction that comes my way receives the best edit I can offer, bringing to bear all I’ve learned about what makes an artful story.

I’m curious how the rest of your see your writing—is it art? Do you have prejudices against applying that word to fiction like I do? Are there other considerations that keep writers from self-identifying as artists? Or do you see yourself as an artist and your fiction as art? What do those words mean in terms of your writing? There’s a lot of contested territory here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Art for Our Sake

Hi folks! Nicole Peeler here. Art is such a great topic for the Pens, and there's a thousand different posts I could write. But I'm only going to write one, and it's something that connects to what we're doing over at the League of Reluctant Adults. 

The fact is that it's a hard time to be a writer. All the awesome digital technology has changed things for authors, and the industry is in flux. On the one hand, these innovations offer a lot of opportunities. On the other hand, like with all changes, there is also a lot of uncertainty.

One of the biggest things that's changing is how authors get paid. New York publishers are all threatening to start drastically reducing advances, and I'm hearing it's already happening. Digital publishers pay well on royalties, but aren't known for advances at all. Self-pubbing means you keep nearly all of the money your books earn--but you have to put in the man hours to replace the editorial, marketing, and art departments you lost by eschewing traditional publishing. Basically, the industry is all up in the air, and I've even seen some talk of reinstating the patronage system.

But all of this is worth it for us, as authors, to know our books are getting read. Whether we see them on the shelves at Barnes and Noble or we see them as a Kindle book, it feels good. Because most writers fought a very long time to make it to that level. They sacrificed a lot, and earned their art.

The fact is that pursuing these aspirations creates a lot of powerful emotions. As a professor of creative writing, I see the passion, the dreams, of aspiring writers every day, and I know how powerful such emotions can be, as well as how fragile. Which is why I get so very, very pissed off when people try to take advantage of writers' passion, of writers' dreams, to make a quick buck.

Unfortunately, it happens all the time. There are "agents" who charge you by the word to "edit" your manuscript. There are "publishing companies" who charge you vast amounts of money to publish your book, when they have absolutely NO distribution to bookstores. Meaning someone has paid thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars for a few thousand copies of their book to languish in a warehouse somewhere. There are even stories of people stealing manuscripts, or agents/publishing houses so incompetent that they verge on the criminal, even if it's by mismanagement rather than actual villainy.

On the one hand, people should know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But the fact is that that writing often involves that fatal combination of "passion plus dream" which makes people vulnerable. And vulnerability, while regretful, is human. Preying on that vulnerability, however, is not. It's vulpine.*

When I was querying agents from Scotland, where I lived when I wrote my first book, I was totally at a loss. I knew no one in the industry, and I had no idea where to start. Plus, I'd read enough on line to know there were all sorts of fraudsters praying on wannabe writers, but I didn't know how I'd tell legitimate agents/publishers from illegitimate. Then, I saw some write-ups on this very issue, by very respected agents, that led me to two sites that became my crutches: Absolute Write Water Cooler and Writer Beware. Absolute Write is an open forum, full of information. Want to know if an agent replies immediately or takes forever? You can find out there. You can also find out if an agency or publisher has done something shady. And it's defining the shady from the sunny that's the purpose of Writer Beware. That's a site that tracks agents and publishers, letting you know if they're legit or not.

In other words, they're the aspiring author's best friends. And they're the con artist's worst enemy.

Which is why I was so furious to see this article, by John Scalzi, head of the Science Fiction Writers of America (of which I'm a member), and generally Very Nice Man. Long story short, a group of people claiming to be authors has started a website warning people away from Absolute Write and Writer Beware. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (of which SFWA has quite a few) to see past this unsubtle ruse. This is a group of people that Writer Beware and Absolute Write have warned us against, trying to act like everyone's criminal but them.

The problem with this website is that it is just as predatory as you'd expect from such people. Imagine you're a vulnerable aspiring writer who desperately wants your dream fulfilled. You get offered this deal that appears too good to be true, so you start researching. You find this site that warns you against the people offering you the deal. You're all, "Oh no, once again my dream is shattered." Then with another Google search, you discover a counter website, telling you that the people warning you are the real criminals, and that you shouldn't trust them. With one fell swoop, the possibility of your dream coming true has been resurrected, only to turn into a nightmare in which your vulnerabilities have been reinstated and preyed upon. And look at how sneakily it's done--it's done so that the person has done their research. They're not blindly grasping at every straw. They're looking for sources and they find them. Meanwhile, it's human nature to want to believe the source telling us what we want to hear, and the Write Agenda takes advantage of that fact.

So the League has banded together, as only the League can, to start some shit. We don't often throw down, but when we do, our gauntlet is covered in the thick, black barbs of snark. We demand to be boycotted, as well, because boycotting is this season's little black dress.

And we want you to get to boycottin', yerself. If you're a writer, get over to the League and Boycott yourself. If you're a fan, get your favorite writers to boycott themselves. If we get over 100 writers to boycott themselves, we're donating money to SFWA's legal fund (which helps writers sue the bastards who take advantage of them) and Absolute Write's forums.

Help us put our money where our mouth is, and help us prove once again that while there may be wolves circling the den, writers take care of one another. Fellow writers run Absolute Write and Writer Beware, and believe me, they're not doing it to get wealthy. All they're earning is stress. But I've learned in my almost three years publishing that helping each other is, for the most part, what writers do: we stand up for each other, we support each other, and we sure as shit aren't going to let people prey on our vulnerable.

So git to boycottin'! ;-)

*Sorry foxes, you probably didn't deserve that comparison.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sister Wendy

--Adrienne Miller

I have terrible confession to make. I’m not an art lover. Sure, I enjoy certain artists. I really like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and I’m a big Mary Blair fan. But when it comes to art as a whole, my feelings are decidedly lukewarm.
Maybe it is because the art world is just so damn intimidating. I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in painting. I know there is usually some deeper meaning behind the subject, but for the life of me I just don’t get what that field of wheat is supposed to symbolize besides, you know, some wheat. But that was before I found Sister Wendy. 
That’s right I love me some Sister Wendy. 

And not just because she’s just all-around freaking adorable. 
I love her because she was the first person that was able to talk about art in a way that made me understand it. When she describes in her little lispy voice about the symbology in a particular painting, I can actually see what she sees. For an  ignoramus like me, that’s quite a revelation. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Don't Know Much about Art

Above, a painting of mine whose only real innovative aspect
is that the shadows are wrong.

Art. Gah. What do I say about a subject like this???

I've loved art my whole life. I even made a living for quite some time by working as an artist. But the truth is, I know nothing about the subject.

My approach to art is that of a child: It's fun. I wanna see if I can make something look like something else. And I like making pretty pictures.

Like most children, I adored drawing and painting and sculpting. Unlike most people, though, I never lost my taste for it as I grew up. Still, though I had a certain amount of talent, over time I realized I would never make it as a gallery artist. I came to understand that art, real art, MODERN art wasn't supposed to be about pretty pictures. It was supposed to be about social commentary. The symbolic representation of angst and alienation. The expression of the innermost, usual negative, often existentialist thoughts of an artist.

(Ever go to an art opening and read the "artist's statement"? I rest my case.)

Part of my problem with this approach to art, which could be blamed on me being middle-aged if it weren't for the fact that I've believed it my whole life, is that so many artists are young. Barely out of their teenage years. And most of us aren't that interested in the innermost thoughts of the young, because, frankly, most young people haven't lived much yet.

Give me the expressions of old folks, and I'm there. Or the very young, of course, before they become self-conscious. But the 20-year-old gallery darling? Eh.

To quote my character Annie Kincaid, protagonist of the Art Mystery novels, "Call me a boring traditionalist, but when it came to art my tastes were stuck in the Renaissance, an era when artists expressed humanity's noblest hopes, ambitions, and dreams. If I wanted a scathing commentary on social alienation I could read the newspaper."

Many of Caravaggio's paintings were considered quite shocking in his time.
It was a different brand of innovation.

Okay, I'm not actually that extreme. Ever since the birth of photography, the goal of painting has gone beyond mere representation of reality. And there are plenty of examples of "ugly" modern art that truly speak to me, that beckon the viewer to look beyond the obvious to a deeper meaning, a complex understanding of the human condition and the world around us.

But the problem with so many modern artists valuing innovation over technique is that there isn't all that much to say after the first expose. For example, the first fellow to paint a black triangle on a black background? A genius. The similar work that followed? Derivative tripe.
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, made from a urinal, was innovative in 1917.
Later toilet-inspired works? Not so much, in my opinion.

I think part of the problem with art in this country is that most students aren't taught the basics of the classical approach. Like modern dancers who study ballet, modern artists in Europe learn to copy Old Masters first, because skipping the history of one's field comes at the expense of depth, history, gravitas.

As a teacher in Florence once told me:
"You must learn your tradition in order to properly spurn it."Above, my copy of a detail from a 1640 Georges de La Tour painting,
The Fortune Teller

On the other hand...some of us are great at mimicking tradition, but not so gifted at innovation. Which isn't to say I won't, someday, become a gallery darling myself. Maybe when I retire from writing full-time I'll discover a true gift for dripping art on a canvas on the floor, a la Jackson Pollock. But I'm not banking on it.

In the meantime, I'll paint pretty pictures just because. It's fun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ojos de Dios

One of my favorite art projects as a kid was that God's Eye project. Remember that? The Ojo de Dios?

You took two popsicle sticks and held them crosswise to each other. Then you wound a piece of yarn around them, weaving the strand up and over then over again. You added another color, and another, lining those strands up perfectly, so that nothing was out of place. That knot at the end was the hardest part--you had to make sure it was sturdy enough to stay in place, but if it was too tight, the yarn pulled, and if it was too loose, the yarn sagged. (Sure, there were signs that this was more important, somehow, and I'm sure we talked about how the four points stood for earth, air, fire, and water, but IT WAS ALL ABOUT THE YARN for me.)

I was a master God's Eye maker. I'm just saying. I know my strengths, and if it involves yarn, I'm your girl. But somewhere along the line, God's Eyes got mixed up in my personal dictionary with dream catchers. But both, I learned along the way somewhere, were childish projects. They weren't something babies made, even though they'd been called Art when I'd learned how to make them. (My dream catchers didn't look like this one; they looked like twigs and twisted string, a forest macrame.)

[Aside: Boy, I loved me some macrame, too.]

Art Projects. We filed the popsicle sticks in the bins next to the dyed macaroni (remember that dry paste smell of the pasta? The way some broke and poked your fingers unexpectedly?) and dried peas (oh, the clatter of dessicated legumes rolling off the table to the tiled first-grade floor). Toothpicks and Elmer's Glue. Glitter and left-handed scissors that drove you crazy because you were a righty but no one could find the right-handed ones (that's still a mystery to me, one that jolts me awake in the middle of the night sometimes and I AM NOT KIDDING HERE--why don't they work the same way? Spatially, I cannot figure this out).

At some point, Art turned to Craft. And craft turned to something that was less than art, while art became more than. Better than. More difficult and more nebulous.

I taught (very) briefly at the California College for Arts and Crafts. I loved that the c-word was in their title, but in 2003, they took it out, and now they are simply College for the Arts. It made me sad: they'd started as part of the Arts and Crafts movement, and I thought it was a shame to lose a reference to that. It was always school for the "practical arts" as well as decorative ones but aren't those, by definition, crafts? Why do we need to feel shame about the word?

Craft can be defined as functional art. And God knows, the arts I love best are functional:

Writing delivers information, meaning and emotion.
Knitting delivers warmth and protection.

Functional. Utilitarian. I hone the craft of my writing every time I sit at my computer, and my knitting is a crafted art. The words blend together like my childish ideas of God's Eyes and dream catchers. All guard the weaver/writer (or the bearer/wearer) and it comes down to this: art IS craft, and craft IS art, and the combination of both? Sublime.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cringe, Nausea, and All

by Sophie


I'm going to take an unexpected liberty today, and talk about censorship, the inevitable stepchild of Art and her public. (ha! I see that I'm clever already. This is gonna be good.)

I largely missed out on Banned Books Week this year due to a deadline that sucked my soul out through my eyeballs, but I did give it a cursory passing thought. "Oh, good," I thought to myself, it's that time of year again to remind grade school parents everywhere that Kesey/Orwell/Bradbury/Salinger are not the enemy." Yawn.

I didn't dig in intellectually at all, and now I want to make amends. Here's the thesis of this post: we don't really get to oppose censorship in any genuine fashion unless it makes us hideously uncomfortable. Otherwise it's meaningless.

I was reading the paper this morning with Junior and her dad, and I came across an article about a film banned in Britain. I don't recommend you read this article; its subject is simply too disgusting for contemplation. Let's just say that the film in question offends my sensibilities, something that is - no joke - seriously difficult to do. I have a very high tolerance for artistic extremes, which has always made it easy for me to wave the censorship banner, because I don't much suffer when the books (films, art, whatever) win.

But - trust me, I'd suffer plenty if they were showing this film down the street at the local cinema. Which is exactly why I must agitate most strenuously for its freedom to make its way around the world, not just in movie houses but in the popular imagination. (See sidebar below, please, for a related thought I had this morning.)

The British equivalent of our film board tripped over themselves trying to explain why they banned the sequel but not the original film, saying the first "was undoubtedly tasteless and disgusting, it was a relatively traditional and conventional horror film" but the second "there is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalized, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience." You know what, that sounds suspiciously like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous "I know it when I see it" condemnation of porn, something I think we can all agree is an absurd yardstick.

(If I end up in hell, serving on a film board might be a good occupation for me.)

The filmmaker himself - who, I might point out, I think I would like very much based on his comments in this article - says "I think my film is a torture porn with European art sauce or something."

You know, it's very easy for me to sit in my suburban living room and say, earnestly and with my mom-lipstick firmly in place, "Every girl should be given a chance to read WINTERGIRLS - it may very well prove life-changing for a generation."

It's quite another to say that the makers of "The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" have a right to distribution and audiences have a right to see it. But that's what I'm sayin', folks, cringe, nausea, and all.

"The Human Centipede," the subject of the article referenced above, is the first example to take place in this household of a phenomenon that is key to every generational gap: the ignorance of the senior generation to a concept that has completely proliferated the younger generation.

Imagine, in 1962, mom and pop at the breakfast table saying "So what are these 'Beatles' I'm hearing so much about?" Can you picture the painful cringing on the part of the kids, the utter confusion - and the associated feeling of popular culture slipping rapidly and inexorably away from them - of the parents?

Well, something akin to that took place this morning. Reading along, I came to a paragraph in which the writer discusses a South Park parody of the film in question, that made me laugh out loud. (Seriously, NYT writer Dave Itzkoff has a way with words, which if you know me at all, you know is just about the highest compliment I can pay.)

What followed went like this:

Junior: What's so funny?
Me: Oh - well - have you watched the South Park Episode "The Human CentiPad?"
Junior: Yeah. Of course.
Me: But you don't get the reference, right? Like, what it's parodying?
Junior: (eye roll) Yeah. "The Human Centipede." The horror movie.
Me: But you don't know what it's about, right?
Junior's Dad: What? What?
Junior: I'd rather not talk about this.
Junior's Dad: What? What would you rather not talk about?
Me: (in growing horror) But you haven't seen it, right? Wait, does everyone know about this movie? Who told you? Did your brother tell you? Was it one of your friends? Which friend? Who have you been hanging out with, anyway? It wasn't the band kids, was it?
Junior: Every. Kid. Knows. I'm not talking about this any more.
Junior's Dad: What? What?

The point is that this is the first instance I can remember of a complete generational disconnect in our house. I don't kid myself that I'm a particularly hip parent - in fact, I am painfully aware that the opposite is true - but I do try to listen carefully to the young adults in my life, I write young adult literature, and I have a professional acquaintance with media trends. And yet I completely missed this. I'd be interested to know if the younger members of the Pens knew about it; it might be possible to pinpoint the exact cutoff, whether age or life-station related, between familiarity and ignorance.

Anyway. Just a passing, if longish, thought. /Sidebar off