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ursulav

The First Book of the Rest of Your Life

So as it turns out, there’s one small problem with winning a Hugo.

(Other than the fact that it hasn’t actually arrived yet, which we are trying to track down. I am assured that Hugos do NOT go missing, and the very nice woman in charge has vowed that I shall have it, but I admit to a bit of trepidation.)

No, the small problem is that at some point in the next month, your treacherous brain sits up and says “Well. Now what?”

You may be doing something as innocuous as mulching the garden, or laying out the burlap over the area that you’re going to turn into a path, and you straighten up with your hands full of landscape pins and go “….um.”

This is not as simple a question as it could be, particularly when you are moving mulch around and wondering vaguely why the one story you thought you were writing, which was mostly Snow White, has now turned into a thing about truffle pigs.

It is lovely to have won a Hugo. It is like getting a note from the teacher to excuse you from having to worry about whether you have talent in Particular Art Form X.

But.

I am done with Digger. I am not, probably, done with comics in perpetuity (never say what spring you won’t drink from, as some clever Greek gentleman said!) but I am not working on them right now. When I think of The Next Project, I rarely think comics. And to a certain extent, getting a Hugo feels like the grace note there—job well done, that’s a wrap, what’s next?

And so then you spend the next few loads of mulch going “Well?”

The Dragonbreath books are awesome. Hamster Princess, I think, is going to be even more awesome yet. But they’re also a fairly narrowly marketed beast, and while other people read and enjoy them (I hope!) they’re basically fluffy kid’s books.

Now, this is not me disparaging my work. I think fluff is an extraordinarily important genre that gets no respect. If the Dragonbreath books didn’t manage to be both engaging and not-intimidating, they would fail their target audience. And I get e-mails every couple of weeks from parents going “My kid is not a reader, and this is the first book they’ve ever asked me to go get the sequels–THANK YOU.”

You get an e-mail like that, you put it with the turtles you’ve helped across the road and the bats you’ve unhooked from drop ceilings as “Stuff I Hope Counts In My Favor When I Die.”

So I’d like to keep doing the kid’s books, but that’s not the thing that I think of when I think “Well? What next?”

And what I realized, somewhere around the fifth load of mulch (which contains traces of dog vomit slime-mold, which are out in force this year) is that the book I really really want to write is the one that sits on the comfort shelf. The book that somebody picks up when they’re in bed with the flu, when their boyfriend dumped them, when they’re sick or sad or tired or beaten down.

I have dozens of those books. Lots of them are YA, or I found when I was a YA myself.  Jinian Footseer, which I read when I was fifteen and which works for me as well now as it did then. The Grand Sophy. The Crystal Gryphon. Bridge of Birds. Most of Pratchett, particularly stuff with the witches. Lots of McKinley. When I was eight or nine, I read The Hero And The Crown about eight hundred times. I checked it out from the library over and over. Most of her books end up on that shelf—Rose Daughter and Deerskin and Spindle’s End and The Blue Sword.  A couple of Star Trek novels. The Wounded Sky. My Enemy, My Ally. Uhura’s Song. Chain of Attack (which is comfort reading to no one else on earth, but it was the book I had with me in the hospital and read over and over again when my grandmother was dead in all the important ways and what was left was hooked up to machines, which ought to be a goddamn war crime.) Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books. Curse of Chalion. Sharon Shinn. Juliet Marillier. Hodgell’s God Stalk (though not the sequels so much, but the first one is still magic.)  Tombs of Atuan (but not Wizard of Earthsea, go figure.) Henry Miller’s Earthman columns, which I read when I had swine flu and vowed that if I had to die some day (which seems likely) I wanted it to be in the garden with dirt on my hands, as he had.

There are books that were comfort reading when I was young that I don’t dare go re-read because part of growing up without breaking is learning to judge your younger self kindly. There are many good and great and glorious books that I admire. I loved Perdido Street Station. Every other page I went “DAMN I wish I’d thought of that.”  Barbara Kingsolver’s dialog is better than mine will ever be. American Gods is a masterwork, no doubt about it. But those are not the sort of books that I want to write right now.

Unfortunately “makes me feel better” is not really a genre, unless you count that Chicken Soup crap. Even if you get rid of the outliers (we’ll ditch Chain of Attack and Earthman) the common factors wander around a bit.  But yeah. That’s the shelf I wanna be on.

Whatever the hell that shelf is.

 

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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I bought the Dragonbreath books thinking to myself that I would give them to my nephew when he's old enough to start reading them. I think I'll have to get some additional copies when that time comes, because I don't want to part with my own.

I remember you way back from Lothlorien before it became Elfwood and it's really been amazing and a great inspiration to see you go from posting art on the internet, to being an established artist, to getting published, all the way up to winning a Hugo. You're awesome, keep it up. :)

I don't suppose you can be persuaded to write "Chicken Soup for the Vegan Soul?"

isn't the big children's book award the Caldecott? Seems to me that Dragonbreath would be eligible...

The one Dragonbreath would be eligible for is the Newbery. The Caldecott is for picture books, as opposed to graphic novels. Dragonbreath, for all its illustrations, is really a chapter book.

I suspect that it's not really a shelf one aims at... it's more just one that one arrives on by luck and having provided whatever a particular person needs as comfort at a given moment. (That said, awesome female protagonists tend to be a common factor... though that may be because your list --and mine-- are what comforts a female person.)

Um... for what it's worth, though, an awful lot of your posts here have the same sort of effect as the books on my comfort shelf. Shorter, so often not quite as *much* comfort, but nevertheless your writing tends to leave me feeling generally better about the world, the people in it, and the fact I have not yet managed to figure out how to survive as a hermit in the basement of a *very* good library.

I normally just lurk, but I'd like to second this. Although I suspect there is something else going on here, as this blog and a couple of others were how I figured out that yes, it is possible to be happy as an adult and not secretly wish you would die in your sleep and not have to face work tomorrow like everyone I'm related to.

OK, now I have to tell you Digger is on my comfort shelf, next to Hero and the Crown and the blue Sword. And also EE Nesbit and Dark Lord of Derkholm.

Oh, good! "Make you feel better, and will probably be marketed as YA" is my favorite not-genre of book. When you write this book, it will be on my comfort shelf, nestled comfortably after all the Pratchett.

The books about growing up. About changing from child to adult, accepting control of one's own destiny.

The books of becoming.

In your secret heart of hearts, what do you wish you'd became? What do you wish happened to you when you were on that cusp? What strange adventure do you feel would have forged you into a grownup in the way that the life you've lived never did?

Or at least that's a commonality I see in the titles you list that I've read.

I've been carrying my book on that subject around in my head for half my life. I'm hoping to finally get out a rough draft during Nanowrimo, then draw it starting late next year. We'll see if that happens. Maybe there's some seed you've been carrying just as closely for as long; maybe it's time you let it grow.

I envy you that rocketship, but I don't envy having it sitting on the mantlepiece challenging you to come up with another story worthy of it. Or maybe I do; I've always been a believer in keeping my best work out where I can see it, to give me something to do better than.

Good luck.

You won't need it. But good luck anyway.

There's a lot of overlap between your comfort reading and my comfort reading, so I can take something of a stab at what the common factors might be. I don't think it's genre - I think the only genre requirement for comfort reading is that it's a genre that the person wanting the comfort tends to read a lot and likes for various reasons. So its scifi and fantasy for you (and me), and I know a bunch of people for whom it's detective stories, and so on.

But thinking of those books that we have in common on the comfort shelf (though I am no where near organized enough to have a designated shelf or shelves and most of them are usually in a pile somewhere in the vicinity of my bed, unless the pile has recently collapsed and I've put them back on the shelves again), there's a lot of humor, though most of the books wouldn't be classified as humor, and a lot of intelligence and interesting characters talking with each other, and the endings are generally happy or at least bittersweet. There's a certain amount of predictability, but not too much. But the books can't rely on surprise plots because you're rereading them over and over again and if all they had going for them was surprises, they wouldn't work as well in subsequent readings.

I'm not sure where that gets you, other than the fact that I know you're certainly capable of writing with humor, and writing intelligent and interesting characters and all that. I'm pretty sure you can write that sort of book. But I don't know if that gives you anything that would help.

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*adds to the Jinian Footseer love*

On the road, the old road, a tower made of stone
In the tower hangs a bell that cannot ring alone.

Shadow bell rings in the dark; Daylight bell the dawn.
In the tower hung the bells; now the tower's gone.


MEMORIZED.

My first instinct is to say, "Well, you don't have a Nebula yet, or a World Fantasy Award. Think of how papersky must feel."

As always, I look forward to seeing what you do.

And amusingly enough, Among Others belongs on that shelf. Everyone I know was voting for it. Everyone I know felt it didn't have a chance. Everyone I know is somewhat surprised that everyone else seems to have felt the same as them.

Yeah, Ursula, I think Jo's lesson would be: go write/make something with your soul in. I remember her LJ posts as she was writing it, and she didn't seem convinced it had that much chance even of being published, but it had her soul in - oh boy does it, every word is her.

Digger had your soul in, and it shows. We don't need more Digger (though should it turn up, we'd not object), we need more stuff with your soul in.

Your comfort reading list overlaps with mine considerably. This makes me feel much better about myself than it probably ought. :-P

The commonality that strikes me with a lot of those books: Pratchett, Duane, Bujold, Hughart; is that the main characters are _sensible_ and _rational_ people. Weird shit may happen, weird and unstable people may be encountered, but the protagonist(s) are pragmatic, concerned and not inclined to panic (much). This strikes me as a very comforting mindset to read about, especially when one's own circumstances are not optimal (I'm tempted to pick Chalion back up again myself).

...Which is why Digger is up there with Pratchett, Duane, Diana Wynne Jones, and the others on my own comfort shelf.

I love fantasy and science fiction largely because of the weird stuff that the authors think up, but I love individual books because I love the characters in them and the ordinary, sensible, down-to-earth ways they deal with that weird stuff.

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"the one that sits on the comfort shelf. The book that somebody picks up when they’re in bed with the flu, when their boyfriend dumped them, when they’re sick or sad or tired or beaten down"

You mean, like a Judy Blume book? (Yes, I'm a guy. Yes, I read Judy Blume books when I was young. I read EVERYTHING when I was young.) Something that says to the reader "Look, I know this sucks. You're not alone. See? I went through all of this too. You're gonna be okay." Something like that?

...except the main character is a sexually conflicted teenage wombat in a town of weasels or something? Because that could be awesome...

Paula Danziger and Ellen Conford also occupy the 'Look I know this sucks ...' part of my comfort reading, as does Ellen Raskin. 'Adult' comfort reading includes Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Iris Rainer Dart, Stephen King, Janet Kagan, Alice Hoffman, and so many others.

While I agree that it's hard to land on that shelf, I don't think it's a bad idea to try to write every book as if it is that kind of book. The chances of landing on the shelf probably lie in the ability to tap into human commonality, which you've already proven you can do.

It's a shelf I don't think any writer has ever consciously AIMED at - for the simple reason that any given reader would have a completely individual shelf like that, and it would be utterly impossible for anyone to have written something that pleases all of the people all of the time in terms of comfort 101. But it is a shelf that one or two of my own books have landed on over the years, for individual readers who have been kind enough to let me know that fact, and there is a certain amount of warm fuzzies in knowing that you hit the elusive shelf without EVER having aimed for it... which, I think, is the trick here...

Either way, I think you're a wonderful writer. Your annotated fairy tales make me both laugh and think. And I suspect that there is more of you on "comfort shelves" already than you might think.

I understand Earthsea not being a comfort book. Earthsea is a story about a boy who makes something horrible, and then has to go and confront it on the edge of the world, after running from it for years. It is a good story, but (regardless of the ending) it is not a comforting story.

The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, though, yeah, those are certainly there for me. I've read those two books approximately.. lots of times. I read The Blue Sword first, so I've always liked Harry a bit more than Aerin.. and she's not quite as foolish, although not many people are as foolish as Aerin.

There are books on my version of that shelf that are pretty weird too. The Black Gryphon, by Mercedes Lackey, is not exactly a happy book.. although it is happier than the first of her books I ever read, Arrows of the Queen. However, Skandranon is awesome.. and he's a gryphon, gryphons are awesome. Although he definitely falls into that small category, 'people who are as foolish as Aerin'.

However, the best thing on that list you mentioned is the Young Wizards series. So You Want to Be a Wizard is absolutely one of the best things ever. You want to figure out how to make comfort books, that is one of the best places you could start.

Your comfort books include a number of ones I like extremely well. You, m'lady, are a woman of exquisite taste.

(I suspect Digger is on that shelf. Which is, well, why the Hugo. And I suspect you'll get other stuff there as well sometime! Because, y'know, the awesome.)

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