Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Six Unimportant Things about Meme

Apprentice Writer has graduated!

After eight months in cyberspace, she has been tagged for a meme - thanks to her lovely friend Julia who maintains a tranquil, arts-filled blog for weary cyberhoppers to rest their eyes and minds. http://julia-mindovermatter.blogspot.com/

The rules are:
1. Link back to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Share six unimportant things about yourself.
4. Tag six random people at the end of your blog entry.
5. Let the tagged people know by leaving a comment on their blogs.

On to unimportance:

1. Though AW grew up with pets (a half dozen cats, a guinea pig, rabbit, some parakeets, one dog) and enjoyed them very much, she currently has none. It was great while her parents cleaned up after the menagerie - now that she is chief cleaner-upper, her desire for such activity is more than filled by the junior apprentice writers, thank you very much.

2. AW used to live near the Black Forest, of Hansel and Gretel Fame. Yes, the Forest is darker than most at floor level (due to high concentration of evergreens), and no, it is not filled with Black Forest Cakes. Though they would have been useful for making crumbs.

3. Though much better about eating her vegetables than during childhood, AW has never been able to make friends with Brussels sprouts.

4. Favorite household chore: taking clean laundry out of the dryer and folding. Mmmm- clean laundry smell!

5. Never needed braces. About dentures - not yet known....

6. Secret childhood fantasy: being half of a fabulously talented and popular figure skating pair, applauded by crowds and wearing cool little outfits. That, or being a female Mowgli (of 'The Jungle Book'), swinging around in the treetops with animal friends.

Now comes the tagging:
1. Tiff
2. Ely
3. Wylie
4. Amy
5. Christine
6. Rumpelstilzkin

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Laughter Reviews, #15

Time for another book review with the focus: funny or not?

India Knight

Single mom seeks to re-enter the dating world with help of housemate.

What Works
The author has a breezy writing style that is very easy to read. The story is set in London, which for closet-anglophile Apprentice Writer is always a plus.

What Doesn't
The protagonist, Stella, spends a great deal of time making derisive comments about everyone around her. While this starts out to amusing effect, entertainment gradually morphs into distaste at the high mean-spiritedness quotient of it all. With the single exception of her toddler daughter, there is not one character in the entire book about whom Stella doesn't utter something negative.

So intent does the author seem on creating plot opportunities for Stella to make fun of others that there are times when plausibility is sacrificed. For example, Stella joins - and, more tellingly, remains in - a playgroup whose adult and child members she despises alike, for their lax attitude to safety, cleanliness, aggression, and discipline in general. Are readers really supposed to believe that there is such a lack of alternatives in one of the largest cities on Earth?
Stella's chronic feeling of superiority can also be hypocritical. She mocks the names of the playgroup children - yet named her daughter 'Honey'.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that part of Stella's problem is that she is bored. Having received a house and comfortable settlement following her second divorce, she can choose not to work. True, she cares for Honey (and as a SAHM Apprentice Writer is fully aware this is no small job), however Honey appears to be a non-demanding dream child, there is only one of her, and Stella has regular babysitting help - including overnight should she desire to go out on the town. Her lodger Frank does most of the cooking. There is no sense that she has any real hobbies or pursuits to capture her interest and exercise her undoubted intelligence. Thus, she exercises her sharp tongue, and spends a lot of time speculating on Frank's sex life. She reminded Apprentice Writer of an intensely annoying 'heroine' in an old Hitchcock movie whose title escapes her, in which a newlywed woman has more or less nothing to do, and proceeds to spend the movie's two-hour running length imagining her husband is plotting to murder her. Never did a woman need to take up jogging or macrame more.

There comes a point in the story when Stella realizes that she doesn't have any friends, save the one she recently made in playgroup - and even that friendship will die through Stella's actions by story's end. This reader experienced a burning desire to take silently-attracted-to-Stella Frank by the shoulders and shake him, shouting 'Open your eyes! This is a monster warning sign! HEED IT!'

Then again, Frank is an artist. Perhaps he thought a relationship with Stella would fulfill his torture quotient for inspiration.

The author received high praise for her first book, 'My Life on a Plate' (which, in admiration for the excellent title, Apprentice Writer still hopes to read) - perhaps this created a degree of stage-fright for this follow-up work? Perhaps there is some element of cross-cultural misunderstanding involved here?

Whatever the truth of the matter - Ms. Knight elicits strong reaction. In her 'real' life, she has a regular column in a British newspaper, and since the birth of a medically fragile daughter, appears to have become an advocate for parents struggling to cope with their children's complex conditions as well as a public educator on related issues. Apprentice Writer wishes her well in this endeavour.

But does it make you laugh?

Only if you enjoy very biting humor. The 'funny' in this book is definitely at the expense of others.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Book Promotion: More Good Ideas

Gentle Readers of this space will recall an earlier post that mused about the increased responsibility offloaded onto authors to promote their books, and the creative response writer ANN AGUIRRE dreamed up: an online quiz determining which of five professions contained in her novel GRIMSPACE quiztakers most resembled, combined with a prize giveaway for those who blogged or posted about it online.

Today, tips of Apprentice Writer's hat to two more creative authors who found inspired ways to shine light on their work:

1. MAUREEN MCGOWAN, women's fiction/chicklit author of THE MISEDUCATION OF APRIL HILLSON, chose to generate interest in her work by the simple device of becoming a semi-finalist for Amazon's Breakout Novel Award.

Talk about getting yourself noticed!

Readers can download her 'Amazon Short' for free at http://http//www.amazon.com/dp/B00122GTICand then share a review if they wish. So far, the review average is 5.5/6 stars. Not too shabby. Apprentice Writer found the excerpt compelling - well-written, refreshingly different heroine, intriguing hints at backstory yet to be revealed, high stakes to be resolved. Also, very cool title - recalls Lauryn Hill's CD 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill', which in turn was named (if Apprentice Writer recalls correctly) for a book titled "The Miseducation of a Negro", in which the protagonist empowers himself to analyze and take control of his life. It is not difficult to imagine that McGowan's character April Hillson will ultimately do the same.

2. Historical romance author JOANNA BOURNE penned THE SPYMASTER'S LADY, which has shot to the top of many a popularity list in the blogosphere.

Claire Gregory is running a contest on her blog called 'Where in the World is Spymaster's Lady?', to be judged by Bourne. Contestants are invited to post a picture of their copy of book in a location that depicts their hometown in some distinctive way. The winner gets a signed copy and something called a 'book thong'. The puzzling need for lingerie for books aside (though it is very pretty), this sounds like a fun, memorable way to create buzz for an already mightily buzzing novel. Take a look:


So, in conclusion:
well played, Ms. McGowan and Ms. Bourne. You are not only gifted authors, but clearly, savvy promoters.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On Names

Apprentice Writer has long been fascinated with names - in real life, and those writers give their characters. Choose by meaning? Sound? Fashion? Pun-making possibilities? The options are endless, and while a name might not make or break the success of an author's book (or child's life) all on its own, the fact remains that names trigger instant reactions in the hearer/reader. Ignore this reality at your child/manuscript's peril.

In honour of that mid-February day so beloved of retailers, a thought inspired by one of the most well-known name philosophers:

"A rose by any other name would still cost twice as much on Valentines Day."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Poultry Philosophy

There is a telling moment in the movie "Babel" when it becomes clear that a chicken is not always the same as a chicken.

It all depends on your point of view.

Point of view, or POV, is one of decisions a writer must make early on in a project. Will it be 1st person ("I"), with the audience 'looking' straight out of the eyes of the protagonist as in many chicklit novels? Will it be the wildly difficult to write and understand 2nd person ("You"), a choice so daunting only a handful of courageous and experimental souls have ever attempted it? Or will it be 3rd person ("he/she/it"), which allows the auidience to look at the action from a distance as if watching a movie?

Apprentice Writer likes 3rd person omniscient, meaning that the story is told from the POV of various characters. This is a lot of fun to write, but Apprentice Writer has been getting feedback recently warning about the perils of 'headhopping'. Evidently this is a bad thing.

Apprentice Writer very much appreciates her beta readers' constructive criticism. At the same time, she struggles to understand why headhopping must be so strenuously avoided. Consider this example of different chickenly POVs . A convincing demonstration of how well headhopping can work, funnywise.

Saeed Al Sahaf (Comical Ali): The chicken did not cross the road. This is a complete fabrication. We do not even have a chicken.

George W. Bush: We don't care why the chicken crossed the road. We just want to know if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The chicken is either for us or against us. There is no middle ground.

Tony Blair: I agree with George.

Martin Luther King Jr.: I envision a world where all chickens will be free to cross roads without having their motives called into question.

Grandpa: In my day, we didn't ask why the chicken crossed the road. Somebody told us the chicken crossed the road, and that was good enough.

Oprah: In a few moments, we will be listening to the chicken tell (the) heart-warming story of how it experienced a serious case of moulting and went on to accomplish its dream of crossing the road.

Aristotle: It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

Karl Marx: It was a historic inevitability.

Albert Einstein: Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?

Homer Simpson: Mmmm....chicken."

(author unknown, source: "The Toronto Star")

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Laughter Reviews, #14

Time for another book review with the focus: FUNNY OR NOT?

by Dodie Smith
Young Adult

Teen living in a crumbling castle with her impoverished family ponders life and love.

What Works
Cassandra is a smart, charming, refreshing heroine, making the best of a difficult life. She has left school (it is not clear whether this is for financial reasons or if her education is considered complete) and spends her days recording her observations of the people living in the derelict castle with her. All are intriguing, either from the start or as the story develops. Older sister Rose is described as beautiful and bitter at being forced to be poor, younger brother Thomas mostly is at school or doing homework, stepmother Topaz is an artist's model prone to communing naked with nature and devoted to her husband and his children despite all taking her for granted to some degree, son of a deceased servant Stephen is Hollywood handsome and quietly in love with Cassandra, and finally, the grandiose character around whom the entire family and novel revolve, father Mortmain.

Years ago, Mortmain wrote a book so brilliant and revolutionary that he became a literary superstar on both sides of the Atlantic. Decades later, he has yet to follow up with another book, suffering from writer's block so crippling it is slowly strangling his family (If Apprentice Writer's rusty French is correct, this is an effective wordplay: 'mort' = death, 'main' = hand). The royalties have dried up, anything of value in the castle has been sold, all are perpetually hungry and poorly clothed. Yet they continue to live in daily hope that some spark will cause him to write again, and everyone tries to shield his genius from their stark situation while he spends his days in a remote (and to others, off-limits) part of the castle, solving crossword puzzles and reading detective stories personally delivered from the library by his adoring fan, the local schoolteacher. The only sources of income left are meagre model fees occasionally contributed by Topaz, and wages earned by Stephen who willingly labours as a farmhard to support them all.

Then a bomb drops into their lives in the form of two brothers from America. They just inherited the nearby Scoatney estate, of which Belmotte Castle (another wordplay: 'belle' = beautiful, 'mot' = word) is a part. As landlords, the brothers pay a visit, and become fascinated with Mortmain. He feels invigorated by the renewed literary discussions and by gaining access to Scoatney's library and invitations to stay at a flat in London. The rest of the family is thrown into a tizzy of hope that a relationship with the brothers may be a (literal) lifeline for them; how the bonds between the two families intertwine, and with what economic, emotional, and bookish results, forms the rest of the story.

From her perspective as middle child, Cassandra is ruthlessly honest about events, feelings, amd motivations - including her own. Her candour, determination to take the right rather than easy path, and her creativity in ultimately curing for her father's writer's block make her memorable.

The structure of the novel also works well, subdivided into three escalating parts as symbolized by the journals in which she writes. The first (setting the stage) is a cheap six-penny book and gift from the village vicar; the second (when relationships are developing) is a shilling book purchased from the village store just as fortunes begin to change; and the last (when everything comes to a head) is a beautiful leather two-guinea book, a gift from the brother for whom she is developing feelings. The end of the story coincides with the last page of the book, and Cassandra writes "....I don't intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself. I only began today (because) I felt I ought to finish Rose's story off tidily. I seem to have finished my own off, too, which I didn't quite bargain for..." In her own eyes, she has left youth behind and become an adult.

Cassandra speaks in the first person, as many a more modern young adult or chicklit heroine; the sense one gets at the end of her story, however, is that she has reached a level of insight and maturity that not all her literary peers achieve.

What Doesn't
The story takes place in preWWII Britain, and as such is marked by turns of phrase and social conventions that may not be so easy for modern readers to relate to. The extreme way the household caters to the male figurehead, for example, the distinct class separations, or how frequently 17-year-old Cassandra is referred to by non-family members in a deliberately patronizing manner as 'child'. The fully character-driven story also lacks anything in the way of physical encounters, action adventure, intrigue, or paranormal elements that seem to make up much of current commercial fiction. For readers used to such types of fare, the pace may be slow. But for readers willing to delve into a previous age, the results are rewarding.

Besides this youth-oriented tale, Dodie Smith also wrote theatre for adults as well as the timeless children's classic, "The 101 Dalmatians". She is that rare author who appeals across age groups and generations.

But is it funny? YES - in an understated way
Save for one scene where Rose is mistaken for a bear, there is no slapstick or physical humor. The funny bits lie more in the unique way that Cassandra describes things. It is a wry, quiet sort of humor, but no less effective than more obvious types. Readers who appreciate understated wit will treasure this classic.