Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I Read vs What I Write: Michelle's Take

What Do I Read Versus What Do I Write?

Not the most finely crafted writing prompt *glances at prompt skeptically* but it suits our needs. Knowing me, I may not even answer it. I’m certain I won’t answer it directly. But in this early getting-to-know-you phase of Inside the Pod, we peas thought it would be helpful to give our imaginary readers a glimpse into who we are as writers and readers, what turns us on, and why we make the choices we do. After spending an afternoon together pitching blog topics to each other over bird sandwiches this seemed like the natural place to start. So it begins.

So what does M read versus what does M write?
Five years ago I would’ve given you a different answer. I was a college undergrad reading assigned Literature (yes, with a big L) and selecting titles off ten years of Booker Prize and National Book Award lists for my next bedtime read. My how things change.
The more demanding my course load became…(ie: that infamous semester I mistakenly took 20th Century American Novel, Shakespeare’s Tragedies, 19th Century British Novel, two upper level philosophy classes, and a writing workshop—all together totaling thirty-eight assigned books in one semester)…the more I wanted to read something “not hard” (I will qualify that in a moment). I didn’t read much outside class assignments during the semester, but when I did, I learned to love a $6.99 paperback romance or paranormal thriller from the spinny-rack at the bookstore (you know the ones serious Literature students and college professors rarely admit to colleagues they read? those). Those books were easy—like salve to my brain—evoking no impulse to write a fifteen-page reflection or map out how it might correlate to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in some obscure way.

A Few of My Favorite Reads. Photo Copyright M. Ladner
Also during those early university years, in the writing workshops, I was hell-bent on writing the book of my life—a book about growing up Asian American and how my existence seemed lost in translation. I wanted it to be The Joy Luck Club meets Kaftka’s Metamorphoses. Multiple drafts emerged where I fictionalized my mother in short fiction and novel starts, before starting a memoir project melding excerpts of my mother’s writing with essays of my perception of her; all very deep, heart on sleeve stuff (and I wanted desperately to write a meta-fictional postmodern mess).
With all those classes and all that weighty subject matter, I started reading “not hard” books—something not hard intellectually; something not hard emotionally. I found myself drawn to authors of popular fiction (or genre books), which were often fun, fast reads. Books for pleasure, yet books not so deep or thought provoking that I was emotionally and intellectually taxed. My professors assigned plenty of that kind of book (you know the ones where the authors find le mot juste and Lit professors discuss the eighty-two possible meanings and six philosophers’ writings that give a five line passage two hundred pages of subtext? those).
Part of me loved those—in class.
At home, I loathed them. I wanted fast, tight, page-turners. Stories I could lose myself in and not have to think about what the author might have meant or feel compelled to write a paper on it. “Not hard” books, you know the kind, the ones that suck you in and you read them in their entirety in one night because you read like a reader instead of a writer or critic. Like J.K. Rowling’s body of work—where you go to a store at midnight to buy the book on release day, read through the morning until you collapse on the last page, and then, have to reread it before the next book releases because you didn’t think about it, you just read.
That was why I started reading YA fantasy and romance.
I could read one YA Paranormal Romance (because, as a rule, they were shorter than the adult variety) on a Saturday afternoon and still have the evening with my husband, leaving Sunday to rough out my literature and philosophy papers for the week. I wanted more and more “not hard”—because I wanted to turn off my critical brain. Not that YA doesn’t engage that in a reader, but YA (of any variety) has an intrinsic ability to bring me back to my childhood. Not only because YA has a young identifiable protagonist and bildungsroman element that reminded me of a younger me. It was that long lost ability to read away my afternoon with no thought of responsibilities hanging overhead.
An interesting thing happened.
I set aside the book of my life.
I couldn’t even pinpoint the “aha” moment if you asked. It was such a natural progression for me as a writer. I wanted to write what I was reading. I saw something in those authors that I admired. The reader in me began to let go and the writer wanted to learn how it was done.

Manuscript Edits for My Current WIP. Photo Copyright M. Ladner
In the last year of my undergrad, I wrote an eighty-page literature thesis project whilst imagining my first YA paranormal romance.
Because I flew through these “not hard” books and loved that consumable quality in them—the writing student in me had to ask, why? What magic are these authors (YA authors, popular genre authors, commercial bestsellers) wielding on readers that I didn’t see? That I don’t possess? (And, incidentally, Dickens doesn’t possess—gods knows Nicholas Nickleby is not your average one sitting read, despite its “popular fiction” status in 1839).
Somewhere during those first two years of university courses, the flood of “not hard” escapist books, and the mentorship of Carolyn Haines, I learned to seek a well-told story versus a perfectly calculated turn of phrase. I could write a pretty sentence and even string a few together, making layers of subtext. But the magic of storytelling (the kind that sleep-deprives) eluded me. The power of a writer to keep someone awake reading five hundred pages while making them believe they can’t risk laying it down is immense. It changed the reader I am, and the writer I am.
These days, I read fantasy and romance YA novels for craft. I read slower, analyze them—ask myself why it works, map turning points and plot devices, and try to intuit why the author made the choices he or she made. But, I often still take a Saturday to read for entertainment.
Frankly, I read as a reader for the love of a well-told story. I read as a writer to learn all I can about the craft. Most people read for multiple reasons. Many read multiple genres. It’s the nature of reading—pleasure and information exchange. But ask me why I write what I write? I guess it’s because one day I hope to find an audience of readers like me—and, honestly, I want to keep them turning pages until morning.

Next Tuesday J answers Pea Prompt #1.
I anticipate at least one brief reference to apocalyptic zombies.

Peas out,

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Brief History and Explanation

(Well, as brief as we can make it...)

During the spring of 1907 2007, three mismatched misfits (university students who fancied themselves writers and reincarnates of a secret immortal ninja order) wandered into a graduate level writing workshop on a Wednesday at 6pm. They each selected one of a dozen coveted black rolling-chairs, sat, and stared blankly at each other from across the dull, dirty surface of a circa 1960 Formica conference table. Little did these ladies know – five years later – they would still be meeting every Wednesday, margaritas and cheese dip at hand, pushing each other to become better writers.
Needless to say, after that historic semester ended, relationships were forged. (And sacrifices were made...)
But it wasn’t as easy at that.
The misfits eventually graduated college, one by one. Lost to each other in the post workshop milieus, they tried to move on. One earned a book contract, one moved to Montana, and one wandered around the South, aimlessly, with no other purpose but to keep writing.
The absence of a formal writing course (if it could be called formal) gave way to lunch dates, emails, letters, and Internet chats. Lo and behold, the writing workshop didn’t cease. And even less interesting than that, communications between the three held a common theme: as writers how do we use each other to better our writing? (Note the aforementioned sacrifices...)
So, after a book release, a couple of moves in and out of Mississippi, and a lot of manuscript page origami, the three misfits found their way back to the same table together. In a mad twist of fate, they became members of the same critique group, once again work-shopping each others’ pages. Alas, these things never last. (Or do they?) After a lot of tough love, loads of ink-scribbled pages, and a few near suicidal moments ending in tears – the critique group dismantled in its initial incarnation. Three remained.
(Well, actually four remained. He recently moved. But the story works better this way. Sorry, G.)

The origin of the name "Ninja Peas"
Original t-shirt design "Unstealthiest Ninja" by DoOomcat
Sold by shirt.woot.com
Image modified by the Ninja Peas

So, three remained.
Thus was the birth of the Ninja Peas. (Cue ominous music...)
Three peas in a pod – three writers in a ferocious, unyielding partnership consumed with a desire to just keep writing. Each distinctly different in style and strength, yet, all three bound by perseverance and a love of storytelling (and bird sandwiches...but we’ll get to that part later).
Since that fateful spring day in 1907 2007 a lot has happened. One became a published author of two internationally distributed vampire books. (Ooooh... Aaaah...) One rewrote a YA adventure fantasy more than a half a dozen times while masquerading as a graphic designer (reincarnate secret immortal ninja powers come in handy). One discovered hard-boiled eggs explode in the microwave (again with the sacrifices...). But still each strives (with minimal hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth) to be the one who will produce the next published novel. All while up-keeping a weekly Blog – a Blog about being writers, readers, and members of a working critique group.

A writer’s path can be a lonely disheartening endeavor. The road is long and bramble-filled. The climb is steep(ish) and sometimes suffocating. But it is a path easier hacked through with trusted friends by your side. Peas are friends who have a common goal and who possess equal determination – a determination that puts their passion to write first. (Unless the zombie apocalypse arrives, in which case, Peas are the first to trip one another in an effort to save themselves. All is fair in Pea Love and zombie apocalypses...) But, mostly, Peas are the kinds of friends who challenge, inspire, and inform each other of when their bad grammar and clarity issues are showing – or when one of us has cheese dip on our chin...

That is what the Ninja Peas are – and this is a glimpse Inside the Pod.

J: Who are you people and why are you in my pod?

M: *snuggles J’s shoulder* It’s cozy in here, Sensei.

J: *pushes M* Get off me. You know I’m not a touchy-feely Pea. *yawns* I need coffee.

M: Where’s Tour Guide Barbie?

A: Wha? Oh hi! I was... busy...

M: *snickers* Right, because you actually have a … *makes air quotes* … Job.

A: No, no. *reveals bucket of hot pink paint from behind back*... busy painting my corner of the pod! *giggle*

J: Is that... OMG–It’s PINK!!!!!! *runs screaming to the far corner* Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Kill it! Restrain it! Medicate it! Stop it before it spreads! *uses M as a human shield* Make her stop...

M: It’s only one bucket. *pats J’s hand gingerly* We talked about this. Remember... letting everyone share in a piece of the pod.

A: Don’t worry! I’m done with the pink. Now I’m going to draw out my entire story, scene by scene, so everything matches up when I read it! *grabs pen* *hunches over pink section of floor* *begins drawing* *looks up* I’ll do yours next, M.

M: Um. Thanks? So... what’s the plan with this Pod Blog, gals?

J: *echoing voice* To fill the world with awesomeness beyond compare!

A: And bare our nerdiness to the entirety of its inhabitants! *wink*

M: So basically the plan is to randomly transmit awesomeness and nerdiness into the world? *pauses* *grins* Sweet.

J: Well, that and give a little insight into a working writers’ critique group.

A: And maybe take a page from our book (not literally -- that’s plagiarism) and remember not to take themselves too seriously.

J: Not every group is like ours but what we have works. Maybe others can find some inspiration from our nerdy awesomeness.

M: *chuckles* I think J has a soft spot for us, A. Underneath that dark outer shell lies a squishy sweet filling. *grins*

J: Don’t push your luck...

A: *giggle* Too late.