Monthly Archives: February 2014

Reading OR writing. Keep one, lose one. What would you pick?

When I was making the decision to major in Creative Writing in college, one of my biggest fears was that studying the subject would take the joy out of reading. Thankfully, the exact opposite happened. I’m a very slow reader because as I read, I am constantly thinking about writing. I pay attention to sentence structure, word choice, dialogue tricks, pacing, characterization and a thousand other aspects. I want nothing more than to soak in every detail of the story as well as the writing and if I zipped through a hundred pages an hour, that wouldn’t happen.

When I write, I don’t necessarily think about what I’ve learned from my reading but subconsciously it plays its part. Last summer when I got on a Don DeLillo kick, I caught myself imitating his writing style. I didn’t notice it until revision but that alone is proof that what we read affects ours writing.

If I choose to drop writing forever would reading lose its meaning? I could still enjoy the stories but I would no longer need that notebook at my side scribbling down page numbers and notes. Reading would become one-dimensional entertainment; something to be tossed aside once the last page was flipped.

Probably the most common advice for aspiring writers is simply this: read and read a lot. We learn to write by reading. So if I was to give up reading in order to keep writing, how would I improve? Would my learning be limited to dry textbooks? How would I know the trends of the market? How would I know where to send my stuff for publication if I am unable to read what they have published previously? Without reading, writing would become incredibly hard.

How am I to pick one when neither is same without the other?

Twist my arm today I would choose reading. Twist my arm tomorrow and I could very likely choose writing.

Image

This question came to mind as I browsed a local bookstore today.

A True Writer Can Turn Ramblings into Art

Book Review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Published by Vintage.

If you have ever stolen someone’s journal, you know it’s really not that exciting of a read. Rambling complaints are not fun. But in this journal-like novel, Didion’s writing kept my eyes glued to the page until it was over. In her essay, Why I Write, Didion explains that she writes to find out what she is thinking, to find out what is going to happen to her (in nonfiction) or her characters (fiction). (See my recent post, Writing as Discovery, for more about this.) Written during the year after her husband’s death, this book is exactly that. As the internal dialogue goes on, the reader can clearly see Didion trying to deal with her grief. At times she recognizes it but still cannot control it. Our desire to continue reading is driven by the same thing that drove her to write this book; to discover how she learns to live with her grief.

SummaryImage

This piece of nonfiction is a first person narrative that exposes the extreme grief of the author, Joan Didion, after the death of her husband. The novel begins with the scene of his death, witnessed firsthand by Didion. The novel flows through the next year, peeling away the layers of grief and heartache that Didion experiences. Flashbacks paint a full picture of the couple’s life together while present problems keep the plot moving forward. This novel is a perfect example of how writing in specifics can create a truly universal picture. As it says in the description, this novel “will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.”

Plot/Timeline

This novel begins with the climax. The husband’s death is quick and, frankly, not very dramatic. A separate but related plot line takes over the forward momentum of the story while many flashbacks create a full picture of Didion’s marriage. The structure of the story is not solid. It is not exciting or suspenseful. But it is a page turner. Didion’s writing flows so effortlessly and she explains things with such clarity and beauty that it made me want to read on.

Repetition

Didion uses repetition of certain words and phrases throughout the book to keep the reader grounded. Because the words/phrases are unique, it brings the reader back to the specific memory in which she introduced it. The many flashbacks create a jumpy timeline. These trigger words—as I will call them—help remind the reader of where they have been and help tie the entire story together in a loosely plotted book.

Research

In the novel, Didion admits that she believes “information is control.” Therefore, we see her incorporate a lot of research into this book. She shares research about the science of health issue that arises. She quotes reactions others have had to the sudden death of a loved one. She brings sections of her and her husband’s previously published work into this novel. She quotes poems that are stuck in her head. She takes excerpts from books including The Hour of Our Death by Philipe Ariés and an article about cardiac arrest from the Massachusetts Medical Society. The research is diverse but always directly relates.

In a fictional novel, this research could be woven into the book seamlessly, passed off as the character’s or narrator’s own knowledge. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion creates the impression that the reader is learning and growing side-by-side with her. She presents the research as she discovers it to enhance this perception—and it works very well!

Recommendation

In its own way, this book is a rapid page-turner but I would not recommend it to action-seekers and plot-twist enthusiasts. Although the internal, emotional dialogue does not appeal to everyone, the book did become a National Bestseller and won the National Book Award. Personally, the day I picked it up, I only put it down for lunch, dinner and to great my boyfriend home from work. I finished it the next day. Without a doubt, I will read this book again someday.

How I found this book: Honestly, the title caught my eye in a book store and Joan Didion’s name alone is legendary. I put it on my Christmas list and was grateful enough to receive it from my boyfriend’s parents. Thank you!

Writing as Discovery

I have read a lot lately about writing as discovery. Jane Kenyon put it this way: “There’s the need to make sense of life behind the impulse to write.”

When I started writing in a creative way, this is consciously what inspired me. I was a middle school girl going through a lot of changes and life was sooo dramatic. I perceived a lot more issues than were present but if you had told me that at the time I would have locked myself in my room for the rest of the day and scribble poems in my notebook.

Image

This is that very first middle-school notebook.

These poems were always one page long, the title always came from a direct word or phrase in the poem itself and they were always nonfictional. I wrote to try to find out why my best friend had ditched me, why my parents were fighting, why my sister had made me change clothes before we went to the high school baseball game. I wrote these poems—and reread them—trying to figure out what was going on in my head and in my heart and why those feelings never seemed to match up.

Joan Didion ends her essay “Why I Write” saying “…had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

Not knowing what is coming next in my own novel is what keeps me going and what makes me afraid to go forward. I don’t have a plan. I don’t know my character’s deepest ambitions. I have no idea what is going to happen in the next chapter, let alone the ending. I’m not even sure what genre it is. But I force myself to sit down and write because I want to know what is going to happen. I want my character to reveal his deepest fears when the time is right and if I don’t push the story forward, he will never get the chance.

When I was a short-fused, teenage girl who died her hair purple on a whim, I wrote because I needed some sense of control. I needed to know what I was trying to say when I was tongue tied. I needed to know where my heart was leading me when I saw nothing but darkness in every direction. Back then it was nonfictional poems, today its fictional short stories and novels, but I write for the same reasons.

See, I have this inkling,

that as my novel goes on

and my character reveals himself,

well,

he’s turning out to be more and more like me.

My Free Write on Light

Light brings clarity. Lack of light brings fear.

Sun. Lamp. Firefly. Chandelier. Lightning. Technology.

What produces more light; nature or man? If a man creates a fire in the woods, is that nature’s or man’s?

There was once a time when men huddled around fire with their jaws dropped. The heat that emanated, the light, it was magic to them. Fire cooked their food and warmed their homes. Fire was life.

The torch held by the Statue of Liberty. The flickering of a single firefly. The constellations of a city’s skyline.The reflection of sunlight off ice.

Do we control light? The flick of a switch. The strike of a match. A curtain pulled aside. Light is allowed and denied but shadows always exist. Darkness conceals corners and hides mountains. A photographer’s contrast. A shadow slithers behind us on the street when the sun is low. Run and run and run but only nature’s timetable will free you.

Check out the writing prompt that inspired this

Image

Subconscious Free Write

11009811883_76e3

In the nonfiction book I’m currently reading, the author jumps from subject to subject but always finds a way back to the main theme of the book, grief. In my own experiences, no matter what we begin writing about our subconscious always finds it’s way to the surface. That is the exact reason I turn to writing when I am upset; it brings our concerns to the surface and forces us to deal with them (either directly or indirectly).

Whether something is troubling you or not, I’d like you to take the time to simple free write (writing not connected to any specific piece) and see where it takes you.

Choose a vague topic and free write for at least 10 minutes. Possible topics: freedom, light, space, meaninglessness, emotion, family, faith, failure, success, the future, war, ect.

Comment with other topic suggestions that work for you! Have fun!

1 Star Book Review

Book Review on Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick. Published by Roc, a division of Penguin.

It’s with great hesitancy that I quit reading a book before I finish it but Among Thieves simply failed to hook me. I read nearly 200 pages of the 414 page book. Every time I sat down to read, I found myself skimming huge passages just to try to get it over with. Finally I convinced myself to return the book to the library and start something new.

Summary

Photo taken from goodreads.com

Photo taken from goodreads.com

Among Thieves follows around the main character, Drothe, in a dangerous city called Ildrecca. Drothe works for a crime lord as a type of spy that lets his boss know the events and rumors that are happening around the city. When war threatens Drothe’s boss and his power, he is sent to uncover who is behind the whispered threats. Along the way, Drothe luckily survives a murder attempt that used illegal magic. Now Drothe tries to uncover who wants him dead, who is threatening his boss and trying to uncover mysterious markings that he took from a man he tortured in the opening scene of the book.

Plot

While all of the above story lines were interesting, I felt that they were not coming together fast enough. Halfway through the book, there were at least four separate plot lines and no hint of them coming together. I also had problems with the pace of the novel. Something was always happening, yes, but it was happening too slow. The book was overflowing with details, many of which I found to be unnecessary. After a while, I found myself skipping all the dialogue tags and details during a conversations. Even when I skipped all those words, I still understood what was happening. That kind of unnecessary description was a huge turn off.

Characterization

Even with description riddling every page, I still didn’t get a good sense of the characters. The main character, Drothe, is the only one I would consider truly round and most of that comes from his background and not his present actions. Though I would consider him brave, harsh and curious in a need-to-know sort of way, I don’t know how else to describe him. One of my biggest issues with Drothe’s character was I didn’t know who he was loyal to. He was working for his boss but there was some serious tension there. On the side, he was working with several other people including his sister who married her way into royalty. There is also his best friend who takes a binding oath to protect and help him in the dangerous looming times. I want to say he is loyal to himself and only himself but I can’t even be sure of that. I never knew what to expect of him. It is good to keep a little mystery, but I prefer to have a strong hold on the characters and let the plot keep me guessing.

Element of Magic

I knew going into the book that it was a SciFi Fantasy novel but the elements of magic that were introduced throughout the story came about too slow. The only fantasy thing that is clear right away is Drothe’s “night vision.” His eyes automatically adjust to the dark, allowing him to see more clearly. It was hinted at that Drothe took this ability from someone but it was never explained how.

About a third of the way through the book, we are introduced to more magic that the world holds. When a hired man attempts to kill Drothe with illegal magic, we get our first introduction into the part that magic plays in this world. Because that information came so late, I kept wondering if there were more aspects of the world that would be revealed with time. When a story is set in a world so different from our own, the basic rules of that world need to be established early on in the story. Halfway through Among Thieves, I still did not have a good grasp on the world and what type of magical elements were possible. In this aspect, I believe Hulick failed.

Recommendation

Overall, the plot moved too slow, had too much detail and did not provide the reader with a solid grounding. I would not recommend this book to anyone. I’m hesitant to even award this book one star.

How I found this book: I recently joined a book club of all writers and this was the first novel chosen. I am looking forward to next month’s book (East of Eden by John Steinbeck) much more.

My Top 10 Favorite Books

The interesting thing about our favorite books and stories is that the more we read, one of two things happens; our favorites either become more firmly locked into place or they get pushed down and down the list until their titles no longer appear. I was surprised by a few of the titles that ended up on my list, which was compiled after a fellow writing friend (check out Julija’s blog sojustmethen.wordpress.com) encouraged me to do so after she shared her own. Along with the surprises, there are a few that have become as sure as cement. Some have been on the list for many years and others only a few months.

I encourage all avid readers to write down your top 10 favorites. Like me, you may be surprised at what makes the list.

The Great Gatsby

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald –I’ve always loved reading, but The Great Gatsby made me fall in love with literature! Although it’s no longer my favorite novel, I will forever be in debt to Mr. Fitzgerald (and my high school English teacher, Mr. Smith, who assigned the reading) for introducing me to another world.
  2. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – J.K. Rowling has given the entire world a gift. She created such an imaginative yet believable world it’s no wonder millions of kids have wrote to her asking for harry pottertheir Hogwarts letters. Harry Potter holds such a high spot on my list not only because I fell in love with the characters, the world and the epic story, but because that story was shared with so many. The community of people around the world that Harry Potter has brought together is in itself magical. Growing up with Harry and his friends through the series was a remarkable journey and one that I, and so many others, will always hold near and dear. The number of young readers who may never have enjoyed reading if it wasn’t for the Harry Potter series is unmatched and will be for a long time.
  3. The Story of Forgetting by Stefen Merrill Block – Not knowing any idea what I was getting into, I randomly chose The Story of Forgetting audio book off my local library shelf. The novel follows two contrasting storylines, one of a young boy with limitless potential and the other of an old man waiting for the past to find him. A wonderful story but the writing is what hooked me. Block blends worlds; of youth and old age, of imagination and harsh realities, of the past and the future. Block’s novel encompasses so much of what I am aim to achieve with my own written work.
  4. Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser – An absolutely wonderful book of poetry that touched my soul in a way nothing else ever has. Images from Kooser’s poetry jump into my consciousness on a regular basis. He sees and describes everyday sights and experiences in such a way that I immediately connect with the writing. Although I understand it’s not my strong suit, I love writing poetry because it makes the mind think in different ways. When I attempt to twist my words into a poetic line or two, Kooser’s ability to turn the simplicities of life into unforgettable moments of beauty is exactly what I strive for.
  5. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – My Hamline writing friends know this one well! Assigned reading in my Senior Seminar for Creative Writing, this is simply a beautiful tale of a man and his memories.
  6. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz – My favorite fictional character of all time, Odd Thomas is fun, unpredictable and humble. He accepts his bizarre, chaotic life in order to help others even when it tears his own world apart. The way Koontz presents and stays true to Odd’s character throughout the series earns it a top spot. Though, the entire series (currently six books) is worth reading, the first one is by far my favorite.
  7. Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff – My favorite short story author! His stories are definitely worth the read. His memoir is patiently waiting to be read on my shelf as well.
  8. The Shining by Stephen King – Similar to The Story of Forgetting, we are graced with characters both young and old and see the story through varying POVs. We take a nerve-quaking journey with an extraordinary young boy just learning to understand and control his abilities. That small twist of science fiction in an otherwise ordinary world is something I can’t resist! With the amount of fiction King produces, it’s safe to say he will always be on my reading list. The Stand, a King classic and regarded by many as his best novel to date, is the next King title on my list.hunger games
  9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games series doesn’t even come close to Harry Potter, but such a unique story, written in great prose, is hard not to love. The novel is paced beautifully and Katniss is a beautifully rounded character. She always stays true to herself even when she’s not sure who that is.
  10. I’m going to end my top 10 with all the childhood favorites that got me reading in the first place: Goosebumps, the “Witches Don’t Do Backflips” books, Matt Christopher, Clifford the Big Red Dog, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so many more! I’m not sure who I would be today if these children’s and young adult authors had not found a way into my heart.

So true

So true

Whenever I doubt myself, I simply sit down to write and remember this quote.

When to Drop a Bad Book

I have trouble quitting. I always have, always will and I’m glad I do. But that makes it hard to discard even the worst books before I flip the last page. I’m currently about halfway through a SciFy novel by an unknown author and I simply am not enjoying it. The plot is engaging but I’m not excited to sit down with the book. Every time I pick it up, I think, Okay, let’s get through this so I can read something else.old book

Life is short and there are millions of books I will never get the chance to read in my lifetime, so why am I still reading this weak  SciFy novel?

I’m hesitant to put it down because I know there is something I can learn from it. Besides the fact that the book is way more detailed than I prefer, I can’t put my finger on a good reason for my dislike for the book. I keep going down the list of things I typically pick on in fiction: weak and inconsistent characters, too quick and convenient of a plot, bad writing, ect. Although the writing is not excellent, it is better some YA novels I’ve read lately. The author lays everything out a bit too cleanly (often more wordy than necessary) but the plot keeps moving forward at a good pace. The characters are round and unique but they’re not capturing my attention. The SciFi aspects are strange and working well with the story but the world as a whole doesn’t make sense to me.

I read for two reasons: 1) because I enjoy it and 2) because I want to absorb as much as possible to improve my own writing. If I toss this book aside, I won’t learn what not to do in my own writing.

So I guess the answer for when to put down a bad book, is once I’ve learned something from it.

 

How quickly do you toss a book out that is not capturing your attention?

Have you come across this dilemma lately? What did you do? 

Novels That Pass Time’s Test are True Treasures

Book Review of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Published by Penguin.

“Can we write human beings into existence? And what sort of existence? Had Shakespeare listened to the news of Duncan’s death in a tavern or heard the knocking on his own bedroom door after he had finished the writing of Macbeth?”  This quote from page 121 of Our Man in Havana, is possibly the root idea that inspired this novel.

Plot SummaryIMG_5170

James Wormold, a single father and vacuum-cleaner-salesman in Havana, Cuba, is approached by a stranger who recruits him to become a spy for the Secret Service. Wormold, who is set up as a spineless push-over, believes the stranger is full of crap but lets the situation play out around him. Whatever may be fake, the money the agency sends him is very real. Wormold begins sending the agency fake reports and recruiting fake agents to help him spy on the city. One of his falsified reports sparks action from multiple countries’ agencies, causing his falsified reports to spin into real controversies. One of Wormold’s agents that was only alive on paper, turns up dead in real life. Before he knows it, Wormold is at the center of a deadly political tangle.

Characterization

One of the most wonderful things about writing fiction is that you, as the author, can make everything work in your favor. In order for Wormold to go along with this “spy” business that he clearly thinks is bogus, he needs to be two things: 1) a spineless, go-with-the-flow kind of man and 2) struggling for money. Both are established beautifully by Greene in a scene where Wormold’s daughter asks him to buy her a horse for her birthday. Wormold first rejects, saying his business is struggling and they don’t have the money. After further (but seriously not that much) begging by his daughter, he folds. He agrees to the horse even when he knows he can’t afford it.

A single powerful line of characterization is at the beginning of Part 1, Chapter 4 as Wormold is walking his normal route to a bar in his hometown.

“At every corner there were men who called ‘Taxi’ at him as though he were a stranger…”

A line like this tells us more about Wormold’s character than a hundred stand along adjectives. (Awkward, unconfident, uncomfortable, dorky, foreign, stranger, nervous) Also consider that this line shows the character being acted upon, which explains how others view him. A character’s own actions offer more insight on how they view themselves.

Dialogue

This book has some of the best dialogue I have ever read. Here are some of the highlights that made it stand out:

  • It was unpredictable and surprisingdialogue bubbles
  • Uncommonly few dialogue tags, yet it was never confusing who was speaking
  • It moved the plot along and helped characterize individuals
  • Silences were described by the thoughts and actions of the characters instead of “Silence followed” or the like
  • It changed subjects randomly
  • Those change-of-subjects would often circle around and connect with the original topic
  • Characters could hold conversations about two separate topics at one time

This last point was particularly interesting to me. The best example is near the end of the book (pages 157-160) when Wormold is holding a serious conversation with another character while playing checkers. The main conversation is about what is happening in the plot but the characters randomly comment on the game they are playing. Greene’s dialogue is so smooth that he hardly has any dialogue tags and never has to describe what the characters are actually doing. Because they talk about playing checkers, we assume they are sitting at a table, moving their pieces in turn and talking. There is no need for Greene to describe that further. Brilliantly, the conversation of checkers doesn’t only interrupt the main conversation, but also is woven into it. The characters use the game as a metaphor for what is going on in their lives. (I wish I could simply share this section with you but it would be too much of a spoiler. (So please read the book!))

One more specific I will share is how Greene filled a gap in a conversation on page 26. **Spoiler ahead** At this point in the story, the stranger is trying to recruit Wormold to become a spy. He has pulled them into a bathroom and runs a water tap so they won’t be overheard. Wormold is going along with the conversation even when he thinks the stranger is crazy. When they hear another man approaching the bathroom, the stranger forces Wormold into a stall and he pretends to wash his own hands.

“…and then there was silence expect for the running tap. Wormold sat down. There was nothing else to do. When he was seated his legs still showed under the half door. A handle tuned. Feet crossed the tiled floor towards the pissoir. Water went on running. Wormold felt an enormous bewilderment. He wondered why he had not stopped all this nonsense at the beginning. No wonder Mary had left him. He remembered one of their quarrels. ‘Why don’t you do something, act some way, any way at all? You just stand there…’ At least, he thought, this time I’m not standing, I’m sitting. But in any case what could he have said? He hadn’t been given time to get a word in. Minutes passed. What enormous bladders Cubans had, and how clean Hawthorne’s hands must be getting by this time. The water stopped running. Presumably he was drying his hands, but Wormold remembered there were no towels. That was another problem for Hawthorne but he would be up to it. All part of the drill. At last the feet passed towards the door. The door closed.” And the conversation resumes.

In that moment of “silence” Green works in characterization, Wormold’s internal thoughts, setting, the surrounding actions and humor. (The sitting line made me laugh out loud!) Think about this the next time you are writing a moment of silence in your fiction, I know I will!

Transitions

Greene’s transitions help the plot cover a lot of time. Chapter breaks often skip large amounts of unspecified time but Greene does is without causing confusion. The characters often casually allude to how much time has passed and give the reader a little “recap” of what has happened through dialogue. When one character is explaining the events to another character that is just learning of them, it helps the transition feel natural and the information unforced.novel

A specific interesting transition is when Greene starts a chapter off by explaining a common day-dream of Wormold’s. In the day-dream, he would suddenly realize he was rich but the day-dream was always shattered when he entered the “big American bank” where, in reality, his small savings account was managed. And where should the action start off but inside that very bank. An excellent and clever transition.

Negatives

Although it is more of a style choice than a flaw, there were scenes where Green had very few details in this novel. The heavy reliance on dialogue often took over for the narrator which would be where details were told. I enjoyed the style very much but there were a couple moments when I wished there had been more details. Also, because the novel centered on Wormold, the reader was not present for one of the big scenes in the book when his agent died (though its questionable if it even happened so there is good reason for the reader not to be there).

Recommendation

I recommend this book to everyone! It is an excellent piece of literature as well as entertainment. Five stars! I will specifically recommend this novel to anyone who wants to see how great dialogue is done.

How I found this book: A fellow writer recommended it knowing how much I love great dialogue. Thanks Stephen!

%d bloggers like this: