Influences: Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper has been one of my favorite writers for oh, close to twenty years now, so I was delighted yesterday when looking over the list of ALA winners this year to see that she has been awarded the 2012 Edwards Award for The Dark Is Rising series. (Former winners include Gary Paulsen, Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Lowry, Orson Scott Card, and last year, Terry Pratchett.)

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when one of my older friends recommended Cooper to me, but I know I was young enough that Dad read through the books first, just to make sure there wasn’t going to be anything in them that would give me nightmares, and also so that he could talk with me about anything that might scare me in them (and why it was Dad who did that with these books, instead of Mom, I’m not exactly sure, because usually Mom was the one who did nightmare-screening for me – but it might have been when she was working, and didn’t have as much time, or it might simply have been that Dad thought they looked interesting). Dad liked the first one so much he read the rest of the series for his own enjoyment, not because he was worried for me. I think it’s the first series (but certainly not the last) that Dad and I both loved, instead of Mom and I. We also both loved the Arthurian connection – we’re kinda both geeks when it comes to King Arthur!

The curious thing, for a nightmare-prone kid like me, is that even though they were eerie and intense, they weren’t outright scary. I was certainly creeped out a few times during the reading of them (I think Greenwitch was the creepiest, for me), but not enough to trouble my dreams. I think because good, no matter how beleaguered or desperate, always triumphed in the end, even (and often especially) through the frailty and love of flawed human beings.

And Will. Short, stocky, serious Will, with the enormous loving family and the heavy burden he shouldered so ably. His friendships with Merriman, with Bran, with the Drew children, and within his own family all so different, and drawn so finely.

Merriman himself was my first introduction to a character who was both good and hard, who could be ruthless in his pursuit of the Light. The Light that burns, sometimes, that doesn’t have room for softness – now, of course, that idea is commonplace, but at the time, I’d never read anything that showed that goodness doesn’t always look good and can, in fact, sometimes look cruel, that looking at the big picture can sometimes mean the details get blurred.

Cooper is another of those writers whose books shaped not just my own writing, but my life. I really can’t think of what sort of a writer I would be today were it not for the richness and depth of her stories. She has written many books besides The Dark is Rising series, of course (I bought Victory! for my dad for his birthday a few years ago – another one that we both loved), and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them, but tDiR has a special place in my heart.

Not to mention, of course, that I hold her and Lloyd Alexander between them directly responsible for my love affair with Wales, that land of magic and mystery and heroism. Which makes me think – maybe this is the year for me to pull out my Welsh language materials that I’ve had for an embarrassingly long time and get to work teaching myself the language. Maybe I should teach it to Joy and Grace at the same time, we three can learn together!

Or not.

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Thrills

I follow USBSF (United States Bobsled & Skeleton Federation) on Twitter. For a few years when I was a teenager, my dad and I spent almost every winter’s weekend volunteering at various sporting events – mostly sliding (bobsled, luge, skeleton) in Lake Placid. I learned to love the sports then, especially skeleton. My favorite event was the one where I had the job of cleaning the sliders’ shoes before they went down the track – any debris attached to their spikes could interfere with their starting run, and slow them down or even throw them off. I was so nervous at first that I wasn’t going to do it properly, but I soon got the hang of it, and LOVED it – being there at the start with them, feeling all professional, like I was really an important part of things!

(Usually I got stuck with parking lot duty. Important, but boring.)

I even got to clean Jimmy Shea’s shoes that competition – now that’s not something everyone can say!

As you know, I’m a figure skater. But there is something thrilling about the sliding sports. One of my dreams is to someday go down a track on a skeleton sled. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – I’ve heard the whoosh of the runners biting into the ice – I’ve felt the excitement build at the start of the track as the sliders prepare themselves and then take off – I’ve been at the bottom when they come in, still buzzed from the adrenaline rush. And yes, I’ve seen enough crashes to know how dangerous it can be. I don’t really care. I still want to try someday, just once.

I remembered that again today when USBSF mentioned about the sleds sounding like bullets going down the track in St Moritz. I replied to them, saying I wanted to experience that someday. They said? Absolutely must try sometime!

I don’t look like your typical thrill-seeker, and there’s a lot of things I won’t try – I’m not even a big fan of roller coasters. But I don’t know, something about skeleton, it just makes me want to throw off my inhibitions and toss caution to the wind.

(I also want to do this someday, but both my father and husband panic every time I mention it –

photo courtesy of callaurbanski.com
so I don’t talk about it much anymore.)
Do you have anything on your bucket list that seems out-of-character to people who know you? What do you think it says about us as people, our desire to seek thrills? If I ever do get that chance to ride a skeleton sled, who’s coming with me? It’ll be AWESOME!

Betraying Your Characters

I don’t usually write book reviews, but occasionally, on Goodreads, I’ll leave a review if I really have something that I think is worth saying. Something positive, that is. A lifetime of having “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” ingrained into me prevents me from leaving negative reviews. If I don’t like a book, I usually just don’t talk about it.

Until the last book I reviewed. I gave it one star, and I left a heartfelt, decidedly un-positive review. Why? What made me feel so strongly about this particular book that I had to say something?

Some people who reviewed it said that the author betrayed her readers, but it wasn’t that that left me with such a sour taste in my mouth.

The author betrayed her characters.

This was the third book in a trilogy. She had spent the first two books building up her characters in a certain way, and then, in this final book, she completely ripped them out of their old selves – the ones she still included. Some characters who had been built up in such a way as to expect them to play a major role in this book just faded from the pages. Certain relationships that had been teased at – well, I was going to say that they fizzled, but in fact, they weren’t even there. And the characters that did carry over?

They were not themselves.

Not the main character, and not the secondary characters.

And the story? It was flat. I can only imagine because the author had to fight with her characters every step of the way, forcing them to conform to her vision instead of letting them be themselves, and their revenge was to make the story boring.

To me, as a writer, this is one of the worst things you can do – force your characters to act, well, out-of-character. It is a betrayal of them, and ends up being a betrayal of yourself as well, because, of course, the characters have sprung from you.

I make no secret of the fact that all of my stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. To me, it is the characters that make the plot – people interacting with each other and with events. So perhaps I make a bigger deal of this than it really is. An improbable plot? I can shrug off with a laugh. Wrenching your characters out of themselves and turning them into puppets?

Outrage. Outrage to the point where I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything new from this author again, even though I’ve enjoyed almost all of her other books. If her own characters can’t trust her, how can I?

And so I had to vent, even to the point of leaving a negative review (sorry Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and all my aunts and uncles – sometimes you just gotta say something not-nice). (Although you will notice I didn’t link to the review – you can find it if you look, but I’m not going to make it too easy. I still have some principles!)

What are the writing crimes you cannot forgive in yourself or any other author?

Dream-Maker

After the fun of my sci-fi mash-up dream, and urged on by rockinlibrarian (also aided and abetted by rthstewart, who nearly made me snort tea all over my computer with her take on the animosity between Lando Calrissian and Mal Reynolds (I am so going to think “Not right, man wearin’ a cape” the next time I watch Empire Strike Back, rth!)), I decided I had to start writing it down as a story. Not one for publication, or even for putting up on ff.net due to my blatant self-insert (but she’s not a Mary-Sue! She is not perfect and nobody is in love with her except her off-screen husband, but she and Mal do have great fun with harmless flirting by passing insults at each other), but just a way to get some of this marvelous creativity my subconscious was providing me with down on paper.

I’m about ten thousand words in, and it’s getting crazier and more peppered with cameos from other sci fi/fantasy stories with each paragraph. Mara Jade has insisted on popping in (for more than just a brief cameo, thankyouverymuch, what do you take her for?), and it’s becoming very clear to me that the Doctor would never consent to being left out of a madcap adventure like this, so it is clearly my duty to get caught up on that show, since I still haven’t made it all the way through the Ninth Doctor (though even the few episodes that I have seen have left me with a tendency to say “Fantastic!” just like Christopher Eccleston).

But aside from the sheer fun of this, and the marvelous outlet it has become for releasing any stress in my life, the other nice thing about this story (simply titled “fun” in my computer documents) is that is stirring up my creativity for my other writings, as well. Did you know I hadn’t written one word of fiction since before Christmas, up until I started this nonsense project? Not. One. Word. (Speaking of things that ain’t right.)

And then yesterday, I actually opened up my current MG WIP and skimmed it over, thinking how ready I am to get back to writing more about Cadi &co. And then I started thinking about Maia and Len (my older YA 1920s adventure-fantasy) and realized the first draft had finally settled enough that I was ready to tackle putting it into decent shape for the second draft.

Today I have to take care of some basic household chores (Carl’s been helping out a lot – blessed man keeps washing dishes for me, which is marvelous, darling, thank you – but breadmaking and laundry are still two tasks that will always be delegated to me), but I’m hoping to spend some time this afternoon or evening in “real” writing, writing I might actually be able to show to the world someday.

And I will not be abandoning my “fun” story, either – I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one tale that will stretch out for many years, to be added to whenever it strikes my fancy or I am getting bored, and never quite coming to an end.

What do you do to get your creative juices flowing again? What are some science fiction or fantasy characters you would add to a crazy story like mine?

To Sleep, Perchance …

I haven’t been doing anything terribly interesting this week, writing-wise or life-wise. However, apparently my subconscious is doing its best to make up for my dull life by WILD dreams.

The first night wasn’t so great – it was actually more of a nightmare. Trapped on an abandoned cruise ship with a serial killer, me against him, (apparently I was a detective) me trying to catch him but feeling uneasily certain he was toying with me. Thankfully I woke up before the final confrontation. The overall tone of that dream was dark and creepy, even more than the events in it. Took several cups of tea that morning before I felt normal again!

The dream returned in a lighter fashion the next few nights – the cruise ship wasn’t deserted, and it had more of a Peter Wimsey feel – still serious, but not creepy, and this time, I always had the upper hand over the killer. One night it wasn’t even a murderer I was after, but a jewel thief.

Then last night – oh, I have no idea where this one came from, but I do most earnestly hope it returns, because FUN – my dream was a veritable sci-fi television mashup.

Started out in a green clearing, trees all around. All kinds of characters from sci-fi tv were waiting for their assignments from a platform at one end of the clearing (and no, I don’t remember any of them clearly). I ended up being sent on a quest with Chakotay (from Star Trek: Voyager) and Mal (Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly). Now, I was myself – Louise – and had no idea why I was tagging along, but dudes, I was not complaining. Both Mal and Chakotay (naturally) wanted to be in charge, but since we’d only been given a direction to go in, no actual specifics as to what our quest was (bad planning, Management), there weren’t too many problems at first.

Then we ran into a friend I know in real life, except something was weird about her, and then, as we were chatting, she told me that she’d downloaded her consciousness into an android’s body because she’d been afraid of getting fat, and droids’ bodies never change. And then she ended up coming along with us because she had nothing better to do.

Things got hazy after that (I think I was starting to move toward waking up) … I remember a fight between Mal and Chakotay, and then a fight between Mal and my android friend (Mal, apparently, had a lot of anger issues to work out – though the droid friend started the second fight, and would have won it except I tried to pull them apart and accidentally dropped her off the cliff, but we figured she survived because, hey, droid bodies are remarkably resilient), and then just as we were getting close to figuring out what the point was of the quest, what we were after to begin with …

thump thump thump little feet coming up to the bed, “I have to go potty” little voice whispered, and even though Carl got up and I was able to get back to sort-of sleep, the dream was gone.

I most sincerely hope it returns tonight – I want to figure out this quest now (and also, would like to know if I was sent for more than just taking notes and pushing droids off cliffs).

What sort of fun dreams have you been having lately?

Note: I have not watched any sci-fi shows in the last several weeks, and the only sci-fi book I’ve read has been A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which is more science fantasy than science fiction, nor have I been reading/watching anything related to mysterious happenings aboard a cruise ship, so I really, really have no idea where these dreams are coming from. But they are, with the exception of that first nightmare, immensely amusing to me.