Category Archives: Literature

A Writing Style Comparison: Tobias Wolff and Dean Koontz

After reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, I wanted my next read to be lighthearted and plot based. So, I picked up an old Dean Koontz novel, By the Light of the Moon. The two books could not be more different. Of course genre plays a big part, but the difference in writing styles is striking.

Koontz’s writing style is heavy in description and his plot moves forward minute by minute. Wolff puts the bare bones on paper, jumping right to the action and cutting all unnecessary description, plot, characterization, ect. I don’t think This Boy’s Life contains a single wordy sentence. Koontz, on the other hand, loves lengthy metaphors and diving deep into characters’ thoughts, even during heated action scenes.

Koontz and Wolff are two of my favorite writers but their styles could not be more different. Reading their books back-to-back really opened my eyes to those differences. Let me show you some specific examples.

Opening Lines

Here are a few sentences that begin chapters in Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.

Wolff

  • The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
  • My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
  • When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.

Koontz

  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
  • These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice.

What difference do you notice? Length? Who is more action-oriented? Who is more introspective?

 time-pass-by

Time

By the Light of the Moon: 140 pages into the novel less than three hours have passed in the plot with very little background/flashbacks. A high-speed car chase (not really a chase but a mission) that lasts approximately 10 minutes in real time, stretches 15 pages in the book. At times, I forget the chase was even happening because the side tangents and in-depth character thoughts were so dense.

This Boy’s Life: the plot skips large chunks of time, covering approximately eight years in total. In the following sentence Wolff captures the entire time frame of 7th grade (aka puberty): “I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.” Of course Wolff does go into normal-speed scenes in his memoir, but they are strongly action-based with little filler.

Which writing style do you enjoy more?

Does one style draw you in more than the other? Why do you think that is? I personally enjoy both. Certain months I relish the bare bones of Wolff, Carver, and the like. Other months I crave the second-by-second, in-the-mind-of-the-character stories of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others.

Comment with two writers who are very different, yet you love them both. 

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Great First Paragraph(s)

Here are two EXCEPTIONAL novel intros that immediately hooked me. Please let me know what you think in the comments. What are your favorite first chapters? 

The Martian by Andy Weir

The_Martian_2014Chapter 1

Log Entry: Sol 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days in to what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned in to a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

This intro does so many great things:

Bold use of “fuck” in the first sentence. A sure way to gain the attention of your reader.

It quickly explains the situation. Our main character is alone on Mars after some kind of accident.

It sets the mood. Dangerous. Life-threatening. Unhopeful.

It develops character. An astronaut. A survivor.

It sets the tone of casual, journal entry format. Fragment sentences and the use of “cause” instead of “because.”

Its develops setting. On Mars, obviously. And the Wikipedia reference sets us in recent time.

If this genre in any way interests you, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to pick up this book!

 

The Zoo by James Patterson

Book 1, Chapter 1zoo

I woke up shaking.

I panicked at first, thinking I was having a stroke or something. Then I opened my eyes, relieved, as I remembered it wasn’t me that was shaking, it was my apartment.

Outside the wall of dusty, industrial-style windows beside my bed came what sounded like a regiment of giants rhythmically striking concrete with their rifle butts in a parade drill. But it wasn’t the jolly green marines. I knew it was the elevated number 1 Broadway local, rattling to shake the dead back to life next to my  new fifth floor Harlem loft apartment. Hadn’t gotten use to that train yet.

I winced, covered my head with my pillow. Useless. Only in New York did one have to actually pay for the privilege of sleeping beside an overpass.

But I was so broke I couldn’t even afford to complain. I sat up. I couldn’t even really afford to sleep. I couldn’t even afford to think about money. I’d spent it all and then some; my credit was in the sewer. By that point, I was in  tunnel-vision mode, focusing my entire life on one desperate need: to figure things out before it was too late.

(False) shock to hook the reader. The world is shaking!

Character- building. A broke New Yorker with something to prove.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up? Whatever it is, it will tell us a lot about your current life situation. The same is true for fictional characters, and Patterson gives us that before we even know our character’s name.

Sets the tone. An honest first-person narrator open to telling us his struggles.

Develops setting. A dingy New York apartment next to the train tracks.

 

Life of Pi Quotes

This entire novel is a good quote but here are a few I picked out that specifically pleased me. Enjoy! 

2002 Yann Martel Life of Pi“I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point to point or a lion merely turning its head. But language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“…Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”

“Ten thousand trumpets and twenty thousand drums could not have made as much noise as that bolt of lightning; it was positively deafening.”

“I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith [than leaving sacred writings like the Bible where weary travelers might rest their heads]. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a little girl’s kiss on your cheek.”

“It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.”

“At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.”

arunrajagopal.com

Beautiful photo taken from arunrajagopal.com.

“There were many seas. The sea roared like a tiger. The sea whispered in your ear like a friend telling you secrets. The sea clinked like small change in a pocket. The sea thundered like avalanches. The sea hissed like sandpaper working on wood. The sea sounded like someone vomiting. The sea was dead silent.” 

“Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher.”

“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.” -from the Author’s Note

Redeployment: fiction from a soilder

RedeploymentRedeployment is the best book I have read in 2015. It is a collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War. Phil Klay  provides his readers with true entertainment. His writing is intriguing and dense. Emotion runs high, along with risk. 

Writing Prompt based on Redeployment: fill in the blanks 

Writing

Klay’s writing doesn’t waste a single word. It is dense and relevant. Each short story combines multiple scenes surrounding a certain topic but his aim does not waver. Every story focuses on a different aspect of war or soldier life, making each story a unique and memorable piece of the larger puzzle.

Individual stories

The title story, Redeployment, was by far my favorite. It follows the rocky homecoming of a young veteran, faced with a difficult decision and the inclination of violence as a solution. The story’s emotion is paralyzing.  As the first story in the collection, it demands an attention that does not let up through the entire book.

Money as a Weapons System is another powerful story about the misdirection of funding in the Iraq war, cultural road blocks, and resistance to change.

After Action Report follows the after effects of a solider forced to kill a teenage Iraqi child. What is one suppose to feel after killing a child? Guilt, fear, shame? What about a child shooting an AK with an aim to kill American soldiers? Terror, numbness, pride.

Bodies explores a young soldier’s return from war to find what was once comforting and loving is now cold and distant. Even when the soldier returns home healthy and unscarred, he realizes life will still never return to what was once considered normal.

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Raised topics

Veterans coming home to abandoned homes

Religion on the warfront

War culture

Soldiers’ inability to reconnect to loved ones

Soldiers’ inability to talk about war

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Best Book of 2015 (so far)

My favorite book of the year. 5 stars without a doubt. You should read this!

People are Mirrors

Here is a great piece of dialogue from Kirsten Kaschock’s Sleight, one of the most creative books I’ve ever read.

Even when Marvel started going terribly wrong–soon after Gil’s death–she would only say, “Your brother is not of the usual stuff, Byrne. He can’t be held up to the usual mirrors.” And when Byrne asked, “Mom, what other mirrors are there?” she’d answered, “Oh–glass at night, and tinfoil. And some people are. They’re walking knives–you can see yourself in them, but you’re cut up.”

Photo taken from coffehousepress.org

Photo taken from coffehousepress.org

The Kite Runner is a Must-Read!

Kite_runnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. It delves into explaining the flawed truth of humanity, defying cultural biases, and portraying an inside view of a significant world change. And Hosseini does it all in beautiful prose!

The Kite Runner is in a category all its own and well deserves its spot on the list of Modern Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School that I blogged about recently. Its a list I plan to read in full.

Summary of The Kite Runner

Amir and Hassan were the greatest friends either would ever know but society placed a wedge between them. Hassan was a Hazara, a discriminated class of Afghan, and the son of Amir’s family servant. The two friends grew up under the same roof, played the same games, and loved the same books but because Hassan was a Hazara, he was not allowed to go to school with Amir or sleep in the family’s extravagant house. Hassan and his father slept in a one-room hut in the yard. While Amir learned to read and write at school, Hassan cooked his best friend’s breakfast and made his bed.

The boys’ friendship ends harshly and with tragic heartbreak but their story does not end there. True childhood friendships stay close to heart one’s entire lives.

As the Taliban take over the Afghanistan government, destroy his hometown, and crash into the Twin Towers, Amir escapes the evil rule of Afghanistan and moves to the US. The Kite Runner is a story of Afghan culture before and after it made American headlines. It will open readers’ eyes to that culture but even more so, it will open your eyes to the immense connection of friendship and family and the emotions will tear you apart as surely as they tear apart the characters of The Kite Runner.

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The Flawed Truth of Humanity

The range of emotions and the depth at which they are explored is incomparable. Love and guilt. Shame and fear. Pride, joy and love. Desire. Hate.

Perhaps a man can only be considered a “great men” if he is a successful secret keeper. Why? Because everyone is flawed. Every human being holds the entire range of human emotion, including hate, envy, jealousy, selfishness.

Point of View and Tone

Amir tells the story in first person. The mass of the story is told in past tense but the very end jumps to present tense. The switch worked well for me.

The emotion that was so strong in this novel had a lot to do with the tone of regret Amir told the story in. From the very first sentence, the reader feels the regret of his childhood. Watching young Amir act cruelly, knowing how much he regrets it later in life, makes my heart ache even weeks after turning the last page.

Afghanistan’s Discrimination and American’s Stereotypes

The characters in The Kite Runner keep immense secrets and make life-altetering sacrifices in order to keep their name “honorable” by going along with the cultural discrimination of Hazaras. As hard as we try to be fair to all genders, races, religions, ect. in America, we struggle. And because we are so drawn up in our own struggle for equality, we overlook the downright racism and discrimination that is going on all over the world.

This novel opened my eyes to a culture and a religion that is stereotyped more than any other in America.

School near completion in Farah ProvinceAn Insider’s View of World Change

The Kite Runner is relevant in world news, in politics, and in the struggles of Americans’ daily life. Published in 2003, this book couldn’t have been released at a more relevant time. It reflects a time in American history from the point of view of someone emotionally, physically, and culturally close to the change while still keeping a “neutral” stance on the political aspect. The book does not verbally abuse the Taliban, it simply shows their evil nature. It does not go in depth about the effects of 911, but it reminds readers there are innocent people on both sides of this war.

The Kite Runner is a heart-felt story written in beautifully-crafted prose but the reason it makes the list of Modern Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School is because of its political and cultural reflection of 21st century American history.

Summary

5 stars!!! An extended timeline packed with action. Characters too real to let go. Emotions too deep not to shed a tear. Cultural and political relevance during a testing time in history. Simply stated, The Kite Runner is not a book you will easily forget.

11 Modern Books Our Kids Will Read in School

Kite_runnerMy new goal is to read every book on this list in the next two years. Ironically, the day before I saw this list, I started reading The Kite Runner, so I’m already on my way! 🙂

There are some controversial titles on this list but I read some controversial titles as a young girl as well. What do you think? Would you want to keep any of these titles away from your children?

11 Twenty-First Century Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School

  1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  5. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  6. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  8. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  9. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  10. Dear Life by Alice Munro
  11. Tenth of December by George Sauders

Do you think Arts.Mic missed any books? 

What Makes a Great Opening Line?

There are many opinions and ideas of what an opening line should include/accomplish but there is one thing everyone can agree on; an opening line should intrigue the reader enough that they want to continue reading. Trying to figure out how to do that is where the opinions come in.

Here are a few things to consider when drafting that first line of your story.

7462160886_5fe0633a2b_bIntrigue reader to go on

The opening line should leave the reader with questions and those questions. Who is this character? Why are they in this predicament? Where are they going? What just happened? Of course an outstanding story can follow a poor opening line (or a poor story follow an outstanding first line) but as a writer, you want to hook your reader as soon as possible.

Example: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Set up voice

Have you ever absolutely loved a book but can’t exactly explain why? The plot was mediocre, the characters were relatable but there was just something extra special about the book you can’t pin down. It was probably the voice, the personality of the writing. Without exception, that personality should begin in the very first sentence and carry a similar feel throughout the entire piece.

Example: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Set up (writing) style

If a novel is a facts-based story with minimal details, the first line should reflect that. If a novel has a lot of description and wandering narration, then a long-winded description of a farm landscape and the sound of the character’s boots crunching gravel. The length of the sentence can have a big effect on this. Also, the POV should become clear in the first sentence.

Example of straight forward writing style: “Mother died today.” —Albert Camus, The Stranger

Example of stylistic writing style: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

115564627_06f61afdb6_bReflect the novel as a whole

This encompasses the two previous suggestions but also every other aspect of the writing and story itself. If the story is set in the 1800’s you don’t want to use 21st century slang. If its realistic fiction, don’t begin with a science-fiction metaphor. If you want to create a reliable narrator, avoid an opening sentence like Slaughterhouse Five‘s, “All this happened, more or less.” Whatever a piece of writing is about should be reflected in the opening line.

Example: “It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Make a bold statement

An option but not a requirement.

Example: “I am an invisible man.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.

Set the (action) scene

Some common advice you might have heard is to begin writing a story in the middle of a compelling scene. This can be an attention-grabbing option but (considering the above) if the story is not based around tons of action, this might not be the best option.

Example: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

Introduce a character/setting

This is present in most first sentences but is rarely the main point of interest or focus.

Example: “My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.” —Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas

What great advice have you heard about writing an opening line?

What is one of your own favorite opening lines?

Side Characters are People Too

Halfway through the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a single sentence struck me so powerful, I had to flesh out my thoughts about it here. **Slight Spoilers ahead** but they won’t ruin the book/movie for you.

Let me set the scene for you…Gone_Girl

The wife of the main character, Nick, has been missing for five days. Foul play is expected but no hard leads have been found. The lead detectives on the case sit Nick down to ask him a few more questions. The “friendly” interrogation starts with the detectives asking Nick if he would like a lawyer. His internal dialogue explains why he denies the request. “I knew from my TV shows, my movies, that only guilty guys lawyered up. Real, grieving, worried, innocent husbands did not.” 

Although the detectives do not accuse Nick of anything, all the questions point towards him being the main suspect. His lack of alibi, raising his wife’s life insurance policy, discussing their troubled marriage.

The last two sentences of the chapter are as follows:

“Maybe its time I got a lawyer,” Nick said.
The cops exchanged another look, as if they’d settled a bet.

Why that last sentence struck me…

It probably doesn’t hit you as hard as it hit me, but for the entire day, I couldn’t stop thinking about that sentence. Why? Because…

1. It makes the cops seem like very real people, not just the surface characters we see investigating the case.

Although the cops were by no means “flat” characters, this sentence reveals that they are much more than place holders. It alerts the reader that the cops are having secret conversations behind the scenes as well as withholding information.

2. First person point of view can be very limited and deceiving. 

Because the novel is written in first person, the only time we see the cops is when they are talking to Nick. This sentence reminds readers that there is a full investigation going on but we only see a small part of, the part that Nick sees. This scene reveals a lot of information that the cops were previously keeping from Nick (which means the readers didn’t know about it either). There is a whole world of conversations, investigations, and information outside of what our narrator knows/shares.

3. It reminded me that even side characters have a full story. 

This fact got me thinking the most. I love characters and I always strive to have real, full characters in my own writing but this sentence was jolting because it revealed a huge flaw in my own writing. Every character, no matter how small their part, has a full story and a round personality. To ignore those stories is to ignore the truth. I don’t want my main characters talking to generic, faceless people. I want them to be surprised by what other characters tell them and they should be. Every person has experienced different things and has a different way of looking at the world and their dialogue/action should reflect their individual self. Knowing the unique aspects of side characters begins by realizing they have their own story to tell.

Writing Prompt: Obviously this girl kneeling has a story, but what about that guy in the background? What’s his story? 

man in background

The chapter that doesn’t quite fit…

I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.

don't speak but feelI love when a writer, in the midst of a novel, slips in a short chapter or section that although it is relevant to the story, it does not progress the plot in any way but is interesting and often poetic. These stand-alone chapters will have a unique structure, tone, point of view, or something else that sets it apart. They can be used to recapture a reader’s attention during a slow section of the plot or they can reinforce a theme.

Below I have transcribed one such chapter from Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. Another example of this type of mid-novel poetics is this paragraph from The Storm at the Door by Stephen Merrill Block. Although the topics are consistent with the larger piece, aspects such as the mood or the method of delivery stagger.

The Flame Alphabet is written in first person but as you can see below, this chapter doesn’t elude to a narrator (in first person or otherwise). We have no indication of our character finding or thinking about these quotes and none of the famous names mentioned in the chapter are relevant to the rest of the story. I believe this chapter is present to grow the theme of the book, to inform the reader that our narrator is not the first person to believe language is evil.

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Chapter 35

In his early writing, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.

Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.

But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.

I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.

Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.

They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.

If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.

When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.

Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.

If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it event he memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.

I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.

Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.

Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.

Do not read this, warned Plutarch.

Do not read this, warned Cicero.

Do not read this, begged Ovid.

If you value your life.

Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.

No alphabet but in things, said Williams.

Correction. No alphabet at all.

 

languages

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