Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Dear Winter,

Excuse me, but there’s no nice way to put this. Darling, you’ve outstayed your welcome. At first you were exciting—even mysterious—with your mountainous snowbanks reaching for the steely sky. You were delightfully dangerous, the way you menaced unsuspecting pedestrians with your sharpened icicles. And your bitter winds brought my wandering heart back to the laptop and the coffee. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciated you. Truly, I promise; I loved the glint of falling flakes like diamond dust in the air, loved the darker days when the world pressed in close to my window as I hammered away at my novel, loved the chill that nipped at my nose. You had so much to offer, so much doom and gloom to mingle with the Christmas lights and the feasting and the cottony nostalgia.

But then you had to ruin everything. As the old adage goes:  “After three days, fish and friends stink.” Well, I gave you a LOT longer than three days. A foot of snow falling overnight seemed rather a charming idea—the first few times. But when the piles at the end of the driveway began to surpass me in height, I knew you had gone too far. And your icicles lost much of their charm when they started tumbling down at the worst possible moments, banging and shaking the house like we were under attack. So distracting. Then the short days got depressing and claustrophobic, and everything began to drag. You took life, put it in slow motion, and misplaced the controls. If I were you, I would start looking before people attack you with pitchforks—the good old-fashioned way.

Seriously though, it’s spring. In other words, time for you to LEAVE. I should be able to see broad swathes of grass by now, maybe even the first few flowers. Frankly, I ought to be able to plant my garden soon (says the woman with the black thumb—don’t ever take botanical advice from me). Winter, you’re cramping my style.

When this is all over, I’m probably going to need counseling just to deal with all the emotional scarring—like that traumatic vacation week I had to shovel every day (at least, that’s how it felt). Not cool. Every time I see hot cocoa or mittens or plow trucks, I get this irrational urge to walk outside—barefoot—with short-sleeves and shorts. And I might just punch the next person who sings the FROZEN theme song (which will probably end up being me).

If I haven’t made myself sufficiently clear (since you can’t seem to take a hint), let me put it plainly. I’m breaking up with you. All those short days we spent together—well, they’re over. I have a thing for spring (and poetry too). I’m thinking green, sunshiny thoughts. I’m yearning for blue skies and warmth and pollen (not the allergies though). All those gifts you couldn’t give me, no matter how hard you tried, and I don’t fault you for that. But enough is enough—can’t you tell when no one wants you around?

As I said, you were fun…for a time. Then I started needing a change of scenery. Hate to say it, but that’s life. Don’t take it personally though, since I’ll eventually tire of spring (what am I even saying?), and I’ll get bored with summer and autumn in turn. Come December 2016, I’ll be wishing you back again. Thing is, I can’t look forward to your return if you NEVER LEAVE.

From this moment on, I’m just going to ignore you. I’ll stop obsessively checking the window like a crazy person to see if the snow is gone yet (not that I do that, or anything). I’ll grab my favorite books, spread a quilt out on the lawn, and recline with a glass of lemonade in hand. As my fingers stiffen with frostbite and my body temperature plunges to dangerous levels, I’ll console myself with the notion that my demise will be your fault. (Who am I kidding? I would never be that puerile.) I’ll listen to birdsong on my iPod and paint tropical scenes on every wall in the house.

Sooner or later, you’ll just have to take the hint.

Elizabeth Joy Brooks

P.S. Check the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe someone wants you there.

Dear Spring,

I realize this might not be the best way to start our relationship, since we’re just getting to know each other again and all. But this is insane—you are obscenely late. And I can’t frolic in dandelion-filled meadows until you come.

All best,
Elizabeth Joy Brooks


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Which I Write Book Reviews

“Faber sniffed the book. ‘Do you know that books smell like nutmeg
or some spice from a foreign land?’”
–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

While I enjoy reading, I appreciate most stories only on an external level. If someone asks me how a book was, my typical response is usually, “It was interesting”, which wouldn’t be untrue. Even when I dislike a novel, I find intriguing aspects in the plot because every author has a different perspective. And I like that. But there are far fewer books I would actually claim to love, books I would read over and over, books I would take with me into exile.

The following three are examples of my select, but by no means tiny, list of top titles. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but be forewarned—some people have a more sensitive definition of spoilers than others. And I can’t be the best judge of that since I’m the type of person who often reads the ending ahead. (Don’t judge.)

Several years ago when I initially began researching literary agents, mostly for the fun of it, I stumbled across Stefan Bachmann. At that time, The Peculiar wasn’t out yet, but I read the write-up and felt it didn’t really tickle my fancy. Still, I checked out his blog, thinking I might unearth some secret author code revealing whether he was satisfied with his agent or not. Right away I found his voice engaging and amusing. And you know when you follow someone’s blog and you start feeling like you’re best buds with them, even though you’ve never met them in person and you rarely comment on their posts? Then you start buying their books because you want to support this friend who wouldn’t even know you from a hole in the wall? So yeah, that might have happened with The Peculiar.

One of the cool bits about Bachmann is that he was around eighteen when his first novel came out. But that also meant I wasn’t too confident he’d be any good. Even more experienced authors than he frequently fail to pass the Liz Test (a very prestigious, nonexistent set of rules governing beautiful prose). In fact, I’m so persnickety about writing style, I sometimes find fault with Ray Bradbury (GASP!). Usually I don’t live up to my own standards, so that gives you an idea of what they’re like. But for the most part, Bachmann’s work pleased my rigid inner editor. Yay Stefan!

Since you can find a summary on Goodreads (just click the header over the photo), I won’t bore you with my own rendition of THE PECULIAR’s plot. But I will tell you what the summary doesn’t say, that while Bartholomew is not hugely likeable (he is somewhat irritable, somewhat selfish, and somewhat irresponsible), he is relatable and real. Though he is half faery, he is very human. And his rough edges are offset by the bumbling Mr. Jelliby, the most loveable character I’ve encountered in a long time. Not to mention, Bachmann proves himself a master of world building and tone. Even his prologue (and I’m not a fan of prologues) sets the perfect mood. On top of that, the novel is set in steampunk London—need I say more?

Another fact that I appreciated about Bachmann is that he only wrote one sequel to The Peculiar—namely, The Whatnot, which you should also read (you know, if you want). Isn’t two such a pretty number? Maybe I’m jaded, but I don’t really like trilogies because I feel that—more often than not—the first installment starts out strong, the second degenerates into a mush middle, and the third falls apart completely (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games). If I know a story is the first of three, I am much slower to invest time in reading it, even when I know the initial book is fabulous. (For instance, I generally pretend Inkheart doesn’t have any sequels.) So yeah, Bachmann is great.



While I’m a reasonably fast reader, I still prefer to take my sweet time on any given book. That way the story seeps into my everyday life and becomes a part of me. To balance this out, I generally have four to seventeen novels going at once. (When people ask me if this gets confusing, I ask them if it gets confusing to have more than one friend. That shuts them up.) But from the moment I started The Phantom of the Opera, I struggled to put it down just to do normal things like eating, and sleeping, and school. I even stayed up late flipping pages as quickly as I could, and I’m religious about getting to bed early. This level of absorption rarely occurs. When reviews tell me a novel will hold me hostage (or whatever terminology they like to use), I smile and snicker and prove them wrong. (I’ve been working at The Inheritance Cycle for years now, and I only picked up the pace a while ago because my sister threatened me.)

All through Gaston Leroux’s masterpiece, I suffered with the Phantom; I sympathized with him. (Of course, it helped that I had already fallen in love with the soundtrack.) Though Erik’s voice is far superior to any other’s, he can never be allowed on stage. Hideously marred (he has some sort of genetic leprosy, if I recall correctly), he hides beneath the Paris Opera House, bitter and lonely, shunned by a society that prizes outward loveliness above all else. Meanwhile he wreaks havoc, terrorizing those he deems responsible for his pain—hence the legend of the Opera Ghost. But when he teaches young Christine Daae to sing, the poor man falls jealously in love with her. From that moment, the story soars with rage and selfishness and beauty and sorrow and a dozen other emotions. Think deep and wide and epic. In my limited opinion, no novel puts other romances and tragedies to shame like The Phantom of the Opera.


The Peculiar, The Whatnot, and The Phantom of the Opera are by no means my only favorites—I have a couple dozen or so more—but I could go on for hours, and you probably have stuff you want to do. Before you return to your normal life, though, I’d love to know some of your top picks. (Also, thanks for dropping by!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crazy Hamster Wheel

If you’re a writer like me, chances are you suffer at least a bazillion mood swings a day. Constructing a novel is hard, editing is hard, and querying agents is even harder. This does not lend itself to an emotionally stable situation, and often I feel as though I’m fighting a constant battle against arrogance on the one hand and despair on the other. Some days I think I’m the greatest novelist ever; some days I believe I’m the worst. Let me show you how this plays out.


Drafting:  From the first page to the last, I flee the rabid monsters of blinking cursers, crowded schedules, and impending doom. During this time, I often wander around feeling like a toddler flinging paint at the wall and calling it art. Eventually, I tell myself, I should probably just grow up and get a normal job like bull fighting or yak farming. Of course, I have my moments where the words sing and the characters dance and I’m convinced I’ve landed a masterpiece. Those wonderful occurrences last about as long as a caffeine rush. (Note to self:  Is coffee a performance-enhancing drug?) At this point in the game, I am usually not anywhere near my high horse. But just you wait and see.


Edits—Round One:  Unlike other people, I don’t enjoy reading my unpolished work. I remember the vision I had for my story and the warm fuzzy feelings that cropped up along the way, but somehow none of those actually seem to have made it onto the page. Nothing of the genius survived the transition from fingers to screen—nothing of the wit remains. After all that hard labor, all those long nights writing by the light of the moon—exactly what have I accomplished? And as I stare at that ginormous, ignominious pile of goop, I toy with my chainsaw, wondering if there might not be a huge distinction between deleting my entire manuscript and saving the world.

By the time I get my act together and dive into that icky vat of words, I’m starting to feel more confident. After all, there isn’t any rush. Since I have no actual deadlines—aside from the ones I set myself—I can take all the time I need to tighten my writing as much as I like without fearing THE END OF THE UNIVERSE. Anyway, editing is where the party’s at. And I’ve reserved a date with the backspace key. Just imagine all the lines we’ll tear apart and the scenes we’ll erase. Oh, won’t it be magical?

Once I’ve finished this first round of edits, I send my manuscript out to my beta readers, heart thumping in anticipation, head spinning with the intoxication of success. I anxiously await replies, imagining the adoring phone calls and emails I’ll be answering all week. Within a few hours, even, they’ll have breezed through my novel, and they’ll beg to buy me Lamborghinis and European mansions. Folk will hang off my every word, and soon agents and publishers will telepathically learn of my skills. The talented genius who only needs to edit once. I can see the headlines already.


Edits—Round Two:  Within about a month, I receive the feedback, and of course I do a double take. Can it be? Can it really be? There are marks all over my handiwork, lines of red and blue—disagreements and confusion and SUGGESTIONS. I shiver, bite my lip. AM I GOING MAD? This is probably the worst part, the crushing of my stupid little dreams, the shame that comes with recognizing my naiveté. Obviously, I am a failure. Isn’t it plain I can’t write? I’ll never succeed since I can’t even recognize the clear problems everyone else notices immediately.

After the initial despair subsides, and after the coffee and the chocolate have had ample chance to become reacquainted in my stomach, I roll up my sleeves and dig in once more. Here’s where it gets both trickier and easier. I’ve already done most of the heavy lifting. Now, depending on the notes, my major concerns include fixing awkward wording, fiddling with character arcs, correcting inconsistencies, rewriting passages, adding scenes, and clarifying ambiguities. This draft is harder because I’ve already tightened the writing and started viewing the story as fixed. I balk at drastic changes, cringe at frightening flaws. The clay I am working with is beginning to dry, and now more than ever I’m racing against time. Every alteration I make, every idea I consider—I second guess them all a dozen times daily. I talk to myself and to my rat and to the wall. I procrastinate and play chess (I HATE chess) and draw pictures. Sometimes I cry. But as taxing as this part is, I find I love the challenge, the exhilaration of conquering and persevering.

Soon my bravado returns, and it brings friends. At this point, I start comparing myself with other, published writers. When I read, I edit their novels and laugh at their mistakes, snickering that I would never be so amateur as all that. They’ll be shining my shoes someday when I’m rich and famous. Bristling—glowing—with misplaced pride, I send my darling back to my beta readers, some new, some old. And I wait, certain that this time, they will find no fault. Meanwhile, I confidently reread swaths of my novel, basking in my success until HORROR OF HORRORS, I find a repeated word, an awkward sentence, a misplaced detail. I begin making plans to move to Morocco. Or Lithuania. Or New Zealand. I frantically fill out applications for jobs in sewer maintenance and snake wrangling.


Edits—Final Round:  After receiving feedback, freaking out, and plunging once more into the trenches of my novel, I find my confidence returning, slowly but surely. I tweak sentences, tighten dialogue, find snafus everyone missed. I burn a hole in my thesaurus when my brain explodes. Then I let the manuscript sit for several months while I pretend to be a normal person with normal hobbies like eating, and walking, and socializing. Eventually I realize this will not do, and I read my novel again, shrieking at all the nitpicky grammar problems that just leap off the page. At some point I consider kidnapping a published author and bribing them to fix my book. Instead I hunker down and get to work.


Home stretch:  Finally I’m ready to query literary agents. Tense and sweating, I hover over the laptop, staring at the cover letter I spent weeks perfecting, and I give a startled laugh at my blatant audacity. What on earth do I think I’m doing?

This feeling lasts about as long as it takes to click send, and then my old cocky self resurfaces, cackling all the way. In a few days, I think, I’ll have more offers of representation than there are hours in a month, and I’ll be chatting with agents all week trying to decide which lucky one to choose. In the end, I may have to use the dartboard method. Within the year, my book will be on shelves. I’ll make millions, of course—probably billions. Step aside, JK Rowling—you’re blocking my spotlight.

Then comes the onslaught of rejection letters (some personalized, others form) and the deadening silence. Reality sinks its teeth into my soul, and I whimper. What’s wrong with Little Miss Agent? How does she not recognize my genius? Even that one bright spot, that sterling moment when I unsuspectingly open my inbox and find a request for the full manuscript—even that tarnishes over the months of waiting and wondering.

In an effort to preserve my questionable sanity, I break ground on my next book. And so the cycle begins anew, this vicious yo-yo of Writerdom. This crazy hamster wheel.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Imaginary Love

“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,
it’s that I’m lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
–Charlotte Bronte

In my Valentine’s post, I referenced my aversion to Romance. For the longest time, I haven’t entirely understood this, since everyone around me seems to like the sappy love stories I actively avoid. Ever since I shared my short work with you, I’ve spent some time considering what it is that steers me away from normal human fodder. (My first guess was that I’m an alien, but I haven’t found enough evidence to prove that…yet.) At last I’ve come to something of a conclusion. In order to really explain this to you, though, I need to interview a very special person.

I’d like you to meet my imaginary fiancé, Edward Townsend. Edward brings many excellent qualifications to the table, including a Ph.D. in Romance from the University of Tough Love in Antarctica. Today we’re going to discuss some common misconceptions about this popular topic. So let’s begin.


Ed, over the centuries, love has been perhaps the most central obsession of every culture, spanning back to the creation of the world. Now, I know you studied History as part of your extensive training. Can you give us an idea of any traditional misperceptions that might have been carried down to us?


Actually, I can, and I’m really glad you asked that question. Take Ancient Greek Mythology. Nowadays we find depictions of cutesy Cupids with pudgy cheeks and harmless weapons. What some people might not realize is that this is very untrue to the original legend. For starters, Cupid himself is neither sweet, innocent, nor charming. In fact, he is spoiled, selfish, and mischievous. Though he is gifted with this incredible matchmaking power, he makes no qualms about misusing it. When his mother, Hera, nurses a grudge against Jason—our hero of the Golden Fleece—she coerces her son into shooting a woman named Medeia with his love dart because she knows this will lead to Jason’s downfall. Cupid, by no means too young to understand the ramifications of his actions, willingly complies—in exchange for a toy.


Can you tell us a bit more?


Since you have a space limit, I’ll stick to a summary. After Cupid shoots Medeia, she betrays her father and her kingdom, flees with Jason—leaving death and devastation in her wake—and eventually goes mad. When Jason tires of her—some would say he catches her insanity himself—and remarries, Medeia kills his new wife as well as her own two sons.


In your opinion, what might this myth have meant to the Greeks?


It seems pretty clear they were trying to make a point here. Human love is by its nature imperfect. It is jealous, selfish, cruel, unbalanced…the list goes on. That’s not to say we are incapable of stable, wonderful relationships. But those take work, and no romance is perfect. I think the Greeks understood how dangerous love is, that it blinds and annihilates and consumes. It’s akin to riding a wild horse—you may be in control, but the moment your attention strays, you’re likely to get thrown.


Now that we’ve had our History lesson for the day, is there anything you’d like to share from your extensive reading? I know you’re into Shakespeare. You could probably dig up loads of material from his writings.


I can indeed. Shakespeare dealt very heavily with relationships and human interaction. I could give you dozens of examples, but I think the most popular would be Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll tackle that. If any of you aren’t familiar with this work, be forewarned—I plan to discuss the ending. But before I get to that, I’d like to touch on a tangent really quickly, if that’s all right with Liz.


It is.


Thank you. In brief, perhaps the most commonly misunderstood line in the play is Juliet’s famous question, “Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” For those of you who aren’t well-versed in Shakespearean-era language, it would seem she’s asking Romeo where he is. But that’s not actually what she’s saying. The better translation is, “Why are you Romeo?” Romeo is a Montague, Juliet a Capulet. Both their families are locked in a bitter blood feud, and both individuals understand what they risk every day in giving their hearts to each other. While their love is beautiful in its devotion, it is also destructive and reckless.


Which leads to your discussion of the ending. And I think I know what you’re going to say.


*Chuckles* Liz has listened to me rant about this so often; she’s probably tired of it by now. What bothers me most about the conclusion is not that it’s tragic, but that it’s meaningless and entirely avoidable. When Romeo believes Juliet is dead, he is justifiably distraught. But I speak from personal experience when I say that the death of a loved one does not entail the end of all things. While it may seem romantic for Romeo to kill himself and so join Juliet in her grave, just like hugging a cactus may seem like a great way to embrace nature, the consequences are not as beautiful as the concept. And while that’s a silly comparison, it warrants consideration. Had Romeo not surrendered to despair, the two could still have had their happy ending. After reading this play, I know that I have not witnessed true love. If the two genuinely care about each other, and by extension their individual well-being, they would be horrified by this double death.


Can you pin-point some ways our modern culture reflects a similar misunderstanding of love?


Oh, absolutely. One of our greatest strengths is that we learn and absorb through story, but that is also one of our greatest weakness because we can inadvertently swallow the wrong messages and mistake fiction for reality. Usually when we watch a movie or read a book, we can differentiate pretty well. We recognize where the stuntman uses wires or the writer employs poetic license. But the line gets blurry when it comes to romance. Because our culture is inundated with portrayals of happy, flawless couples, we can begin to assume a relationship will fix our loneliness. After all, the happy ending comes when the guy gets the girl. So we put this into practice and then wonder why we still feel empty and irritable and human. Disillusioned by this failure, we break up and move onto the next woman or the next man, wondering why it never seems to work out. It’s not that I’m against love. On the contrary. But I’m against improper representations. In its truest form, love involves pain and sacrifice and choice (as seen in Jesus’death and resurrection), and I think we don’t see that often enough in our entertainment to understand what it’s like in real life.


Well thank you for joining us today, Edward. As imaginary fiancés go, I’d say you’re the best.