Seven Reasons Why I Love Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce is one of the best storytellers around and here are the reasons why:     Image

  • Strong, real, and funny young women protagonists
  • Credible world-building
  • Animals as characters (looking at you Achoo and Pounce)
  • Interesting magic
  • Compelling secondary characters
  • Exciting plots
  • Her books make you cry and laugh at the same time

If you haven’t read Tamora Pierce yet, I suggest starting with Terrier, the first in The Legend of Beka Cooper series.

Happy reading!

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Depression and Writing

I was shocked when I came across a January 2010 posting from author Marian Keyes detailing the severe depression that has halted her writing. I like her books a lot, in large part because they have such surprising depth and heart considering how entertaining the stories usually are. I even reread Anybody Out There right after my husband died because I remembered how she got grief so right. But I had made all the same assumptions of Marian Keyes that I usually do of successful authors – she had arrived; she had it made; her life was charmed. She was livin’ the easy life on the good side of Writer’s River, while toiling schlubs like me were still trying to figure out how to cross over. To discover that depression had debilitated her to the point of barely getting through the day was to make her human.

Make no mistake – there is no Schadenfreude here. If anything, I feel a sense of kinship with Ms. Keyes, suffering from depression as I sometimes do and currently am. But while I’m sorry for her pain, I’m also grateful for her honesty, because I think it helps deromanticize the myth of creativity and depression. We like to glamorize the dark pockets of our writers’ and artists’ minds, equating great suffering with great art. But as Elizabeth Wurtzel says in Prozac Nation, “‘Madness is too glamourous a term to convey what happens to most people who are losing their minds. That word is too exciting, too literary, too interesting in its connotations to convey the boredom, the slowness, the dreariness, the dampness of depression.'”

With a grandmother who killed herself in 1965 (read Ila’s Gloves), depression is the darkest thread in my own family tapestry. And while my current bout with low-grade depression may not be the full-blown “howling tempest of the mind” of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, it has still brought all work on my novel to a halt, leached the creativity right out of me, and created the click-and-whir – the psychic noise pollution – that keeps me up at night. There is nothing gratifying, ennobling, or productive about depression. Maybe once you’re through the dark woods you can look back and describe the horrors of the forest, but it’s impossible when you’re in it, fighting to get through.

Ila’s Gloves

Surprising, that’s what the gloves are, although I can’t imagine why. I come across them every year when I clean out my dresser, yet somehow they always stop me cold.

Normally, I use them as a stalling tactic. After the tedium of inspecting unworn nylons for snags, and rolling socks into color-coordinated balls, the dainty gloves are a diversion, an invitation to play dress-up. I lay them out on the bed and pick up my favorite pair, the powder blue ones. They’re so delicate and feminine that to even put them on takes you back in time. I line up the exposed seams with each finger and adjust the ruched material over my wrists. They look a bit silly with my grubby tank top and faded sweat shorts, but my hands, at least, look fabulous. With the right dress – say, a silk shantung sheath, or a tidy little suit in powder blue – I could be a Frenchwoman. Or Jackie Kennedy. Or my grandmother Ila, whose gloves these are and who killed herself before I was born.

Next, I try on the short white pair. They are made of thick, soft cotton with eyelet cutouts just over the wristbones, very girlish and Sandra Dee. Or Mickey Mouse, which is who I look like, so I take them off and put on the pink ones. These are quite plain, aside from the color, and my least favorite pair, for some reason.

The gloves that really makes me wonder, though, are the green ones. These are Gilda gloves, long, elbow-length, vivid green satin with darker panels on the palms. Stripper gloves. Where in the world did Grandma Ila ever wear these? More importantly, what was she doing when she had them on?

They don’t fit the picture of her in my head but that’s probably because she’s only a shabby composite of other people’s memories anyway. My favorite story is one of my mother’s, who adored her mother-in-law. One afternoon, the two of them, along with my mother’s own mom and my two aunts all went to the movies. On the way, the car got a flat tire and while the other women discussed what to do, Ila stripped off her gloves (the pink ones? the blue? no grease stains or tire tread marks to give her away), and changed the tire herself.

Other memories, mostly from my mother: Ila, with one beautiful hand with its long, shapely nails always wrapped around a Coke can, the other waving a cigarette as she talked; Ila, teaching my mom to knit; Ila, bringing presents for my older sister and my unborn brother – still just a bump in my mom’s belly – and importuning my mother to go shopping with her; Ila, waving goodbye from the back window of the car after Mom begged off, not knowing it was the last time she’d see her mother-in-law; Ila, the bloody mess who shot herself in the chest in her daughter’s bedroom. (No bloodstains on the gloves, either. You don’t need to dress up to commit suicide, apparently.)

Funny, how you can adopt someone else’s memories so that they become your own. Why can I so clearly see the tag on her coffin flapping in the wind on that September day at the cemetery when I wasn’t even a twinkle in my Daddy’s eye yet? Why can I watch her stripping off those gloves to change that flat tire, as if it’s a scene in a movie, as if I was there? These are more than academic questions. I’ve so created Ila, beautiful doomed heroine who gives my family history some cachet, that I have forgotten she was a real woman. I didn’t even see a picture of her until I was in my twenties. More disturbing still, I didn’t notice the haunted look in her eyes until a good friend pointed it out. All I noticed was the thin, gorgeous rightness of her pencil skirt, high-heeled pumps, and dark lipstick. All I noticed was the beautiful woman with the long, tapered fingers who I never got to know because of some “accident.”

But it wasn’t an accident and that begs the following questions: Why did she do it, and what effect can it possibly have on me over forty years later, when I didn’t even know her?

Which just goes to show you that cleaning out your bureau can be dangerous business. So, I gently tuck the gloves back in the drawer and go back to sorting bras, knowing the questions will be there the next time, my resolutions to keep my lingerie drawer neat as much a sham as the beautiful Ila of the green, blue, pink, and white gloves. 

Heading for the Rocks

I’ve been struggling a great deal with the current WIP. The first draft is almost complete, and written in record time, but I feel completely disengaged from the protagonist. This has never happened to me before. Usually, my characters are very clear, very real individuals in my head, almost as if they’re people I know. Naming their favorite food, color, music, etc., is a no-brainer. With this project, though, I’m at a loss. The MC just won’t spring to life for me, and if I’m not finding her interesting, how in the hell can I expect a reader to? This is also the first time, however, that one of my story ideas hasn’t started with character, and I’m beginning to suspect that may have something to do with it.

Of course, while I’m forcing myself to stay interested long enough to get the first draft done, three other half-finished writing projects are calling to me, their siren songs trying to lure me away. This story, they whisper-sing. This is the story you were meant to write. Those other silly books don’t mean anything – only this one… And as we all know, there’s nothing more perfect, beautifully crafted, and gorgeously written as the project you’re not currently working on.

Incite a Riot!

For many years, I’ve been a seat-of-my-pants kind of fiction writer. Heck, I’ve even bragged about it, at times. You know the type of thing: “Oh, I prefer to be organic and let the muse speak to me. I couldn’t possibly be tied down to something as rigid and prosaic as an outline.”

Then I asked myself  “How’s that workin’ out for you?”
And the answer?
Let’s just say there might have been some tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth, and maybe even a little fetal position crying. Not well, in other words.

But, as my beloved Nina would say, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And that means smartening up and having a plan. At least a little one. In my research into this new endeavor (before I got too far along on the current project), I found a most excellent tic-tac-toe plotting method, which C.J. Omolulu beautifully explains in her blog. With zeal, excitement, and determination, I sat down to make said grid, only to get stuck immediately. Because Box # 1 – the “inciting incident” – made me realize I didn’t have a clue what that was. At first, it seemed perfectly straightforward. I promise you – it’s not. I trawled the Internet for several hours, only to discover hundreds of other people equally as clueless as I. While movie/play examples abound, none of them were really applicable, and in some cases, the definitions/examples/etc. were flat-out wrong.

Then I discovered Les Edgerton’s blog post on inciting incidents. Hallelujah! I have seen the light! The man is a genius, for not only defining the inciting incident very clearly (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her), but also for so thoughfully analyzing others’ writing, and using an example that made beautiful, wonderful, writerly sense. Check it out. I bet you’ll be surprised. Or is it just me? Please share!

The Mystery of Great Writing

I had a heated discussion with Sassy Man last night about this sentiment of Hemingway’s. Hyper-logical creature that he is, Sassy Man thinks great writing is like a computer – you can break it all down into its parts to see how it really works.

I emphatically disagree. With any of the creative arts – whether it be painting, dancing, or writing – I think those works that soar above while at the same time reaching something deep within are un-dissectable. It’s a case of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, what they call “dancing between the steps” on SYTYCD. You can take a passage from a book, or even the whole work itself, and analyze everything about it down to word choice and sentence construction, and still not come up with why it moves you so. I’m torn on whether or not you should even try, although the best stuff does seem to be impervious to our chipping away at it. And isn’t that what Hemingway was saying to begin with?

Given the ridiculous number of writing books I have (future blog topic!), it might seem I’m being hypocritical here. I’m not. In always striving to improve technique, you are merely adding tools to your kit, so that when you do have that magic moment – that in-the-zone, this-is-it, I’ve-reached-new-heights breakthrough – you’re not waylaid by a missing screwdriver, as it were. But that magic moment is about so much more than the nuts and bolts and screwdrivers. After all, you can give the same exact toolbox and wood and pattern to ten different carpenters, but only one might make a chair worthy of Chippendale.

"I like adverbs," she said adamantly.

I really do. Like adverbs, I mean. While I understand how overusing them can make for sloppy writing, I just don’t get the iron-clad rule against them. What really pisses me off is how I automatically purge them from my writing at this point. I want to go back to the time before I heard this rule and absorbed it – to a time when I used adverbs freely and unselfconsciously, if not wantonly.

To me, the ban against adverbs is more representative of literary fashion than literary sense. One of my favorite games is to imagine what people would make of some of the “classics” if they were submitted today. (Remember Chuck Ross’s Steps experiment, wherein he disguised and sent off Jerzy Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning story, only to have it rejected by every publisher and agent he sent it to? Even better is his more recent Casablanca experiment, in which a number of agents said some variation of “too much dialogue”. Really?) Aside from the fact that language changes, so do writing styles, which makes a certain sort of sense if literature is to continue reflecting society. (And sometimes that’s a good thing. Nowadays, anyone trying to write eye dialect as thick as Mark Twain’s would be run out of the literary establishment on a rail, and so it should be for crimes against readability alone.)

But why the current animosity towards adverbs? I, for one, like them, and always have. Which is why the flap over J.K.’s adverb-laden writing struck me as a bit silly. Sure, the plentiful adverbial dialogue tags did distract me sometimes, but I think that’s partly because the writing-no-no police have done their job so well and taught me to look for and despise them. At the same time, though, I felt a certain fondness for the adverb-happy writing in Harry Potter; it hearkened back to many of my childhood favorites, like A Little Princess or Anne of Green Gables, before any anti-adverb sentiment demanded everyone write like Elmore Leonard. In these beloved stories, people “peer timidly” (that couldn’t be anybody but Becky, now, could it?), “drive placidly” (who else but dear, sweet Matthew?), or “say briskly” (gotta be Marilla), not only providing a sort of shorthand for the characters, but also enriching the reading child’s vocabulary at the same time. As a wee one, I read these stories over and over for the thrill of the tale, but all the while, wasn’t I was absorbing the rich vagaries of the English language, not to mention the many, many ways there are to express yourself? So why shouldn’t a writer tell me someone is saying “I hate you” fondly? Or “I love you” coldly? Why can’t a character dance madly, sing softly, or drive erratically if that’s indeed what they’re doing? At least that’s what yours truly says, and please note: she’s saying it vehemently.