Good morning! How're you doing? Lots has been going on with me lately, the most exciting of which was I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie give a talk (pictured above). No surprise, she was amazing.
I've also been reading lots of books, flipping back and forth between what I feel like reading (The Door into Summer, by Heinlein, which was meh) and what we're discussing in my book club. Right now that's White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, and once I got passed the confusing prologue I've been completely sucked into the story, which is about pica, twins, and family ghosts in a bed and breakfast in Dover. It's very gothic in the best sense of the word. Be on the lookout for a review soon.
My other big news, in case you missed it last week, is that I published the opening story (chapter?) to my serialized novel, The Ice Girl, on Amazon, which is exciting. I'm editing part 2 now and will post it next Sunday, in case anyone's in the mood for a story about moving to Russia and working as an ice girl in the KHL (Russia's version of the NHL hockey league). I like to think of it as When Harry Met Sally crossed with a slightly more serious version of Slapshot. It's got a will-they or won't-they romance going on, and if that's your thing, you might check it out. Available to download for just $0.99.
Ok, but on to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the amazing Adichie.
I love going to author talks because they tend to be some of the most eloquent, interesting people on the planet. I guess that makes sense when you make your living on words, and Adichie was no exception. She talked about everything, from her first novel Purple Hibiscus (my review here), to racism in America as assumptions on how you believe a person is or will behave based on the color of their skin (so true), and how the fight for gender equality isn't over. She also spoke about her struggle as a writer, which was the recurring anxiety that the day's writing wouldn't go well. I think a lot of us feel that way when we sit down to write.
The talk seemed to end way too soon because we were totally engrossed. I bought a copy of Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions and got it signed. It's a short read and a great roadmap for how to raise feminists (both boys and girls) and make sure you're applying those same lessons in your own life. I would definitely recommend it for new mothers, which is why the book was written after one of Adichie's friends asked her for advice on how she should raise her daughter to be a feminist. If you're interested in the subject, I've also linked to Adichie's seminal TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists" in a previous post. It's worth watching.
Have you read any of Adichie's work? I still need to read Americanah, and will admit that I'm a little intimidated by its length on top of my other reading commitments (and after a long day of editing, sometimes the last thing I want to do is read more, which is a shame). Still, sometimes you just have to put on your big girl pants and do it, because you know it's going to be good.
Have a great week and see you next Sunday!
Well the National Book Festival was everything I had hoped for and more. I had SUCH A GOOD TIME.
I've always liked hearing authors talk. I like to hear about their process and what events or questions inspired their books. I just love getting a peak into that world. As an adult, I've been lucky enough to hear Tony Morrison and Salman Rushdie. And when I was a kid, Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes) and Priscilla Cummings (Chadwick the Crab) visited my school, which had a profound effect on me (You mean real people write these books? And they live in my state?). Reading can sometimes feel lonely, so bringing readers and authors together helps me feel part of a shared experience.
And that's exactly how I felt yesterday at the National Book Festival in D.C. I can't even tell you how much fun it was. Let me give you a quick run down of the people I heard:
David McCullough: What a storyteller! I left this talk wanting to read everything he has written. I loved his book John Adams, and now I really want to read his one about the Wright brothers. He did an especially great job of talking about all the women that are a part of these histories and don't get the credit for the roles they played. And on that same theme, he also credited his wife extensively for helping him during his revision process. I really liked that. McCullough still writes on a manual typewriter, which is adorable, AND he talked about how important it is to read your work aloud as you're writing and editing. I must have looked like a bobblehead in the stands, I was nodding so hard in agreement with that. I caught the tail-end of Alice McDermott's talk too, and she said the exact same thing. You've got to hear the sound of the words to get them right, they're not just marks on the page. Anyway, no one writes about American history better than McCullough and I feel really lucky that I got to hear him speak.
Diana Gabaldon: So full disclosure, I've read about half of Outlander, and while it's pretty good, it just isn't my cup of tea. Despite that, I was still so excited to hear her talk and she did not disappoint. I have a lot of respect for her genre-blending. I mean, who would have thought historical fiction could be crossed with romance and science fiction! I'm sure publishers wouldn't naturally bet on that horse, so the fact that Gabaldon has been so successful at making it work is incredibly impressive to me (she's sold a massive 28 million copies of her books, on which a hit TV show has also been based), She was funny, a little naughty, and incredibly inspiring. After hearing her talk, I almost wanted to leave the festival so I could get writing. The fact that she transitioned her original career as a biology professor in academia to becoming a novelist is another thing about her story that I really admire. I mean, if she can do it, maybe I can too! Gave me hope.
Colm Toibin: Of all the talks I saw, this one was definitely the most literary. I really, really loved his novel, Brooklyn, and it was just fascinating to hear how the tiny, quiet details of his childhood in Ireland informs his work. He made a great case for making stories out of almost nothing, just the mundane, but incredibly human details of our lives. Kind of a great reminder to wake up, listen, and observe all the stories that are already taking place in your life. The hard work of putting them down on paper still remains, but they're there if you bother to notice.
Thomas Friedman: So Friedman may have been the biggest crowd-draw, but I'm actually not very familiar with his work. He's a columnist for the New York Times, and as he stated up front, he considers his job to illuminate ideas that provoke an emotional response (which sounds like high-level click bait to me, but what do I know). He gave a great, incredibly well-rehearsed presentation that was much more like a TED talk than any other speaker's (who were typically more conversational). I don't know. Friedman was kind of impressive, but it felt like he was exaggerating a lot of ideas. I didn't walk away from that talk feeling like I had learned much other than Thomas Friedman likes to make connections about globalization, climate change, Moore's law, human adaptability, and that those connections may or may not be real. He was promoting his book Thank You For Being Late, and it sounded pretty good, but also kind of suspect. I don't know, wasn't my favorite talk. Just a little too slick. Big ideas are complex and I feel like he way over-simplified everything so they would fit into his convenient unified theory.
Michael Lewis: Lewis hardly needs an introduction. If you've read or seen The Big Short, Moneyball (movie), or Liar's Poker, then you know his work. But until I saw his talk, which was actually more of an awesome conversation between him and Joel Achenbach (whom I've been reading in the Washington Post for years, so it was really cool to finally see him in the flesh), I hadn't made the connection that he had written ALL those books. Of all the talks I saw, Lewis's may have been the most downright entertaining. He made everything he said sound like the most interesting thing you've ever heard. Of all the authors yesterday, for me he was the most like David McCullough - incredibly curious people, asking all the right questions and digging to find the answers. Lewis's talk may have been my favorite of the whole day. Like McCullough's, I left wanting to read everything he had ever written.
Condoleezza Rice: I mean, CONDOLEEZZA FREAKING RICE! Look, I was never a fan of the Bush administration, but I always admired Rice, and the more I've learned about her over the years, the more impressed I get. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, smack in the middle of segregation and the Civil Rights movement (she knew some of the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing). And yet, she grew up empowered by her parents and herself to become a world-expert in Soviet and Eastern European foreign policy (she has a Ph.D. and was a professor at Stanford University). She speaks Russian, was part of both the George H. W. and W. Bush administrations as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State (America's top diplomat), and, if that wasn't enough, she's also an incredibly talented classical pianist. Her talk was about her new book, Democracy - basically what institutions are needed to make a successful system (independent courts, free press, etc.) and why it's thrived in some parts of the world and not in others. The moderator had her talk about the state of democracy (or lack thereof) in different countries and geopolitical situations, and holy shit, does the lady know her stuff. She's back teaching at Stanford, and if I could, I would definitely take her class. The only "bad" part about Rice's talk was that it was scheduled at almost the same time as Roxane Gay's, whose new book, Hunger, I really want to read. Hopefully I'll get to see her another time.
Ann Telnaes, Mike Lester, and Roz Chast: Finally, I closed out the fairly long day (I got there at 10 am and didn't leave until 7 pm) with the cartoonists panel. I'm a massive cartoon fan, in all forms of the medium, so this was a real treat for me. Ann Telnaes (of the Washington Post) and Mike Lester are editorial cartoonists on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I'm sure you would recognize Telnaes's work. I really enjoyed hearing her talk. She was such a strong, intelligent voice against Trump and his attempts to bully the free press (in ways that aren't unlike some of the warning signs Rice was discussing in her own talk). I just love her cartooning style, and had no idea that all these years I've been reading her work that it was a woman behind it. There aren't many female political cartoonists and she takes a lot of heat on the internet for it. Because how dare a woman speak up! I didn't love Mike Lester. Our politics don't agree, which isn't the end of the world, but beyond that, he just wasn't very coherent or nearly as interesting as Telnaes. I also hate his comic strip, Mike du Jour, but it was interesting to at least put a face to the name. The last talk I heard was with Roz Chast, whom I'm a big fan of (you can read my review of her graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? here). For years, I didn't really appreciate her work, and then one day it just hit me how amazing it is. She's by far my favorite New Yorker cartoonist.
The only slightly annoying part was her talk was a little ruined for me by a group of incredibly impolite teenage boys I happened to be sitting next to. The room was so packed, I couldn't change seats, and for the life of me, I don't know why they even bothered to be there. They kept getting up and down from their seats, spent 99% of the talk playing games on their cell phones (while one "helpfully" described the cartoons and jokes being projected on the screens to his companions, so I could hardly hear Chast talk). And then when someone tried to sit down in a seat in the middle of the row, and politely asked the boys if he could get past them, the kid looked up from his phone and sneered, "Can you get in on the other side?" (meaning the other side of the aisle, so he wouldn't have to be bothered to scoot his knees out of the way for the all of 2 seconds it would take for the older man to get a seat). Makes you wonder what the world is coming to. I wanted to tell that kid off, but it would only have made a bigger disruption than it already was.
Anyway, despite that last bit, the National Book Festival was amazing and I can't wait until next year. I mean, in one day I heard more authors speak than I have in my entire life up to that point. If you're a word nerd like me, the Library of Congress's National Book Festival is well worth it. If I weren't local, I would definitely plan a long weekend in D.C. around it. There's plenty to do in the city and free events like this one make it even better.
Have you ever been? If so, tell me about it in the comments! Would love to hear your experiences.
So for all my writing and reading friends out there, I wanted to give you a quick heads up about some exciting literary events that are coming to the D.C. area, in case you happen to live around here or will be passing through.
First of all, the National Book Festival is coming up on September 2! This FREE event is sponsored by the Library of Congress and brings together some really exciting authors for the public to listen to and engage with. Speakers include Roz Chast (of New Yorker cartoon fame, whose book I wrote a review about here), Diana Gabaldon, Roxane Gay, Ha Jin, Condoleezza Rice, Cokie Roberts, David McCullough, Colm Toibin, and so many more. You can find the full list here. For a one day event, I think it's going to be really hard to see everyone I'd like to! The National Book Festival takes place at the Walter E. Washington convention center with doors opening at 8:30 am. I've wanted to go to this festival for YEARS, but have never gone for one reason or another. Can't wait to finally experience it and nerd out with other book lovers.
The other big literary news is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is coming to Maryland! She's giving several talks at different locations from September 24-26, including at the Baltimore Book Festival, about her novel Purple Hibiscus, which Maryland Humanities is sponsoring as a kind of state wide book club. I'm about half-way through the book, and it's very well written, though I admit I'm having some issues with the main character's passivity - but it does make perfect sense since this is a story about family abuse. Looking forward to finishing it and seeing how it turns out.
It was actually my best friend who alerted me to these upcoming talks, and even though she lives all the way in Dallas, she's flying home for the long weekend so we can see Adichie together. My friend is a huge fan of her writing, but also of her TED talks, including the one I've linked above, "We Should All Be Feminists." Check it out! I admit, I have not read enough of Adichie's work (Americana is perpetually on my "to read" list), but this has been a great excuse to dig into her catalogue in preparation to hear her talk.
And if you're in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area this September, I hope you'll be able to make it to these events. I know I'm super excited :)
So, I finished The Shell Collector yesterday, which is a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr (who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel, All the Light We Cannot See), and honestly I was a little underwhelmed. That's unfortunate, because The Shell Collector happens to be one of my mother's favorite books, and she's been trying to get me to read it for years. (I'm always about three to five years behind on any book recommendation, though I eventually get to them). The fact that I didn't like a book that my mother probably ranks in her top ten just further supports my theory that reading is a lonely thing, and you should never expect to bond with anyone over your favorite books. What's sublime to one reader is tedious for the next.
Personally, I just don't care for hyper-descriptive prose, which Anthony Doerr is admittedly very good at. I can see the talent, but it's not my cup of tea. I found the descriptions of every little thing distracting from the story, but maybe that was intentional, because except for "The Hunter's Wife" and "Mkondo", I didn't think any of the stories were very interesting. They felt repetative, particularly in terms of plot and character.
Mabye Doerr wanted to focus more on the prose style, which was lovely at a microscale, but also overwhelming at the macro-level. I can only imagine how many hours he spent getting each word just right, but it was too much for me. I guess I'm more of literary minimalist. I find that a single beautiful line in an otherwise functional paragraph has more impact than pages and pages of pretty words strung endlessly together. The only other book I've read by Doerr is Four Seasons in Rome, which again was beautifully written, but I was pulling my hair out by the end, wondering how anyone could make Rome sound so boring. Something has to happen for it to be a story, and it has to be believable .
For this reason, of all the stories in The Shell Collector, I disliked "The Caretaker" the most because it was utterly ridiculous. It's not possible to live in the woods for months eating beries and seaweed. You will starve to death, or more likely, give up and find someone who will give you food. Krakauer did a pretty good job of explaining the research on that in his excellent book, Into the Wild. So I think it's misguided to tell stories in the style of realism about people who hide in the woods and neither freeze nor starve. Sorry, it's just not happening. Please find some other way for your character to "grow."
Anyway, despite these criticisms, there's no arguing that Doerr's a great writer. He's just not the writer for me.
The Shell Collector, however, is just the latest book of short stories I've been reading. I don't know if it's because of my job, but I've been finding it harder to focus for long periods of time when I read. If I had any major complaint about making a living as an editor, it's that it has made reading into a job rather than a pleasure, and that feeling spills over into my down time.
So for the last few months, I've mostly been reading short stories, because they're fairly quick and I can switch around between different collections. It's just one way that I've been unconsciously dealing with my shorter reading attention span, which I think is understandable given that I spend hours every day reading very critically for other people. I only ever list the books I've completely finished in my reading list, so you don't see all the Cheever, Breece D'J Pankcake, and Phil Klay stories I've been reading at the same time, but anyway, that's been my reading pattern for the last few months.
Last night, I felt a little tired of short stories and annoyed at my inability to settle down into a novel, so I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, but I couldn't get into it. Then I found a paperback copy of Ringworld that I borrowed from my Dad's library collection over Thanksgiving, and fortunately that one has sucked me in. Thank god, because I needed to shake up this pattern, especially after the disappointment of The Shell Collector.
What are you reading these days?
I once heard a journalist say on the Longform podcast that good writers come from reading a certain number of words as a child. He didn't specify the number of words. All he meant was that if you read enough, particularly when the mind is still young and plastic, you almost can't help but be able to write to some extent. We learn from example. When you read, you're unconsciously internalizing patterns of words. And then when you write, you reproduce those patterns. I suspect this trend continues well into adulthood.
Which is why I believe you are what you read.
This is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of modern YA fiction, because I think the prose tends to be low quality, and I don't think it's good for young people (or adults) to internalize bad writing.
But if you are what you read, that has even bigger implications for people who aspire to be writers. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Now think of the books you're actually reading. Are they similar? Are you consuming a prose style that you would like to produce yourself? Or are they misaligned? Maybe you're reading books that you would never want to write.
I've often talked about my love of simple stories. It's just a personal preference. For instance, I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than the Lord of the Rings, because I happen to enjoy clean prose and simple storylines more than the wordiness of epic fantasy. I like a character who has so little room or time to develop in the book that when they do change it has all the more impact on you. When Eustace Scrubb attacks the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it actually means something, because there's so little time to dither about who he really is as a character. Or when Puddleglum in The Silver Chair stomps out the witche's magic fire, it stands out as this incredibly brave moment he has in the book. It's so simple, but it means so much more on the scale of a 30,000 word story than if the book had rambled on for another 100,000.
Yet when I sit down to write, I often catch myself producing these long descriptions filled with endless adjectives, or plotlines that go on and on. My writing has always veered towards purple prose - possibly due to some bad habits I was taught in elementary school, possibly because I'm a very visually oriented person. But I find reading those kinds of stories incredible tedious. I hate hyper description.
So what I am I reading right now? The short stories of The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, which I would describe as highly descriptive writing done well. It's what a purple prose writer aspires to be. But even if it's well written, it's still not the style of writing that I wish I could produce myself. I naturally lean towards it, but I don't enjoy it. That's kind of messed up if you think about it.
Realizing this, I set The Shell Collector aside last night and found my old copy of The Horse and his Boy, one of my all time favorites in the Chronicles of Narnia, because I know that's the kind of story I would like to write myself. It's not middle grade writing exactly. I think almost anyone, of any age, could enjoy the story of Shasta and Bree running away to Narnia. It's just simple, and I like that. So I'm reading it again, for probably the tenth time, in hopes that it will help me to learn a different writing style from my natural tendency, particulalry for the science fantasy novel I've plotting in my head for several years now.
A few months ago I realized I wanted to write that story as if it were a cousin of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of attempting to write it as an epic, as I had been doing, I want to cull the story down to its most fundamental form. And to do that, I think I need to keep reading the kinds of books I want this novel to be. Honestly, it's even kind of fun to read a book with the aim of studying its method. I know what happens in The Horse and his Boy, so I can concentrate on the mechanics of the writing and hopefully learn from Lewis. Mostly this involves studying the length of descriptions, what kinds of words are used, how scenes transition, and the role of dialogue and even illustrations in the story. (I would love to have illustrations in my book.)
Have you tried this? Or have you ever noticed you're picking up bad writing habits from books you're reading? I saw this over the summer when I was writing part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, which was meant to be a fun little romp of story. At the time, I was reading Nick Hornby's Funny Girl, and decided it was teaching me this terrible habit of attempting to write comedic timing, so I had to put it down - and honestly, I think Sparrow House improved because of it.
Or sometimes if I'm spending too much time reading internet drivel, I notice my own writing starts to sound the same. This is something I want to avoid at all costs, which is one of the reasons why I resisted hooking up the internet to our house for so long. Ultimately, I caved when I started working from home, and now I'm struggling again with reading way too much of the unedited, unfiltered nonsense that is so typical of writing on the internet.
So let's read what we want to write instead. That's my new goal for the new year. Just read good books that I would be proud to write myself.
With that said, does anyone have a suggestion for a new book I should read if I'm interested in writing a more simple (i.e., not epic) science fiction/fantasy novel? I would love to hear your ideas.
If you take a look at my reading list in the past year, you'll notice that a large percentage of the books I've read are from the Aubrey/Maturin series, which follow the adventures of a British naval captain and his surgeon during the Napoleonic wars.
I've read eight books in the series thus far (there's twenty-one total) and have raved about some (H.M.S. Surprise and Desolation Island, in particular) and detested others (like The Mauritius Command), but eight novels is a lot. I've never gotten so deep in a series before, and I've been wanting to read other things too just for some variety - yet I can't seem to stop, and I think I finally understand why.
The Aubrey/Maturin books almost always finish in the middle of major action; usually a battle. The endings typically occur moments after a victor has been declared.
It's not a cliff-hanger, because there's usually no indication of what will happen in the next book. There's no unresolved conflict, mystery, or questions (besides some long-term, more minor plot points). The books just tend to end on the climax of the story without any kind of denouement. It's very addictive, because you finish the book on such a high note that you can't help but want to read more.
So, this is just a tip or an idea for you writers out there. If you're planning a series, maybe consider finishing your books in the middle of the action/climax. You don't have to leave questions unanswered, necessarily (though you can, that's a sure fire way to bug your reader and get them to purchase/borrow the next book), but maybe consider getting rid of the boring denouement altogether since it can leave the reader on a down note, which doesn't immediately motivate them to pick up the next book in the series. I have to say, it's really an effective method to finish the book in medias res (i.e., in the middle of the narrative), rather than using a boring, if tidier ending. It's the main reason I keep slipping the next Aubrey/Maturin novel into my library haul.
Something weird happened when I got sick last week.
I started reading Buzzfeed articles in French.
First it started with an English article about Marie Teller's search for the best chocolate croissant in New York, using the choclatines of her youth in southwestern France as a standard of comparison.
It was a pleasant, easy read, not too obnoxious in the way Buzzfeed articles usually are, so I clicked on Teller's name to see what else she'd written.
Apparently, quite a lot, and most of it in French, as far as I could tell, which makes sense she's the senior editor for Buzzfeed International.
I used to be pretty serious about French in school. I don't know why, I just really enjoyed it. Despite my past ten-plus year foray into science, I would say my brain is actually hardwired for language (hence, the writing, the editing business, etc.). My school offered French at a very, very basic level starting in Pre-K, and each year it ramped up a bit, until we were learning how to conjugate verbs in the 5th grade. I took French for all four years in high school, and was one of the few people in my senior year AP class, which was kind of awesome, because we just sat around a table and did our best to chat in French and read very simple novels, like Bonjour Tristesse, Suivez-La Piste, Le Petit Prince, Le Petit Nicolas et Les Copains, etc.
I even took conversational French and advanced grammar in my freshman year of college, but after that, it was clear that if I wanted to continue studying French, I'd pretty much have to major or minor in it, and I wasn't interested. So that was it for French, and I haven't really used it much except for the odd European trip here and there.
Isn't it funny how that works? You spend a huge chunk of your youth studying something, getting decent at it (comparatively speaking, I was never, ever close to fluent), and then one day the classes just stop.
That's how it was for me with piano too. I'd played since I was five years old, and I played all the way through college, studying pretty intense classical piano with this lady. But once college ended, I didn't have time to keep taking lessons, so I just stopped. Every now and then, I try to sit back down at the piano, and I can still play, but I'm not nearly as good as I used to be. It's kind of sad.
So French was like that. I used to be pretty good, but it's use it or loose it. Or so I thought.
The funny thing is, this stuff comes back if you try it again. I don't know why reading French Buzzfeed articles felt so good while I was sick and struggling to get through my editing jobs, but I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that it allowed me to give the English side of my brain (obviously, the vast majority of it) a rest.
I love to read, but now that I'm doing it professionally (and doing it last week under physical duress), I honestly haven't been enjoying it as much for fun lately. It's like, I read all day long, and at the end of the day, I just want a break. But I still want to hear a good story - I'm just too tired to read one. The struggle is real. (And books are pretty much my only option here, since we don't have cable internet.)
Or, so I thought. Turns out, I'm just too tired to read more English. So I started reading some of Teller's Buzzfeed articles in French, and they're so simple, that even someone as out of practice as I am can follow along. When I don't know a word, which is often, I just google translate it (but not the whole sentence, that defeats the point). Also, I really like the French comments, which are also fairly easy to read.
Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. The brain - what a mystery. It's like when my grandmother had Alzheimer's. She couldn't remember the name for a coffee mug, but she could still play beautiful improvisational piano. For whatever reason, that part of her brain continued to work. And right now, as I'm coming out of this cold and still busily editing every day, it turns out my French (reading comprehension anyway), still kind of works, and I still enjoy it.
French Reading Level - Buzzfeed
Actually, I have no idea what this blog is about; whatever I fancy, I guess. But the sub-title is "for the word nerds," so I thought it might be fun to do some rapid-fire reviews of two books I recently finished.
The first is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's an epistolary novel (written in letters), about a group of British men and women who lived on Guernsey Island while it was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. At first, I was very pulled into the story - which is basically about how this group of friends got through the war within the companionship of a book club. I love a good epistolary novel, and the early letters cheerfully describe a version of postwar Britain that interested me. But after about 40 pages, you can't help but notice that all the letters, written between characters of vastly different backgrounds, sound exactly the same. It made it hard to keep track of people, or care about them. The plot starts off gently enough, the main character decides to travel to Guernsey to write about the occupation and the literary club, but then it turns ludicrous and almost creepy (for people who've read this book - didn't you think it was weird how Juliet essentially co-opted the deceased Elizabeth's life? She gets her house, her place in the community, even her kid!). I could go into the details, but the book really isn't good enough to bother with. Let's just say this: at one point, the main character gets jealous of a concentration camp survivor. wtf.
Interesting idea for a story (I had no idea Guernsey was occupied during the war), but the authors completely lose track of the main plot, so the reader gets a particularly inept ending. Two thumbs way down.
On to better things, I made a rare check off my "Books I Want to Read" list. The Time Machine is my first H.G. Wells book, which is insane considering he is more or less the father of modern science fiction and I'm a massive science fiction fan. I guess I worried the old-fashioned writing would put me off, and to be honest, it almost did. I found the first 30 pages a struggle to push through, and almost gave up, but I'm so glad I didn't. Once I got past the somewhat tedious setup, I was totally hooked. The way the Eloi were nearly as disturbing as the Morlocks was a really interesting touch. I also especially loved the ending with its descriptions of the far, far future, when the earth stops spinning, like the moon, so it always faces in one direction at the dying red sun. What an image!
It was interesting to read these two books one right after the other, because it made me think of a reading hypothesis I don't think I would have thought of otherwise. So here's my theory:
If a book has a really strong opening, that totally hooks you, it's probably going to peter out and disappoint you by the end. But if a book has a slow opening, push through it, because the rest of the book is usually pretty strong.
Master and Commander (one of my first blog-posts!) was definitely that way. It had the slowest opening, but it only got better, until I was having a blast by the end. Same with The Name of the Rose, which was supposedly written with a slow first 100 pages on purpose* to reward the readers who pushed through. And that medieval mystery has a mind-blowing ending.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl, had quite the opening hook, yet it's one of the worst books I've ever read. Just badly written garbage with nothing redeeming about it.
So that's my takeaway. Strong opening - be wary, slow opening - push on.
*According to my high school English teacher, who knows if this is true.
In an effort to improve my writing, I've been trying to take my own advice by working on more simple stories. I finished my first novel this past spring (and am almost finished editing it), and it's nothing more than a trashy romance story, which is all I asked it to be. It was my practice novel, and despite its total lack of literary merit, I found it very informative to write. It taught me a lot about setting up character and plot, and most of all, it gave me the confidence that I could finish a coherent 50,000 word novel.
I've since begun my new WIP, a light hearted novel that's supposed to be a step-above my practice novel, but by no means my intended masterpiece. It's a comedy, and I've been having a lot of fun writing it.
But as I reread sections, I couldn't help but notice that something wasn't working. Things that sounded funny in my head were anything but when they were set down on paper.
Fortunately, I started reading Nick Hornby's novel, Funny Girl, around the same time, and it helped me diagnose my problem. Basically, you can't write comedic timing, and if that's what your jokes are based on, they're going to fall flat on the page like mine were.
I'm actually a big fan of Nick Hornby's. I rank About a Boy as one of my favorite novels, though I don't know exactly why that is. It's not great literature, but it's entertaining, and it makes me feel more for the characters than most of the stories I read.
At first I enjoyed Funny Girl, which is Hornby's first novel in five years, but after a while it started to get really tedious. I had a hard time distinguishing characters, and the main character, Barbara, the eponymous Funny Girl, especially had this strange way of suddenly speaking up in scenes where I didn't even realize she was present. The whole thing was written in this very detached way, with little insight into the characters heads or even basic descriptions of the setting, but worst of all - almost none of the jokes landed. You can't call a book "Funny Girl" and then have it be unfunny.
But I realized I was making the same mistake as Hornby in my WIP: trying so desperately to write comedic timing. Here's an example from Funny Girl:
"We were asked to come up with a show about marriage," said Dennis.
Let's break this down. The "said Sophie" part is the closest to a physical pause in the dialogue as the author can create, which I suppose is meant to add more tension to the subsequent line, "So why didn't you do that?" I can imagine a gifted comedic actress making this sort of funny, but on the page it kind of reeks of desperation.
And the author knows it doesn't really work, so he has to describe Bill laughing and clutching at his heart. Personally, I think anytime we're reduced to describing physical actions and gestures as writers, it means we're not feeling confident in our ability to communicate to the reader. We're worried they won't "get it," so in response we try and show every physical thing that is happening (the writer's version of micromanagement), and it's just a slog to read. It's certainly not funny.
You might notice this attempt at transcribing comedic timing in your own writing (I see it in mine everywhere). It's apparent wherever you have to indicate a pause with blinks or facial contortions for comedic effect. Or you might mention that someone is being sarcastic, but that doesn't work either. The reader can't hear the sarcasm. They can't hear the pause. You have to be brave and let that stuff go. It does more harm than good.
The truth is, you can't write a book as though it were a movie, as much as we might want to. That's where Funny Girl really messes up. The characters always seem to be speaking up from out of a vacuum. It's almost entirely dialogue, which is probably because Hornby's gotten used to writing screenplays these last few years (he wrote the script for An Education), and has forgotten how to setup a scene that a reader can't physically see.
I actually had to stop reading Funny Girl because I was worried it was going to reinforce the bad comedic timing habit I was clearly writing into my own story. Writers have to read, I think, because we imitate other writers to some extent. Unfortunately, Funny Girl was not a book I wanted to imitate, consciously or unconsciously.
Do you struggle with this? I really have to stop myself from attempting to transcribe the movie that plays in my head when I'm writing. It just doesn't work.
Now please excuse me while I go back and edit out all those damn pauses and blinks from my WIP.
When did libraries become indoor playgrounds for children?
Look, some of the most formative experiences of my childhood took place in libraries. I wouldn't be the reader or writer that I am today if it weren't for libraries, so I thank god my parents took me there almost every weekend.
But we checked out books QUIETLY, and then we took them home to read. We didn't hang out in the library for hours to play. (I don't remember people doing this back then, though they probably did, and I was just oblivious.)
I'm doing a lot of work in the library these days, along with a lot of other people, and we're all siting silently, reading or writing on our computers. Not 100 feet away, there is a collection of children running around, screaming at the top of their lungs, crying, etc. (you know, being kids), but it's all happening in a place where you're supposed to be quiet. It's a rule. It says so all over the building. But these families (and it's just a few), they're treating it like a play space.
Believe me, I actually really love kids. I love that people bring them to the library to pick out new books, or listen to the story time reading (which takes place in a different room). I just think that treating the library like a playground is an inappropriate use of a public space, and that a few parents are really pushing the bounds of what's acceptable behavior. I'm sure the librarians have given up trying to enforce the rules. No one wins when you try to correct someone else's child.
I remember my parents being very clear with me about being quiet in the library, and so I learned how to behave there. And you know what? I see plenty of other parents doing that right now, even as I'm typing this. They whisper to their children, help them find a book, and then they check it out and leave. Their kids totally mimic them too. They're learning their "library voices," and that's important.
Meanwhile, I think there are some parents on the opposite side of the room that are just dumping their kids into an open space and hoping they'll get some energy out - BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT THE LIBRARY'S FOR.
Sorry, rant over. I love kids. I'm actively considering trying to have one in the next year or so. But I still think we need to be respectful of other people's comfort even after we have children (within reason of course, meltdowns happen, I get that).
What do you think? Am I expecting too much that the library be quiet?
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro