Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The Magicians" Redux

(The following pseudo-essay contains spoilers for Lev Grossman's 2009 novel, The Magicians. It does not contain spoilers for the sequel, The Magician King, which is due out August 9th.)

I had a love/hate relationship with The Magicians a few years ago.

I loved the writing, but the ending of the book (literally the last page) infuriated me. Also, I felt like the inside jacket flap gave away absolutely everything about the plot. See me rail about that here.

When I found out there'd be a sequel to the book, I was conflicted. Do I read?? (How can I not??) I finally decided to re-read the first book this weekend in preparation for the second, and to my surprise, I found the experience to be completely different than it was two years ago. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience.

Reading the book this time around, I was able to distance myself from the emotional aspects that had overpowered me last time. I realize these are somewhat arbitrary and bizarre things to fixate on, but you'll see why in a second: I, too, went to college in upstate New York. The boy I met at 19 (who eventually became my husband) is a magician who can do all the things Quentin does for his entrance exam. We, too, didn't date immediately but after a couple years of friendship and classes together. I also lived in a house off-campus with 4 other people, like the Physical Kids. As a result, after Quentin and Alice cheat on each other, I had a hard time concentrating on Fillory; I was that upset. The ennui and depression Quentin faces were familiar as well. And because Quentin's mistakes and decisions were so boneheadedly realistic, they hurt that much more to read about.

This time I focused on the whole story and didn't fixate on the character interactions as much. Since I knew betrayals were coming, I was able to shrug them off and better appreciate the intricate plot threads and call-backs to cleverly laid out clues.

Most importantly, I no longer dislike the ending -- it makes sense to me now, and I was relieved, in fact, that it didn't end the way I believed it should have before. See, the first time I read the book, I thought the "lesson" (for lack of a better word) was that you can't live in Fillory / Fillory-substitute-allegory / Fantasy Land / Childhood forever -- you must eventually leave; you must eventually grow up.

Martin Chatwin decided to live in Fillory forever and it warped him into a hideous monster. Quentin, who used to envy Martin his ability to leave the real world behind, comes to realize what a mistake it was. Because Quentin does leave (as a broken man who has suffered great losses and become a momentarily wiser person because of it) I figured that was his arc; he'd avoided Martin's fate. So when his friends show up, flying outside the office window, and invite him back to rule Fillory, I was like YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I felt it ruined everything that had come before.

This time, however, it felt satisfying to me -- I was able to see that Quentin had still grown, he had learned things, and Emily Greenstreet was wrong; magic hadn't ruined everything. It was the people who'd ruined things, as people often do*. So now I find myself eagerly anticipating the next book. Hurry up, August 9th!

(This time I will avoid the inside jacket flap and all Amazon summaries.)

Have you ever re-read a book a few years later and had a completely different experience with it?

*This doesn't mean I believe the adage about guns being blameless, btw. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How the Storytelling in Documentaries Helps My Writing

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." - Robert Burns

I watched two documentaries last week that were vastly different but shared a common storytelling thread: the protagonists' plans went heartbreakingly wrong. One was darkly comedic, the other tragic-yet-inevitable.

The first, Catfish, concerned a series of online relationships, including a romance, that turned out to be false or at least deeply misleading. The slow reveal was filled with tension, dread, and even an awful kind of humor as the protag and his friends paid a surprise visit to their internet friend's family and scrambled to figure out what was really going on.

The second documentary, Last Train Home, involved a modern Chinese family's disintegration. The parents had made the impossible decision, 16 years prior, to leave the country and find factory work in the city. Their plan was to send money home to fund their children's education so the youngsters could go to university someday and never have to work in a factory.

So what happens? The oldest, a teenage girl, resents her mom and dad for not raising her and decides to rebel by quitting school, heading to the city, and... working in a factory. You could see it coming, and yet you hoped it wouldn't be so.

I love documentaries because they provide a refreshing, even jarring, change of pace to the usual movie experience. There are fewer tropes, fewer predictable outcomes, and occasionally better dialogue and more authentic human interaction, even if it's painful, awkward or even boring at times.

Just like with sports, you don't know what's going to happen, and there's absolutely no guarantee of a happy or tidy ending. At the same time, the directors and editors frame the events in such a way that audiences can see structure and purpose to the story.

With Last Train Home in particular, I was reminded that the best stories often have a deceptively simple premise (parents try to make a better life for their children; children don't understand the behavior and resent it) that can be rich and full.

Seen any good documentaries lately? Did they help with your novel writing, or remind you that going "off-book" can be a good thing?

P.S. Edited to add: Lest you think I'm a dirty rotten spoiler, the plot points I've mentioned above happen fairly early on in each documentary.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

RWA Conference Photo Journal, Part Two

My New York City adventure continues, wheee. Just to back track for a second, here's the hotel where the RWA conference took place:

Which is right smack in the center of Times Square:

However, that's not where I stayed, because the amazing Sarvenaz Tash (author of The Mapmaker and the Ghost, coming out April 2012) allowed me and Miranda to crash at her uber cool pad in Brooklyn. As a result, I got to experience parts of the city I'd never been to before. One of my all-time favorite books is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so I was delighted to finally check the place out.

But back to the timeline.

Wednesday Morning: Sara Megibow's clients met up at the Marriott for coffee. It was really fun hanging out with everyone and chatting business and writing.

Below, top row from left to right: Aislinn McNamara, Roni Loren, Ashley March, Tiffany Reisz.
Bottom row, from left to right: Me, Allison Rushby (who traveled to NY from Australia!), Sara Megibow, and Steve Vera, who has lived an extraordinary life.

Not pictured is Miranda Kenneally, who had left a moment earlier to pick up some ARCs of her debut YA novel, Catching Jordan. Observe the gorgeousness:

Wednesday, Noon: I had lunch with Sarv, Miranda, and the lovely Katie McGarry, another Apocalypsie. I loved hearing about her upcoming book, Pushing the Limits (yay contemporary YA!). Then it was off to a rousing matinee at the theatre.

Wednesday Night: Allison, Sara, Miranda and I attended the YARWA event, with an all-editor panel. I mingled with some writers and snarfed several plates' worth of appetizers. We called it an early night to head back to Brooklyn, where Sarv treated us to a tour of her neighborhood.

Check out the Brooklyn Public Library:

Not to mention the awesome Brooklyn Museum:

Next up was a Doctor Who-themed bar. Because it had a TARDIS.

 I used a sonic screwdriver to open it and reveal the depths -- okay, bathroom -- beyond.

Thursday Morning: At this point I figured I should, you know, attend a conference event. The two biggest YA-related events were conveniently scheduled one after the other. I checked out "The Y.A. Romance Market: Advice from the Pros" (with Kristin Nelson, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Caridad Ferrer, and Aubrey Poole) and "Writing the Y.A. Bestseller" (with authors Simone Elkeles and David Levithan).

After that I had a hilarious lunch with Kristen Callihan and Lindsay Mergens, who helped me figure out how to walk to Central Park (a mere 13 blocks away). 

I rested in the park and then got lost on the subway trying to get down to NYU. (How First Season Felicity of me.)

Thursday Night: I caught up with a college friend and saw another play (Through a Glass Darkly starring Carey Mulligan, whom I knew was brilliant from the film An Education. If you haven't seen it, go add it to your Netflix queue. Unless you've quit Netflix because of the 60% price hike announced this week.)

Friday Morning: Breakfast with Sarv at Tom's Restaurant (the inspiration for that Suzanne Vega song -- got it stuck in your head yet?). 

Then I headed back to Manhattan for lunch with Sara Megibow and my super cool editor, Maggie Lehrman, who is wicked smart and so fun to chat with. 

Here's me at the mod Abrams offices. I also swiped a copy of the Amulet Fall 2011 catalog; every cover looks like delicious candy to me. I absolutely love the artwork for the upcoming books.

Friday Afternoon/Night: My flight from Newark got canceled and moved to JFK airport -- for the next morning with a layover (woooo!) So they had to give me hotel vouchers, roundtrip car vouchers, and meal vouchers. But the hotels at JFK were all booked, so they sent me to LaGuardia. I got to the hotel in Flushing, and on the front desk was a print-out with weather information. How's this for existential:

In case you can't see it clearly, it says, "Today will be about the same as yesterday."

Luckily, that was not the case for me in New York -- every day was uniquely wonderful and I had a blast at the conference. Thanks for flipping through the digital album with me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

RWA Conference Photo Journal, Part One

Let me preface this by saying I only got my iPhone two months ago; I'm still learning how to use it; and the photos I take with it lean toward everyone's favorite style: low lighting / slightly-out-of-focus. Still here? Then please enjoy my wacky adventures in the city!

Last week I hit the Romance Writers of America conference in New York. It was beyond cool.

But first I stopped in Virginia to visit a college friend, Robyn, and her son and daughter, ages 5 and 6. Robyn is the only person with whom I regularly exchange good old fashioned snail mail. She and her family live in Staunton (pronounced Stanton, or they'll know you're not a local).

Saturday: I arrived at 10 pm in Washington. The Dulles Airport was empty, and eerily beautiful at night:

Sunday: both of Robyn's kids had organized dueling tea parties (the regular kind; as far as I know, they're not politically active kindergartners). I divided my time equally between both soirees, but this did not prevent violence from breaking out. The calm before the storm:

While Robyn's husband watched the kids, Robyn and I strolled around outside and headed to downtown Staunton for lunch.

The town was beautiful! No chain stores, just rows and rows of gorgeous brick buildings and Mom & Pop establishments, including a heavenly gelato parlor and a stunning toy and bookstore for children, Pufferbellies.

Monday: we explored more of the town, including the railroad station.

Tuesday: I left for New York City via Charlottesville, VA. The Amtrak was really comfortable and the 6-hour train ride flew by. I read A.S. King's "Please Ignore Vera Dietz", which made me cry in public.

Tuesday Night: my lit agency, Nelson Literary, threw a cocktail party at the rooftop of 230 5th Avenue.

I met my wonderful agent Sara Megibow for the first time, as well as agency president Kristin Nelson, marketing director Lindsay Mergens and literary assistant Anita Mumm, not to mention writer Miranda Kenneally and several other Nelson Agency authors. It was like my Twitter feed had come to life and surrounded me, drinks in hand.

I'm afraid of heights, so I kept to the center at all times, but the view from the top was amazing! There's the Empire State Building:

Below, from left to right: Kristen Callihan, Lindsay Mergens, me, Tiffany Reisz (and guest Alyssa Palmer), Roni Loren, and Kristin Nelson.

Next week, Part Two of my trip continues with a Team Megibow coffee chat, a tour of Brooklyn with the lovely and generous Sarvenaz Tash, a musical, a play, lunch with my editor Maggie Lehrman, and -- GASP -- an actual conference event (or two!?)

Perhaps most importantly, I figure out how to use the flash on my camera so photos like the one above stop happening.