Friday, August 29, 2014

Best Book of August

I seem to have hit a streak of less-than-impressive books, so there’s only one this month.

As always, the cover and summary come from Goodreads; the review is mine.

 Esperanza Rising – Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico—she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances—Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

Review: This middle-grade novel is based on the life of the author's grandmother. Thirteen-year-old Esperanza is a rich girl living in Mexico when her father is murdered. She is forced to flee to California with her mother and work as a farm laborer to support herself and her mother.

This book is set during the Great Depression, but the themes are still relevant today. It confronts the issues of racism, classism, discrimination, immigration, labor strikes, and economic problems. It shows the importance of family and of being kind to people who are different from you.

The characters are well-developed, and the setting is very vivid. Nothing in the book is oversimplified or "dumbed down" for children. I like the Spanish words that are used in dialogue and as the chapter titles. If you don't know Spanish, all of them are translated for you. There are a lot of historical details, but I would have liked the book even more if it had included more historical details.

I did have a hard time getting interested in the story. I didn't think that Esperanza and her family were very relatable in the beginning of the book. The characters become more relatable as the story progresses.

This is a quick read for adults and an educational read for children. It would be great as part of a social studies curriculum. There is a lot of material in it for parents and teachers to talk about with their students.

All The Things = 16 Books

I’m Currently Reading: Burned by Ellen Hopkins

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

You’re probably sick of hearing me talk about it, but I’ve spent the past year reading submissions for an anthology. So, I’m going to write about rejection today.

There were several editors who worked on this anthology. Every week we all read the same batch of submissions. We met to discuss the batch at the end of the week. In order to remember what I read, I kept spreadsheets with the title and author of the submission as well as my reaction to the submission. I was looking for something on my computer yesterday, and I found the spreadsheets. For some reason (boredom), I decided to look over the spreadsheets. I started noticing trends in my reasons for rejecting submissions. I noticed that there are some very common mistakes that writers make that lead to rejection. (Or, at least, rejection from me.)

I decided to take a sample of about 250 rejected submissions and make a pie chart of my most common reasons for rejection. The submissions were a mixture of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Most of the submissions were rejected for multiple reasons, but I always put my biggest reason for rejection first in my notes. I only put my biggest reason on the chart.

Here is my (admittedly crappy and hard to read) pie chart of rejection.

Not Quite Ready – 1.07% - These are the submissions that were very good, but they weren’t quite as good as the accepted submissions. We couldn’t accept everything. Some good stories had to be rejected because they just weren’t quite right for us.

Lacking Emotion – .56% - The submission felt flat. I didn’t feel anything for the characters or their situation. Or, I didn’t feel anything while reading a poetry submission.

Boring – 6.54% - I read past the first 3-5 pages of a story, but then I got bored. The story felt long, meandering, or slow. It didn’t hold my attention.

Not Unique – 7.01% - I’ve read too many pieces (published or unpublished) that are similar to this one. There is nothing in this submission that is unusual or unexpected.

Poorly Written – 4.91% - I can tell that the author is a beginning writer or a non-English speaker. The piece is extremely unpolished and difficult to read.

Doesn’t Fit Submission Guidelines – 35.75% - You know how a lot of rejection letters say, “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now”? That’s this category. These submissions didn’t fit the theme of the anthology well enough for me. They just weren’t what we were looking for right now.

Too Simplistic – 1.87% - The author took complex human emotions; a complex situation; or a complex political, social, or environmental problem and oversimplified it.

Why Did I Read This? – 1.4% - When I read a submission, I want to feel like I got something out of reading it. I want to be entertained or enlightened. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of reading these submissions.

Other – 4.91% - These rejections didn’t fit in any of the other categories. Many of the submissions in this category just didn’t match my personal taste. For example, I didn’t like an author’s choppy writing style, or a nonfiction piece was too informational and didn’t have enough of a narrative.

Predictable – .47% - Within the first few paragraphs, I knew exactly how the story was going to end. I always skipped ahead to see if I was correct. With these submissions, I was correct.

Nothing Happens – 18.22% - Nothing important happens within the first 3-5 pages of a story, or nothing happens at all in a poem.

Confusing – 14.72% - Something in the submission was confusing, unclear, or needed more explanation for me to fully understand or appreciate it.

Lacking Character Development – 2.57% - The characters were underdeveloped.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Psychology For Imaginary People

Over the last few years, I have been reading a lot about psychology. Mostly I’ve been reading about it because it interests me, but I think that having some knowledge of psychology can be helpful for writers. Your characters might be more realistic if you understand what makes real people function.

One of the things that I’ve been reading about is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is a questionnaire that reveals how a person sees the world and makes decisions. For example, is the person extraverted or introverted? Does the person prefer to think problems through or improvise solutions quickly? Does the person prefer to base decisions on feelings or logic? There are sixteen possible types that are each referred to by a four-letter abbreviation. None of the types are good or bad. The test just shows the ways that a person prefers to deal with the world.

Fictional characters, like real people, all see the world in slightly different ways. If you are struggling with character development, the Myers-Briggs types could give you a blueprint for creating a realistic person.

I’ve noticed that different versions of the questionnaire will give you slightly different results. Every questionnaire that I’ve done says that I’m either ISTJ or INTJ. Here are links to two different versions of the questionnaire:

With fictional characters, it might be more helpful for authors to just read about the sixteen different types.

I’ve heard that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is more accurate than many other psychological questionnaires. For fiction writers, an understanding of the types may help you create characters with realistic strengths, weaknesses, and ways of responding to the world.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

This Is Not Historical Fiction: History As Art

Every time I finish a book, I read the reviews to see how other readers responded to that book. Occasionally, I’m surprised by reviews. The reviewers point out something that I hadn’t noticed or make me think about something in a different way.

The reviews that surprised me recently were the reviews of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. When I read this book, I didn’t realize that it was controversial. If you haven’t read it (and you should), I will provide a summary, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so this blog post might not make much sense if you haven’t read the book.

Berlin 1942.

When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion, and the family must move from their home to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

On the surface, this book seems like a typical WWII novel. Bruno, a German boy, becomes friends with a Jewish boy from Poland. If you're familiar with WWII novels, you probably know how this story ends. (Hint: It’s not happy). However, this is not a typical WWII novel, and that’s where some of the controversy happens.

The novel is set during WWII, but it’s not historical fiction. It’s a modern fable. A fable is a story that incorporates elements of myth and has a strong moral. Ideally, the moral of a fable should transcend time and culture. It should apply to everybody everywhere.

It was immediately clear to me that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable and not historical fiction. The author tells the story from a third-person true-omniscient viewpoint, which is very common in fables and old literature but relatively uncommon in modern literature. The narrator is god-like and can see into the heads of all of the characters at the same time. Like any good fable, the moral of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is clear: All people are equal. The story also has a mythical quality to it. It’s the kind of story that people might tell each other about WWII, but it’s not a story that could have actually happened.

The author uses a few techniques to transcend time and culture in this fable. For example, he never uses the name of the camp where Bruno’s friend lives. He uses wordplay that would work in English but not in German (such as Bruno saying “Fury” instead of “Führer”). And, the book is not historically accurate. In fact, it’s so historically inaccurate that the events in the story probably could not have happened during WWII. There is a good reason for all of this: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not about WWII. It’s a fable. It’s about everyone everywhere. Discrimination and genocide did not stop after WWII. It’s still happening today, and that’s the point of this book. It’s a universal story. This book could be set almost anywhere and at almost any time in human history.

So, where is the controversy? I read a few reviews by people who said that this book is offensive because it ignores historical fact, and ignoring historical fact trivializes the experiences of the real people who lived through that historical period.

It didn’t cross my mind to be offended by this book. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. To me, this book is not historical fiction, so I didn’t care if it was historically accurate. I saw this book as art. The best artwork is controversial, sparks passionate responses, and makes people think. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does that. I like the book for its artistic value. It’s odd, interesting, and unique.

But, I want to know what other people think. If you read the book, how did you react? How do you define “historical fiction”? Is it ever okay to ignore historical fact when you’re writing fiction? Is it okay to use history as a backdrop for art?