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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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Write a Story in Twitter-segments

Writing Prompt based on Black Box by Jennifer Egan:

Write a story in Tweets.

Write a story in 140-character-or-less segments.

It will be jerky.

It will be minimalist.

It will challenge your way with words.

And, hopefully, it will be fun!

Jennifer Egan’s short story, Black Box, was originally published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Therefore, each segment was required to be 140 characters or less. It is best understood, and appreciated, by reading the story itself, so please do so.

The Martian Book Review

The_Martian_2014If I had to limit this book review to one word, it would be HILARIOUS. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard or so often while reading. But, thankfully the internet does not limit our opinions and encourages us to ramble.

Things I Loved:

  • The story. Its unique, fun, and intriguing.
  • The suspense is constant and lasts until the very end. 
  • The intelligence mixed with imagination. Andy Weir’s mix of talents and interests is not common. The amount of scientific research that must be behind this novel is overwhelming to think about. His ability to balance humor, suspense, science, plot, and character is exceptional. v58E6SgE
  • Mark Watney. He’s hilarious, light-hearted, optimistic, vulnerable, tough, smart, resourceful, independent. He laughs at himself, makes 3rd-grade boobie jokes with the whole world watching him, figures out a way to grow food on a planet where nothing grows, and sometimes despises the little amount of help he actually receives. In literary terms, he is round.
  • The story behind the story. The Martian was originally self-published in 2011, then Crown Publishing bought the rights in 2014 and now in 2015, the story is being made into a major motion picture!
  • The first chapter immediately hooks the reader. I don’t know how anyone could read the first page and not want to buy this book! Future blog post to come on this topic! If Weir even tried to publish through normal channels in 2011, I’m shocked someone didn’t pick it up based on the first chapter alone!
  • Puns.  A novel about a man left alone on Mars is territory that has never before been explored.

Things That Bored Me:

Maybe the title is a little harsh, but there were certainly moments I was glad to be listening to The Martian on audiobook so I could fade away for a bit.

  • The science was too much at times, very necessary, but sometimes boring and over my head. I’m sure science geeks loved it!
  • Predictable. Three-fourths of the way through the novel, I felt like the same thing kept happening over and over. Watney found himself in a horrible, life-threatening situation and then he worked his way out of it with scientific creativity. The hurdles he had to jump over were very unique, but I began to loose the intensity of the danger because he was always turning out okay.
    • At one point I told two coworkers that I hoped Watney would die, simply because I wanted to be surprised. Both of their jaws dropped and several wide-eyed seconds of silence followed.

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4.5…maybe 5 Stars

I loved the novel and will recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest. I’m not a science person, yet I loved it. The humor alone is worth the read! And I look forward to going to the movie this weekend!

Zoo Book Review

zooI haven’t read many James Patterson novels but whenever I do, I learn something new. His books are intelligent and thought-provoking. Zoo is no exception. Its filled with facts about animal behavior and zoology and it will force you to take a second look at how the actions of humans are effecting our environment.

Plot and Timeline

Animals all over the world start attacking human beings, literally turning the world into a zoo. This James Patterson novel, which has recently been adapted into a TV series on CBS, is a short but thrilling novel.

The novel begins in a very detailed, day-by-day structure. Fast-paced and action packed. Animals escape from a zoo in LA, lions attack and kill entire villages in Africa, loving pets turn into vicious monsters, attacking the same people they have lived with for years.

Then halfway through the novel the plot suddenly jumps ahead 5 years. Patterson explains that not much development of the animal epidemic happens during those 5 years, but a lot has happened with our main character. He has fallen in love, got married, and had a son.

Although this 5-year jump makes a lot of sense for the plot, I don’t like it from a character perspective. Falling in love and becoming a father can completely change a person and I didn’t feel like those changes got the attention they deserved. Zoo is definitely a plot-based action novel but a novel will never feel complete without a solid, realistic character in my eyes.

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Writing

Smooth, descriptive writing makes Zoo an easy read. Here is an example of a memorable character description.

“The big boisterous fool is squatting against the truck of a tree, wheezing like a concertina from the exertion of the morning’s uphill march. Kahlil is fat as a swine and smokes like a broken truck. And as slow moving as sap in January.”

TV Show

I have watched the first few episodes of Zoo on CBS and think the show is interesting but I don’t expect it to get renewed for a second season.

I would recommend the TV show over the book, but neither are at the top of my list.

Overall

2.5 stars. A good action-based thriller. The exact kind of novel that makes a best-seller list, as this surely did, but it lacked character development.

Writing Prompt based on The Martian

Here’s a Monday morning writing prompt to get your week started off right! 

Based on The Martian

Create a story outline (or heck, write the whole thing!) about a character exploring territory that has never before been touched by humans. 

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The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

story of owenThe Story of Owen follows a teenage boy following his family tradition of slaying dragons. Set in a modern world, where dragons feed on carbon emissions, E. K. Johnston weaves the history of dragons into the history we read in our textbooks today.

Surrounded by normal high school kids, Owen finds himself somewhere between being an outcast and a celebrity. The narrator of the story, Sibohan, is Owen’s best friend and a musical prodigy. Together the duo, along with Owen’s famous family, wants to change the way the world views dragon slaying.

Things That Worked For Me:

  • History – Johnston incorporates a lot of history (real and fictional) into the story. This is a great choice by the publisher, who focuses on educational-based children’s books. The history, although long-winded at times, was interesting and appropriate for the story. Johnston does a great job of weaving the story’s fictional history into the history we believe in our world. Its a great way to sneak a little history lesson into your child’s fun reading! 
  • Another creative twist of real life and fiction is the fact that these dragons feed on carbon emissions. We know its a danger in our world, but image if every time you drove a car or worked at a factory, you had a serious chance of being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.
  • Rural Canadian setting – The setting worked well for the story, keeping the reader grounded to reality in an unrealistic world. Growing up in rural Minnesota, the setting was familiar to me but also differed in interesting ways.
  • Music, Dragons, History – What a mix!? The narrator is a musical prodigy and her best friend is a dragon slayer…where else will you find a duo quite like that!?
  • Characters – Johnston incorporated a good mix of characters. Some are quiet and reserved, others are loud and outgoing. Some are athletic, others musical. Some past their prime, others growing into it.
  • Dragons in a Modern World – Just plain cool.

Things That Didn’t Work For Me:

  • History – Ironically the thing I liked most about the book (the interesting mix of real and imagined history) is also my least favorite. The history lessons, with a great mix of real and fictional, made my head feel like a bong getting hit over and over and over again. Especially in a book aimed for children and young adults, the story needs to move quick; the author can’t afford to waste a single page with useless backstory and, unfortunately, Johnston wasted much more than that.
  • Over Simplified – Emotions were often over simplified and saw drastic, unexplained changes.
  • Too Slow – Even at the height of action, the story moved too slow. This could have been helped by staying in the present and avoiding long “what might happen now” explanations.

Overall, I give The Story of Owen 3 stars.

Check out the New York Times book review on The Story of Owen here! 

The Story of Owen is a series. If interested check out the second book in the series, Prairie Fire.

World War Z book review

World_War_Z_book_coverMax Brooks writes World War Z as if the worst of the zombie apocalypse has passed. In a Q&A interview style, Max Brooks writes the first-hand accounts of a variety of people effected by and involved in the zombie apocalypse. The interviewees include scientists and doctors that saw the very beginning of the disease, families chased out of their homes by the threat of the living dead, the President of the United States, a pilot whose plane crashed in the middle of zombie breathing ground but managed to find her way out, and so many more…

Interview-style Structure

This is the only novel I’ve read written in an interview style. The interviews were organized chronologically, starting by explaining the beginning of the outbreaks, widespread panicking, contained villages, soldiers traveling across the U.S. and leaving mountains of zombie corpses behind them, and finally with the aftermath.

One reason I didn’t like the interview style was that it created a very choppy structure. It read more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Besides the interviewer (Max Brooks) characters come and go as quickly as their story is told. Therefore, I didn’t get emotionally connected to the characters, often forgot their names, and didn’t care if their entire family turned into zombies and tried to kill them or not.

My favorite part of the interview style were the variety of first-person perspectives that were given. Each character told their own story, that I love.

Audiobook

I listened to World War Z on audiobook and would recommend doing so. The novel was read by a full cast of characters, a different voice actor for every interview, which adds an entertaining twist.

WorldWarZ

One of my favorite scenes from the World War Z movie. Photo taken from cheatsheet.com.

 

Movie Adaptation

World War Z the movie, starring Brad Pitt, was released in 2013. I loved the movie (even though zombies are not my thing) so I thought I would give the book a try as well. Besides the title and the presence of zombies, the book and movie have nothing in common. The story line and structure is drastically different, as the movie does follow a certain character (played by Brad Pitt) through the entire movie.

I was pleased to hear that a sequel will be made, World War Z 2, and is expected to be in theaters in 2017. Not surprising considering the original was Brad Pitt’s highest grossing movie of his career.

Overall

The book gets 3 stars; the movie gets 4.5 stars! A very fun style of writing but overall I didn’t love the structure or the story itself, both of which were better in the film adaptation. I’m not much of a zombie enthusiast and although the structure of the book is unique, its still a typical zombie story.

Writing Quotes from AWP

So many quotes flooded through the rooms and hallways of AWP last weekend in Minneapolis and I wanted to share a few here. Enjoy!

Also, see my previous post, What to Read from AWP Writers.

The Writing Process 

“Inspiration comes in the middle of hard work.”

“What I write will always fall short of the ideal in my head. To write anyway, knowing that, is my greatest struggle.” 

“We are always translating ourselves–from thoughts to words.” -Pablo Medina

“Sometimes you are writing to learn how to write.”

“Finding a good ending is writing your way out of the story.” -Tom Hazuka

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Incorporating research/science into writing

“You’re going to make mistakes but there is a point where you get to say this is fiction, this world only exists between these two covers.” 

“Your reader will be convinced more quickly than you think. They want to believe you know what you’re talking about. A few specific details generally do more than a chapter of scientific detail.”

“What is true is not always factual.”

“Its more important to write the truth than to write the facts.” 

“By writing fiction, I hope to reach a wider audience than if I wrote nonfiction.”

“If I do too much research, it will kill the story.”

“Fake it as much as you can because you’re going to cut most of it anyway.”

“You’re trying to get to a deeper truth, a metaphorical truth.” 

From Poets

“Poems can encircle mystery in a way prose can not.” -Ted Kooser

This is something everyone in this audience has seen.” -Ted Kooser talking about his poet “Splitting an Order”

“What is true now, may not be true in the future. I’d be happy to tell you the truth if I knew what the truth was.” -Connie Wanek

Ted Kooser at AWP 2015

Ted Kooser at AWP 2015

Flash Fiction

“We always hear readers wanting more. They want to know more, more, more, so telling a story with less is courageous.” -Larry Smith, founder of Smith Magazine, known for its 6-word stories

“The 100-word story gives you a great feeling of completion.” -Grant Faulkner

“Flash fiction is about the spaces around the story.” -Grant Faulkner

“Trust the reader to fill in the backstory and the ending.”

Publishing quotes from editors of literary journals

“I really don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it.”

“I like to publish a mix of established and emerging writers.”

“Finding the right fiction is like hitting a moving target.”

“I can like nearly anything.”

Other

“Silence perpetuates mystery in fiction.” (Think Hills like white elephants)

“An MFA is a prerequisite to teach, but it is not a guarantee.”

“Take your manuscripts as far as you possibly can and have reasons to back up your craft choices before you send it to publishers/agents.”

 

**I tried to give credit to the mouths of these quotes as often as I could but please forgive me for the many I had to leave blank. I also tried to get the exact wording, but I certainly fell short.

Revival by Stephen King

Revival is a story about power. The power of belief, addiction, religion, science and curiosity. Although I would not consider this one of King’s best novels, it has one of the most dramatic endings to any novel I’ve ever read.

revivalSummary

Revival follows the intertwining stories of Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs. When Jamie is six, Charles Jacobs (mid-twenties) moves to his small Maine town and becomes the new minister of the local church. Reverend Jacobs, along with his wife and son, are beloved by the entire community. But when tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, Charles “goes off the deep end” to use the common phrase. After giving a sermon denouncing his belief in God and mocking the community for their blind faith, he is forced to leave town.

Coincidence, or maybe a connection too strange to be understood, ensures Jamie and Charles Jacobs reunion many years later. During this encounter, Charles leaves Jamie with a renewed life that leaves him indebted and connected to the man for life.

As the characters age through the 50 year timespan, the strangeness grows and grows. Limits are pushed and reality is stretched to new limits and this ending, its like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The novel might start out slow but its worth reading through to the end.

Characters

The old question becomes relevant once again: is a 1st-person narrator always the main character?

People argue that yes, because even if the narrator is not in the midst of the action, we are still hearing the story through their perspective and seeing how the story affects them individually. (The Great Gatsby is a great example of this.) This is the side of the argument I fall on simply because I cannot think of a single story where the 1st-person narrator was not a pivotal character in the story.

If you know a story where you believe the 1st-person narrator is NOT the main character, please comment below! That’s a story I’ll want to read! 

5314864073_50439336ffBut Jamie, the narrator, is certainly not the most interesting character in Revival. I don’t think many would argue that Charles Jacobs is the most interesting. One could argue that Jamie is telling Charles’s story but because the plot follows Jamie’s life in depth even when Charles is nowhere near, I’ll stick with saying Jamie is the main character.

Side vent: no surprise that King’s main character is an addict/recovering addict. Lately I’ve felt that King’s minor characters are his most unique. His main characters are overwhelmingly middle-aged males with drinking problems.

Overall

2.5 stars, because I have high expectations for King’s books. A slow start but a CRAZY ending. The extended timeline worked well but the main character was a bit too forgettable to me.

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Universe Writing Prompt

If the Universe whispered in your ear, what would she say?

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