Sunday, November 30, 2014

On THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

So here's a lesson in life: Don't swear that you'll never do something. Because then if you do it, you'll feel kind of stupid. I swore repeatedly that I would never read The Hunger Games or its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I had perfectly good reasons for not wanting to read them. They're dystopian, and I'm not a fan of the genre. I've only read a few dystopians and I haven't liked any of them. They're written in first person present tense, a writing style that I find extremely annoying. And worst of all, they break my rule: don't mess with kids. For those reasons and probably a few others, I shrugged them off and said I wouldn't read them. And then I read them.

Why did I read them? Well, people kept talking about them, and the movies, and they've pretty much become a cultural icon, and I was tired of feeling out of the loop. I'd heard enough about them that I figured I pretty much knew how they went, but I was intrigued by this tough, arrow-shooting female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. And there's the fact that they've quickly become one of those standard series that other Young Adult books are compared to and judged by, and since I write YA, I figured I ought to go ahead and see what all the fuss was about.

With such high expectations going in, I can say that although I didn't like the trilogy, I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would. Many people that I've talked to devoured all three books in a week or less. I checked them out through Amazon's Prime Owners Lending Library, which is limited to one book a month. Even at that, it took me four or five months to get through all three of them. They are emotionally draining, and sometimes I could guess (more or less accurately) what was going to happen next, and I just didn't want to read it. But finally, with Mockingjay Part 1 out in theaters this week, there was enough buzz going around that I picked Mockingjay back up, after setting it aside about a third of the way through, and finished it.

My issues with the book are pretty much what I expected. The setting of Panem, a dismal, post-apocalyptic nation of oppressed Districts ruled by a pleasure-loving, totally corrupt Capitol, is not a place where you expect good things to happen. And for the most part, they don't. The writing style is compelling, but I'm not comfortable reading in first person present tense, and I don't know that the author was completely comfortable writing in it, either. It slips into past tense frequently as Katniss revisits memories or events that happened earlier in the day. It interrupts the flow of the story and can come across as jarring, and anytime the writing does that, for any reason, I find it annoying. And of course, the premise is awful. Obviously this is a screwed up society, and the more you read the more you realize just how screwed up it really is. But basically the Hunger Games are a form of child sacrifice, where the Capitol forces each of the twelve Districts to offer up two kids between the age of 12 and 17 to kill each other off in an arena rigged with various horrors until only one survives and is declared the victor. The games are televised with great pomp and ceremony, so that every resident of Panem is basically forced to watch this horrible event take place every year.

At the beginning of the story, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the games. We then get to experience the lead-up and the games themselves, plus all the aftermath, through her perspective. I wanted to like Katniss, I really did. She does have a very naturally humble, self-sacrificing aspect to her personality combined with a certain magnetism that somehow inspires people to adore her, despite the fact that she's also an abrasive, anti-social, lost soul. So despite really wanting to like her, I never did. She has moments of extreme selfishness. She tends to act and think like the entire world revolves around her, and she's surprisingly clueless about things that should be fairly obvious. The fact that she's very human and pretty flawed makes her a sympathetic character, easy to relate to, but not quite a hero. She is young, and she experiences things that would probably destroy anyone, so it's not surprising that as the story goes along she unravels. One of my friends pointed out that she clearly suffers from extreme PTSD. She's also hopelessly naive. She allows people to use and manipulate her for their own ends until almost the end of the story, when she finally decides she's had enough, and takes matters into her own hands in a way that anyone could have seen coming.

Ultimately, I reconciled myself to moderately liking these books because in the end, the author states the very thing that bothers me about the whole story: A society that sacrifices its children for power or entertainment or to end a war is fundamentally flawed, and certainly not a place where any sane person would want to live. No one comes through the story whole and healthy. So many people die. Many of them are children. At times it's deeply disturbing to read. In fact, I find it slightly horrifying that it's written for "young adults," or in other words, teenagers. I know there is worse, more graphic stuff out there, and that kids these days are probably used to that sort of thing, but it bothered me. It really shows a lot of what's bad about people, the horrible things we could be capable of if we allow our own culture to continue down the path we're on. There's a lot of the dark depth of human nature in these stories, without very much of the light of God's glory and grace. I know they're not Christian books so I didn't expect to find much of that anyway, but in my opinion, the best stories still reveal the truth of God, and the image of God in the human beings He created. I'm not sure these books ever get there.

I haven't seen the movies. Of course, I swore I wouldn't. Now I'm not so sure, but at any rate I can't comment on how the movies are the same or different or whatever. I've heard from several people who think the movies are better, that Katniss is more heroic, that some of the other characters aren't quite as passive as they seem to be in the books. At this point, I'm not going to recommend seeing the movies or reading the books. I read them, I didn't hate them, but I'm glad I'm done with them and I never have to read them again. That is all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Why I Love Scrivener

It occurs to me that I should have posted this at the beginning of November, for anyone attempting to write an entire novel during National Novel Writing Month, although if you are a NaNo participant, you may be eligible for special offers this month. I didn't discover Scrivener until after my first NaNoWriMo journey. I wish I had known about it then, and I'm definitely glad I have it now, as I prepare for a rewrite that is going to require rearranging several scenes, deleting some, and adding new ones.

Scrivener is a writing software, available for both Windows and Mac, at Unlike a regular word processor, it allows me to write my novel in chunks (I call them scenes) rather than in one long file. It eliminates the annoying need to scroll forever through a multipage document when I realize I made a typo in the middle of say, chapter 12. It's much easier than cut and paste if I decide that a scene I put at the end of chapter 10 really would go better at the beginning of chapter 11. It also allows me to keep notes, research, and deleted scenes all in the same project file rather than searching my computer for that piece of backstory or that scene I deleted and now decided I want to put back in.

Here are some of my favorite Scrivener features:
  • There is a handy search function, so that when I realized in a read-through that I use some form of the word "irritating" too much, I could list all the spots where I used it and edit them.
  • The Project Targets, which shows a total word count for the project as well as my current session, and gives me red, yellow, and green bars to tell me how close I am to my targets. Statistics also give interesting information like an approximate page count and how many times certain words are used.
  • The ability to Snapshot the current version of a scene before editing it. That way, if I make a change I'm not certain about and then I decide I don't like it, I can just Rollback to the previous version with a click, or cut and paste bits and pieces out of previous versions. Scrivener saves as it goes, so this is one way to keep a log of previous versions of scenes.
  • The extremely valuable Compile function, which allows me to compile all of my manuscript, or just parts of it, into various file formats. So if I want to send a PDF of my latest chapter to a reader, no problem. If I want to compile the entire thing to archive it before a major edit, done. I can create a Word file and touch that up for submission to an agent or publisher. And my latest, most exciting discovery: I can create a .mobi file and read my own book on my Kindle, or send it to beta readers in that format if they want.
In my opinion, writers are much better off using writing software than word processors to create their manuscripts. Word processors have their place, but since Scrivener can compile into a .rtf file, why not wait until the manuscript is complete and then use the word processor for final editing and formatting? I haven't even taken advantage of all the amazing features Scrivener offers. It has different templates for novels, non-fiction, scripts, etc. It's not very expensive, and adding the license to multiple computers is simple, so once you've bought it you shouldn't have to ever purchase it again. I know there are other software options out there. I tried several before choosing Scrivener several years ago, and I've never regretted it.

Do you have any questions I can try to answer about this amazing tool? If you've used it, do you have any comments to share? Maybe you can tell me about a feature I haven't tried yet!

**I purchased Scrivener at the full retail price and I am posting this blog without the knowledge or permission of Literature and Latte Ltd. I have not received any promotional discounts or other compensation in exchange for my opinion of the product. It is simply something I use and enjoy.