Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This week is A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour, which I’m not actually formally participating in (as in, by signing up to their list) but which I want to honor by recommending some books.

 

I start today with Middle Grade novel WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, by Grace Lin.

I picked this novel up because it is on the reading list for the Sirens Conference (a conference on women in fantasy literature) which I am attending in October. I don’t read a lot of Middle Grade as it doesn’t usually hit my sweet spot. The MG novels I enjoy most tend to rely heavily on an interesting world (e.g. Stephanie Burgis’s A TANGLE OF MAGICKS). Lin’s novel meets the challenge easily. It’s a marvelous story.

Minli lives in poverty with her parents, and goes on a quest to find the Old Man on the Moon to try and solve her family’s problems. The setting is based on Chinese folklore without the setting ever being identified as a “fantasy China.” It doesn’t need to be because it is the place Minli lives.

First of all, WTMMTM has spare, effective, and lovely writing. It is written in the manner of a folk tale expanded with more tales being told inside it by other people and creatures. All the tales eventually curl around to become part of the main tale and the solution, and from a deceptively simple start Lin uses the tales to build and enhance the whole. It is a pleasure to read, and it has that folkloric thing where there is a moral or lesson and yet without it being at all heavy-handed or stilted; what Minli (and we) learn flows naturally from the course of the tale, and it speaks to all hearts.

Guest Post: The Stress of their Regard: Book Reviews and the Reactions to them, by Paul Weimer

A conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago about the challenges of reviewing books in the new social media got me to thinking about what it must be like to be a book-blogger and/or online reviewer who ends up interacting not just with other readers but with writers and other people in the publishing industry in a way that could not really have happened quite so extensively before.

So I asked reviewer Paul Weimer to write a guest post about his experiences and thoughts. Here it is!  (KE)

 

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The Stress of their Regard: Book Reviews and the Reactions to them.

by Paul Weimer

 

Like Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books. Reading books, be it fiction or nonfiction, an epic fantasy or the life of Cicero, makes up a substantial amount of my recreational time. And like anyone, I form opinions about the book, as I am reading (electronic books are wonderful for this), and after I have read the book.

I am a writer, and so my opinions, observations and perspectives about a book inevitably find themselves committed to words. As an active member of the genre community, these thoughts on books and authors inevitably find publication in a number of online venues.

However, publishing book reviews, especially in a hothouse environment that the world of genre fiction can be, comes with a set of challenges and stresses that threaten to corrode my will and desire to share my opinions. It is those challenges and stresses that I would like to elucidate for you.

It is a tightrope act, for me as a reviewer, to write a book review, whether a book exceeded my expectations, or fell vastly short of them. On the one hand, my personal ethics as a reviewer, and the role I play, mandate honesty in my reviews for books. The currency of respect I earn is only valid if my reviews are an honest assessment of the book I have read, presented in a clear and concise manner. If I am dishonest in my reviews, it will quickly come across the page, and my reviews will be at best unread, and worst, denigrated and shunned.

On the other hand, my place in the genre community means that I am often extremely chatty, virtually and otherwise, with the writers I am reading. Some of them I consider friends. When a book of theirs doesn’t meet all of my expectations, or even worse, falls flat for me, there is a real problem for me as a reviewer and as a person. I don’t have illusions that I move the meter on sales for a writer, much. However, slagging their novel baby or being perceived as having done so, makes me a bad social actor, and a bad friend.

I recently quailed over writing a review of a book that simply fell far short of expectations for me. I like the author. The author likes me. With reservations, I liked the author’s debut effort, but this second effort did not meet my expectations and hopes. Writing a review that is honest and fair, and yet does not cause unintended mental anguish in the friend has been extremely difficult.

On the other hand, when I am confronted with a book I absolutely adore and want to tell the world about, the reverse problem applies. Did I really like the book that much, or am I being too much of a promoter for the author and her work? Am I allowing the friendship and respect I have for the writer and her work to cloud my judgement of flaws and problems with a book? How much of a glowing review is me wishing the author well? How do I convey to the reader genuine enthusiasm and elucidate the real quality of the author’s work? How do I avoid looking like I am fawning over a writer’s work? How do I avoid unknowingly fawning over a book?

These tensions form a conundrum that I continually am confronted with. Keep reviews fair and honest, and remain a responsible social actor with the friends and acquaintances I have made, in readers, fellow reviewers, and authors.  Every book I read, every review I write is a re-assessment of this fundamental problem. Every review is a new change to grapple with these issues. It causes me stress every time I start on a review. It even starts as I am reading a book, wondering what I am going to write about it, how I am going to handle these issues this time out.

So why do I persist? Why do I put myself through this wringer? Why don’t I simply trunk my reviews?  There are two main reasons.

First, any writer, and I am no exception, wants their work to be seen by others. A trunked review is little better than just composing it in my own mind, save for the chance to work on my craft. A writer wants their work to be seen, to be read, to have life beyond their computer screen. I am no exception to this rule. Until my reviews started being published in higher visibility online locales, they languished for lack of attention and feedback. Now, I have people who look forward to my next review, and the reviews have given me offers and opportunities to write other things, in a variety of venues.

Second, I feel like I am providing a useful service. If I can walk that tightrope, and provide fair, balanced, ethical and honest reviews of books, I am providing useful information and feedback out there about books, for readers and authors alike. There are a swath of book review sites which are nothing but glowing reviews of the books they receive, read and review. the reviews at aggregate sites like Amazon are often worse than useless in trying to determine if a book is worth reading, given the propensity for people to use reviews as a way to grind their ax, be it complaints about the cost, jihads against an author, or even stranger obsessions. I like to think my review is far more valuable than that white noise.

So what have I learned? I’ve been reviewing for years, but only in the last year and a half have my reviews had any large amount of visibility due to the venues they have been published in. I have noticed an evolution in my style, improvement in my writing, and an increased readership. I firmly believe that readers and writers reading my work, commenting and talking about my reviews, and in general the greater visibility of my work makes me a better reviewer. I’ve learned from reading my fellow reviewers, as well, studying what they do, what they eschew, and how people react to their work. I have flourished under the pressure.

And so I persist in staying in the stress of their regard as I read and review books.

 

 

Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has
found himself living in Minnesota for the last 10 years, Paul
“PrinceJvstin” Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy long before
there was a World Wide Web. He and his book reviews, columns and other
contributions to genre can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin
Style,[http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin ] SF
Signal[http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/paulweimer/ ]  the
Functional Nerds[
http://functionalnerds.com/category/book-review/paul-weimer/] ,
Twitter[http://twitter.com/#!/PrinceJvstin ] , Livejournal[
http://princejvstin.livejournal.com/]  and many other places on the
Internet.

The Omniscient Breasts

After years of thinking about this issue, and inspired by a comment on Twitter about omniscient breasts, I have finally written a post on the male gaze, the female gaze, and sexualized women in fantasy and science fiction novels.

Imagine a female pov character is going along about her protagonist adventure, seeing things from her perspective of the world as written in third person. She hears, sees, considers, and makes decisions and reacts based on her view of the world and what she is aware of and encounters. Abruptly, a description is dropped into the text of her secondary sexual characteristics usually in the form of soft-focus Playboy-Magazine-style sexualized kitten-bunny-I-would-fuck-her-in-a-heartbeat lustrous-eyes-and-nipples phrases. Her breasts have just become omniscient breasts.

 

You can read the whole thing over at Hugo-award-winning weblog & fanzine SFSignal.

Teaching Ways to Revise: Necessary Words

In my experience both as a writer and as a writer who reads, the writer has a story in their head that is quite vivid. A less experienced writer often does not yet have the tools to fully bring the story fully to life on the page, to express and translate all the vivid emotion and imagery and idea so that another person can experience some measure of what the writer feels for the story.

So, two things:

 

Thing One:

I reckon the reader will never read exactly the story the writer has in mind because the reader brings their own experiences, thoughts, and reactions to the material. In other words, I maintain that it is impossible for any reader to read exactly the book the writer is doing their best to tell. That’s a topic for another post.

Why I make the point is to remind writers that their goal is to bring the story, the ideas, the emotions (whatever element matters most to the writer) to the reader in the strongest way possible, in a way that to the best of their ability and the limits of language makes a connection between the text and the reader.

Techniques that help create and strengthen that bridge between the writer’s construct which lives in the head of the writer and the reader’s interaction with the story are an important aspect of writing craft.

Thing Two:

Most often the biggest problem I see with manuscripts is that the writer has an interesting story to tell but the word choice, pacing, and deployment of plot and details hamper the story. They get in the way of the story rather than bringing the story into focus.

In my opinion, revision is the hardest part of the process to learn and to teach.

The process of learning to find the right words in the right order is so complex that, yes, I still struggle with it all the time. I am, I hope, still getting more proficient, getting better, learning from my mistakes — because I still make mistakes. Every novel I’ve published so far has mistakes in it that I haven’t been able to recognize until after it has been published and sometimes not for several years when I have left it far enough behind that I can finally get a decent sense of perspective about it.

A Way To Revise: Thinking About Necessary Words

The key to an effective scene is to use the words you need, in the order you need them in. This is a truism that is far easier to say than to do.

Probably your early draft uses words you don’t need, or lacks some words you do need. The more words you use which you don’t need, the more those unneeded words diffuse the intensity of the experience of the words and story. Additionally, in some places it may be the story could use intensifiers to highlight and clarify the emotion and emotion. That lack at certain crucial spots makes it harder for the reader to connect.

So how do you figure out which words you need and which are unnecessary?

There are many strategies for doing this. Mine is AN answer, not THE answer.

Let me repeat that. This is a way to think about revising. It is not the only way, the best way, or anything except one possible way out of many.

Here are some ways to think about the words.

1.    What is this scene about? What does the scene do both as a discrete scene and in the context of the entire story? If necessary, you can outline a scene or do a bullet points breakdown of what must be in the scene in order for the scene to have the impact you want it to have.
2.    Once you have figured out what is absolutely necessary, carefully consider every word and sentence and paragraph you use, every detail mentioned, every aside, thought, comment, and action.
3.    Identify which are necessary to allow the scene to do its rightful work.
4.    Beware of asides and tangents that are important to you, the writer, and which may contain information that you, the writer, know and which is important for you to know but which is not necessary for the reader to know. Cut those.
5.    Especially at the beginning of a novel, the reader has to process every piece of information you give her. Every piece. Those elements of the story which are familiar are easier to process. Those elements of story which are presented in ways that are familiar are easier to process. Elements of the story which are unfamiliar–and this can include literary devices, unfamiliar settings and words, each new character not to mention any necessary backstory–slow down and/or weigh down the reader’s intake and can cause the pacing to seem slow or the material to seem difficult. This is not a good or bad thing depending on the type of story you’re writing; some stories are meant to be dense and chewy. Just be sure your text fits the kind of story and pacing you are aiming for.
6.    The flip side of too much information is too little. Is there enough context? Are the characters faceless, personality-less stick figures who do nothing but say dialogue and take actions that have no emotional or situational context? Context is part of what allows the reader to identify with the story, the setting, the characters, the plot.
7.    Seek the balance: The reader needs to know enough to get involved and to figure out the basic context of the story but not so much that she bogs down or gets confused or overwhelmed by information dump or overload or just plain ordinary digression and unnecessary details (see 4 above).

Take a scene or a first chapter or several scenes and break them down in this way, then see what you have left (or what you need to add).

There’s far more to revision than this, obviously, but this is one way to start.