Jennifer Astle

July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Angel’s Game By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

51nBUKGP-YL._SL500_AA240_I picked up The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon last week after a colleague recommended it, and settled in, somewhat skeptically, to give a new writer (by new, I mean one I had not read previously) a fair shot.  It had been described to me as a dark mystery by a writer who Stephen King recently raved about.  And as one of King’s Constant Readers, I trust his word more than I’d trust that of any clergyman.

I was not disappointed.

Zafon brought me down the familiar road of writers writing about writing, and into early 1900’s Barcelona and the life of David Martin.  Martin is a young boy working at a local paper, The Voice of Industry.  His early writing career is bestowed upon him by a young, charismatic benefactor who has a soft spot for the budding storyteller.

Later in his career, Martin enjoys enormous success writing trashy horror stories for an even trashier publication, run by sleazy publishers.  Writing under a pseudonym, Martin begins to dream about writing under his own name, and thus enjoying his success in his own right, a dream that his already successful (although a horrible writer) benefactor shares.  Thus begins Martin’s descent into darkness as a mysterious French publisher makes him an offer worth his soul.

On the surface, this is a typical story based on the competing notions of good and evil, light and dark, God and The Devil.  Zafon constructs the story in such a way that, beyond the title, there is little mention of God, and yet, one feels that there is an omnipotent force pulling the strings in the lives of David and those who are acquainted with him.  Yet, it is much more than that.  It steps further, leaving the reader questioning who is “good” and who is “evil”, and if in fact, they aren’t one and the same.

Underneath, if you look closely through the eyes of a young, struggling writer, you see a play on the insecurities of a writer who can gain thousands of readers under a ghost name (more than one, in fact), and yet cannot sell a single copy under his own.  It plays directly into the notion of literary publication being tantamount to immortality, shows exactly how desperate a writer can get, and delves into both the magic and consequence of a writer’s craft.  Much the same way that King attributes a power of their own to his characters, Zafon brings Martin, and what he writes to life.

When I closed the cover and replaced the sleeve I was left with two resounding thoughts; 1) Would I sell my soul to be published? and 2) I must visit Barcelona, and remember to bring a pen.

April 3, 2009

Enough with this Eat, Pray, Love Crap

eatpraylove2Does anyone else cringe when they hear the term “chick lit”?  I always thought it was a term that was thrown around in book reviews to define material written by and for women, but behold, “chick lit” is an entire genre, like horror, that agents and publishers recognize. And, it just won’t go away.  Take Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for example. Despite the book being published in 2006, it seems to still be lurking in the media, and setting the standard by which all women writers are being compared.

Now, I can’t say I have read the book anymore than I can say I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, beyond of course what Amazon was kind enough to provide me as a preview, and the few minutes I spent leafing through the pages in a book store before moving on to The God Delusion.  Needless to say, a woman’s memoirs about finding herself that starts with the line “I wish Giovanni would kiss me” is unlikely to captivate me the same way that Orwell captured me with his construction of a futuristic society in which the bourgeoisie worship an organization called The Party.

This brings me to another point.  When reading an article about gendered choices in literature, I was shocked to learn that men are actually impressed by women who read Orwell and the like. You know, because wrapping our vaginas brains around a complex political movement marked by submission and rebellion, is like, totally out of our reach…unless someone is going to bring up chocolate.  Which Orwell does, so I guess that’s why I read it.  Not because it is an iconic piece of literature and remarkably timeless in its representation of political fundamentalism (oh, shit I forgot, I am supposed to be talking about shoes).

So this brings me back to chick lit and Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to get over her failed marriage, and her sense of being lost in life.  Here is my official position; if your life and your travels were that interesting, they wouldn’t be marketed as the bible of chick lit, they would be marketed as a memoir of an interesting life.  Show of hands, how many men have read Eat, Pray, Love?

*insert sound of crickets chirping*

So why is it that the industry finds this type of writing so appealing?  Obviously there is a market for it, or else agents and editors would be tearing the Gilberts of the world down to their heels and hashing it all out on #queryfail.  I can see it now “OMG, another query about her divorce and how she got over it, shut up already! #queryfail”.  Or maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Of course it is no secret that many a woman have written under a nom de plume, or pseudonym (ahem, J.K. Rowling) to draw attention away from the fact that they are women and gain respect in the literary world before anyone looks up their skirts and realizes that they have an inkwell instead of a pen hidden up there.  Unless, of course, they are writing about “women stuff” like pining over 20 something Italian guys as a means to finding oneself.  Then girly names like Elizabeth can be plastered all over the cover like a rogue noodle that broke free from the covers font.

Now, before anyone jumps on me and says women publish literature other than chick lit, just look at Stephanie Meyer and Twilight, I ask you to pause for a moment.  ‘Cause there’s nothing darker than vegetarian vampires that blow sparkles out of their asses.  Stephen King look out, you have some competition (*snorts*).

Words are words, and the last time I checked the area between my belly button and my knees had very little to do with my choices of reading material or writing topics (excluding feminist literature of course, which is much different than wanting Giovanni to kiss you).  Women frequently write from the perspectives of men, and vice versa, with astonishing insight.  This begs the question; do we really need an entire genre of “Oh my god, I found myself in Jimmy Choo?” or are we creating it by filing it under the vagina niche and calling it a day.  You know, so men won’t have to make the mistake of picking up a book written by a woman for a woman while perusing the aisles of their local book store…because there is an entire section segregated off where women can confide in each other about yoga, having babies, being married, getting divorced, and shopping; all of the important life lessons a girl must learn.

This is my call to women writers; stop publishing this Eat, Pray, Love crap, and find a voice based on your writing talents, not on the chance that you got an X instead of a Y in your chromosome make up.

Update: Apparently my writing is worth plagiarizing without credit.  Check it out here, and feel free to let them know how us bloggers love link backs.

March 23, 2009

Wanted: Online Writing Group

In all the effort I have been putting into learning all that which a writer must know, the one thing that has consistently been lacking is a support system of people who have or are experiencing the same sorts of trials and successes.  Sure, I have a few contacts who have unfailingly offered me advice (Mr. Christopher and Netta, I mean you) which has been incredibly helpful.

I am beginning to learn that any writer worth his/her salt has a number of other writer friends with whom they exchange criticism, advice, support, and the odd affirmation when rejections start coming in.  The old adage is true; two heads are better than one. So, this is my attempt to establish a community of new writers (by “new” I mean unpublished) or established ones who are willing to share their knowledge of the mysterious inner workings of the monster that is the publishing industry.  If you are interested, please email me at jjastle at att dot net.

March 20, 2009

Confessions of a Writer: The Art of Patience

patienceIt is August, and I hand my mother a list.  She looks at it, and then looks back at me; it’s my Christmas wish list (including a section for Birthday, which falls 13 days before Christmas).  She puts it on the fridge, and there it sits until December, when normal people start thinking about Christmas.  But, in my head, I have been unwrapping gifts since before Labour Day.

I’m in university.  I complete a paper on some complicated Sociological issue.  I, of course, expect the professor to hand them back during the next class.  Of course, she doesn’t because she’s a professor.  It takes weeks.  For weeks, I fret about my grade, desperately wanting to hold the paper in my hands with those tell tale red marks scrawled all over it.  I lose interest (somewhat) in the grade, and become more focused on just knowing.

I meet my future husband.  We fall in love.  We move in together after less than a month and in less than three we move to Toronto. I know you want to correct me now, and tell me that means I am impulsive and not impatient.  I would argue that implusive people act without knowing what they want, while impatient people know exactly what they want and simply can’t wait.  I am the latter, trust me.

Now I decide to write a book.  I use my fantastic research skills (I did pay nearly $70,000 for them after all) to learn about how people get published and follow that path.  Write your book first (“But that could take a year!”), research agents, query them, and wait for a response (without hitting the refresh key on my email seven hundred times a day), likely having to do the same thing over and over until someone bites, if anyone bites.

So, I devise a plan to satisfy my urge to be published NOW; short stories.  They take less time to write, and I can begin querying (and being rejected by) literary magazines almost immediately.  But, instead of finding the immediate gratification that my personality wants like a junkie wants crack, I learn an important lesson; patience.

I don’t want to screw up my chances, so I hit send, shift uncomfortably in my seat, and stare at the computer screen.  Nothing.  Then I watch some news, listen to the Rachel Maddow show, and write a little.  Refresh.  Nothing.

(hold on, I need to check my email)

Still nothing.

Slowly, I am learning that the literary world requires something more of me than great writing; extensive patience.  I don’t imagine there would be any faster way to get rejected by both agents and literary magazines, than by harassing the editors for a decision.  So I remain silent (another challenge for me, I might add).

So, my Grand Master Plan has backfired on me.  I set out for immediate gratification, and instead I am getting an important lesson in the fine art of patience.  Instead of getting what I want, I am getting what I need.  I am learning to wait, without holding my breath too long.  I have submitted one short to three magazines.  I’ve only recieved one response since I began this journey to get published in February.  It was a rejection.  Nevertheless, when I opened my email that morning and saw a response from an editor, my heart jumped.  Someone, somewhere, had read my story.  Even learning that the story “was not right for the publication at this time” I was still elated.

Now I wait again.  One down, two to go.  It’s hard to say if I will still be elated and grateful for being read after three, four, or five rejections.  I am not that much of an optimist, but damn it, I am going to try.

March 10, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized Pt. 2: Could Kindle Really Change Everything?

kindle3Last time, I talked about the supposed demise of books due to the technological revolution and the uphill battle that publishers and pushers of paper of all kinds are facing with the combined force of a weakened economy and a (relatively) free forum like the Internet from which to gather information.  I questioned whether Amazon’s Kindle could really convince the market to switch from paper to processor and from books to e-books, even with a screen bright enough to allow you to read in a bar.

I did however, recognize the benefits that a device like Kindle could have on a struggling educational system.  I’m probably not the first to think of this, but I do think it is an excellent point; this device, if provided to school and college aged kids, could revolutionize the way they read, research, write, and learn.  If a university student doesn’t have to pay for or travel to obtain access to a scholarly journal or book, they are much more likely to read and implement it in their educational process. That got me imagining what else Kindle could do.

Newspapers and magazines are struggling, and there is no end in sight.  Even the formidable New York Times is having trouble making it from paycheck to paycheck, and having to do a real estate shuffle to stay afloat. Sacramento Bee staffers took a pay cut so to prevent further layoffs.  There is a debate going on as to whether free online content is to blame and whether newspapers can stay in business by requesting “micropayments” (e.g. 10 cents per click) or offering content on a subscription basis.  Similarly, magazines (although bought and paid for) are losing advertising money and are cutting back accordingly.

So where does Kindle come in?  Let’s suppose for a moment that Kindle could access the Internet on a wireless connection .  Then let’s suppose that Kindle offered a database of not only books, but current “print” copies of newspapers (not web versions, but Kindle friendly versions of the actual paper), magazines, and other reading materials.  So, for example, let’s say I want a subscription to the New York Times, but I am one of those people who have come of age with a cell phone in one hand and an iPod in the other.  I would read the NYT but, I am not someone who will lug around a bulky paper. I will just wait until I get home, visit the New York Times website and get all of my information there.

Now let’s say that Amazon offered a subscription to the New York Times via Kindle.  I could access the newspaper from my device where ever I wanted it.  Let’s say the same goes for magazines.  Of course, subscriptions would have to be cheap, which they could be if paper was eliminated and it was all web-based.  Newspapers and magazines could offer their product to another audience, the crucial one that doesn’t necessarily have a web-based phone on which to access news and information (which even on a BlackBerry still looks like it belongs somewhere circa 1999), but isn’t inclined to purchase papers or magazines for various reasons.  Let’s take it a step further and add blogs.  Now readers can access books, magazines, newspaper, journals, and blogs.  With Kindle (and enough storage space on the device) there is the potential to build an entire library of reference material that doesn’t get thrown away, is easily and instantaneously accessible, and is compatible with today’s web-based generation of iPod addicts and technology savvy users.  Hell, a tree or two might be saved after all.

So, if these technologies are already available, why aren’t we using them?  If anyone has the power to convince the world that Kindle could mean a reading and writing renaissance, it is Amazon.  It’s up to them (and us, as consumers) to decide what use will be made of the technology.  Not everyone will buy a Kindle (or a similar device), many will want to stick with the traditional paper versions of various media.  I only pose one question; isn’t it better to read a paper on Kindle than it is for the paper to go under altogether?

At Amazon, we’ve always been obsessed with having every book ever printed, and we know that even the best reading device would be useless without a massive selection of books. Today, the Kindle Store has more than 240,000 books available, plus top newspapers, magazines, and blogs. This is just the beginning. Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle. We won’t stop until we get there.

Whether you prefer biographies, classics, investment guides, thrillers, or sci-fi, thousands of your favorite books are available, including 102 of 111 books currently found on the New York Times® Best Seller list. New York Times Best Sellers and most new releases are $9.99, and you’ll find many books for less. (Source: Amazon).

March 6, 2009

The Celebrity Book Deal and the Struggling Writer

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

hilton_bookOminous words coming from respected magazine, New York.  With the publishing industry flailing, a writer has got to question her future.  Let’s just forget for a moment, the challenges of finding let alone the right agent, but any agent at all.  Then there is the query letter, and the waiting.  All of that, considering you have your book written first.  The challenges facing a struggling writer in the beginning of their career are steep, and that is under the best of conditions.

So, what does this mean for struggling writers and the publishing industry? It seems that there is a spike in celebrity book deals.  I have no statistical data to support this, only my observations from my daily morning online meandering.  James Franco has just signed with Simon & Schuster to release a collection of short stories.  That’s just the beginning.  In 2008, as the economic crisis that has challenged the publishing industry loomed, Miley Cyrus signed a seven figure book deal with Disney.  At least James Franco is an MFA candidate studying creative writing at NYU and Columbia.  Miley Cyrus is 15 and famous because her daddy had an achy-breaky-heart back in the 1980’s (although it must have got fixed sometime in the 1990’s).  Is it possible to still take the craft seriously when there are thousands of talented writers out there who are sending short after short to literary magazines, searching for an agent, and hoping for any advance at all, while Miss Cyrus gets a million dollars for her memoirs?

Let’s not forget Britney Spears’ $20 Million book deal to spill all of the sordid details of her recent crazy years.  Excuse me, but that is not literature, it’s voyeurism…and not very well cloaked.  What about Kanye West? Or Paris Hilton? Or Kathy Griffin? Or even Sarah Palin?  Musicians, actors, politicians…it seems anyone but a writer can get a book deal these days.

Is this really the way to save the publishing industry; by offering celebrities who already blog, Twitter, star in YouTube videos, films and television, appear on news and talk shows, and are the topic of paparazzi and media everywhere seven or eight figure book deals to write their memoirs?

Of course, I am biased considering that I am a “struggling writer” and not a celebrity.  I understand why the publishing industry is increasing its affinity with celebrities.  They come with a built in audience, just waiting to spend their allowances on the next unauthorized Lindsay Lohan tell-all.

But what of the struggling writer then?  Where will the future of publishing take us? To the Internet? Vanity publishing and self-promotion?  Is this just the right moment for writers to take reins away from powerhouse publishers by getting wise to the opportunities offered by services like Amazon (e.g. Kindle, CreateSpace), blogs, online lit mags, and a new generation of news media like the Huffington Post? No one knows for sure, not even the publishing industry.  One thing is for certain; enough with the celebrity book deals.

January 20, 2009

Welcome!

handwriting1For those of you who know me, thanks for following me from one blog to the next.  For those who don’t, my name is Jennifer Astle (please, call me Jenn) and I’m a writer.  Although I have always been a “writer” in some form or another, the whole freelance business began when a friend of mine (and legal counsel) advised me to start a blog to occupy my spare time.  I had a lot of spare time because I was immigrating to the United States from Canada (I miss you all!), and thus began my freelance writing career.

As things progressed and I took on clients, I developed this website as my professional portfolio to market myself as a freelancer.  Eventually I became more and more focused on developing the professional side of things and less and less focused on my often flippant, quickly written blog posts that I started with.  As it stands now I will be writing regularly here, as opposed to there.

What’s the difference?  Well, it helps me to stay organized by keeping all of my work in one place.  It also encourages me to produce quality, well thought out blog posts on a variety of topics while also showcasing other work that I do.   One of my primary goals for 2009 is to get a “real” website.   My other goal is to start the process of getting my work published in print.  To that end I am focused on writing my first novel (a sample of the very first page is available on the Writing Samples page) and can proudly say I just broke 20,000 words.  I am also seeking out a variety of literary magazines interested in publishing my short fiction.

So, that being said thanks for visiting and I hope that you will be back!

– Jenn

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