Saturday, April 30, 2011

The royal wedding, the media, and what's important

Yesterday morning I turned on the TV to catch the weather. Our local news was pre-empted for coverage of the Royal Wedding, so I changed channels. The Royal Wedding again. And the next channel, and the next.
Maybe we can just sit back and enjoy the moment. Or maybe we've allowed media saturation to form our opinions about what's important.
Yes, our media is free to report, but the news we consumers receive is filtered through layers of administrative oversight. And those administrators are concerned about their bottom line. They'll point media coverage toward whatever brings in the most money. Most times, that's sensationalism, anything that's over-the-top like the Royal Wedding. But the frightening truth is that the media controls the things we see, the stories we hear about, and therefore, the way we see the world.
When does media become propaganda?
Thoughts like those keep pulling me back to the lessons of history. The Nazis had an entire staff dedicated to finding/producing media that showed grand processions, cheering crowds, smiling leaders and in general, stirring the citizens into a frenzy. Look where that got them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What I've read

One of my New Year's resolutions for 2011 was to keep track of books I read. So far this year, it's 17 books-- three memoirs, a couple picture books, two fictionalized retelling of actual events, and two non-fiction for my Nazi-era research. The rest are historical fiction and fantasy/sci-fi novels, my favorite genres. I'm well aware that this is more than many people read in a year.
How do I read so many books when I work a full-time job and volunteer several hours a week in my church and community? Audiobooks, for one thing. I drive a lot, so time in the car is time spent listening to stories. And while others watch TV to relax in the evening, I read. That gives me a hour or two each night to immerse myself in a good story before bed.
But that can be a problem when the story possesses me, like when I recently read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The post-apocalyptic world she created was tangible, with its own twisted internal logic and fascinating characters. That world and the female protagonist, Katniss, occupied my waking and sleeping thoughts.
How YA books have changed. Strength in female characters used to be shown in loyalty, outspokenness, perseverance, intelligence, etc. Collins shows Katniss to be a young woman with all those traits and more -- an amazing aptitude with a bow and arrow, a willingness to risk injury or humiliation for those she loves, and a keen knack for survival.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The impact of stories

At the Pages and Places Book Festival in Scranton last fall, Jonathan Gottschall joined a panel discussion about experiences, stories, and our brains. He described research done using functional MRI scans as people experience emotionally charged events. Their brain scans show distinctive activation patterns with pleasure, terror, sadness, surprise, etc. fMRI studies were also done on people READING about those same experiences, and interestingly, the same activation patterns were seen.

It's taken months to truly sink in - when we read a story and emotionally invest in it, we experience it as real. Who among us hasn't laughed out loud at Ramona Quimby, felt the rise in heart rate as Orcs descend upon Frodo, or felt anxiety's grasp when our literary or movie hero is in danger? The story has become part of us, and we experience every step of it with the characters.

That's a lot of responsibility on a writer.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The critique

Well, I had my long-awaited critique with Dianne Hess, the Executive Editor of Scholastic Press, today. She is a gracious, personable woman who gave me an honest appraisal of what’s good and what needs work in the first 10 pages of my manuscript. She liked the basic premise of the book but had a lot of questions about the believability of different aspects of the particulars. She noted that the first 10 pages were dense, too packed with information and characters to truly let her see what the story was about. I understand that I have failings in the technical aspects of writing - after all, this is my first novel. She didn’t say, “Once you’ve fixed that up, send me the full manuscript,” as I had dreamed.

So I’m disappointed but not disheartened. I will indeed work on the pace in those first pages, and try to disentangle the various story threads. And I’ll hope that the queries and sample pages I sent to other publishers bring a different result.