Book Review – West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Book Review - West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Title: West with the Night

Author: Beryl Markham

Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir

Length: 294 pages (varies by edition)

Published: 1942 (first edition)

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

It’s fairly well-established that I’m a fan of a quality memoir. Ignoring the anomaly that was Why Not Me? (I don’t think it should count), I’ve given many of the ones I’ve read—like Educated, A River in Darkness, and The Glass Castle—four or five stars. When they’re good, they’re very good. But despite having so many memoirs on my TBR list, I only read 2 memoirs in 2019 (or, 1, barring the aforementioned anomaly). I began my 2020 reading year by amending that.

West with the Night had been on my TBR list since last year, but had seemingly become lost amidst the stacks, a hibernating title tucked away on my Goodreads profile. However, one of my friends sent me a copy of it a week ago, I began reading it later that day, and I finished it in less than 24 hours. This memoir loosely follows the life of Beryl Markham, a female pilot who lived and worked in English-colonized Kenya during the 1920s and 1930s, from her childhood on her father’s farm, through years of training race horses, to her eventual transition into piloting and her solo journey across the Atlantic.

 

Style/Voice:

More than anything, the prose of this book is what made it so compelling and appealing to me. How to describe it? Markham is unsentimental and doesn’t share many of her feelings in an overt way—to some, that may come across as cold, but she brings attention to important emotions or important details by other, subtle means. She also utilizes an extensive vocabulary, though not to the point of incomprehensibility. The combination of these two elements makes a rich ambiance to each scene and chapter. Here’s an example from page 143:

“The trees that guard the thatched hut where I live stand in disorganized ranks, a regiment at ease, and lay their shadows on the ground like lances carried too long.
They are tall trees shouldering the late sun on its way before its light is done, urging the evening into their circle. Sun shafts pry through the close guard and touch the door of the hut, or the window, or the chimney, but they are as weak as the glow of my hurricane lamp, smug and dowdy in the centre of my cedar table. Night comes early at Molo. In my house it comes earlier still, but the stables are unshaded and I can see them from where I sit. I can see the safely closed doors, a stretch of the paddock fence, a tired syce trudging to his dinner. The workday is finished, dead as the calendar page that bore its number. But the year is thick with other pages, full with other work.”

These descriptions are complex, but not heavy-handed; they conjure up specific and vivid images without having to describe every single detail; there are understated feelings present that don’t need to be pointed at specifically in order to sense them. I have no issues with—and often enjoy—writing that has more feeling, emotion, or sentimentality woven into it, but it’s also refreshing to read prose that has little of those things but is still compelling, and I admire the way Markham is able to balance descriptions, sentences, and paragraphs into prose that sings.

 

Characters:

Markham is, of course, the central figure of the story, but she rarely delves into her own personal feelings, or prefers to describe them without much pomp or fluff. To put it another way, those who go into reading this book expecting lots of details about her personal life, family, beliefs, or emotions will be disappointed. Her careers paths also take her through many different social circles and, thus, different “side characters” (or their nonfiction, memoir equivalents). But, even so, none of the people in the story have a substantial presence—or when they do, it’s only for a scene or chapter, which is most likely due to the combination of the episodic structure of the chapters and the narration style. Thus, those who prefer stories where the characters are very prominent/consistently present may find this memoir to lack to heart, so to speak. However, I didn’t feel as if the lightness with which Markham touched upon individual lives or feelings left a hole in the narration. West with the Night focuses much more on action and sensory details than on feelings or abstractions, and the richness of the prose adds interest to whatever areas may be lacking in terms of characterization.

 

Plot:

As I mentioned, West with the Night focuses mainly on action: the story of Markham being attacked by a lion as a child, the preparation for and the event of a horse race, learning how to pilot a plane, going on a hunting expedition, or making a solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean. However, though the sequence of scenes is logical and coherent, there’s an element of looseness in the scenes that Markham chose to include in the memoir—I would describe it as episodic. Personal life details, such as any mention of her mother or siblings or love life, aren’t touched upon at all; the political or social contexts in which she lives are only lightly touched upon, as well. Markham also takes a lot of time recounting her childhood teen years, and career as a race horse trainer, but less time toward the end of the book explaining the events surrounding her solo flight. In that sense, there is some lack of balance in the plotting (especially if you go in thinking the memoir will only be about flying—there’s a lot about hunting, horses, and farming), but I didn’t find that to be a drawback in terms of pacing or understanding.

 

Setting:

Almost all of the events in West with the Night take place in 1920s and 1930s Kenya, which at that time was colonized by England (British East Africa). I haven’t read much about any part of Africa apart from world history courses when I was in school and the book Queen of Katwe, so the unfamiliar setting was intriguing, particularly the ways in which Markham described the geographical, ecological, and biological diversity that existed in the countries where she worked and flew. The fact that this book was written in the 1940s and that the events described were from the two decades before was also intriguing, as the little snippets of information allowed me to glimpse into a contemporary account of the social, economic, and political events of the time. Markham’s world was so much different than the world today! However, because I know so little about Kenya or Africa in general, the lack of broader context (which one can rarely gather from memoirs—it’s their nature) was ever present in my mind; memoirs are great for understanding history in a personal way, but they also have to be weighed against a broader historical meaning—which is to say, it’s important to balance ones view of memoirs to account for potential narrative unreliability, no matter how compelling they are. And, I do wish that Markham would have given some more contextual information. However, the nature of her narrative is one that doesn’t lend toward such a broad scope—the story is about her life, after all.

 

Objectionable Content:

As far as “traditional” objectionable content goes, West with the Night is pretty mild: there are a few instances of swearing, a few instances of people drinking, and practically non-existent sexual content apart from when Markham and a passenger have to stay in an empty brothel while stopping in Benghazi. Where readers may squirm is the various accounts of animal attacks, potential animal attacks, and hunting expeditions; Markham’s writing style doesn’t sensationalize these instances, nor linger unnecessarily, but they are vivid. Those who are also very sensitive to animal conservation may not like that some of the hunting expeditions deal with scouting for elephants in order to get ivory. Additionally, most modern readers will likely be very aware that the setting includes colonization, and that Markham’s descriptions of Africa and the various people groups (both the African peoples and those, like Indians, who live and work in British East Africa) can veer into racist or simply prejudiced descriptions. That Markham sometimes speaks of Africa as a place full of virtues and beauty, sometimes has such good relationships with African people, and then sometimes speaks of Africa as lacking essential qualities to make it successful or generalizes a whole people group in a negative light is perhaps the strangest part of the memoir, though, historically speaking, it’s both accurate and unsurprising.

 

Conclusion:

West with the Night is a fascinating book. Modern readers will likely be aware of how Markham’s background and experiences provide a limited, even prejudiced, view of Africa and its people, and for some that will be such a blot on the story that they cannot read or enjoy it. I can also see how some would find Markham’s writing style to be boring, full of too many vocabulary words, or structured too loosely and disconnectedly. However, her careers—which are impressive even by today’s standards, and more impressive considering the time in which she lived—and her unsentimental yet poetic prose make this book an easy and enjoyable read. How do we evaluate a book that has so many strengths, yet also some broader, negative implications?

People too often want to diminish such complexity, but it’s possible and necessary to balance both sides, to be able to enjoy beautiful prose or fascinating narratives while also realizing that no writer, no story, is without flaws, and that someone can be right in many regards yet miss what appears to be such an obvious defect or mistake. Otherwise, nobody can read anything beyond what fits into their personal experiences and worldview! History—the world, in fact—would be off-limits. And, that ability to see the world and people as complex makes memoirs such as West with the Night more meaningful and interesting, because it allows multiple layers of thought and evaluation—it requires active thinking as one reads and can, if one lets it, increase understanding of human nature. I love Markham’s writing style, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about a time and a country that I know so little about; I’m also not idealizing Markham, or ignoring that British East Africa was likely full of a lot of issues that Markham did not touch upon and that I’m unaware of (as I said, my knowledge of that area and era is sparse). Thus, in spite of those qualms, I give West with the Night 5/5 stars.

2019 Reading Recap

READING RECAP 2019.png

It’s that time again! Unlike in 2018, I met my reading goal for this year (20 books), and since I only wrote full reviews for a handful of them, I thought a recap would be the perfect way to reflect upon 2019 and round out this year’s blog posts.

 

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In my January-April reading recap, I stated that The Brothers Karamazov was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I still hold to that. What can I say that I haven’t already? My fondness for this novel has only grown, and for most of this year I felt as if I was in a hangover from it. The writing is clear, without frills, but laced with poignancy and humor alike; the characters are nuanced, multi-faceted, and unique from other stories I’ve read; the themes are real and true, not glossed-over, not neatly-packaged but not left relative or meaningless either. Yes, it’s long—quite long—but I love that about it, too. And, Alyosha Karamazov has my heart. I still, unsurprisingly, wholeheartedly, give The Brothers Karamazov 5/5 stars.

 

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

When I first read The Confidence Code, I gave it 3/5 stars, and after nearly forgetting that I read it earlier this year I suppose it still deserves that rating. I didn’t agree with all of Kay and Shipman’s philosophical or social conclusions, but they clearly did their research, show their sources, and present enough interesting scientific data about the nature of confidence to not make the book horrible for someone who doesn’t like self-help books (a.k.a. me). I can imagine that those who do enjoy this genre would find the book to be useful and engaging.

 

Eyes of the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams

This book is also one that I forgot I’d read this year—which, in some ways, proves that it wasn’t noteworthy enough for me to bump it up higher than my original 3/5 stars. I still think that it’s a good text: it was well-written, full of interviews with people who were involved in the events being described and pictures of the events (the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Crisis, etc.), and well-sourced. I also still think that the formatting was confusing at times, since interviews were often inserted in the middle of the main narrative, and there were moments when I wanted more historical context to understand certain events. All-in-all it balances out, though, and is a good starting place to learn about the Civil Rights Era.

 

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown

Ah, another assigned reading. The beginning of 2019 was full of them, and sadly, I came away disliking most of them. Dare to Lead is my second-least favorite of that bunch. The fact that Brown is knowledgeable and successful in her field and so well-liked by readers did little to make me enjoy the book: the style was often obnoxious, chalked full of pop culture references and cursing that felt awkward, like a parent trying too hard to seem “cool” to their kids; the structure and pacing of the information itself felt repetitive, and by the end I couldn’t remember what information was found in what section; and, most of all, the phrasing and lingo used felt more like a very bad corporate meeting than a “new” or “fresh” take. I’m just grateful that I’ve forgotten most of the book (except the phrase “rumbling with vulnerability.” I think it’ll be engrained in my mind for eternity). I still give Dare to Lead a generous 1/5 stars.

 

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South by Anne Moody

I find memoirs to be, generally, very enjoyable and enlightening reading, and Coming of Age in Mississippi certainly was.  I knew very few details about segregation in the South, so reading a personal account of that time, including all of injustices and the strange contradictions of how society in the South developed to that point, gave me a lot of new information and a lot to ponder (and, also, a lot to be angry about). It was also easy to read, which made it more compelling. I’m dropping my initial rating of 3.5/5 stars to 3/5 stars, though—while good for many reasons, it didn’t stick with me like other memoirs I’ve read.

 

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Why Not Me? is the first book I’ve ever given 0/5 stars, and though its details have since faded from my memory I still maintain my rating. To quote from my earlier recap post: “…I found the actual content of the book boring, her humor stereotypical and overly vulgar, and I can only take so many cultural references before I want to throw a book in the trash. The book has high ratings, so I can only assume that I’m utterly immune to this genre and Kaling’s personality.” I’ll leave it at that.

 

Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present by Thomas J. Misa

To me, Leonardo to the Internet is a classic example of a history book that suffered for want of style, not of content. I remember wanting to like this book so badly—tracing the development of technology, and seeing how technological development interacted with, responded to, and catalyzed social changes is fascinating! But the writing was often dry, sometimes littered with strange grammatical structure that wasn’t technically wrong but hard to read, and I found myself spacing out about half-way through each chapter. I had also hoped to learn more about global technology, but the book focused more on Western civilization (which, is fine, though slightly disappointing). I still give Leonardo to the Internet 2/5 stars.

 

A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa

I have several memoirs written about North Korea on my TBR list, and A River in Darkness was my first pick (a bit arbitrarily, too, since I could’ve ordered any of them from the library). What a harrowing, somber, important book. Ishikawa’s life seems to be one tragedy and sorrow after another, even once he escapes from North Korea, and his account of the depravity and evil of the North Korean regime is important not just in a broad sense but in the present, since the people of North Korea are still suffering under the same evils. I give A River in Darkness 4/5 stars (for more details, check out my full review).

 

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

My dive into the world of Enneagram began in 2018, but The Road Back to You was the first non-internet source I picked up to help me understand the nuances of the personality inventory system. The book was helpful in many ways, especially in terms of understanding the Head Triad (types 5, 6, and 7), but I found it lacking in many areas as well. For example, the entire chapter about Type 1 was full of stereotypes and never, truly, got to the heart of what drives that type to desire perfection. The chapters for other types—like 2s and 3s—also included some very stereotypical, even shallow descriptions. Then, on the other hand, the chapters for Type 9 and Type 4 felt almost too encouraging, too nuanced and careful not to stereotype. In the end the book felt imbalanced. I also, personally, didn’t like the number of cultural references (when don’t I dislike them?), and didn’t agree with some of the spiritual commentary included. Because of this, I give The Road Back to You 3/5 stars.

 

Villager (Quelmirian Duology, #1) by Savanna Roberts

I’ve followed Roberts on Instagram for a while and had the privilege of being part of Robert’s blog tour for Villager, her third novel, earlier this year. Even though I never read YA and, personally, don’t like a lot about the genre, I thoroughly enjoyed this indie novel; Robert’s detailed worldbuilding, as well as her strong characterization and immersive writing style, shined through and pulled me into the story to where I finished it in one sitting. Because of this, I gave Villager 3/5 stars (for more of my thoughts, check out the full book review).

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Confession: I owned a beautiful edition of this book for well over a year before I finally picked it up. I also watched the movie before reading the book. Practically a crime in the bookish world, I know. But even though I knew the storyline beforehand, I was still enthralled with the story and found myself wondering why I hadn’t picked up a Christie novel before then. The mystery and plot unfolds at a perfect pace, the cast is huge yet easy to distinguish from each other, and Poirot is a fun, quirky, apt protagonist to lead readers through the process of deducing the identity of the murderer. Even those who don’t read mysteries would likely find this book engaging and enjoyable. Thus, I gave Murder on the Orient Express 4/5 stars.

 

The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin

Poetry is yet another genre into which I rarely dip my proverbial toes, but, in part due to the influence of some dear friends, I decided this was the year to amend that. I also wanted to branch further out into Russian literature, so this collection of Pushkin poems seemed the obvious choice. Poetry collections, however, are mixed bags—I really enjoyed some of the poems, while I disliked many others (and one, in particular, was sacrilegious, which I didn’t appreciate). I made a more comprehensive list of my favorite poems from this collection in an earlier review, but, overall, I think this collection was a decent introduction to Pushkin and deserves 3/5 stars.

 

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

My streak of reading books outside my usual genre continued with Vincent and Theo, which I picked up not only because of interest in the content but because the cover is so beautifully designed. I wrote a more detailed review earlier in the year, but, to summarize: this book didn’t wow me as I hoped it would, particularly in terms of style, and there were moments where I wondered if the author’s personal views tainted the way they interpreted subjects (like religion), yet I was left with the desire to read more about the Van Gogh brothers and came away with a new appreciate for Vincent’s art. I also appreciated just how much research Heiligman did in order to write this book. Originally, I gave the book 4/5 stars, but I may bump it down to 3/5 stars, now, since I’ve had more time to reflect.

 

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Vengeance Road was my first introduction to westerns, not just this year but ever (unless I’m forgetting books I read in childhood). I received it in a book exchange last winter and was curious, though a bit apprehensively, since the premise sounded fantastic but it’s YA (which is so hard for me to love). The positives: the style was really easy to read but not simplistic, the main character (Kate) was intriguing and sympathetic, the setting felt authentic, and the cover is one of the prettiest ones I’ve seen all year. The negatives (at least, to me): it’s YA, which means…a bit of teenage angst, and more than a bit of a romantic subplot that, to me, took away from Kate’s drive for revenge. I’m also thoroughly convinced that revenge plots are best when they involve religious characters, and this story didn’t have much of any religion (except for Kate commenting about her lack of belief). While this book was definitely enjoyable, it’s YA-ness ended up making it not live up to all of its thematic potential—so, I give it 3/5 stars.

 

Storyteller (Quelmirian Duology #2) by Savanna Roberts

Just like with Villager, I had the pleasure of being part of Robert’s blog tour for Storyteller—which meant I got to read a copy of the book before publishing and satisfy my curiosity about how the duology would end. The same strengths displayed in Villager were present in Storyteller: immersive and tight writing, a plot that built tension and threw in some twists along the way, detailed worldbuilding, and good characterization. It’s still YA, so there’s a level of me not being fully on-board—but, Storyteller still finished off the duology well, which is why I gave it 3/5 stars (for more details, check out my full review).

 

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

While I spent the whole summer reading books that pushed me outside of my genre comfort zone, I’d been in a book hangover from The Brothers Karamazov since January, and by the time autumn came I knew I needed to find another long, classic novel. Crime and Punishment was my choice for several reasons, and it was exactly what I needed. All of the things I loved about TBK, sans Alyosha, were found within C&P: complex, unique characters, a mixture of literary philosophizing and a mystery/crime plot, and the integration of important themes in the most natural way. Even though it didn’t surpass TBK, Crime and Punishment is now also on my list of favorite books—so it should come as no surprise that I give it a full 5/5 stars.

 

Selador: The Book of Time by Kacie Rogers

If I were to sum up my reads of 2019, I’d say it was the year of Dostoyevsky and the year of indie authors. Selador was the third indie book I read this year, also as a result of Instagram. This small little tale is the atmospheric, almost allegorical story of Nella, who finds herself in a mysterious new realm in need of her writing abilities to protect them from evil forces looming just beyond their forest home. While I would have liked to see a lot more worldbuilding details and character development (neither of which were touched on much), and perhaps more development of the narrative voice, I still enjoyed this book, and I give it 3/5 stars.

 

True Grit by Charles Portis

Vengeance Road piqued my interest in westerns, and after watching the 2010 movie adaptation of True Grit and learning that it was based upon a book, I knew I wanted to read it. Flash forward a month or so, I found it in a bookstore, bought it, and finished it over the course of an evening/the next morning. True Grit surprised me with its vibrant protagonist, curt and dynamic narration, solid plotting, and vibrant setting—other than Dostoyevsky’s novels, I didn’t read a book this year that was as enjoyable as this one (you can read more of my thoughts in the full review). True Grit deserves a full 5/5 stars, and if this one’s not on your TBR list, put it on there ASAP.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

One can’t always luck out with anticipated reads, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was, perhaps, one of them most disappointing books of my year. I’d heard such good things about it—and the technique of handling very serious, even egregious subjects through the innocent eyes of a child is one that can work so well when done correctly (see: To Kill a Mockingbird).  But this story fell flat. For one, I never liked the main character, Bruno, whose behavior better suited a 5 or 6 year old than an 8 year old. His perspective was not just innocent but ignorant of what was happening around him. Secondly, the wordplay of Bruno mispronouncing German words with English ones drew me out of the story. As I said in my Goodreads review, a German child who spoke German wouldn’t accidentally call Auschwitz “Out-With,” or Führer “Fury.” And lastly, I don’t think real atrocities like the Holocaust should be made into “fables.” The real stories are enough to remind us of how horrible and godless humanity can be, and making those realities vague in order to write a children’s book is a disservice to the real people who suffered and to children who need to learn about history. However, the story wasn’t completely horrible (in terms of style, namely), which is why I give it 2/5 stars.

 

Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends

Dostoyevsky is the literary bookends to my 2019—I began the year with The Brothers Karamazov, and ended the year with a collection of his letters. Granted, I began reading this collection in April, set it aside for many months during the summer, and slowly went about completing it this fall/early winter. But my turtle-like pace doesn’t equate to lack of quality: the letters, which span the course of nearly his whole adult life, are full of commentary about subjects like literature, his creative process, religion, politics, human nature, financial troubles, the loss of a child, and parenting. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into his personal life, the events surrounding the creation of his different stories, and his personality, and I’m glad that I picked the collection back up after leaving it alone for months. I give Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky 4/5 stars.

 

Here’s the final ranking of this year’s reads, just for fun:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  2. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  3. True Grit (Charles Portis)
  4. A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea (Masaji Ishikawa)
  5. Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)
  6. Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends
  7. Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Deborah Heiligman)
  8. The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin
  9. Vengeance Road (Erin Bowman)
  10. Storyteller (Savanna Roberts)
  11. Villager (Savanna Roberts)
  12. Selador: The Book of Time (Kacie Rogers)
  13. The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile)
  14. Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South (Anne Moody)
  15. Eyes of the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Juan Williams)
  16. The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know (Katty Kay and Claire Shipman)
  17. Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Thomas J. Misa)
  18. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne)
  19. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (Brené Brown)
  20. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)

 

To round out this post, you may be wondering about my reading plans for 2020—and to that I say, I don’t have 2020 vision!

In all seriousness, I’m such a mood reader—very little of what I projected in 2018 came true in 2019, and that’s not something I’m mad about. However, I do have some stories that I would love to read this upcoming year, so here’s a little list:

  1. Little Women (the new movie has renewed my interest in this classic, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long)
  2. The Idiot and, possibly, Demons (more Dostoyevsky? Of course)
  3. The first two books of Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (which I began this year but, am yet to make much progress)
  4. Russian history books like Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East (Martin Sixsmith) and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933 (Anne Applebaum)
  5. 1984 (a classic I intended to start in 2019 but never did)
  6. More North Korea memoirs like The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee and Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea by Kenneth Bae, as well as other memoirs like Paradise of the Blind by Dương Thu Hương
  7. Cranford (as a long-time fan of the BBC miniseries and, now, long-time owner of the book, I finally need to read it)
  8. Rook Di Goo by Jenni Sauer (another indie author I follow on Instagram, who’s releasing her first book in 2020—I’m quite excited to finally read some of her writing and get to fully learn about her stories!)
  9. More poetry (though by whom, I’m not certain)!
  10. More classics (because I can never have read enough of them)!

 

These are loosely-held goals, that perhaps I’ll reach and perhaps I won’t. Part of the beauty of reading, and being free to read what you wish, is that your choice of books can adapt to wherever you find yourself and whatever new or old subjects suit your fancy. So here’s to 2020 and whatever stories I read along the way!

Writing Grief Well

Writing Grief Well.png

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I’m close to finishing the first part of my WIP, and (no spoilers) the last chapter I wrote deals with the death of an important character—an event that catalyzes the rest of the novel. But even though I’ve planned this part of the novel for months, imagined the sequence of events down to small details, I was still at a loss for how to go about writing such a tragic and, in some ways, delicate event. I’m still working on the first page of the chapter that comes right after the character’s death, and it’s been a while since I started. Just like in real life, death is hard to process, and seems like everyone (real or fictional) deals with the grief that comes afterward in different ways.

My writing conundrum has made me pause and analyze just what makes writing grief so difficult. It’s as near-universal of an experience as they come, so one might think that would leave ample reference material for writers to use. But all the knowledge about the 5 stages of grief or personal accounts of the aftermath of a tragedy still doesn’t help when you sit down to write your story. Why is that?

Grief is highly contextual—and that’s why I think it’s so hard to capture on the page. Even if you take one person and see how they tend to grieve, there’s still going to be important variations in their grieving process based on things like:

  • How unexpected was the loss?
  • Was the nature of the loss traumatic beyond usual standards?
  • How significant was the person or thing they lost?
  • What is the nature of the gap that the loss leaves for them?
  • What other issues—financial, relational, emotional, spiritual, geographical, physical—arise as a result of that loss?
  • How are they expected to grieve, do they meet those expectations, and how do they feel about those expectations?
  • Do they need to care for others who are also grieving?
  • Do other responsibilities (work, family, friends, political, etc.) interrupt or shorten their time of grieving?
  • How strong is their support system? Do they feel isolated?

One change in any of these questions can make a person respond differently than they did when dealing with a previous loss. Add on top of that all the other people who will have their own personal interpretations of the loss, and you have such a complex and nuanced web of interactions and events that it’s almost too much to keep track of in a story.

However, the complexity of grief is what makes it so compelling in a story—that’s likely the reason why the advice “drop a body from the ceiling” is common (a.k.a., when a story is lacking momentum or conflict, “kill” a character and let the fallout of their death spur the story onward). It’s also, except in rare cases, unavoidable: either there’s a character who has lost something prior to the story, or a character (or characters) who will lose something during the story. What can be done to make writing grief easier, then, since it’s going to seep into the story anyway?

I have no definite answer, because it varies so much (if it was straightforward, I wouldn’t have to write this post). But I do know three things:

  1. Grief has to be viewed through the complexity I described earlier. Go through questions like the ones I listed, answer them for each character affected, and see what other questions or discoveries emerge as you figure out how each person will respond. Then, figure out how those different personal responses are in harmony with one another or clash; see what conflict may arise due to differing ways of handling the grief; and look at the ways in which the loss of the person (or thing) ripples out into other areas of the characters’ lives.
  2. Grief takes time. How much time it takes will vary due to the circumstances determined in #1 (context + individual personalities), but regardless, you have to factor that into whatever you decide to write. That goes both ways: a minor loss shouldn’t be grieved intensely for the entire novel, but a devastating loss (a close friend or family member, a whole city due to war, etc.) can’t be forgotten just because the plot needs to move more quickly. Grief also isn’t (always) a linear process—it may pop up again much later, when things seemed okay for a character, because they suddenly realize a person or thing is missing, or it may consistently be a sore spot or distraction for a character who is slowly dredging through their feelings. If it turns out that you don’t want to take so much time writing about characters grieving, then dial down the severity of the loss they suffer. Likewise, if you think the grieving time for characters isn’t enough to sustain part of the story, make the loss more significant.
  3. You’ll need to edit and tweak a lot. Because grief is complex, it has to be shown in nuanced ways, and even the best writers aren’t going to capture everything they need to capture in the first or second draft. Accepting that it’ll take a little more effort to walk (write?) your characters through a loss makes it much easier to do the work, compared to if you think you should be able to nail it in the first draft.

Hopefully this helps you navigate some of the complexities of your story/stories. This is still an area that I’m learning, and likely one I will continue learning for as long as I continue to write, but for now, these tips are helping me figure out how to write some of the most difficult scenes in my WIP. It’s elements like grief that really make me thankful that editing is part of the writing process.

Book Review – True Grit by Charles Portis

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Title: True Grit

Author: Charles Portis

Genre(s): fiction, historical fiction, western

Length: 235 pages

Published: May 21, 1968

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

I rarely make a habit of watching a movie/miniseries adaptation of a book before I read it, but there’s a small category of films that sneaks around that rule, and True Grit happens to be one of them. A good friend of mine recommended the 2010 version of True Grit back in September, and though I’d never watched a western I trusted her taste enough to watch it without any context or background—and I loved it from start to finish. It was even more of a delight to learn it was based upon a book. I quickly put the book on my TBR list but didn’t expect to get around to reading it for a while (which is usually what happens with my reading habits). A month ago, however, I found a pristine copy with a greatly discounted price at a bookstore, and once I actually owned a copy, it was only a matter of a week or two before I picked it up and couldn’t put it down.

True Grit is the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross of Yell County, Arkansas circa the 1870s, who enlists the help of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track down the man who shot her father in cold blood. The resulting tale, told in retrospect by a much-older Mattie, is quick, no-nonsense, and, ultimately, completely riveting. It doesn’t need a more elaborate introduction than that.

 

Style/Voice:

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is the compelling style. Mattie recalls her revenge quest many years after the fact, and thus infuses the narration with moralizing, odd tidbits about people’s connections in society, and her opinions on everything from history to religion to animals; at the same time, she’s very frank, unsentimental, and frivolous, and the combination of economy and humor makes every paragraph enjoyable to read. Here’s an example from one of my favorite passages (found on page 32):

“I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is all superstitious ‘clap-trap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8:26-33.”

What better way to enjoy a first person narrator than to hear a story from a character so dynamic and individual? Her world is vivid and intriguing without many of the conventional trimmings of “good writing,” her personal beliefs make her too biased to be reliable while she’s simultaneously trustworthy because of her forthrightness, and the brevity of descriptions combine with older phrases and words make the read quick yet rich. Although Portis’ style is distinctly suited for Westerns (I can’t imagine this working as well with contemporary slice-of-life, for instance, or a fantasy or sci-fi setting that needs more immersion via prose), the quality of the narrator makes it a great example for writers as to how to make a first-person POV an indispensable part of the story as a whole.

 

Characters:

The cast of True Grit is small but mighty. The main character and narrator, Mattie Ross, is obviously the star of the show, as evidence by the quote I shared in the previous section. But the other characters are just as individual as she is (and her recollection of them, in part, adds to that uniqueness). Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshall that Mattie enlists to help her track down her father’s killer (Tom Chaney), is a man prone to drinking too much, shooting the criminals he’s tasked with finding, and waxing long about his interesting excursions during and after the Civil War, but is also skilled at what he does and treats Mattie well despite the inconvenience of having a 14-year-old on a manhunt. LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins them in their hunt for Chaney is a bit more subdued in terms of intrigue but provides a good contrast against Cogburn with his intent focus on catching Chaney and his pride in his home state.

The rest of the characters in the story, though usually only there for a select few chapters, still seem like real people because of their quirks and the manner in which they’re presented. Since this is my first Western, I’m not sure how accurate the story is historically, but the unusual, idiosyncratic nicknames and the unadorned way in which people spoke to one another made the story feel authentic, and added a lot of subtle humor along the way.

 

Plot:

I love a good plot, and a good complex plot, but sometimes it’s nice to have a story where the main goal is easily defined and unencumbered by subplots and twists. True Grit is the latter, and is an example of how a story doesn’t need to be complex, long, or subversive of expectations to be good. In fact, the story goal is stated in the first sentence:

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenger her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

It can’t get much simpler than that. There are no frills to the story, but that’s a good thing; in remaining simple, it combines with the narrative style and characters to create a cohesive tone and allows the story to remain vividly in the mind of a reader even once they’re finished. The simplicity of the plot also makes it able to appeal to a wide audience without compromising the integrity of the story itself.

 

Setting:

True Grit takes place in 1870s Arkansas, starting in the city of Fort Smith, where the murder took place, to the countryside and Choctaw territory as the main trio hunts for Tom Chaney. The physical aspects of the setting are less prominent—Mattie doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the landscape, the weather, or other sensory information—but the minimal details did not seem lacking. Additionally, because Mattie is recounting the story in retrospect, she inserts a lot of personal opinions regarding things like the history of the state or the background of certain characters, and that creates the feeling that the setting is lived-in and real.

 

Objectionable Content:

The most potentially-objectionable aspect of the story is the moments of violence: various people are shot and killed, someone has fingers cut off, another person is hit over the head with a large rock, another person suffers a bad fall and gets bitten by a snake. However, these moments aren’t described in gruesome detail, and unless a reader is particularly young, I can’t see these instances being too much for anyone. There’s some cursing, but it’s minimal (to the point where I can’t recall specific instances). Characters—namely, Marshall Cogburn—drink a lot. Because the story is set in the 1870s, there are racial terms used a few times by character that are now considered wrong.

 

Conclusion:

This year has been rather “meh” in terms of reading: apart from The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, I’ve had a hard time finding books that truly wowed me or pulled me in to where I didn’t want to put them down. True Grit was a little blip of that enthrallment, a complete detour from my usual reading preferences, a delightful introduction to Western fiction, and a good reminder that books don’t need to be long or complicated to be meaningful and enjoyable. It also reminded me that, in the hands of a skilled writer, any format or genre can be a joy to read—I generally prefer 3rd person and a bit more elaborate language, but True Grit excels in its 1st person narration and its matter-of-fact style. It is clear about its plot and delivers everything you’d want without excess or shortchanging. For all of those reasons, I give True Grit 5/5 stars.

The Question I Ask to Overcome Comparison

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Comparison is a nearly ubiquitous problem for humanity, but because I’m a part of and immersed in creative spheres, the way comparison creeps into the minds of artists and writers is particularly apparent to me. It’s also apparent because I’ve fallen into the trap myself, and will likely fall into it again, or come near the edge, in the future. The line between admiration and comparison (and jealousy) is fine and easy to cross. What begins as “wow, this author does such a good job with themes! I want to write strong themes like they do” quickly degrades into “I wish I was as good of a writer as they are,” then “I’m so bad at writing, everything I create is shallow,” and then “I’ll never be as good as other writers are.” And by that point, the comparison hole is so deep that it can takes hours or days to crawl up out of it.

There are lots of ways to prevent comparison—sheer will works, if your will is strong enough; ignoring what others are doing or distancing yourself from social media also works, especially when your will isn’t as strong; finding supportive friends or ways to have a steady stream of encouragement is good and, honestly, beneficial even if you’re on a writing high. For me, however, none of those things have been strong enough or consistent enough to work every time. Sometimes my will is strong, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes taking a break from outside input works, and sometimes it doesn’t make a big enough difference. Sometimes encouragement is perfect, and sometimes I’m not ready to accept it so that it can work its magic. But there’s one question that never fails to recalibrate my wrong thinking:

“Am I writing their story?”

The answer is always, firmly, “no.” Not only am I not literally writing what other people are, but my stories, or anything I create, doesn’t come from the same place of meaning and inspiration or have the same purpose. Refocusing on the task before me—a task that is only for me—moves the standard against which I’m judging my writing to a realistic and achievable level. To borrow the cliché, the only person I’m competing against is myself.

A companion question that’s also beneficial is: “do I want to write their story?” The answer is also “no.” What I want in those moments isn’t to write precisely what someone else has, but to capture the meaning or technique or enjoyment that I derive from their writing. In most cases, when I look at the details of another story, I would make changes if I were the author—which is another testament that someone else’s writing, whether we like it or not, is their own creation that can’t be mimicked and has its own unique purpose. No two stories can be compared because no two stories have the same aim.

This doesn’t mean that stories can’t use similar techniques, or that storytelling techniques in general are subjective or pointless. Subversion of tropes for the sake of shock or novelty undermines good storytelling; tropes, clichés, and structures exist for a reason. But those are micro details, and ones where analysis and comparison are beneficial. The macro is where comparison becomes counterproductive and damaging. Learning how to write prose with specific sentence structures is great and feasible; learning how to copy the setting, characters, and plot of Pride and Prejudice, in an attempt to be just like Jane Austen, is impossible (just look at all of the remakes and knockoffs).

It takes balance, and a lot of trial and error, but it’s nevertheless important to remember the task before you: your story. Not someone else’s.

The Importance of Reconciling Faults

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I finished my WIP’s outline last week and started my 2nd draft this weekend. To say I’m excited is an understatement—this novel has been over three years in the making, with years of formulating ideas and writing old drafts before I finally honed the specific ideas, setting, plot, and characters. Beyond the excitement, though, beginning the 2nd draft reminded me of an integral part of my writing journey: reconciling myself to my faults.

I’ve written several times about my attempts to plan and write like a character-first writer and how important it was for my own enjoyment and the betterment of my writing to accept that my strengths lie elsewhere. My level of confidence in that area has grown so much over the past few years, and seeing that I’m much more at home in my natural voice and storytelling techniques is encouraging. But I hadn’t realized just how much my “reconciling of faults” had come until I sat down and wrote the new first chapter. Why? Because there’s no better time to realize that my characters don’t immediately show up on the page as I’d like than when I have some fresh, unedited writing to re-read. And a particularly sore spot for me is the protagonist of my WIP, who has never, until recently, come across as I want when I write scenes with her.  This could easily become a point of discouragement—it used to, and still attempts to be so. Characterization is so crucial to a good story, and so obvious when it goes awry, that mistakes in that arena can feel as embarrassing as calling a new acquaintance by the wrong name or mistaking a stranger for someone they aren’t. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to completely avoid characterization issues, even when the rest of my writing is good.

I have, however, accepted this flaw. No writer is good at everything, no matter how long they’ve been writing or how successful they are. How can I expect it to be any different for me? It pops up again and again whether I like it or not, and editing characterization, for me, is part of my writing process. One of the most important parts about writing is being realistic about what writing entails: lots of rough drafts, lots of editing, lots of brainstorming, lots of mistakes (sometimes silly ones) that need mended, and lots of time. It’s not just that ignoring that reality is useless—denying how much work it takes to write undermines writing potential. The more I lament the imperfections, or wallow in dissatisfaction or comparison, the longer it takes me to get around to fixing the flaws. It’s only once I accept that flaws will exist at first that I can shift my focus to developing ways to fix them.

Reconciling faults is easier said than done, just like most things in life. But lack of ease doesn’t mean effort shouldn’t be made to improve—improvement is made in small steps, not leaps and bounds, and requires maintenance once it is achieved. I could easily slip back into being unhappy about my characters if I allowed my mindset to shift in that direction, which is why being active in viewing my writing for what it is and what it can be, rather than what it “should be,” is so important. Now when I look at an action or line or dialogue that’s not really what I want, I think “that’s okay, what should be changed? How can I make this match what I see in my mind?” rather than “ugh, I didn’t get this character right again.” See the difference? Both approaches recognize a flaw, but only one of them allows me to do anything to mend it. Why choose to be defeated before you begin?

Book Review: Storyteller (Quelmirian Duology, #2) by Savanna Roberts

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Title: Storyteller (Quelmirian Duology, #2)

Author: Savanna Roberts

Genre(s): fiction, YA, fantasy

Length: 310 pages

Published: October 10th, 2019

Rating: ★★★

 

Overview:

Earlier this year, I participated in Savanna’s blog tour for Villager (the first book in her Quelmirian Duology), so it was only natural that I finish out the duology with another book review for Book Two, Storyteller. With a cliffhanger like the one at the end of Villager, I needed to see what happened to all the character, you know?

Storyteller picks up right on the heels of Villager as Vivianna, Nex, Fiatina, Tyde, and Reeve travel to the forbidden Baylan Isles to escape Kallimene’s wrath. The group settles with Tyde’s family and slowly begins to face their personal hurts, fears, and prejudices while also enjoying the beauty and culture of the Isles. But, their newfound camaraderie and peace is short-lived: they must regroup and make plans to return to Quelmir and depose Kallimene—a plan that is complex, uncertain, and potentially deadly, no matter how they spin it.

 

Style/Voice:

The style of Storyteller is, for the most part, the same as the style of Villager: multiple first-person POVs and a clear, confident, conversational tone that makes the characters and quick-paced plot easy to delve into as a reader (though, at times, that strength left me wanting for more vivid descriptions or elaboration). Here’s an example of Robert’s prose style from page 47:

“The four Baylan islands spread out before me, bright and vibrant, and as full of life as they were on the day I left. The sands of the beaches are white, the palm trees and dense jungles throughout the islands a loud green. As we get closer, I can make out the sturdy wooden bridges that connect the four islands together. I can make out the reds, pinks, yellows, and oranges of the flowers that bloom wherever they want. I can see smoke from cook fires, the ripe clusters of coconuts on the coconut trees, little bobbing figures just down below, going about their day as usual.
Reeve steers us over the first island, nearly skimming the tops of a few palm trees, and starts lowering the ship down toward the dock of the second island. The bobbing figures begin to take more shape. There are fishermen with nets in the shallows of the sea. Their wives cut the heads and skins off the fish, sitting on crates on the dock. There are children playing on the beach, throwing and kicking sand at one another. And there is someone standing on the very edge of the dock, waiting for Reeve’s ship to land.”

What’s new about Storyteller is that there are third-person Quelmirian tales (which read like mythological tales) included throughout the novel, in addition to a few third-person accounts of side-character’s backstories. While I didn’t find these sections awkward or jolting, I did wish that there was more connectivity in their inclusion, like when Vivianna recounts one of the Quelmirian tales to the rest of the group. Overall, however, those sections provided a closer look into the story world and characters and added to the story.

 

Characters:

Just like in Villager, Vivianna and Nex are the main characters of Storyteller, with chapters from the POVs of characters like Tyde and Kallimene interspersed. However, this time around we also get to read chapters from the POVs of Fiatina, Nex’s older sister, and Reeve, the group’s pirate ally, in addition to the occasional POV of Caela, a former servant at the palace, and third-person narrations. Roberts handled all the POVs skillfully, especially considering the difficulty that comes with swapping perspectives when writing in first-person. I never felt as if a POV was more boring than the others, and each POV switch moved the story forward.

In addition to the increase of POVs, the majority of the characters also experienced substantial character arcs: Vivianna struggles to reconcile the prejudices she was taught on Quelmir with the beauty and hospitality of the Baylan Isles while also overcoming guilt and shame over her part in the loss of the Quelmirian throne; Nex, at last, is able to cast off the weight of royal expectations and the anxiety that came with it, and matures emotionally as he discovers his true nature and strength; Tyde must face the family he left behind and learn how to be honest and open with them; Fiatina (who quickly became a favorite) is finally able to exercise her leadership abilities and finds love, friendship, and courage as she does; Reeve, whether he’s apt to admit it or not, discovers genuine companionship and a greater purpose with his newfound friends; Kallimene shows his true colors, which eventually leads to his demise; and Caela slowly but surely convinces herself that lies are truth, to where she is unwilling to let them go even when her future depends upon it.

I enjoyed a lot about the new character developments in Storyteller. In particular, I was happy to see how Nex grew and matured past the temperamental and often emotionally immature young man he was in Villager and into someone who was confident, considerate of others, and protective and brave in a healthy way. I also liked that Fiatina had a bolder presence in the story; her strength of character, willingness to risk her life for the sake of the greater good, and ability to be diplomatic and firm without having to prove herself, was a great addition to the temperaments of the rest of the main cast. There were also some wonderful family dynamics with the introduction of Tyde’s grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law, and the eventual inclusion of Vivianna’s family (which provided good drama and tension). The only character I wish had a stronger arc was Kallimene—after all his cunning and scheming in the first book, I would have liked to see him pose a bigger threat in this one, especially once the action in Quelmir picked up again. I also would have liked to see more of Vivianna’s build-up to being a storyteller, perhaps in the form of describing more of the importance of storytellers in Quelmirian society or lore, or with having more of her storytelling abilities hinted at in the first book. Her characterization and arc ended up feeling a bit overshadowed by the other characters as a result; otherwise, the overall quality of the characterization was good and fulfilling.

 

Plot:

Storyteller is divided into six sections: The Isles, Worthy, The Plan, The Amaril Festival, The Pirate, and Something More (the Epilogue). Just like before, the plotting was fast-paced, and full of twists and building tension. This is one of Robert’s strengths, I think—as I read, there was a sense that every section or chapter contributing to the forward motion of the story, and, particularly toward the end, I had to keep reading faster and faster as the danger intensified and the stakes rose. Additionally, all of the decisions that drove the story made sense and were driven by the characters’ desires, needs, and beliefs, which made for a well-structured and fulfilling plot. The only real complaint I have regarding plot is that Kallimene, the antagonist, was not as active of a threat as he could have been for much of the story; if he had been more active against the rest of the characters, it would have only strengthened an already tight plot.

 

Setting:

In my review of Villager, I said that I hoped to have even more worldbuilding showcased in the second part of the duology, and I certainly got what I’d hoped. The first part of Storyteller takes place on the Baylan Isles—a place Quelmirians only heard rumors about, and a place where the Baylan people, who had been cast out of Quelmir unfairly, were said to reside and plan to return to take over Quelmir. The reality of the Isles is quite different, however, and the characters get to take in the new food, geography, religion, culture, history, and festivities of the Isles as they recuperate and plan. The history and politics between Quelmir and the Isles plays an important part in the story, which I enjoyed. They also learn more about the forbidden Baylan magic and I found that aspect both interesting and tastefully done; the magic felt as if it was a natural, and thus understated, part of the Isles, and there was enough explanation to establish what could and could not be done without drawing too much attention away from the rest of the story. In addition to Baylan culture, characters observe and participate in more Quelmirian festivities (most notably the Amaril Festival, after which a part of the novel is named), and readers get to see important cultural aspects like weddings, funerals, criminal trials, and religious stories throughout the course of the novel. As always, I would have liked more details—but that’s simply because I love worldbuilding, not because the book did not contain enough in an objective sense.

 

Objectionable Content:

Objectionable content is overall low, although I noticed more of it in Storyteller than I did in Villager. Characters swear, but not excessively. Two characters, whose relationship had been established in the first book, continue their relationship and their sexual innuendos/physical affection; other couples flirt, sometimes a lot, but those relationships never progress past that point on-page. One character is interrogated, beaten, and killed, but otherwise, the level of violence is rather low, and never distasteful or overly gruesome.

 

Conclusion:

Writing a sequel or second book of any kind is difficult—how do you carry over the parts of the first book that worked well, while continuing character arcs and plot in a compelling way? Too often writers don’t have a strong enough story to make into more than one book and it shows. However, Storyteller is not part of that group. First, although YA and fantasy still aren’t my genres, I was pulled into the story and wanted to keep reading Storyteller just as I had wanted to keep reading Villager. Second, while I would have liked to have seen a more formidable antagonist and had more of a build up to Vivianna’s arc, I was left with a sense of satisfaction once I finished Storyteller—the plot and character arcs ended in a way that felt correct for all that had happened in the story, and the happiness at the end felt deserved and natural. I still think I like Villager just a teeny bit more—I tend to enjoy the beginnings of stories best, regardless of the story quality—but Storyteller is a strong conclusion to the duology and one that I think readers will enjoy (I know I did). Thus, I give Storyteller 3/5 stars.

A Case for Pre-Writing

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For as often as writers discuss their favorite methods and tricks of pre-writing (that stage before a draft that’s dominated by researching, brainstorming, and outlining), a lot of writing advice stresses the importance of just writing. That’s the entire point of being a writer, after all—getting stuck in constant planning eventually becomes a procrastination tool or a safe place to hide from the reality (and fear) of what comes once writing commences. Just as often, writers are admonished to write bad first drafts—just write, and you can edit and fix the problems later. Just write. Just write. Just write.

I don’t disagree with the underlying meaning of this advice. It is easy to get caught up in pre-writing to the point where the story is never written. How many people have said “I would love to write a novel!” but never do it? Pre-writing is the perfect stage to soothe our innermost fears, giving us the illusion that we’re making progress, or even being a way for us to make real progress, without having to put ourselves and our prose or poetry out into the real world. But I also see some danger in how this advice can go too far the other way. Pre-writing itself is not the enemy of productivity or an excuse to procrastinate. Pre-writing is part of the writing process, not just a precursor to the main event. Pre-writing, when actively utilized, has more benefits than drawbacks, and can save us time and prepare us to fully immerse in the later stages of writing (both the actual writing and the revising/editing/rewriting). Specifically, I can think of five great benefits of (active) pre-writing:

 

Pre-writing clarifies your vision

I know that some writers lean more to the side of “exploratory writing”—that the only way they can really get a sense of your plot, setting, or characters is to actually write scenes or chapters. If you’re made that way, there’s no sense fighting against it. However, for those of us (like me) who aren’t geared that way, exploratory writing has its limitations; I’d even venture to say that a little pre-writing, even informally, can help the most exploratory writers out there.

Pre-writing involves activities like research, brainstorming, and outlining. These activities clarify the vision of your story in your mind, and the clearer that vision is, the better and faster it comes out on the page. This can be as simple as asking yourself “what’s the main purpose of this scene/chapter?” and coming up with a clear goal, or as complex as researching the full progression of a disease or developing a fictional culture’s birthday celebrations. Whatever the case, a healthy measure of thought before action ensures that your action will be more accurate and less likely to end in failure (or needing to redraft a scene ten times).

 

Pre-writing helps you avoid obvious story problems

If you’re thinking about your story beforehand, regardless of how detailed you go, you’re going to be far more likely to catch large, obvious problems or gaps before you’ve written yourself into a corner. Say for instance that you need to add tension to a scene, so you make your protagonist break their leg during a get-away chase. In that moment, that narrative decision may be fine and provide what you need, but if you haven’t fully thought out the consequences of that action—if you haven’t thought ahead to what the protagonist will need to do in the next scene, or the next chapter—that injury may cause more problems than it’s worth. There may be conflict and drama, but there’s also a huge logistical barrier between them continuing their journey or getting further away from the bad guys, and it’s one that can’t be overcome in a few hours or days. But, if you pause a bit to consider other ways to add tension to that scene, you would be able to a) recognize that you need a different way to add interest or conflict before you go ahead and write the scene and b) be able to more quickly find a viable, dynamic solution. Maybe they break their arm rather than their leg, or their friend gets injured instead of them, or they lose an important item that sets them back in a way that doesn’t limit their mobility. Any of those options would save the hypothetical writer from writing themselves into a hypothetical story corner. There’s no way to avoid every story flaw before you write, but avoiding major ones is vastly preferable to being stuck for days because of a poor plot choice, or having to write an extra draft or two of a piece because you overlooked a plot hole or let an underdeveloped character roam freely.

 

Pre-writing strengthens your actual writing

The entire point of pre-writing is to prepare you, as much as possible, to write your draft. Think of it as getting thorough training before starting a new job: if needed, you could be thrown right into the workforce and learn as you go, but even the shortest orientation about terminology, location of important offices, or contact information for important people can help you adapt to the new environment and succeed more quickly than if you go in blindly. That little bit (or large amount) of brainstorming, research, or outlining is your job orientation; it doesn’t replace on-the-job experience, but it makes that time on the job more beneficial, productive, and meaningful.

At this point you may be thinking: I outline and research and brainstorm but, once I write, I end up changing most of what I plan. It all seems like a waste in the end in those cases, doesn’t it? Except that’s a narrow view of what pre-writing does for you. Say that you wrote an outline for your story, but about five chapters in, a change in dialogue takes your story on a completely different course. Is all that outlining in vain? Hardly—though you have to re-work your plans, the time you spend outlining gave you a) more clarity about what you may want your story to be, b) more insight into character motivations and potential arcs, and c) more information about the story world, so that when you do change plot points, you can quickly figure out better options. It’s the difference between taking a detour and having to buy a whole new car.

Another, albeit more technical, benefit of pre-writing is that it can often improve your actual prose style—things like descriptions, word choices, storyworld-specific terminology, and dialogue. Those aren’t the most important elements of a first draft, but a measure of improvement in that area is nevertheless a good thing.

 

Pre-writing saves editing & revising time

Naturally, if pre-writing makes your actual writing stronger, that stronger first or second draft is going to make it easier when you edit and revise. Rather than fixing obvious plot holes, you can focus on smaller plot details, making things tighter and more efficient or expanding a sub-plot to add more meaning; rather than having to redo all the dialogue with a character because their personality changes, you can focus on their individual arc, how they interact with others, and how you can polish the dialogue to be the most compelling; rather than wondering about whether your story has a theme or not, you can find your story’s hidden meaning more easily, and begin to figure out how to ask the most meaningful questions; rather than having to redo all of your setting descriptions, you can simply polish what you have, perhaps adding or subtracting words or sentences but not needing to completely redo paragraphs as often.

There’s no guarantee that a stronger first or second draft means you can edit or revise quickly—sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you still have to make major changes to your story. Some stories just take a long time, and that process includes lots of drafts and re-writes. But, even in those cases, all of the small building blocks that you laid at the foundation of the writing process do add up once the house is built. You don’t have to completely rework the foundation if you pay attention to it at the beginning.

 

Pre-writing reminds us that our first ideas are never our best

Perhaps most of all, the biggest reason I advocate for thorough pre-writing is because it reminds us that our first ideas are never our best. That sounds quite harsh—sometimes initial ideas are good, and if they’re good, why not run with them? But, even in cases where an initial burst of inspiration or character is compelling, that initial idea is not enough for a story. Stories need development. Stories need time to mature. If we rush headlong into writing, it’s easy to forget that writing is an endurance activity and a craft that takes years to hone; a writer is never done honing their craft, even once they become “good” at it, even after they create good, successful stories. No quantity of experience, even though it’s necessary to grow in the first place, is enough to avoid the hours and days and months and years it requires to write. Writing isn’t just putting words on a page—the stages of pre-writing (brainstorming, planning) and post-writing (editing, revising) are also part of the package. This is true whether a person writes fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose. In a way, disregarding the pre-writing stage is disregarding the writing process. It’s unlikely that a person would forgo researching their area of study before starting their master’s thesis, so why treat fiction writing any differently? There is joy to be had in all of the stages, and while sometimes it feels as if the pre-writing stage is taking far too long, it’s important not to dismiss it or unfairly compare it to writing or revising. All three are important and necessary.

But, I think pre-writing in particular is the best stage to learn about how to improve our initial ideas. In the pre-writing phase, our ideas are new, easy to mold, and freer of attachments; if we always wait to make serious changes to our characters, plot, theme, or storyworld, it will be so much harder to see our story clearly. We’re likely to be attached enough to an idea or character that we aren’t willing to change it, cut it, or allow it to develop into a better idea. Catching potential weak areas or flaws early gives us the time—and the mental and emotional space—to allow stories to change and grow. And, allowing ourselves to let our stories grow as much as they can before we write them also makes it easier to make changes later, whether that means deviating from your outline or cutting a treasured scene during editing. Pre-writing may be practice for the real thing, but it’s what you do as you practice—the habits your form—that determine how well you perform when the time comes. It’s not so much a matter of how you pre-write, since every writer’s brain works differently, but that you give active attention to that pre-writing time and get the most out of it that you can.

Book Review – Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Title: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Author: Deborah Heiligman

Genre(s): creative non-fiction, historical, middle grade

Length: 454 pages

Published: April 18, 2017

Rating: ★★★☆

 

Overview:

While I have a weakness for beautiful book covers, the cover alone is rarely enough to make me pick up a book when I don’t know about the story inside—but Theo and Vincent: The Van Gogh Brothers had been staring at me from my local library’s shelf for months, drawing my eye with its beautiful blue, impressionist cover art, and since the title was rather straightforward, I decided to snatch it up and save it for when I needed a break between longer reads. It sat at home on my shelf for a while before I picked it up in August, and for a little while longer, I lingered in the first section, making slow progress. It wasn’t a hard read by any means—it’s middle-grade historical fiction, after all—but my mind wasn’t at a place to absorb the story just then. But, once I did switch into the correct mode of thinking, I flew through the pages.

As stated, the title is direct: Vincent and Theo is a creative take on the relationship between famous Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo Van Gogh, whose life and influence in Vincent’s life has generally been untouched in mainstream stories. Heiligman draws from over 600 letters from the brothers (as well as others, such as family, friends, and coworkers) to paint a picture of their tumultuous yet close-knit relationship, from the time they were children in a little Dutch town to the final years when they lived in France.

 

Style/Voice:

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as style when I picked up Vincent and Theo, though I figured it wouldn’t be overly complex since the book is marketed as middle-grade. Nevertheless, Heiligman’s style surprised me, and because I hadn’t read anything like it before, took me a while to sink into the rhythm of her prose (which is perhaps while reading this book was slow-going at first). Here’s an example from page 111:

“On August 10, 1879, Theo arrives in the Borinage.
The brothers take a long walk together.
Theo, the art dealer, hoping soon to move to Paris.
Vincent, the erstwhile evangelist, now loving with a baker, spending his time drawing.
Vincent takes Theo for a walk near an old mine called Petite Sorciére, little witch. It has fallen into disuse. Vincent has been eager to show Theo the stark beauty of the area; later he hopes to show him the drawings he’s been making.
But as they walk through the bleak countryside, Theo reminds Vincent of the time they walked together near the old canal to the Rijswijk mill. It has been seven years.”

This passage showcases what was unusual to me about Heiligman’s style: the direct language, short sentences, sometimes sentence-long paragraphs, and short chapters. The brevity of the style is a far departure from my usual classics or even nonfiction works—but, though it was hard to settle into at first, I don’t consider it a negative that the book is written in such a way. The brief sentences nearly mimic the impasto brushstrokes present in many of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings (think the swirling skies in “Starry Night”): each small stroke, layer upon layer, builds into a fuller picture, capturing the important essence of a landscape, a room, an object, a color palette, yet hinting that there is much about the reality of the scene that cannot be captured. That is much like the primary sources that Heiligman drew upon to write this book—no matter how many letters are available, or how many paintings and drawings remain preserved, they only give us an impression of the full life that Vincent and Theo lived. Perhaps that was Heiligman’s reason for writing that way. Regardless, though not the most elegant prose, and though at times the style felt repetitive, it worked well for the genre and story.

In addition to the prose style, Vincent and Theo has a unique and, I think, fun chapter organization: the book is divided into “galleries,” in addition to an entrance, entresol, and exit, which mimics the floor plan of an art gallery. I thought this was incredibly clever and worked well in grouping the sections of their lives together into understandable and manageable parts.

 

Characters:

As expected, Vincent and Theo focuses on Vincent and Theo—not just their individual lives, but how their friendship grows throughout the years, overlapping more and more despite the increasing difficulties that each man faced. Heiligman does a good job at showing the brothers’ personalities: Vincent, who is passionate, extroverted, able to befriend others quickly, but also moody, prone to both anger and depression, unconventional, and sometimes even ascetic; and Theo, who is more stable, quieter, more introverted, a lover of new art and the city but also prone to bouts of illness and general spiritual and moral unmooring.  Heiligman also does a good job of not idealizing either of the Van Gogh brothers (or anyone else, for that matter)—for all of the good traits they possess, they also possessed many bad ones, which caused strife amongst their siblings and parents and led them to periods of desperation, mental illness, physical illness, and poor decision-making.

I always took the book’s depictions of characters with a grain of salt because everyone described was, in fact, an historical person, and even the most studious of historians cannot be completely sure that they understand a person from the past—not to mention that modern sensibilities or personal beliefs can easily taint our interpretation of the past. Nevertheless, as someone who doesn’t know much about either Van Gogh (yet), I thought that Heiligman did a fair and compelling job bringing the people of the story to life.

 

Plot:

The plot of Vincent and Theo is rather loose. In fact, the story follows more of a timeline than a plot, beginning with Vincent and Theo’s early life in the 1850s and spanning until their deaths in the 1890s. Considering that the book is more of a creative biography than anything else, I didn’t find this surprising or bothersome (even though I love a good plot structure). The only qualm I had about the “plot” of the book is that certain sections felt repetitive or like not much was happening—but I think that’s a result of the timeline being based upon reality, since there were periods in both Vincent and Theo’s life where they were confused, ill, or stalled career/relationship-wise. Some readers may grow tired of that element but it didn’t significantly bog down the story when I read it.

 

Setting:

So many individual settings are visited throughout the book—from little towns in the Netherlands to huge cities like London and Paris to the countryside in France and Belgium. Keeping in theme with the style of the book, the setting is not painted in very clear or concrete terms, yet the descriptions are still vivid enough that they come alive as the story progresses. This is especially true when it comes to reoccurring settings, like Theo’s apartment in Paris or Zundert, the small Dutch town where Vincent and Theo grew up (which remained dear in both of their memories), and a sense of place is also established through the author’s descriptions of Vincent’s paintings (which are included during the time periods in which they were created). Additionally, since the focus of the story is more on Vincent and Theo themselves, the author’s way of establishing setting works well to that end, and a style that lingered more on setting descriptions would have taken away from the main focus.

 

Objectionable Content:

Because of the prose style, all objectionable content is never lingered upon excessively or described in lots of detail—though, because of the subject of the book and its historical accuracy, it is still present. Most notably, Vincent struggled with mental health issues throughout his life and especially as he grew older. There are multiple mentions of self-harming behavior/violence (such as his ear being cut off), suicide attempts (such as eating poisonous paints), institutionalization, and actual suicide (though alternative theories to Vincent’s cause of death are presented, the alternative theory is also violent, since Vincent died from a gunshot wound). Characters other than Vincent also deal with mental health issues (for instance, Theo is institutionalized at the end of his life). At least three characters are said to visit brothels and prostitutes; STDs are discussed multiple times. In one section, a few characters drink alcohol (specifically, absinthe) excessively, which leads to drunken arguments and violence. One of the real-life drawings that is included in the book depicts a naked woman, though the art isn’t explicit in any way.

 

Conclusion:

Once I finished Vincent and Theo, I felt conflicted over how to rate it. My actual enjoyment level was perhaps at a 3—it was an easy read, informative, and intriguing, yet I wasn’t left with that lingering feeling of otherworldliness or affection that comes when one finds a book that speaks to the soul. And while I think that Heiligman did a fair and balanced job when taking creative liberties with history, there was always a part of me that was cautious, wondering how much was creative and how much was true. In particular, when religion and Christianity were discussed, I was never certain if the sentiments expressed were those of Vincent/Theo or how the author, who probably is not religious, interpreted their religious upbringing or later beliefs (or even lack thereof). How can one be certain, unless primary sources are read? Even modern understanding of religion can taint the reality of what people at that time believed or did. Yet, despite these qualms,  I spent a good deal of time reading up about the Van Goghs, adding nonfiction books about Van Gogh to my TBR list on Goodreads, and admiring Vincent’s artwork once I finished reading. The book may not have left me with that sense of love like The Brothers Karamazov or The Romanov Sisters did, but it did spark curiosity, and that is a definite strength. Because of these things, I settled on a rating of 3.5/5 for Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.

Creative Prompts for Short Stories, Scenes, & More!

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Have you ever struggled to come up with inspiration for a short story, drabble, or character development scene, but, after searching on the internet or Pinterest for hours, wound up with nothing but poor dialogue excerpts and elementary school writing exercises? This is usually how the search for writing prompts goes for me. And while I can usually drum up enough inspiration on my own if I have enough time, it’s nice to have a list or stash of prompts to draw from when creative wells run dry. So, today’s post is going to be a couple of lists of creative writing prompts for short stories, character development scenes, poems, and/or whatever other project you may be making.

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Book Review – The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin

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Title: The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin

Author: Alexander Pushkin, D.M. Thomas (Translator)

Genre(s): poetry

Length: 261 pages

Published: September 27th, 1982 (original poems from the 1830s)

Rating: ★★★

 

Overview:

After reading The Romanov Sisters last year and The Brothers Karamazov at the beginning of this year, I wanted to delve more into Russian literature and history and decided to pick up this collection of Pushkin’s poems after a friend suggested them. Poetry isn’t my usual choice for reading (even though I’ve grown to love writing it) and I had only heard of Alexander Pushkin via references to his name in other Russian stories, so The Bronze Horseman seemed a perfect way to introduce myself to a famous literary figure and gain more experience with poetry as a whole.

 

Style/Voice:

The Bronze Horseman is a collection of various Pushkin poems from the 1830s, organized into two groups: short poems and narrative/verse poems. While the narrative poems take up a significantly bigger portion of the collection, the two sections are balanced in terms of number, and beginning the collection with shorter poems, working up to the longer ones, allows the reader to become acclimated with Pushkin’s style before coming upon pieces that require more time and concentration.

Regarding specific style and voice, however, is difficult, because while Pushkin has a definite style, his poetry is far more varied in structure, technique, and rhyming scheme than what’s expected from a work of prose. His poems are also translated from Russian to English, which alters the linguistic techniques and nuances that may be present in the originals. That being said, I did enjoy a number of the poems in this collection; here’s an example from the poem “I Have Visited Again”:

            “I have visited again
That corner of the earth where I spent two
Unnoticed, exiled years. Ten years have passed
Since then, and many things have changed for me,
And I have changed too, obedient to life’s law—
But now that I am here again, the past
Has flown out eagerly to embrace me, claim me,
And it seems that only yesterday I wandered
Within these groves.”

A commonality among many of the poems in this collection is a sense of quiet, nostalgic melancholy, but not to the point of overwhelming one with unpleasant feelings. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the emotion conveyed in “I Have Visited Again”—the sensation of returning to a place known in childhood, or considering past joys and friendships that are of great meaning, yet finding them (or you) changed by time or loss. Most of my favorite poems of the collection captured that feeling well.

The general structure of the excerpt above is also followed for many of the shorter poems, as well as some of the narrative ones, but there are also a handful of longer poems that utilize the style of drama scripts—“The Gypsies,” “ Mozart and Salieri,” “The Stone Guest,” and “Rusalka” are examples of that technique. I found them enjoyable, stylistically, but they did not resonate with me as much as the poems that, well, read more like poetry.

 

Objectionable Content:

Most of the poems in this collection included no objectionable content, but there were a handful of them that were sexual in nature (most of it came across as flirty or littered with innuendos, and a few included comments about extramarital affairs). The poem “Rusalka” includes the suicide of a pregnant woman. However, I must make note of the poem “Gavriliad,” which I did not finish because of both the sexual content and the sacrilegious nature of the poem’s concept; Christians would be wise to skip that one.

 

Conclusion:

How does one review a collection of poems, much less one that’s been translated from its original language? I feel unqualified to truly analyze The Bronze Horseman, since I do not read much poetry and only recently have begun writing it. But, that lack of technical knowledge was pleasant on my part, because I was able to experience the poems purely as a reader and lover of words, and I found a handful of poems that I truly enjoyed in the process. The inclusion of poems like “Gavriliad” and others that were mostly sexual lowered my enjoyment, which is why I give this collection 3/5 stars, but, nevertheless it was an easy-to-read introduction to Pushkin’s work, and I’m left with the desire to continue to read poetry and expand my knowledge of the art form.

In conclusion, I want to include the titles of the poems I enjoyed most from the collection, in case the idea of reading the entire book is too daunting or unappealing.

  • To The Sea
  • 19 October
  • Fountain at Tsarskoye Selo
  • It’s Time, My Friend…
  • I Thought You Had Forgotten…
  • I Have Visited Again
  • Exegi Monumentum
  • The Bridegroom
  • The Tale of Tsar Saltan
  • The Bronze Horseman

 

Have you read any of Pushkin’s poems? Do you have any suggestions for which poets I should read next? I’d love suggestions, so leave a comment below if you have any!

How to Curate Story & Character Boards

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Why should you create story/character boards?

While they’re notorious as productivity black holes, storyboards and character boards a) are great ways to develop story elements and b) are great to reference as you write, revise, and edit. This is especially true for writers who struggle to develop strong descriptions or visualize the appearance of characters and settings—instead of trying to come up with sensory details on your own, you can draw upon photographs to guide your word choices and help you “see” your story more clearly in your head (which translates to a clearer story on the page). And, they can be a fun way to relax and still make progress on your WIP, as long as you don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on them.

 

Why do story/character boards need curated?

Technically, there’s no wrong way to create a story or character board: every person will have different aesthetic preferences, and every story and character will have different aesthetics, too. But I do think that there are ways to make this tool even more useful no matter what sort of story you’re creating—and, if you’ve ever looked at other authors or artists and wondered how are they so good at creating mood/story/character boards, there are ways for you to achieve your own version of said aesthetic excellence with just a few tweaks.

 

How do you curate story/character boards?

Before dealing with those tweaks, I want to briefly mention methods or platforms for creating boards. Pinterest is an obvious choice, but if you don’t have Pinterest or don’t like Pinterest, it’s just as easy to save photographs on your computer or phone and organize them into specific folders the same way you’d create boards or sub-boards. There are also countless platforms where you can put those pictures together into the collages often seen online—I use Canva because it’s easy for me, but a quick online search turns up many others. Picking a method/platform that’s easiest for you is most important.

Back on-topic, there are four elements to consider when creating a story or character board: color, tone, variety, and balance. Covering all these bases always, without fail, makes my boards come together into a visually-pleasing, useful, and cohesive final product.

 

  • Color:

The goal isn’t to make every board look exactly the same or to follow another person’s color preferences; rather, you should aim for internal coherence with a board’s own aesthetic. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to make sure the photographs you choose have coordinating undertones or editing styles—for instance, the colors are all cool-toned or neutrals, or all of the photos have a faded look to them. Contrasting elements can be mixed, but doing so all the time runs the risk of the end product looking messy by accident rather than on purpose. Matching undertones and editing styles creates harmony even if the subjects of the pictures themselves are quite different.

 

  • Tone:

In this instance, tone means that the emotional mood of the photographs either match or purposefully contrast to create a specific effect. This can be related to things like color, but often it’s more abstract than that and may even involve the types of quotes or text you include along with purely visual elements. Is the tone of your setting happy, inviting, busy, depressed, abandoned, eerie, dangerous, overwhelming, bright, violent, or sentimental? Is the personality of your character, including preferences to their attitude to their beliefs or worldview, coming through in the pictures and quotes you choose? Aim to have the most specific tone as possible—really capture the essence of the setting or character inspiring the board. The more the mood can be felt just by glancing over the board as a whole, the more useful and visually appealing it will be.

 

  • Variety:

Don’t save pictures of people, settings, objects, or designs that are too similar—otherwise, the board will appear repetitive rather than inviting, monolithic rather than stimulating. Even if you’re saving photos to reference for a specific setting, don’t only choose photos that have the same style: look for both macro and micro shots, and show particular elements or details that are important (objects in a room, a type of plant that grows in a forest, time of day, lighting, angles, etc.). For characters, don’t simply save outfit inspiration or a bunch of pictures of paintbrushes because they like to paint—include foods they like, photos that place them in an activity with others, quirks about their appearance, quotes that resonate with their mindset or beliefs, or things that they would find funny, beautiful, or noteworthy. The more variety that is included, the more the board will mimic real life, and the more useful it will be to reference later when you need to develop a character or describe a scene.

 

  • Balance:

Lastly, try to balance all of the elements of a board. Stagger similar photos so that they aren’t all lumped together; include quotes alongside pictures rather than having a board that’s solely one or the other. When putting together a collage, place photos of similar objects or similar color schemes opposite one another so that the eye isn’t drawn only to one area or corner of the collage. Organize the variety of types of photos in a way that is easy for you to access and is easy to understand (particularly for boards or collages that you want to use as prose inspiration for later).

 

These elements, while specific, are flexible enough to apply to any story or character boards (even with my own style, there’s a range of variety in colors, subjects, and moods depending upon what element a board focuses on). Most of all, though, have fun—let your own tastes and personality shine through, and do what makes the most sense for you and your WIP. And remember not to get sucked too far into the black hole! Your story still needs to be written.

How to Handle a Large Cast

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One of the first responses I usually get when I tell people that the cast of my WIP has over 30 characters is “wow!” quickly followed by “I don’t know how you keep track of them all.” As I’ve been outlining and, thus, juggling said characters and their roles/arcs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best ways to handle such a large cast, especially since I haven’t seen many examples. Most stories don’t, won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have so many characters—they aren’t meant to deal with so many people and, more importantly, would be weakened by having a larger cast. I’ve only come to have such large casts in my novels because I write family sagas, which don’t necessitate having dozens of characters but certainly lend to having a larger-than-average cast. Nevertheless, even if your cast is 10 or 15 characters, that’s still a lot of people to keep track of as the story progresses and it can be overwhelming. So how does someone go about handling a larger cast? There are 7 things that have helped me not only keep track of my multitude of characters but also make them all into compelling, important members of the story.

 

1 – Make Them Distinct

This may seem obvious, but in practice it’s very difficult at first to make a larger cast of characters distinct from one another. It’s hard enough to make small cast distinct! That’s because character development is a lengthy process and our brains are generally lazy—meaning we’ll return to similar personalities, aesthetics, tropes, backstories, and scenarios when someone new joins our story. Soon enough, everyone will be missing a parent, dressing in sepia academia clothing, and being called different variations of the same name (I joke, but, you get the idea). So if you happen to have a large cast—one that may overwhelm you or a reader— take extra care that each character looks, acts, and speaks in a unique way when they show up on the page. Try to make each character’s name distinct from one another and add variety to the cast by including different age groups, professions, interests, appearances, styles, childhoods, and cultural backgrounds (even if your story takes place in a small area). Go back to your original ideas and see if character’s personalities or backstories overlap too much, and if they do, tweak them to add nuance. Each of these little steps will help you make each member of your cast into their own person.

 

2 – Understand Their Roles

No matter how large a cast you have, it’s important to ask the purpose they serve in a story—especially if they play a larger part in story events and aren’t just the barista at a local coffee shop. This adds clarity for you, as the author, to know how to include each character in a meaningful way. By roles, I don’t mean tropes, although it may work for your individual story or writing style to think of them that way. Rather, ask questions like: how does this character advance the story forward? What do they add to the story that no other character adds? What is their purpose in relation to the protagonist or the antagonist? What does their presence reveal about the storyworld? If you don’t have a clear idea why a character is useful to your story, do some development and tweaks until you develop a clear idea. Then, once your entire cast has clear purposes, you’ll be able to weave their individual stories together in a way that makes sense and adds depth to the story as a whole.

 

3 – Create Connections (But Not Too Many)

A huge part of making a large cast work is creating connections between them: family ties, friendships (both positive and negative), working relationships, rivalries going generations back, accidents, joining the same organization, going on the same quest. Often, having a variety of types and levels of connection make the story most interesting and most realistic, but only having a common goal or event that brings a cast together can also work as long as it’s significant enough to form bonds. However, too many connections can veer into seeming contrived or convenient—think of all the times where a story reveals the villain is the protagonist’s parents but it’s only to try to make the conflict more potent, not because there’s any significant reason for them to be family beyond the drama. Try to strike a balance between having enough ties to bind a cast together without tangling them up in a million strings; unless you do want to write a family saga or a story with family saga elements, try to avoid all characters being related to one another. To use another metaphor, use enough eggs in the story batter to keep it together, but don’t add so many that it turns into a quiche.

 

4 – Stay Organized

Keeping story elements organized is a good idea for any type of writing project, but it’s especially important for stories that take on a larger scope. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of keeping some sort of organized lists, boards, or folders full of character information that you can reference as you’re developing and eventually writing them. Personally, I like to make spreadsheets to keep basic character information like name, appearance, age, MBTI type, and Enneagram types in an easy-to-access location and also develop character boards using Pinterest to help me keep my cast organized, but there are tons of other options. The point is less about how you keep your cast organized and more about actually keeping them organized. Even if you’ve had your characters for years, you’ll still probably forget their full names, heights, or eye color at some point or another—and the more characters you have, the more trouble you’ll have. Organization can spare a lot of confusion and double as a character development tool. It’s a win-win.

 

5 – Prune, If Necessary

Do huge lists of characters make me giddy? Yes. Does that mean I should never remove characters who no longer are necessary to my WIP? No. Removing characters from a story—especially if they’ve been included for a long time—is never fun, but when you have an already large cast, it’s even more important to be honest and take inventory of if you really need all of the characters to be included. “Need” doesn’t have to mean bare-bones necessity—you can keep a side character who doesn’t directly aid the protagonist but reveals important information about the storyworld, for instance, and you can even include a few stray side characters that are there just because you like the dynamic they bring if it comes down to it. But sometimes, as you assess character roles, their purposes will shift or characters will merge together into a new character; sometimes, characters are simply obsolete. Don’t be afraid to prune them. I’ve had to prune my casts too many times to count, and it’s always so much better for me and for the story once I do. A story will suffer if you try to force too many characters in where they don’t belong and don’t work; it’s much better for you to suffer a little now than suffer the full consequences of a bloated story a few months or years down the line.

 

6 – Introduce Them Strategically

This piece of advice is for the prose-creating portion of the story: introduce each character strategically. Most story advice follows this principle anyway—you make sure your hero shows up in the first chapter, you introduce important characters sooner than others, you foreshadow the villain, etc. With a large cast, though, it’s not just that you need to introduce important characters quickly or save suspense for the villain—you need to make sure not to overload your reader with 5 new people showing up in a new scene. There’s no hard rule to follow when it comes to just how many people you can introduce at once, but it’s a good idea to a) stagger new characters who show up in the same scene or in back-to-back scenes and b) make sure that most scenes—especially during the beginning parts of a story—do not try to juggle 10+ important characters at once. For instance, let’s say your story is a family saga (yay) and your protagonist has 10 siblings who all play important roles. First, you should do your best not to introduce all 10 of them at once, and certainly not in the first chapter. Give each of them a place and time to make a fitting entrance. Second, write scenes where one, two, maybe even three/four of the siblings interact with the protagonist at one time, but try not to have all 10 of them vying for attention in every scene once you introduce them. Mix up the combinations of when and how they appear, not just to add interest but to avoid over-crowding. Some good examples of this are Murder on the Orient Express (individual chapters to interview each of the passengers, small scenes with interactions between one or two of them) and Lord of the Rings.

 

7 – Give Yourself Time

This is probably the most important piece of advice on the list. Character development takes time; developing a lot of characters takes a lot of time. When I mention that I have 30+ characters in a story, I did not decide on that number one day and start developing all of them at the same time. The cast grew slowly and organically—at first, I had around 7 or 8, then 15, and only when it became apparent that other people were also important to the main themes and plot did I allow more and more characters to take up more space in the story. If you do decide you want to write a grand family saga and know you want a really large cast, realize that it will take you years—yes, years—to cultivate a strong cast of that size. And if you’re writing a story with a cast that keeps growing, don’t panic! You don’t have to figure out how to make all of them distinct and useful and interesting all at once. Take your time, be thoughtful, and enjoy the process. The same goes for anyone who only has two or three characters. The process of character development is long and often frustrating, but with patience it can be rewarding, surprising, and joy-bringing.

Alternative Loss + Grief: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 2)

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In my last post, I talked about how using a technique called expectations vs. reality can create intrigue and tension in a story without having to include physical threats or death. However, that’s not the only technique I use to that end—I also employ what I like to call alternative loss and grief to add depth to conflict, propel character arcs, and create challenges and setbacks in the plot.

I call this approach “alternative” because, for the most part, death is the first association with the terms loss and grief, and the technique does not include death, at least not in the literal or entire sense. Rather, it takes losses other than loss of life and uses them to elicit the same depth of emotional difficulty and pain (a.k.a. grief), which in turn creates the drama or interest that usually comes when a story includes the death of a character or characters. This probably sounds very abstract, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the processes of grief, so I’ll give concrete examples of what I mean.

When I’m coming up with possible losses for a character or story, I try to cover at least 3 bases: physical, relational, and emotional/mental. There are probably more that you could consider depending upon the genre (spiritual loss, for instance, may be relevant), but there are plenty of options just from the 3 areas I listed. For example:

  • Physical:
    • Loss of health (serious injury that causes a handicap or disability; chronic illnesses; life-threatening illnesses like cancer; degenerative diseases like dementia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, etc.)
    • Loss of work (suddenly being fired; having to shut down a small business; having to change careers due to health or other difficulties; losing the means of one’s livelihood, like a farmer’s crops being completely destroyed)
    • Loss of material possessions (a home, area, town, city, or ecosystem destroyed or damaged by a natural disaster; an important, sentimental, or expensive item being lost, damaged, or stolen; losing important transportation like a vehicle; losing most or all of one’s monetary savings)
    • Geographical or cultural change (moving to a new city, state, country, or area; adapting to a new climate or new cultural norms that contradict one’s “norm”)
    • Loss of mobility/freedom (being imprisoned or put on house arrest; being exiled; being unable to leave a specific area due to bodily or transportation-related setbacks; being kidnapped, enslaved, stalked, or blackmailed; being heavily monitored by those in authority; a person with a disability or other handicap not being given social, political, or literal autonomy)
  • Relational:
    • Loss of friendship (growing apart from a childhood friend; having a falling out with a best friend; having an unhealthy relationship with a friend; having a friend suddenly leave or ignore you)
    • Loss of romantic relationship (breaking up with a significant other; having a significant other break up with you; getting a divorce; finding out that a significant other is or has been cheating on you)
    • Loss of family connection (moving away from family; growing apart from siblings or parents you were once close to; having to distance yourself from abusive family members; having an important family member leave or abandon you)
    • Loss of community (leaving an organization where most of your relationships are found; moving far away from home; being ostracized from one’s community, group, or family)
  • Emotional/mental:
    • Loss of trust (a trusted friend or family member telling an important secret to others; being betrayed by someone who used to give support; finding out that someone you respected or admired has serious flaws; becoming disillusioned with a person, place, or idea)
    • Loss of innocence (a child having to grow up too quickly; a child being abused; learning a dark or horrible secret without having the emotional or mental tools to process it)
    • Loss of reputation (being deemed a criminal or losing one’s reputation due to false accusations; committing a crime or otherwise condemned action and having to deal with the consequences)
    • Loss of mental health (the development of mental illness; the process of finding a path to mental wellness after trauma or the onset of mental illness; the isolation felt when others do not understand emotional and mental limitations; the difficulty of navigating the world while coping with trauma or other mental/emotional differences)
    • Loss of connection (rejection by parents, siblings, peers, or other important life figures; not having others to share daily life with; feeling starved for emotional and mental intimacy with others; chronic loneliness)
    • Loss of aspirations/dreams (not getting accepted into one’s desired college; no longer being able to practice or do a favorite hobby due to physical or mental difficulties; not being married or dating when one wants a significant other; not being able to biologically have children; never being able to reconcile with an estranged friend or family member)

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but look how many options there are just on the list! Not only is there a wide variety to choose from—ranging from moderately difficult to seriously damaging—but all of them are capable to eliciting similar emotional reactions as physical/literal death from characters as well as from readers. The loss of health, the betrayal of a spouse, or the loss of a home to a fire are tragic in their own right and, even without any other conflict or dilemma, are enough to inhabit a story and fill it with resonance and nuance. The possibilities aren’t endless, but they nearly are.

Once you determine the type of loss a character or characters will experience in your story, you will also need to deal with the fallout of said loss, which is always a form of the grieving process. This is perhaps more important than the loss itself, at least for writers—properly showing the effect or impact of a loss gives that loss the weight it needs to be meaningful, but insufficiently following the grieving process after the loss can make audiences disconnect from the story. Writing grief is also difficult—it can vary so much from person to person, both in its expression and its duration. A one-time event will cause a different type of grief than a chronic or reoccurring event, as well. With that in mind, here’s some advice for understanding how to write grief:

  • Familiarize yourself with the 5 stages of grief—note that the stages do not have to followed in a specific order or experienced in their entirety by each person, but knowing the stages will give you a basis of information to help you recognize it in characters, in others, and even in yourself.
  • Read about other’s stories of grief—because grief can vary so widely, it’s important that you see as many unique expressions as possible. Read about those who were angry, those who became depressed, those who were able to move on quickly and those who never really got over their loss; read different metaphors that people have used to describe grief and read about different philosophical and religious approaches to understanding it. Read about people who experienced one major loss and read about people who experienced a continuing, ongoing, or reoccurring loss. If you know people who have experienced a significant loss and you think it’s appropriate, ask them (kindly and respectfully) to describe their grieving process to you. Ask out of genuine curiosity! If you’ve experienced a serious loss, ponder how you handled it, what the process looked like, and if you ever reached a level of acceptance or think you will. The more examples you see and understand, the more you’ll be able to correlate that knowledge to your knowledge of your character’s individual personalities.
  • Take time to consider all of the consequences of the loss—how will the loss impact character relationships? Will there be other forms of loss that follow the initial loss? For instance, if a character has a parent who leaves them when they’re young, will they also lose trust, innocence, or a sense of belonging? If a character loses their job, will their relationships with their family or friends suffer? Will a serious health diagnosis result in the loss of friendship or connection with others? Will a character’s inability to accept their loss create distance between them and others or create resentment in them toward others? The more you explore the extent of the loss, the more interesting the loss becomes and the more complex your characterization and plotting can be.
  • Ask for feedback from others—if you’re unsure if a character’s emotional response to a situation makes sense, have a friend read the scene or chapter and give you feedback. If you’re having a hard time coming up with long-term or extended consequences for a loss, ask a friend to help you brainstorm. And if you still aren’t sure, try to find someone who has experienced a similar situation and ask them to help you if they’re willing.

Much like the “expectations vs. reality” technique, there is a plethora of possibilities for how loss and grief can create intrigue, character development, and motivation. Part of the beauty of this technique is that there’s no hard-and-fast way to approach it—you can adapt the principles to fit any genre and can mellow or intensify the type of loss you include to fit the emotional tone and purpose of a piece. Most of all, though, expanding one’s repertoire of ways to create drama and conflict in a story brings balance, maturity, and variety to the tales well tell without sacrificing good storytelling (or our favorite characters).

Book Review: Villager (Quelmirian Duology, #1) by Savanna Roberts

Villager Book Review

Title: Villager (Quelmirian Duology, #1)

Author: Savanna Roberts

Genre(s): fiction, YA, fantasy

Length: 272 pages

Published: July 10, 2019

Rating: ★★★☆

 

Overview:

When I saw that Savanna was planning a blog tour for her latest release, Villager, I was quick to hop on board and sign up to write a review. I follow her on Instagram and was intrigued by her posts about her storyworld and worldbuilding as well as the sneak-peak quotes—plus, it’s so important to support fellow authors, especially when they self-publish. I’d never read any of her writing, even though her earlier book, Smoke and Mirrors, is on my TBR list, and I don’t usually read YA or fantasy, yet I still figured that I would enjoy Villager (spoiler: I was right).

Villager follows Vivianna, the hard-working and dutiful daughter of a wood worker and a thread dyer, as she takes a job at the royal palace on the island of Quelmir in order to help provide for her father and younger brother after her mother runs off with another man. There, her path intersects with Nex, the prince and heir to the Quelmirian throne, as well as the rest of the royal family, Nex’s cunning cousin Kallimene, Nex’s best friend Tyde, and other fellow servants like Caela and Peeter. Vivianna slowly comes to learn that there’s more happening that what meets the eye—not just with Nex, whose kindness toward her contradicts his reputation for being short-tempered and unapproachable, but with everyone working at the palace—and soon she’s caught up in the fight for the throne.

 

Style/Voice:

Due to what I normally read, I’m used to books having complex prose that takes a while to settle into—and sometimes a while to understand entirely. Reading Villager was a deviation from my norm in that Robert’s style lacks a lot of that heady complexity, but I don’t consider that a flaw. In fact, I think the ease and accessibility of her writing style is a strength, especially since this book is YA. And, just because her prose is more straightforward and easy to read does not mean it lacks style or meaning. Here’s an example from page 4:

“We’re supposed to avidly thank Sula, the goddess of the sun, for her generosity. Without the rays she provides us, we would be freezing to death, as well as starving to death. We would have no food, no warmth, and no clothing; savages, inhabiting a cruel land. But sometimes I think Sula could do without some prayers – we wish to be warm, not smothered.”

This section, and many others, reads with a conversational tone that lends itself well to understanding the specific point of view of the character heading up the chapter (multiple first-person perspectives are shown throughout the book). Additionally, each perspective is distinct from the other—Vivianna’s chapters read differently than Nex’s, for example—but there’s still harmony with the book as a whole. My only complaint about the style is that certain words or phrases are sometimes repeated throughout a paragraph, chapter, or over the course of multiple chapters, which made me want new descriptions of a character’s feelings or setting details as the repetition continued. I also would have liked to see more vivid descriptions of the setting, since the storyworld was unique and held so many interesting cultural and worldbuilding elements.

 

Characters:

Villager mainly focuses on two characters—Vivianna and Nex—although other characters like Kallimene, Tyde, Caela, and Reeve also play important and interesting roles, and the fringe cast were also compelling.

Of the two main characters, Vivianna was definitely my favorite: she’s diligent, hard-working, caring, thoughtful, and (deep down) a bit of an idealistic dreamer. Her dedication to her family, especially after her mother leaves them, revealed strength of character that is admirable—in fact, I wish there were more interactions with her family, since I enjoyed the dynamic with her father and brother a lot. There were times when she seemed a bit naïve, but it never came across as willful ignorance or silliness but rather her being unaccustomed to how life at the palace operated or wanting to think the best of people.

Nex provided a good contrast against Vivianna’s down-to-earth and thoughtful nature. As mentioned earlier, Nex has a reputation of being short-tempered, and he does indeed struggle with anger toward his family as well as his current life situation and the villagers he will one day have to care for when he is king. But, he also struggles with anxiety, which I found to be an interesting addition that added depth to his turmoil. I wasn’t always a fan of his behavior—his inability to control his temper in important situations at times felt immature—but the dynamic of his family and how he handled certain important plot points was still interesting enough to keep me reading despite the parts of his character that I did not like.

The rest of the side characters were all distinct from one another, especially when they interacted together in various scenes: Kallimene, whose charm and ability to relate to others masked cunning and ill-will, particularly against his cousin Nex; Caela, who was ever mischievous and flirtatious but also welcoming to those around her; Tyde, who provided a source of brightness against the other brooding members of the royal family yet also kept his own secrets; and Reeve, whose smart-alecky personality and self-preservation tendencies also held a greater sense of right and wrong. I also really enjoyed the dynamic of the royal family—Nex, his sister Fiatina, and their mother and father—as it revealed a lot about their characters as well as the strain that carrying on tradition was putting on all of them.

Two final notes. One, I really liked that Roberts decided to show a negative mother figure, especially one so selfish and non-nurturing but also not stereotypically evil or mentally unwell. I rarely see that role pop up in stories although it happens in real life, and it was refreshing, in a way. It also really contrasted against Vivianna’s responsible nature and care for her father and brother, and lent to learning interesting aspects about how Quelmirians viewed and dealt with infidelity. Two, there was one relationship that I wasn’t a huge fan of, though there was nothing overtly wrong with it—Vivianna and Nex. Their early interactions were intriguing and very telling of each other’s personality, but their romantic progression felt too sudden, too quick for me to get fully on-board. There were some interesting Beauty and the Beast parallels (which, I don’t know if that was intended or not), but I would have liked to see the build up to their relationship take more time or been elaborated a bit more and seen Vivianna not be so wary of him.

 

Plot:

Villager is divided into four sections: The Betrayal, The Palace, The Death, and The Trade. Roberts did a good job at building up each section of the plot—nothing felt illogical, too sudden, or not thought-out, and the pace of events made me want to keep reading. The story also included a lot of interesting twists or unexpected plot points (no spoilers, of course); there was one part in particular, a little over half-way through the book, that I was not anticipating in terms of genre/plot points but enjoyed a lot. Part 3 was especially intriguing in this regard. The only part of the plot that did not make sense was something full of spoilers in part four, where a character’s sudden decision seemed a bit rushed from my perspective, but it wasn’t enough for me to feel as if the story as a whole did not make sense.

 

Setting:

While worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of being a writer, I don’t often read stories that showcase an entirely unfamiliar setting (that’s what I get for reading mostly classics, historical fiction, and nonfiction)—so, reading Villager was a deviation from the norm in the best way. Quelmir is a tropical island nation with a society built upon traditions, ceremonies, and devotion to their gods, and Roberts was able to showcase much of their culture throughout the course of the book. She also incorporated details about their specific work and daily chores, their seasons/weather and ecosystems on the island, their clothing, their daily and celebratory food (which I always enjoy), their politics, their history, and their mythology/religion. It felt natural since Quelmirians—whether royalty or from villages—based so much of their lives upon seasonal celebrations and observances. There is also, toward the end, some hints at magic being part of the storyworld, but it was woven into the story in such a way that it did not feel overpowering or stereotypical, which I appreciate since fantasy is not my usual genre. My only complaint? I wanted to learn even more about Quelmir! I was especially interested in their ideas about ethics and morality, since it is hinted that divorce and adultery are not common and also severely punished, as well as more about their religious beliefs and their political/social history. Since Villager is book one of a two-book series, I’m hoping that Roberts will incorporate even more worldbuilding details about Quelmir in the next installation.

 

Objectionable Content:

Objectionable content is overall low. There is some swearing, but it’s minimal and not distracting. It’s implied that two characters sleep together and another couple commits adultery (the woman gets pregnant as a result); beyond that, the only sexual content actually described is kissing/physical affection, longing gazes, and a statue of a naked woman that one of the side characters carves (though the description is basically what I just wrote—nothing more than what you’d find at an art museum). A few characters are killed, one character is stabbed, and other characters are threatened with violence, but none of the descriptions are gruesome.

 

Conclusion:

As I mentioned in the overview section, YA and fantasy are not my genres. In some way, I feel unqualified to fully review a book that’s both of those genres. What do I know about what makes YA or fantasy books good to the people who love them? There’s always some level of distance that a person feels when they read a book that’s not their usual go-to. Even as I read, there were times that I realized that dynamics or stylistic choices that Roberts made weren’t innately bad or poorly done—they were just more characteristic of YA than what I usually read, or perhaps not my personal preference.

But, all that being said, I think the fact that Villager is not my usual genre makes the following statement that much more important: once I started reading Villager, I kept reading. In fact, I spent several hours finishing the book when I had other things I needed to do. It wasn’t just that Robert’s writing style was easy to read, but I was interested to see where the plot led, how the tension built, what the characters would do. The ability to pull a reader into a story—especially a reader who isn’t firmly in your intended audience—is a huge deal. So, while there were certainly things that I could point out that weren’t exactly my cup of tea, I really enjoyed Villager and I know I’ll be asking for another ARC of the second book in the Quelmirian Duology once Savanna finishes it (and I bet that those of you out there who loved YA and/or fantasy will probably enjoy it even more than I did). Thus, I give Villager 3.5/5 stars.

Expectations vs. Reality: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 1)

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I don’t know about you, but I love reading a good dramatic story. I also love writing a good dramatic story—sometimes to the point where I have to stop myself from adding too much tension and angst so not to obscure the themes or verge into indulgence. That was especially true earlier in my writing journey; I once remember creating a story where the entire main cast died purely because of the ~tragedy~ and the effect it would have on their children (I was in my early teens, so don’t judge). But even though I am now much more moderate when it comes to theatrics, it’s still easy to resort to similar techniques when a story is in need of a plot twist, a jolt of energy, or a more interesting relationship dynamic. The advice to “drop a body from the ceiling” when you aren’t sure what to do next can be taken too literally—most stories cannot sustain so many dead bodies or even one dead body, either because it messes with the tone and theme or the story does not have the space to delve deeply into the effects of death. And while physical difficulties like injuries, interference with travel plans, severe weather, or threats to safety can take care of a lot of the necessary external pressure that creates good drama, those options seem more limiting than helpful if a story does not include a lot of movement, action, or violence.

Without physical threats or death, what else is left to create drama? There are many—too many for me to write about—but lately I’ve come to rely upon two techniques to raise tension and add interest that don’t include death: expectations vs. reality (today’s post) and alternative forms of loss/grief (next post). Not only are these techniques great compliments to stories that employ physical danger and/or character deaths, but they often can sustain a tale all on their own.

Using “expectations vs. reality” is a technique that I’ve noticed a lot while reading or watching mysteries. Many television crime procedural dramas and period mystery series set up the preliminary crime scene to make it appear as if certain characters were involved in the murder or crime, but then slowly reveal that other evidence points away from that person and toward something (or someone) more complex. This is usually a form of a “red herring” (something that distracts attention from the real issue)–but I would define my technique a bit differently. The goal of “expectations vs. reality” is not so much to distract from an important clue or suspicious action but to get the characters and the reader to expect something different than what is truly going on. This is not the same as purposely trying to “subvert tropes” or creating a plot twist that isn’t logical, either—wrong suppositions about a situation, person, or thing have to be grounded in facts that are either simply wrong (but believed/believable) or partly true.

A great example of this is from Pride and Prejudice, where Lizzie spends much of the novel believing wrong ideas about Darcy and Wickham because of a) specific experiences, b) prejudices and perspective, and c) information that was not completely true. All combined, her perception turns out to be quite different from reality—and for first-time readers or watchers, their opinion of the two men often mirrors Lizzie’s pretty closely. Austen didn’t need to use physical threats or death to keep readers hooked: she employed “expectations vs. reality,” along with playing with the cultural context of that period and the foibles of human nature, to create a compelling story. Austen uses the same techniques in most of her books, such as Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and the same technique is also present in lesser degrees in other books like Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Remains of the Day, and Till We Have Faces. Additionally, the same effect is often achieved when authors write stories from the point-of-view of unreliable narrators (like The Remains of the Day) or innocent, ignorant, naïve narrators. In its most basic form, “expectations vs. reality” can simply be setting up a story to where readers naturally will assume certain events will happen, and then revealing unexpected (not necessarily good or bad) information that goes against the usual mental shortcuts or stereotypes we use.

However the affect is achieved, disrupting expectations with reality can significantly affect not only readers but also characters, who now have to grapple with the truth of whatever situation had been perceived incorrectly. They may feel guilt or shame over having acted upon incorrect information and causing damage to themselves or others; they may be shocked, horrified, or grieved to learn that a person, place, or event was not as good and moral as they once believed; they may have to reconsider their plan for a career, relationship, or other story goal; their worldview may be shaken and have to be re-established after introspection, conversations, or prayer; they may have to finally confront and accept an unpleasant truth about someone they love; or they may simply have to deal with the disappointment or hurt that comes when a planned event or conversation goes poorly. Reality can also bring joy or relief—a character’s illness is not fatal; a character who was thought to have betrayed everyone did not in fact betray them; a coming event is not as damaging or dangerous as predictions foretold; the family dinner turns out to be pleasant instead of awkward or stressful; or a generally mundane, routine event turns out to hold something wonderful instead.

There are too many examples of specific ways to achieve “expectations vs. reality” to cover, but that’s part of the beauty of the technique: no matter what type of story you’re writing, no matter how large or how small a conversation, situation, or scene is, you can set up expectations and intercept them with unexpected-but-logical realities to create plot twists that aren’t gruesome, violent, or action-packed. These moments of realization can strengthen a story to where its gruesome moments do not need to overtake everything to be powerful, can strengthen a story all on their own, provoking surprise and thoughtfulness from characters and readers alike, and can be dramatic, shocking, joyful, gentle, or a combination of many reactions. If nothing else, “expectations vs. reality” opens the door for complex emotion that drive a story forward that doesn’t have to rely upon shock value or violence to be meaningful. Even for those of us who love a good dose of drama, a little balance in how stories create plot twists, conflict, and intrigue is always a good idea.

Worldbuilding Tips + Troubleshooting

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Last July, I wrote two blog posts about my approach to worldbuilding and my favorite worldbuilding methods, but lately I’ve realized there’s a lot more to successful worldbuilding than the foundations laid out in the two posts—not to mention that there are a lot of little details that are important but hard to determine. So today’s post is a preliminary attempt to cover some of those technical, baffling, or often-ignored aspects of worldbuilding, including answering some worldbuilding questions I received via Instagram!

 

Naming Cities/Towns

Naming anything in a story, whether characters or foods or animals or the protagonist’s favorite coffee shop, seems so simple but is often one of the hardest details to satisfactorily pin down. For me, naming towns, cities, countries, and continents has always been a little harder than the rest—one, it has to match the culture or general vibe of the storyworld, and two, it has to strike a balance between being catchy and cool and not being too pretentious. I recently figure out a technique (or, perspective) that helped me a lot:

Worldbuilding - City and Town Naming Map.png

Worldbuilding - City and Town Naming Map 2.png

These are, indeed, maps from Google Maps (both are of areas of West Virginia). Take a look at the different town names shown here, and you’ll see a couple of trends emerge. Most of the towns are named after:

  • A person, whether literally their name or name-ville [Artie, Bradley, Beckley, Sophia, Rupert, Peterstown, Talcott, Hinton, Williamsburg, Lewisburg, Maxwelton, Maggie, Chloe, Normantown, Walkersville, Jacksonville]
  • A geographical feature [Oak Hill, Hilltop, Shady Spring, Sandstone, Jumping Branch, Flat Top, Camp Creek, Wolfcreek, Sinks Grove, Rock Camp Blue Bend, Blue Ridge, Eagle Rock, Low Moor, Falling Spring, Healing Springs, Wild Meadow, Mudfork, Cedarville, Rock Cave]
  • A place or thing of some importance [Prosperity, Athens, Union, New Castle, Clifton Forge, Iron Gate, Mt. Zion, Ireland, Cleveland, Guardian, Fishers Crossing, Replete, Wildcat, Little Otter, Frenchton]
  • Something abnormal [Bozoo, Organ Cave, Shock, Nebo, Exchange, Centralia, Hacker Valley, Heaters]

Realizing these patterns helped me immensely. Even the strangest place names didn’t strike me as unnatural or “trying too hard,” which means that following the same patterns for my stories will likely yield similar results. My new technique for naming towns/cities goes something like this:

  1. Determine which of the four categories I’m going to use
  2. Within that category, research options (using baby naming sites, web pages about eco-systems, etc.) and compile a list of names that I like
  3. Narrow down the list until I figure out the name I want to use for the city/town

Lastly, I always make sure that the name of the city/town meshes with the greater culture of the world or has an unusual enough reason to justify the disunity. For example, if I based a fantasy world off of Scandinavian cultures, I would expect my cities and towns to reflect the languages, names, or geographical features of those real-life places; if I really wanted to name a town “Saint-Etienne” or “Salisbury,” I would need to give a reason why French or British-inspired people settled the area or else run the risk of the setting feeling disjointed and messy.

 

Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner

I love cooking and baking—enough that I never noticed just how many food descriptions were in A Gentleman in Moscow—so for me it’s natural to think about the agricultural and culinary aspects of my storyworlds. However, I don’t see it mentioned often when it comes to worldbuilding, so that’s why I’m including it here.

The food in any story is directly connected to the broader ecosystem, which means that it’s more of a secondary worldbuilding layer instead of a foundational one. This also means that more research and development of the broader story world will have to happen before you figure out your character’s favorite birthday dessert. But, I consider secondary worldbuilding layers to be so much easier because they already have half of the work done.

My suggestion is to first determine the climate of your world: is it tropical? Moderate? Lots of rain? Lots of droughts? How much farm land is available?  How much water is available? What sort of animals can be raised, caught, or hunted? How many seasons does the world experience? The best way to start that process is to a) set your story in a place in our world (so all you have to do is research it) or b) base your world off of a place or places in our world (so you can also rely a lot on research).

Next, determine what sort of foods are available in your world—be sure to include not just the products that are bountiful, but products that are rare, products that are imported, etc. Again, researching places in our world that are similar can help immensely—I’ve found whole lists of common foods for areas that are similar to my created storyworlds that cuts down a lot of the work for me.

Lastly, with that knowledge, begin coming up with a rough “cookbook” of sorts of common foods eaten for meals (do they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or do they have a different number of meals?) and foods eaten for special occasions. Don’t forget about beverages! Even water has multiple variations of how it can be imbibed. And, finally, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to make a distinction between what people of different economic classes eat—poorer folks will not have access to or the funds to purchase rarer or imported foods, for example.

You may be thinking that the food in your world isn’t important, and truthfully, it’s unlikely to be central to your story unless you’re writing about characters who cook/bake often. However, think of it like this: food is not only central to our survival, but it’s central to every culture around the world. It’s often a way to show love and its absence or degradation can cause stress on multiple fronts. Knowing about the diets and agriculture of the people in your world is a subtle way to make your story feel more robust and may uncover unique and unexpected ways to add interest and conflict into your characterization and plot.

 

A Quick Geography Lesson

If you’re writing a story that’s set in a real-world location, a little research online is usually enough to give you a good sense of place (at least for your preliminary brainstorming and drafting). However, if you aren’t writing a story set in a real-world location, determining the ecosystems or geographical features of your world is rather daunting, especially because the geography of a world is so interconnected to other important worldbuilding aspects. I’ve created new worlds twice now: my WIP’s world spans two futuristic continents and my backburner WIP’s world is a small island country. I’m not an expert, but I have figured out some techniques that help me get a sense of my storyworld’s ecology and geography.

First, if at all possible, find a reference for your world within our world. Our world is full of so many interesting ecosystems and landscapes that there’s ample room for unique features—just think of the Dongchuan Red Land in China, the Spotted Lake in Canada, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the Tianzi Mountains in China, the Chocolate Hills in the Philippines, Fly Geyser in Nevada, USA, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain in Peru, the Crooked Forest in Poland, or the baobab trees in Madagascar. Take some time to research the areas you want to use and collect photographs of specific places that capture what you’d like to include in your story.

Use that information to determine specific spots in your world—maybe you place your city in the middle of a mountain range, near a jagged coastline, in an island in the middle of a bay, or stretched out across a flat open plain. Then, using those real-world references, figure out what ecological or geographical elements would impact the people who live in that area.

Some important things to consider are: access to water; ways to grow, harvest, or hunt food; natural resources and how plentiful they are; ease and types of transportation; animals, insects, or diseases that thrive in a given area; seasons and their lengths; and natural disasters that are likely to happen.

The depth of research you do will depend upon your story, of course—if your story relies heavily on setting, you’ll have to do a lot of building, but if your setting is rather small, you may not need to determine all the details. Regardless, your knowledge of the geographical and ecological setting of your story will transfer to the page, even if you don’t spend a lot of time describing it, and knowledge of the world around your characters creates many new possibilities for story conflict.

 

The Daily Forecast

One comment I received about worldbuilding via Instagram asked about weather—or, more specifically, said that weather isn’t talked about nearly enough when it comes to worldbuilding. I fully agree! Much like geography and ecology, the weather of a setting (real or created) can impact so much in a story: illnesses, clothing, agriculture and food, natural resources, placement of houses/cities/towns, transportation and travel, recreational activities, even small talk! If weather patterns are relatively static in your world, then it’s unlikely for people to remark about the weather very much, but a climate that’s constantly changing or has definite seasons means that people are bound to talk (and complain) about it.

Much like food, weather is a secondary worldbuilding element—you can decide it rains a lot in your story just because you want to, but usually weather is determined after the general setting is settled, which includes things like geography and ecology of the area. That also means it’s another easy element to determine. For example, my backburner WIP’s world is loosely based off of countries like Iceland, so a quick online search about weather in that area of the world gave me all the knowledge I needed to determine what seasons would be like in the country, the average temperatures for each season, and what sorts of meteorological phenomenon would be common. Once you figure out general season/weather patterns, you can determine how that impacts the other story elements I mentioned above. And the more interconnected your worldbuilding elements are, the stronger your story will be.

Determining the weather of your storyworld, beyond simply giving you a clear idea of what you need to describe during various scenes, can also yield other interesting ideas even beyond conflict and setbacks. For example, say your world has a cold, often cloudy and rainy/snowy climate: if your characters are human, they’ll probably be vitamin D deficient, which can cause various health and mental health problems if not properly treated. This is why I love researching worldbuilding elements—if you’re careful not to go too far overboard, you can uncover details that not only make your setting stronger but affect your characters in important ways.

 

Let’s Celebrate!

Another worldbuilding comment via Instagram mentioned holidays and celebrations, which is, I think, one of the most fun and potentially useful parts about worldbuilding (especially if you’re creating a world very different from our own). Holidays and celebrations give us a glimpse into the values of a culture or characters, provide meaningful opportunities to showcase characters, and also set up plenty of opportunities for culture clashing, internal and external conflict for characters, and natural ways to showcase themes or foreshadow.

I follow a very basic method for developing holidays and celebrations. First, determine what the people of your world would value enough to celebrate: birthdays? Anniversaries of important historic events? National events? Agricultural or meteorological events? Religious observances? Rites of passage? If you’re having a hard time brainstorming these ideas, think about what people from your community, state, country, etc. celebrate and think about why you celebrate. The “why” of celebration is the most important part.

Second, once you determine what will be celebrated, determine what elements would best showcase, celebrate, praise, or exemplify that core element. Holidays and celebrations are often very symbolic (either subtly or overtly). Consider all fronts for this, such as food, beverages, clothing, decorations, colors, music, art, recreation, gifts, religious or holy items, ceremonies, or storytelling. Reference celebrations that strike you as similar to what you want to accomplish and don’t be afraid to borrow some elements from them (though avoid copying directly unless you want there to be a direct tie to our world).

For me, the process is very intuitive and natural. The more I consider what a group celebrates and why they celebrate it, the more ideas I have for how they could weave that core meaning into events or traditions. And the more I develop the rest of the storyworld, the more ideas I have for specific elements to include. The celebration or holiday will naturally develop the more you tie in other worldbuilding elements. Also, have fun! Let people do frivolous, illogical, and silly things as celebrations. Come up with ridiculous reasons for long-standing traditions. Not everything has to be serious, especially if the celebration or holiday isn’t one with deep religious, political, historical, or social significance. Allow the celebrations or holidays of your world reflect all aspects of its people.

 

Bringing It All Together

I’ll end the post with the final question I received via Instagram: how do you tie in all the various worldbuilding elements into something cohesive?

Worldbuilding, by nature, is vast and never-ending, like weaving a beautiful tapestry—you eventually have to stop yourself from continue to develop tiny details, or else you’ll get lost in the process and end up with a scarf as long as Rapunzel’s hair. A scarf that long is highly impractical beyond the fashion runway. Worldbuilding is also highly intuitive, takes a long time, and never looks the same for two people. All of this makes worldbuilding daunting. I also think the success of worldbuilding lies in its nature.

People often view worldbuilding as if it’s a list of questions you check off, which is why I think so many people struggle with it—they don’t see that it’s a web that you build, not a list, and that every element is connected. This is the method I described in my first post about worldbuilding and it’s the best way to start worldbuilding, in my opinion. But what do you do when you have strong elements and you know they connect, but you can’t figure out how the pieces fit together in a way that’s meaningful and useful? How do you create better connections and strengthen your web?

There are a few methods or perspectives I use to strengthen my worldbuilding beyond the basics. First, sometimes it’s helpful to focus on one area of your world and build connections from there. Think of it like taking a college course. You know that the whole world doesn’t operate purely based on economics, but taking an intro course of economics is going to help you see how much of day-to-day living, politics, society, and international relations is impacted by economics. That knowledge equips you to see more threads in the tapestry. Then, if you take a course about literature, you’d see how writing is important in so many areas—the process continues until your vision expands and expands and can take in so much more. You don’t just see red and blue and purple in the pattern—you learn to see crimson, scarlet, and burgundy threads showing up in the undertones of the purple or in the accents around the blue; you see individual threads that combine all three colors along with colors you never noticed before. Trying to tackle the entire world is impossible; you have to build your understanding slowly and methodically.

Second, it’s always a good idea to question your story. Ask yourself “why?” and “how?” until you find the core meaning of what you’re looking at. Ask yourself “what if?” and “why not?” until you’ve explored enough possibilities to see new ways to connect elements, plot points, and characters. Worldbuilding is a dance between minimalizing and maximizing—your explore your options and narrow them, and then expand into something new until you narrow that aspect down, and continue until you’re pleased with what you’ve created. There’s lots of trial and error, but there’s no way around it.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to condense and cut. Yes, worldbuilding is about creating a larger “web” of ideas and systems, but sometimes those systems get so spread out that the meaning of them is watered down or too cumbersome to handle. You don’t want everything to be so interconnected and understandable that your world appears rigid—as much as we can learn about our world, there are still things that are vastly beyond our current knowledge, and your world needs an element of that wonder and mystery too. But, compounding historical events to make the backstory or a holiday more meaningful might be a good idea. Making a country smaller so that you have fewer ecosystems and cities to deal with might make it easier for you to write your story and make good connections while not compromising the intrigue of the setting. Those are calls that nobody but you can make, but there’s nothing wrong with trimming down your grand ideas into something more manageable. Think of it like editing your paragraph so that only the best, most interesting information is there. Sometimes you need to cut things out in order to see them more clearly.

 

If you leave this post with nothing else, here are my shortened worldbuilding tips:

  1. Think of worldbuilding as a web of systems, not a list of facts.
  2. Always find a real-world reference for your story if you can! It makes research so much easier.

 

What are some of your worldbuilding tips or tricks? What worldbuilding elements would you like to see me cover in future posts? Let me know in the comments!

How to Deal with Writer’s Block

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“Writer’s block’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t feel like doing any work today.” ― Meagan Spooner

The overwhelming impression I have of advice for writer’s block, gleaned over my years of storytelling, is summed up in the above quote: writer’s block isn’t real—it’s your brain’s excuse to be lazy—so keep writing anyway. While there’s some truth in that, it’s never helped me to view my “writer’s block” moments that way because all writer’s block is not created equal.

Solving writer’s block is much like a medical diagnosis—the same symptom can belong to multiple illnesses. Sometimes the fatigue is because of seasonal allergies; you can take some medicine if it’s particularly bad, but there’s no reason why you should take off work or spend the whole day napping. That’s the type of writer’s block to which the above advice applies. Sometimes the fatigue is a common cold; it won’t kill you, but you’ll probably get over it sooner if you don’t push yourself too hard, so resting more and drinking plenty of water is a must. And sometimes, the fatigue is the flu; you need to rest for a while if you don’t want it to go on for weeks and weeks. Furthermore, if you’re immune system is already compromised, you might be sick for a while, and pushing yourself to get over it prematurely will only make things worse.

Severe writer’s block obviously doesn’t require a literal hospital visit, but I think the metaphor is apt. You can’t treat the same symptoms with the same medicine every time. A Claritin tablet isn’t going to help you get over the flu. In the same way, forcing yourself to write every time you hit a “block” isn’t going to work every time, and it might even worsen or prolong the block. Instead, the best way to deal with writer’s block is to become an expert diagnostician.

I’ve written before about the importance of asking questions about your story, and I think the same principle applies to writer’s block: you need to interrogate yourself and find the meaning for why you’re suddenly stuck. The reason may be easy to spot—perhaps you’re exhausted from other life demands and need a good night’s rest; perhaps you’re actually coming down with an illness; or perhaps you just need to eat some protein or go for a walk to perk up. The reason might also take a while to figure out—perhaps you’re hit with discouragement because of comparing your story to others; perhaps you’ve encountered a serious story issue that you need to solve before moving forward; or perhaps you have other, personal issues or responsibilities that need your attention more than your writing does. And, on some rare occasions, you may never be able to figure out the reason you hit a block—but those instances are rare, and, I think, more rare the longer you work at understanding yourself.

Once you figure out the reason why you’re stuck, then you can find a solution. This, of course, will vary from writer to writer, and advice for boosting creativity or solving story problems has been written about so much that I doubt I have something revolutionary to add. However, I’ll share what works for me, and perhaps it will help you figure out solutions that work for you.

When I’m stuck because of a minor issue (like lack of sleep, listlessness, hunger, etc.), I:

  • Take a short break
  • Go for a walk
  • Drink some water (or tea)
  • Spend time doing something creative that isn’t writing (reading, painting, drawing, music, etc.)
  • Finish other tasks that need accomplished (such as cleaning, laundry, errands, etc.)
  • Eat a nutritious meal
  • Sleep on it and come back to it after getting enough rest

When I’m stuck because of a semi-serious issue (like an outline point that doesn’t seem right, a huge plot hole, frustration or dissatisfaction with a section or chapter, etc.), I:

  • Talk to someone about the problem and brainstorm/troubleshoot
  • Brainstorm alternative options
  • Look for inspiration in other stories (books, TV shows, movies, etc.)
  • Write another type of piece (poem, short story, etc.) that allows me to gain new perspective on a character or story element
  • Work on a part of my story that needs attention but doesn’t include the specific issue (e.g. if I can’t figure out a plot point, I’ll do some worldbuilding or character development)
  • Take time to daydream/ruminate about the issue
  • Give myself grace to allow the process to take more than a day or two

When I’m stuck because of a serious issue (like discouragement, other life issues, etc.), I:

  • Focus on pressing responsibilities or concerns
  • Make sure my physical needs (food, water, sleep, exercise, etc.) are thoroughly met
  • Find alternative ways to be creative, whether that means actually creating other types of art or simply taking time to appreciate other art
  • Voice my concerns or feelings to trusted friends
  • Take pressure off myself to be perfect/work on my story every day
  • Give myself a reality-check/pep-talk (a.k.a. “your writing isn’t as bad as you think, you’re just always looking at it in detail”)
  • Switch from passive perfectionism to active perfectionism
  • Accept that periods of rest are natural to the creative process and allow myself to rest when I need to do so

Ultimately, much like your physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health, you’re the one who truly knows the reasons why your writing comes to a halt. You’re also the one who can best determine what you need in those instances, although it may take a lot of trial-and-error. But the only way you can find true solutions (and be able to prevent future bouts of writer’s block) is if you’re willing to take the time to understand your individual needs and writing style. To rephrase the beginning quote: Writer’s block is just a way of saying “something’s wrong with what I’m currently doing, and I need to identify what’s wrong so I can fix it.” And that means finding a balance between pushing yourself to do better when you know you’re being lazy and giving yourself grace for when you truly need a break.

Book Review: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Misaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness Review

Title: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

Author: Misaji Ishikawa

Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir

Length: 159 pages

Published: 2000 in Japan, translated into English in 2017

Rating: ★★★★

 

Overview:

In 1960, at the age of thirteen, Misaji Ishikawa moved from Japan to North Korea with his father, mother, and three sisters as part of reparations negotiated by the Red Cross to help Koreans in Japan return to their home country. His family was promised a “heaven on earth” in Korea with good education, ample wages, and better social standing. In reality, however, life in North Korea under Kim Il-sung was anything but a utopia. A River in Darkness tells the heartbreaking story of Ishikawa’s thirty-six years in North Korea and his eventual return to Japan in 1996.

 

Style/Voice:

A River in Darkness was originally written in Japanese and is (I think) the first book I’ve read that comes from that region of the world—and, as expected, the style reads differently than books I’ve read that are originally written in English, Russian, etc. I point this out not only because of the newness but because I found Ishikawa’s writing style to be enjoyable and poignant in its simplicity. There is no pretense, no hesitation when describing the horrible, sometimes shocking realities of his life in North Korea, and no attempts to dress up his experiences with elaborate descriptions or pretty metaphors for shock value or sympathy; at the same time, Ishikawa is skilled and thoughtful, and his prose reads as if he were sitting across from you and speaking about his life. Here’s an example from pages 23-24:

“An orchestra was playing on the dock, its music thin and haunting. Welcome to North Korea! I remembered the ghastly brass band back in Niigata—its jaunty, preposterous, inane pomposity. And now here was this sad orchestra, scraping away in the icy wind. As the ship edged closer to the quay, I saw that the players were all schoolgirls. Although it was midwinter, they wore little more than the thin jacket of the Korean national costume. The sharp wind blew in my eyes. Then I took a second look. Their faces. Their phony smiles. You must have seen them on TV. Those grotesque displays of schoolgirls—automata wheeled out in Pyongyang to celebrate the birthday of the Dear Leader or some other such dismal anniversary. And there they were, in prototype. The rictus grins of the brainwashed.”

You can see in this paragraph how Ishikawa uses vivid descriptions yet never veers into unnecessary ornateness; to me, he strikes the perfect balance between sparseness and elaboration, and it serves his story well.

 

Characters:

Since A River in Darkness is a memoir (and a rather short memoir on top of that) there isn’t much “characterization” in the sense used when analyzing fiction. Ishikawa does not go into extreme detail about his own character change nor the character of others, which is to be expected when it comes to memoirs. However, this doesn’t mean that the book lacks emotion or connection—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Ishikawa doesn’t need to spend pages describing his thought processes or the behavior of his family to convey the pain of abuse, poverty, grief, starvation, or hopelessness that they suffer; in short sentences, he is able to communicate the depth of emotions that are often too great for words, and reveal the nature of both himself and those around him.

 

Plot:

The memoir quickly covers almost the entire expanse of Ishikawa’s life, from his childhood in Japan, to his family’s move to North Korea, to his young adult life, to his married life, to his escape back to Japan. Because of both of the style and the length of the book (there are only five chapters, along with a prologue and an epilogue), it is both easy to follow the events of Ishikawa’s life and compellingly organized as to make you want to continue to read.

 

Setting:

The setting of A River in Darkness varies widely—we’re introduced to the small town of Mizonokuchi in Japan, the poor mountain village of Dong Chong-ri and the dystopian city of Hamhung in North Korea, the Yalu River on the border of North Korea and China, Shenyang and Dalian City in China, and finally Tokyo, on top of various places of work or residence where Ishikawa found himself over the course of his life. Ishikawa never delves deeply into any of the settings, beyond what is necessary to describe the important moments of his life, and the broader political or social history in North Korea and Asia as a whole is not elaborated in extreme detail either. However, although I would have liked to know more about the broader context of what was going on during Ishikawa’s time in North Korea, that information was not necessary for the purpose of his memoir and did not take away from the book.

 

Objectionable Content:

As expected, A River in Darkness is filled with potentially objectionable content, namely for young readers or those who are more sensitive. Ishikawa experiences familial abuse during his childhood in Japan. In both Japan and Korea, his status as only “half-of” that nationality results in derogatory name calling and poor treatment. There is cursing, but not as heavily as other memoirs I’ve read. Sexual content is low. The biggest “objectionable” aspect of the book deals with violence and severe human suffering. There are descriptions or mentions of: fights, beatings, abuse from police, executions, war, concentration or re-education camps, starvation, suicide, and cannibalism, among other things. Again, nothing is described in gruesome detail, and in fact is important to the purpose and message of the book, but may not be suitable for young or sensitive readers.

 

Conclusion:

“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever…But I’ll tell you what I do recall.” (p. 1)

Reading A River in Darkness was a surreal, sobering experience. At this point, news of what happens under communism or even what still happens in North Korea is not new, and even though that knowledge is obviously disturbing and quickly condemned, it is easy to keep it at a distance mentally and emotionally. Ishikawa poignantly closes that distance.

I’ve always hated the idea of book reviews saying “this is mandatory reading,” and I’m not one to think that it’s useful to continually tell people how bad others have it. Life is not a competition over who has had the worst of it. However, books like A River in Darkness are extremely important and should be widely read. Ishikawa’s story puts a face on broad human suffering, again warns the world how horrible systems like communism are, reminds us of the nature of propaganda, and gives those of us who live in freer societies a healthy dose of perspective.

As I finished the epilogue and closed the book, I was struck by two feelings: first, great sorrow over the repeated miseries and atrocities that Ishikawa, his family, and the people of North Korea faced and continue to face, and second, great thankfulness for my life. I pray that Ishikawa can finally find some joy and peace and be reunited with the family he has left. I also pray that the people of North Korea will be able to taste freedom and find reprieve from their sorrows sooner rather than later.

I give A River in Darkness 4 out of 5 stars.

Reading Recap: January 2019 – April 2019

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I don’t like to set definite reading goals for myself, but I do like keeping track of how many books I can read each month—so, I thought it’d be fun to do a little recap of my reading thus far for the first third of 2019 (can you believe it’s already May?) and also talk about what I’m currently reading and what I plan to read in the next four months!

 

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I started the year out with perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read—indeed, The Brothers Karamazov has worked its way up to the top of my favorite books list, replacing the long-standing Anna Karenina. Despite its intimidating length, Dostoyevsky’s prose is easy to read while still poignant, his characterization nuanced and dynamic, his plotting consistent and intriguing, and his themes full of meaning and honesty (for a full review of the book sans spoilers, check out my earlier post). Unsurprisingly, I give The Brothers Karamazov 5/5 stars.

 

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

I’m not one to pick up nonfiction self-help unless made to do so—I’d much rather read an article or summary online and save myself the time. However, as far as these types of books go, The Confidence Code was pretty good. Kay and Shipman spent a lot of time explaining the science behind confidence, citing a multitude of interviews and studies, and I appreciated how well-researched each chapter was. Also, most of their advice for how to gain confidence was solid, easily applicable, and succinct (I didn’t feel as if the book was too long or repetitive). So, despite the fact that it’s not my genre at all, I give The Confidence Code 3/5 stars.

 

Eyes of the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams

History books can be iffy—sometimes you one that’s compelling and full of good information, and sometimes you find one that’s so dense and dry that two pages feels like an eternity. Eyes of the Prize was the former: each chapter was well-written and filled with photographs and interviews with individuals who participated in historical events (like the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Crisis, etc.). I think the readability of the book in part comes from the fact that it was based upon a documentary by the same name. There were a few times where I wished the author had given more context or information, and the formatting of the interviews into the book weren’t always my favorite, but overall it gave a good overview of the Civil Rights era and I learned a lot. I give Eyes on the Prize 3/5 stars.

 

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown

You’re probably thinking, “If you dislike self-help books so much, why are there two of them on the list?” Two words: assigned reading. And, really, if this book wasn’t assigned, I never would’ve finished it. Brown is knowledgeable and I respect that she’s successful in her field, but the way she writes was obnoxious to me and felt as if I was sitting in a corporate seminar where I didn’t understand half of the lingo the speaker was using. Each chapter also felt repetitive, and by the end I couldn’t tell you much of anything that I learned from reading the book except for the summary that was found in the introduction. I bravely give Dare to Lead a tough, whole 1/5 stars.

 

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South by Anne Moody

Memoirs are a newfound love of mine (4/15 of my 2018 were memoirs), so I anticipated enjoying Coming of Age in Mississippi. Indeed, I did—segregation in the South during the 20th century isn’t a subject I knew much about, and reading about Moody’s personal experiences was enlightening (and enraging). It was also easy to read and I whipped through it in a couple of days. However, while it was good, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite memoir, which is why I only give it 3.5/5 stars (I’d still recommend reading it if you happen to be interested, though).

 

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Oh my. I don’t know where to begin with this book, or how to say it gracefully. Why Not Me? is, to date, the worst book I’ve ever read (I really wonder why I bothered reading it at all). Again, this isn’t my genre at all: I don’t like comedy as a genre any more than I like self-help. But I found the actual content of the book boring, her humor stereotypical and overly vulgar, and I can only take so many cultural references before I want to throw a book in the trash. The book has high ratings, so I can only assume that I’m utterly immune to this genre and Kaling’s personality. Regardless, I give this book 0/5 stars.

 

Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present by Thomas J. Misa

This is the sort of history book that I wish I had enjoyed more than I actually did. Leonardo to the Internet traces different periods of technological advancement, beginning in the era of the Renaissance all the way through the modern age. I learned a lot about technology by reading this book, but the chapters were also very long and written in a way that lacked personality (and, also, needed more commas to make it easier to read). I also wish the book had started sooner and perhaps talked about the growth of technology in a more global sense; however, I do realize a person can only write so much in a book, so I don’t think it’s a slight against the author. Considering those things, I can only give Leonardo to the Internet 2/5 stars.

 

What Am I Currently Reading?

After so many nonfiction books, I’m really starting to miss fiction (or even just an interesting memoir. However, at the moment, I’m working my way through two nonfiction books and one collection of poetry:

  • The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
  • Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends (Translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne, Introduction by Avrahm Yarmolinsky)
  • The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin (Translated by D. M. Thomas)

The Road Back to You has, so far, been helpful in understanding the Enneagram, but I have been disappointed by the abundance of cultural references (which is 100% my own personality) and the sometimes stereotypical descriptions of certain types. The Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky was a delightful surprise—I picked it up from the library because of the cool old cover design, but a friend of mine who loves Dostoyevsky read through the whole book way before I started and highly recommended that I read it, too. I’ve never read the letters of any famous person before but they provide a fascinating look into the personal life, feelings, and ideas that a person has, and it’s something you can’t glean simply from a biography. The Bronze Horseman was also a recommendation from a friend; I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, since I haven’t read more than a handful and haven’t read much poetry in general, but I’m definitely excited to finish the collection.

 

What Do I Plan on Reading Next?

The summer holds the promise of more time to read the fiction books my heart desires—but picking which ones out of my massive TBR pile is difficult. I’ve decided to try to focus on books I’ve either been meaning to read a while (sometimes years), ones I own but haven’t read yet, or ones that are of the most interest to me. Thus, my tentative list for the summer is:

  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • A River in Darkness: One Mane’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
  • Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I don’t anticipate sticking strictly to this list—it’ll all depend on my schedule, if I end up wanting to stick with certain books, what I’m in the mood for, etc. I also may find a new book that simply demands my attention or swap one of the above titles for another (there are several by the Bronte sisters that I mean to read, I’d like to re-read The Scarlet Letter, and there are several other memoirs that are of interest to me). But I do think it’s time for me to return to the classics. I’ve missed them dearly.

The Core of Character Development

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Back in November, I wrote a post about my perspective on character development as a plot-first writer—in short, that the best way to improve a weak area (like characterization) is to accept that I have that weak area and then use my strengths (like plotting) to address those issues. I also mentioned a few of the techniques I used to implement that realization, like worldbuilding so my plot-first brain had enough context or creating family trees and timelines in MS Excel. However, I didn’t spend a lot of time addressing the specifics of my new (and still developing) characterization techniques. That’s what I want to tackle in today’s post. But, I want to address character development less in the context of “plot vs. character” and more as a focused look at the core of what needs to be considered when developing a character as well techniques to use.

 

The Core of Character Development – Nature and Nurture:

The old “nature vs. nurture” debate irks me namely because it’s more like “nature and nurture” than “nature or nurture.” Take a brief look at the field of genetics and you’ll see how that plays out, particularly in the field of epigenetics (in non-sciency terms: how environmental influences switch genes “off” or “on”). I mention this because I think “nature and nurture” is a good way not just to describe how I address character development but to distinguish key aspects that all writers should address.

Nature is rather obvious. In character development terms, this is a character’s:

  • Innate personality (likes and dislikes, fears, desires, hopes, hobbies, spirituality, values, etc.)
  • Physiology (physical appearance—height, build, hair texture and color, eye color, skin tone—bar changes or modifications, genetic strengths and vulnerabilities, predispositions to illnesses, etc.).

The tricky part is that some of these—like hobbies, spirituality, values, illnesses, even parts of physical appearance—will clearly be changed by and informed by their environment. The goal when addressing a character’s nature is to try to strip them of as many environmental, cultural elements as possible and see them for how they would be in that state. You want to see the base level of how their brain works or how their body will function.

Knowledge of the nature of your character is not only important in and of itself but is the prerequisite to successfully applying nurture. Nurture, in this case, covers a lot of aspects, but I usually address four at first:

  • The world in which they live (for help determining their world, check out my worldbuilding post for a list of setting categories to consider)
  • The specific settings they frequent or will frequent (school, work, home, friend’s houses, movie theaters, church, their favorite coffee shop, the car they take on road trips every summer)
  • Their friend/peer/work group (in a less strict sense, this can also include those who have power over them, like teachers or managers)
  • Their family

The broader world in which a character lives is going to supply culture, belief systems, politics, economics, ecological systems, weather, and seasons, expectations, career opportunities, education systems, standards of beauty or fashion, health care and health problems (like illnesses or injuries)—the list goes on and on. Their specific frequented settings act as a miniature, concentrated version of the broader world and help establish things like a daily or weekly schedule, whether basic needs like food, housing, and clothing are met, opportunities for hobbies or education, specific practices of spiritual or religious beliefs, and entertainment or leisure time. The broader group of friends, peers, and/or coworkers adds in a relational element, potentially raises conflict, gives opportunity for positive or negative influences on their innate personality, and is a place to show off the nuances of the broad setting in terms of expectations, health, safety, politics, belief systems, or the economy.

Finally, and I would almost argue most importantly, is the family. I say it’s most important because a good home environment or lack thereof is critical in childhood development, and those who fail to meet certain milestones or have specific needs met go into later life (like teens and adulthood) with mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical difficulties. Determining the whole of the family environment a character is born into, what traumas they experienced growing up, how their parents or parental figures handled it, how their siblings (or lack of siblings) affected them, etc. sets your character up for the rest of their life and, by extension, the whole of your story.

Returning to the broader picture, another way of thinking about “nature vs. nurture” is that nature is your character’s inner or introverted world while nurture is your character’s outer or extraverted world. In truth, however, the two work together: no person is purely the sum of their innate nature or purely a result of how they grew up. The areas where the two overlap are where the most interesting characterization and nuance emerge. And while I separate the two in this post, I don’t separate them when I’m actually working on a character. I tend to switch between them seamlessly, testing hypothetical scenarios and seeing how a character reacts, until either I settle upon new information or the character finally “clicks” in my head and I understand them. The point is less about having “nature” and “nurture” laid out specifically and more about viewing your characters as whole persons, addressing their development from the time they were young, and fully understanding why they are the way they are when they show up in your story. In my experience, addressing their inner and outer world together is the only way to consistently accomplish strong characterization.

 

My Favorite Character Development Tools/Techniques:

Hands down, my favorite resources for character development are personality inventories. I use MBTI and the Enneagram because they deal with cognition and core desires/fears, respectively. I don’t like the MBTI method based upon letters—it’s too stereotypical and easy to misinterpret—so a while ago I did my research into cognitive functions and use those when analyzing my characters. Enneagram isn’t as hard to misconstrue and is, in many ways, simpler. Each of the nine numbers corresponds to a core desire as well as a core fear that drives a person (I also like the theory about tritypes, but that’s a whole other discussion). I generally advise against relying upon free online tests for either of these systems, although taking one for a character is a good place to start if you’re confused about their personality in general. After that, though, reading type descriptions is the best way to figure out if the results were correct. My favorite source as a starting point for both of these typing systems is funkymbtifiction.tumblr.com (MBTI – https://funkymbtifiction.tumblr.com/cognitivefunctions, and Enneagram – https://funkymbtifiction.tumblr.com/enneagram). While these are the two systems that help me the most, that doesn’t mean they’ll work best for you. The point with personality inventories is to find tools that work and that are easy for you to grasp so you can better understand your characters.

Another character development method I’ve picked up recently is writing poetry from the point of view of my characters. I’ve written short stories for characters before but had never considered poetry until a friend of mine introduced the concept to me last year—and since then, I’ve hardly stopped. The format (and sometimes lack of format) of poetry lends itself to the exploration of abstract thoughts and feelings that are often hard to capture during prose and they can be short while still feeling complete.

Other than actual worldbuilding to figure out the broader context and specific contexts in which characters live, my favorite way to develop the “nurture” side of things is making family trees/family descriptions. Even if you aren’t writing a family saga and even if the family never shows up in the story, a little knowledge of a character’s family structure, who raised them, how they were parented, their family dynamic, and if they got their needs met (or not) can immediately deepen all aspects of a character, from personality to desires to weaknesses to hobbies to their spiritual or philosophical beliefs. Personally, I like creating an actual family tree using a spreadsheet, but I’ve also just written basic descriptions of a character’s family (names, appearance, age, etc.) and it works just as well.

Finally, I almost always create a Pinterest boards for my characters. One, it gives you a sense of both a character’s nature and nurture; two, it breaks away from the usual “write something down about them” methods and engages other types of creativity (photography, color, aesthetics) that can be a welcomed break to a tired brain and can prove to be fun while being beneficial; and three, you end up with a great reference to use when you describe what they wear, how they look, or where they go when you’re actually writing. Of course, it has to be done in moderation—you can end up spending hours pinning pictures long after it’s actually helping you—but I don’t think that diminishes the potential advantages of using the platform.

 

While this is my current character development strategy, I have a feeling it will continue to grow and change as I discover new resources or streamline the ones I have. That being said, I’d love to hear how you approach character development and what types of resources you use! Drop a comment below and let me know.

Interrogate the Story

Interrogate the Story

I’m currently redoing my WIP’s outline once again, which means that I’m also busy filling in worldbuilding holes, catching up on overdue character development, and creating timeline spreadsheets. But I’ve realized that a lot of the process is actually polishing my original ideas. For instance, one of my protagonist’s jobs is tutoring her teenage cousin. This detail plays an important part in later events, but the original reasons I had for why my protagonist tutors her cousin were not as strong as they could have been. I only recognized those weak spots when I had to rework the chapter where the tutoring is first introduced due to an unrelated characterization change. The solution was also simple: all I needed to do was do a little worldbuilding about school systems (which I had neglected before) and a better reason emerged.

Realizing that I had overlooked a minor weakness in my WIP’s outline made me wonder, what other weaknesses were lurking in my WIP? And why do those weaknesses fly under the radar for so long? Perhaps I’m noticing these issues so early in the writing process because I outline extensively; finding errors in logic or missing story elements is usually associated with editing, not drafting, and certainly not pre-writing planning. Nevertheless I think the solution I discovered to the above question applies to any stage of story development: the weaknesses exist because I haven’t asked enough questions.

Allow me to explain with a metaphor. An English teacher of mine, when discussing stylistics, once said something to this effect—any given sentence has multiple ways to write it; some are very bad, some are just bad, some are fine but not great, some are good, and only a few are truly exceptional, and the goal of editing and honing a sentence is to make it exceptional. Going off of that, it’s easy to recognize the very bad sentences and usually easy to see the poor ones. Sometimes, we pick out the fine sentences and see how they could be improved. But it’s the good sentences that are hardest to polish because the flaws are less apparent. That’s how story ideas are—the worst explanations for, say, a character’s motivation are (usually) easy to spot, but the more nuanced issues that are still present in our average or even good ideas might never be spotted and thus fixed. But our goal, through editing and re-writing and planning and editing and re-writing, is to make our story as excellent as we can. Moving a story from good to great is the tricky part. That’s precisely the problem I had with the tutoring issue I described. The first idea I had was fine and even had some good things about it, which is why I didn’t realize it didn’t quite make sense until I had to change an adjacent event.

How does one detect and fix those subtle issues, then? By continuing to ask questions—or, as I like to call it, interrogating the story. The first step is recognizing that the first, second, even third idea is rarely if ever the best one—it may not be horrible, but it’s likely mediocre, an easy way out, or overly simplistic/convenient. When faced with a plot point, detail, or character that needs improvement, start asking questions: why does the city have such high taxes? Would this character really choose to leave on their journey because they loved justice so much, or do they need a different motivation?  What would happen if the crew couldn’t fix the engine in time? Does that create better conflict later on? Don’t stop with just one round of questioning either—question a single issue multiple times. For example:

Why does the city have such high taxes? The city needs to rebuild their architectural infrastructure.
Why do they need to rebuild their infrastructure? The city was bombed during a war.
Why was the city bombed during the war? The city produced most of the county’s military aircraft.
Who fought in the war? It was a conflict between [county] and the neighboring [country].
Why were they fighting a war? Both countries wanted the natural resources located in the mountains that separate them.
Does the city need those resources to rebuild its infrastructure? Yes, definitely.
Do they have access to those resources anymore? No, because they lost the war.

This is a poor example, but you can see how continuing to test the logic of your story choices can lead not only to finding mistakes but finding answers because you uncovered new worldbuilding details, character motivations, thematic parallels, or plot twist opportunities. Questions are the backbone of brainstorming as well as editing and can even be applied down to the smallest details of sentence structures and word choices (though, thank goodness, all those details don’t have to be considered until later). It is, I think, an intuitive part of the writing process, but it’s good to be reminded that interrogation can be used actively when we encounter story issues.

One last thought:

Pondering the story-polishing process and how to do it well also reminded me that often-separated parts of writing—outlining, drafting, editing—are all part of the same process and can’t truly be separated. Writing is less like the steps in a how-to-assemble manual and more like parts of an organism working together; you can analyze them separately, but they have to overlap and share in order for life to exist. If that’s the case, it’s not surprising that editing and outline might happen before drafting is finished, or that one might need to go through several drafts or outlines before the story nears completion. Writing is an art, after all.

Interstellar and Sci-Fi’s Thematic Potential

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Last week I watched the movie Interstellar for the first time and was struck by an idea that’s crossed my mind many times before: science fiction has the potential to raise and contend with great themes. In fact, I think sci-fi is one of the best genres to question our purpose, strengths, limitations, and the nature of what makes us human. While I don’t actually agree with most of the thematic conclusions that Interstellar reached, the movie was still thematically successful in that it a) addressed large, pertinent questions about humanity, b) showed the complexity of searching for answers to those questions, and c) didn’t readily answer every question that was raised. Such thematic qualities seem so natural to me—technology of any kind, and thus science of any kind, is always begging the question “who are you really?” to humanity. Our creations both reflect and influence their creators; by writing a story that has a world steeped in technology of some kind, even when exaggerated far beyond our reality, those fictitious advancements turn into a mirror through which we can see, perhaps, who we truly are.

But I don’t think science fiction—at least the modern kind—has the reputation of being so poignant. Mention sci-fi and people will probably think of tropes: aliens, robots, genetic engineering, space travel, or futuristic tech like laser guns. Images of superhero movies, popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, and over-the-top fight scenes with too many explosions might even come to mind. And though there are plenty of classics that are sci-fi in some degree—Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five—I don’t think people view them or that genre as holding such a human quality as classics like Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre. This is also natural to some degree: a story set in an historical time period in our world feels far more “real” and “human” than one set in a speculative world with technology or creatures we’ve never experienced at all. It’s also not wrong for people to like any of the books, shows, or movies I mentioned above or to like them because they think space travel, aliens, or science experiments are cool. Every moment of entertainment doesn’t have to be ten-layers of philosophical depth. But I think that notion, along with the inundation of action-sci-fi movies (which I don’t unilaterally dislike, by the way), can distract from the core of what science fiction is and can be. We can begin to see only the tropes of the genre instead of what lies at its core.

I attended a writing workshop this past winter, and one of the speakers at the event (Daniel Schwabauer) gave a talk about genres and themes that touched on this exact subject. To paraphrase his session, each genre—not just sci-fi—asks “great questions;” the tropes that we associate with them come as a result of those questions and serve those questions, not the other way around. For example, sci-fi addresses human nature and if there is anything beyond us in the universe; historical fiction asks what we have in common with people from the past; mysteries examine crime, the nature of justice, and our perception of those around us; romance questions the nature of love and if we are capable of attaining it (all of these are examples from his talk, by the way). Both writers and readers need not only to be aware of the questions their favorite genres ask but ask whether those questions are the right ones—whether they get to the heart of the issue, whether they speak the truth or not. The tropes that emerge from each genre also need to be closely scrutinized to see if they’re serving those questions well or if they’re undermining the truth of a story.

The subject of Schwabauer’s talk wasn’t new to me, but I loved the way he presented it (which is why I wanted to directly mention it here). There’s nothing wrong, per say, about tropes we grow to love, and stories aren’t necessarily bad if they don’t wrestle with the “big questions of life.” Not all stories are meant to serve that purpose (and their purposes are great in their own right). But I think it’s very easy to let theme of any kind slip too far to the background, to become an ignored backdrop for character drama or a suspenseful plot. Bringing those questions to the forefront not only balances a story but illuminates and beautifies the drama or suspense at work. The questions, posed skillfully, can truly deepen a story.

I’m not, of course, including nonfiction masked as fiction in this category—nor do I think that certain subjects should be questioned in as much depth as they sometimes are (though that’s a topic for another time). When I mention theme, I’m referring to it in its best sense. I’m thinking of the stories that moved me and others to tears, made us feel the great expanse of time, caused us to stare humanity’s nature in the face, or made us curious about subjects we didn’t know much about. People, especially authors, often tout that stories are primarily meant to create emotion. That never sat right with me, but I think the gist behind that notion speaks to the power of a good story with a good theme (i.e. a story that raises, and at least part-way answers, the questions about life that wait just below the surface of our minds, too shy to be asked directly and too complex to be explored with anything but fiction).

Interstellar, for its flawed suppositions about humanity’s connection to the earth, took a story about space exploration and surviving a food source crisis and created something far bigger than the beautiful cinematography on a screne for three hours. The movie ultimately spoke to the nature and power of love (I will say no more—if you’re watched it, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t watched it, I’ve given you no spoilers). The fact that the movie meshed sci-fi and deep themes so well not only left me with a sense of awe, but it makes me giddy and hopeful that I can also accomplish that same effect with my stories. That is science fiction’s true potential.

Outline Troubleshooting (Outlining Series – Part 3)

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As the final part of my outlining miniseries, I want to address a few pertinent outlining questions as sort of preventative troubleshooting. They are by no means comprehensive—much of what goes wrong in writing is individual to the story, and I couldn’t begin to help you troubleshoot unless I sat down with you and talked about your story at length. However, thanks to some fellow writers from Instagram, I have a short list of broader outlining questions that I can answer and that will hopefully help you as you outline.

 

Where do I start?

The beginning.

Joking aside, I use the same method for worldbuilding as I do for outlining: begin with what details you do know, then build the web from those points, filling in the holes as you find them. For outlining this would mean taking the plot points or character arc moments that you do know—the argument between the protagonist and his best friend, the first incident with the villain, the natural disaster that devastates the city, the protagonist’s realization they have anxiety—and putting them in the order you think (or know) they occur. Those scenes are the bare bones of your plot.

From there, connect the dots: figure out what occurs between those plot points that causes them to logically happen, and continuing filling it in until you have the entire plot/outline. The detail of how much you fill in will depend on the method you use, but this technique works no matter how big or small your story is.

In short, start with what you have and build your web from there.

 

How long does it usually take to outline?

It depends on a) the outline method you use, b) the length of your story, c) how much time you have to dedicate to writing, and d) your natural writing pace. I know, it’s a vague answer, but it’s true. If you pick a sparse outlining method, like a synopsis or brainstorming notes, you’ll be able to finish it more quickly than if you pick paragraph summaries. If you’re writing a novella without subplots, you’ll be able to finish it more quickly than if you’re writing a thousand-page epic or a trilogy. If you have an hour or two each day where you can sit down and work on your outline, you’ll definitely be able to finish it more quickly than if other life demands take up most of your time during the week. And, if you’re naturally a speedy writer, you’ll naturally finish your outline more quickly than someone who’s a slower writer.

I’m at a disadvantage as far as time goes: I use the bulkiest outlining method, write very long stories, naturally take longer to finish my stories, and my free time for writing varies depending on the rest of my responsibilities. However, it works better for me than if I tried another method—and, however you fall into the categories, you’ll find a method that will yield the most benefits and be quick (or slow) enough for you. Just don’t be surprised if your outlining takes longer than you think it will (which is why it’s probably best to start outlining ASAP, especially if you want to get a rough draft done by a certain date).

 

How in-depth should I go?

However deep you need to feel confident that you can sit down and hammer out your story. I know, from experience and intuition, that I need to complete a lot of pre-writing work (like outlining) before I can sit down and write—not only do I write more quickly, but my writing is better and I have more peace of mind. This means that I figure out nearly everything except actual descriptions of the landscape and lines of dialogue. But every writer is different in this area. You may feel more productive exploring as you write and thus following a looser outline, or you may find that you need a combination of outline levels. You’ll know when your outline is detailed enough for you to move on to actually writing. There’ll be a sense of confidence and peace that you didn’t have before that point. It’s a trial and error sort of process, but, that’s the only real way to figure out how much detail you need in your outlines.

 

What should I do when I get stuck with the plot?

The only way to get un-stuck is to figure out what tripped you up in the first place. This means analyzing the trouble spot or spots and figuring out why they’re causing you trouble. For example, I got stuck on my WIP’s outline pretty early in Part 2. I couldn’t figure out why, except that the vague ideas of what I knew needed to happen in that part were overwhelming me. So I sat down and began typing up notes of what I knew happened out of order and added in questions to answer about the gaps that emerged. In doing so, I recognized the gaps in the plot and what I needed to examine. Once I had specific questions to answer, I came up with specific answers and got “unstuck” (in this case, I didn’t have a clear idea of the investigation procedure of the crime, and once I sorted out those details I was able to continue outlining).

So, next time you get stuck on your outline, pinpoint exactly why you’re stuck—do you not understand how to get your character from one location to the other? Do the actions of certain characters suddenly seem illogical? Do you just have no idea where to go with the plot? Does the premise of the story seem off, like you may need to change it? Continuing looking and asking questions of yourself until you solve the problem. It may take a while, but with enough examining and questioning you can fix just about any problem.

 

For more tips and methods for outlining, check out the previous two parts of this series: Why Outline? and Outlining Methods for (Almost) Every Writer.

Outlining Methods for (Almost) Every Writer (Outlining Series – Part 2)

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In Part 1 of my outlining mini-series, I emphasized two points: 1) every writer I know uses different outlining methods and we all still get the job done and 2) outlining is about having a specific plan for what you want your story to be when you write it, not about using a specific method. Whether or not you’re won over to the idea of outlining your stories, though, those points don’t help you figure out how to actually outline—especially if you haven’t developed your own style yet. But fear not! This post (Part 2) is all about outlining methods. I’ve compiled a list of 7 methods that I either use or have used, along with what type of story they’re best suited for, to give you some ideas of where to begin or some new techniques to add to your current outlining method.

 

Main Ideas A.K.A. The Synopsis (Simple Stories)

Ah, the dreaded synopsis. There is a reason they’re so common, though—they’re meant to be a way to capture the essence of a story’s characters, conflict, and themes in a paragraph or two. There’s also no hard-and-fast way to write a synopsis, at least in my experience, but most include: the main character(s), the main issue, conflict, or obstacle, and the narrative arc (a.k.a. how the main character(s) are going to solve the main issue). Sometimes the main theme or “big question” is included, too. These basics can be adapted and changed to fit any genre.

At bare minimum, I suggest writing out a synopsis of your story before you begin—that way you have some idea of what you want to accomplish, even though it may not include most of the main plot points or chapter arcs (pantsers rejoice). Also, I mark this as best suited for simple stories because synopses, even though included for published books no matter what their size or scope, usually aren’t sufficient for you as the writer to understand your story if it grows into something large and/or complex. It’s a great place to start at the beginning of the progress or if you’re writing a short story, but if you plan to write a long and/or complex story, your creation will probably outgrow its synopsis pretty quickly.

 

Brainstorming Notes + Charts (Simple + Complex Stories)

This one’s like a two-for-one special. Brainstorming is a fundamental part of the story development process, and often part of the re-writing process as well. Over time and practice, I’ve learned that I can make my brainstorming also carry some of the outlining work for my stories, and brainstorming notes and charts are the technique I’ve developed to do that. I begin with developing worldbuilding ideas, character backstories, major plot points—whatever it is that needs work—and find a format that places those ideas into a concrete working space (a notebook, notecards, a Word document, a spreadsheet, etc.). Then I simply arrange those ideas up in the order I think they will occur in the story. This is especially useful for plotting because I can quickly see the gaps in scenes and recognized the broad patterns of my story.

Also, this is not the same as creating a bullet-point outline or a timeline (which I’ll talk about below)! This is a very rudimentary version of those things, perhaps, and thus can work well either as a starting point for later outlining or a flexible method for writers who don’t like to utilize lots of structure. Unlike lists or timelines, the format of brainstorming notes and charts is also flexible—one method I quite like is creating a web-chart with major plot points. I begin by writing down the various scenes I’m envisioning or important locations/movements in the story. Then, from those starting points, I write down smaller scenes I know happen around the same time/area, then draw lines between the ones that I know are connected. Often this is enough for me to figure out the order in which events occur, though I usually follow up with putting that information in a more structured and complex format. Shorter or less complex stories may be able to just have brainstorming notes as their outline.

 

Scene Shuffling (Simple + Complex Stories)

This method, at least partially, builds off technique #2, and is one that I’ve seen often but have only used maybe once or twice. Nevertheless I wanted to mention it because I can see how it’s useful (and I may employ it more in the future). Scene shuffling involves taking the plot points that you have rearranging them until you find the pattern or sequence that makes the most sense and has the most impact. This is often accomplished by using notecards or post-it notes with the each scene written out, although I’ve used unorganized bullet points in a Word document, so it can be as intuitive or structured as you’d like. This technique is particularly useful either toward the beginning of the outlining process, when you still haven’t honed your ideas fully, or when dealing with complex sequences of events that just don’t seem to be clicking.

 

Character Timelines (Simple + Complex Stories)

Character timelines are a fairly new outlining technique for me and I don’t know of many writers who use this technique, though I’m sure that there are many who have come up with something similar long before I have. To create mine, I use a spreadsheet program like Excel. Because most of my writing is closely tied to actual timelines (months/years), I made the first vertical column (starting at cell 3) list the twelve month of the year, and the top two rows (1 and 2) list the year (i.e. 1956) and how old that character was that year (i.e. 30). I fill in the main body of the newly-created chart with important life milestones, events, and plot points that pertain to their arc. The result is that I have an organized, visual plan for what happens to them before, during, and after the story, and also a good idea of what backstory gaps I need to fill in. Below is an example of my technique (not from an actual WIP):

Character timeline

Character timelines also lead me to the next outlining technique…

 

Story Timelines (Simple + Complex Stories)

…story timelines. In a way, these just a more detailed version of a scene shuffling or a mixture between character timelines and bullet point lists (technique #6). Instead of spreadsheets, I use a Word document and bullet-points for this because it makes more intuitive sense for my thought processes, though I’m sure a spreadsheet could work well for this too). I begin by making headings for all of the years that constitute both important backstory events and during-the-story events (I may, for instance, making a heading for every year between 1914 and 1980). Underneath each heading, I list each specific event that I know occurs during that year. After that, I move on to organizing them by month and then eventually by day, if such accuracy is needed for my story. Much like with character timelines, writing out the sequence of important events helps me not only understand how they logically unfold but alerts me to areas that have gaps or no longer make sense.

Both character timelines and story timelines can be used for any length or complexity of story, but by nature they lend themselves more to longer, complicated stories with multiple character arcs or plot threads because of all the details that go into making them. I couldn’t see myself creating a character timeline for a short story.

 

Bullet Point Lists (Simple + Complex Stories)

Bullet point lists have been my go-to outlining technique for several years and one that I still use often. It’s also, I think, one of the most common outlining methods and is the easiest to understand and to use, since you can do it by hand (which I did when writing the first draft of my WIP) or using a program like Word (which I tend to use now). I typically do the following:

Staring I start the opening scene, I make a bullet point for each new scene, change in dialogue, or important element that I want to make note of as I imagine them unfolding in the story. Each point can be sparse or can include specific information like the outcome of a piece of dialogue, an important element of the setting, or the larger meaning or symbolism of an action. I continue building the list, sometimes going back to add in new details or switch around the sequence of scenes (scene shuffling, anyone?), but I try to keep it organized in a linear fashion. Outlining plot points this way makes it easy to group them into chapters, which can be done either during the process or afterwards once you have a clear picture of the sequence of events. By the end, you have a blueprint of the story you plan to create.

I know that, for many, making a list seems stifling and too organized, but what I like so much about this technique is its flexibility—if you don’t want to list all the minute details and would rather discover them as you write, you can still make note of the major goals of each chapter or scene and have them as reference to keep your writing on track. And, if you’re like me and like to plan in more detail, you can expand your bullet point list as much as you’d like.

 

Summary Notes (Complex Stories)

At last, the mother of all outlines—the summary notes. Although bullet point lists have been my go-to technique for several years, I’ve recently started relying more heavily on summary notes because my current WIP is very large and very complex (family sagas have a tendency to do that), and the best way for me to understand all of it is to go into more detail than bullet points can provide. This technique is very straightforward—I essentially write a SparkNotes-type page for each of my chapters. That means fully sentences, full paragraphs, and full details that I then organize under chapter and section headings.

This is the only technique that I suggest only for complex stories—I can’t see how this level of detail would be necessary for a short work or for a longer work that didn’t include a lot of character arcs or locations. I don’t even use this technique for when I write short stories or in the past when my novels have been simpler. But, if you are planning on creating your own tome, then this may be of use for you—it’s cut down on editing and ruminating a lot since I began implementing it.

 

Whew! What a list. I hope that at least one of those techniques sparked some new ideas for you or maybe even convinced you to give outlining a fair chance. But just because you outline doesn’t mean the road from then on out is a smooth one—there are always hang-ups and questions that pop up even when you think you’re ready to go. That’s why the series isn’t over yet—in Part 3, I’ll answer some common outlining questions and give answers for how to fix common outlining problems. Check out the next post for outline troubleshooting!

Why Outline? (Outlining Series – Part 1)

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When you hear the word “outline,” what pops into your head? Gigantic bullet point lists? A bulletin board covered in Post-It notes with scribbled notes? Stress over realizing the entire middle section of your novel has no plot? Flashbacks to high school English class? A general feeling of uneasiness because you think that you need to fit your character-driven, existential-crisis masterpiece into a typical story structure?

If you answered yes to that last question, fear not. I’m not here to make you into the queen (or king) of outlining. Instead, I hope that, whatever category you fall into when it comes to outlining, this mini-series will help you become a better writer. But before I get into the details of outlining, I want to take a macro view of the practice. It all begins with knowing why you’d want to outline in the first place.

As a disclaimer, I was practically born an outliner. I remember needing to make a plan for all my art projects and sketches before starting them when I was still in elementary school. I once spent at least 30 minutes more than my peers on a Christmas ornament craft because I wanted to get all the sequins just right (everyone else had already moved on to watching a movie). So it’s no wonder that I grew up to be the person who happily spends hours making Excel spreadsheets and bullet point lists. Outlining is not those things, however. Outlining is not even a particular method. Instead, outlining is a specific plan for what you want your story to be when you write it.

Specific is the key word. All writers have a vision for what they want their story to be, but that vision is often vague, just beginning to bloom and expand. I’ve described my juvenile ideas as being hazy or like a bunch of puzzle pieces that I haven’t put together yet. The material is there, no doubt, but it is unpolished, unfinished, unspecified. That material must be polished, finished, and specified over the course of the writing process to create a good (if not excellent) end result. But that process is incredibly daunting. If it doesn’t take you decades to accomplish, it may require a decade’s worth of rough drafts. There’s no way to quickly write a story—time is part of the nature of storytelling (and editing)—but outlining can streamline the process.

Think of outlining as learning to pause before you speak. There are times when it’s necessary to speak quickly and without much thought, and overthinking and never speaking should be avoided. But a pause to choose the right tone, the right word, or calm your agitation can be the difference between having a successful and rewarding conversation and delving into an argument that takes up an entire afternoon. A healthy amount of thought before acting makes the actions have greater impact.

To use another analogy, outlining is what cleans the dirt off the gemstone before the actual writing cuts and polishes it. This is why I said that outlining is not a particular process. You may have a stone that doesn’t have much dirt on it and doesn’t need much cleaning; someone else may not have the right tool to chip away some extra stone surrounding the gem and need to use their rock tumbler to get the job done; someone else may want all the dirt off their stone before they take it to their workshop and make the final cuts. But no matter what, the mud can and should be washed away before the best work can be done.

That is why I love outlining so much—it makes writing so much easier. I may not know everything about the story I’m creating, but I’m not blinding stumbling through paragraphs looking for what I want. Even the rough drafts that I have to scrap are more useful when I have more than a vague idea of what I want my story to be. I don’t have to clean up a complete mess before I know what I have to work with. When I know what I want out of a scene, a chapter, a story, I can get more work done.

I want to reiterate again that outlining in practice can be tailored to fit your needs and your style. For instance, I never outline poems, I rarely outline short stories, I use simple outline techniques for simple novel ideas, and I use complex outline methods for complex novel ideas. Every writer I know uses different outlining methods and we all get the job done. The point is to use a technique to help make it easier to actually write. So if you’ve never been someone who likes to outline chapters in detail, you can still outline. If you’ve never outlined at all and hate the idea, you can still outline. And if you love outlining, well, I don’t need to sell you on it.

 

In Part 2 of my outlining mini-series, I’ll delve into specific techniques I’ve used to outline as well as suggestions for types of outlining to suit different writing styles. So, whether you’re skeptical, curious, or already on board, check out the next post for a more microscopic look at outlining!

Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Title: The Brothers Karamazov

Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre(s): fiction, classics, literary, historical, Russian literature

Length: 720/1,013 pages (varies based on edition)

Published: November 1880

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

Generally, I don’t think that classic novels need much introduction. They’ve been out so long and are so widely-read that most people have a general idea of the story. But despite being a self-proclaimed “lover of classic novels,” I knew very little about The Brothers Karamazov when I first purchased it in the summer of 2018. The only Russian author I had read up to that point was Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich). So, I picked up TBK based on the suggestion of a friend of mine who loves the novel and because the sheer size of the book made me giddy—I love a long book when they’re well-written. The synopsis of the book of course interested me too—I also love family sagas and murder mysteries. I fully expected to enjoy the book since it was basically a poster child for what I like to read and write.

And yet, I was not prepared to enjoy it as much as I did. This book is a delight.

In case you are like 2018-summer me and are not familiar with the premise of the story, The Brothers Karamazov follows the lives of the three Karamazov brothers—Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexey (Alyosha)—leading up to and after the unfortunate murder of their unfortunate father, Fyodor Karamazov. I promise that’s not spoiler; Dostoyevsky alerts the reader to Mr. Karamazov’s death on the first page of the novel. Of course, there is a lot more going on: tentative engagements, unrequited love, disputes over money, debt, and inheritance, philosophical discussions, and a cast of characters who are all extremely emotional (I say this in an endeared, amused sort of way). The family saga that unfolds is not only compelling and blissfully dramatic, but continually raises important thematic questions that cause the reader to reflect upon their own morality, faith, and character.

 

Style/Voice:

I expected The Brothers Karamazov to read like a classic—that is, I expected that it’d take me a while to learn the cadence of Dostoyevsky’s prose before it became natural to read. This isn’t something that is a turn-off for me (I usually like older writing styles). But part of what pleasantly surprised me was the readability of TBK’s prose. The third-person narrator, taking the form of a local townsman recalling the story of the Karamazov brothers, has a conversational tone with simple language and sentence structures. Take this example from one of my favorite paragraphs, Part One, Book Three, Chapter 9 – The Sensualists (page 134 in my edition):

“Grigory and Smerdyakov ran into the room after Dmitri. They had been struggling with him in the passage, refusing to admit him, acting on instructions given them by Fyodor Pavlovitch some days before. Taking advantage of the fact that Dmitri stopped a moment on entering the room to look about him, Grigory ran round the table, closed the double doors on the opposite side of the room leading to the inner apartments, and stood before the closed doors, stretching wide his arms, prepared to defend the entrance, so to speak, with the last drop of his blood. Seeing this, Dmitri uttered a scream rather than a shout and rushed at Grigory.”

First of all, this paragraph amuses me to no end. But more importantly, although this clearly isn’t a paragraph written by a 21st-century writer, it also isn’t hard to understand or (in my opinion) enjoy. Is it the most poetic prose I’ve read? No. But I don’t think that lingering on descriptions of colors, smells, sensations, etc. would have served the purpose of the story. All eyes are on the characters; in fact, the most of the time is spent in long paragraphs of dialogue as the characters interact with each other. The narrator only breaks from dialogue when some backstory is necessary to understanding the upcoming dialogue. Despite the “imbalance” of prose vs. dialogue, it works. There are only a few sections where the story seems to slow down, and those tended to be when the dialogue stopped, not when it continued for pages and pages.

Also, another aspect that makes the book so accessible is how the chapters are structured. The book is divided into four smaller books with individual sections that are further divided into chapters. This helps the reader feel like they are making progress and makes the large page number a little less daunting (even for those of us who like long books).

 

Characters:

The Brothers Karamazov is a character-driven story and I could spend thousands of words describing the different arcs in novel. In the interest of not spoiling the most important developments, though, I will keep my descriptions brief. Dostoyevsky has a knack for showing how people can be so consistent in personality and yet reactionary and surprising in how they react to different circumstances—what better way to showcase that fact than through a highly dysfunctional family unit?

Fyodor Karamazov, the father, is described as a “buffoon:” greedy, self-serving, cunning, neglectful of his parental duties, prone to mood swings, and possessing seemingly no ability to resist his sensual desires. There is not much about him that’s sympathetic, and I don’t think we’re meant to try to sympathize with him anyway. His oldest son, Dmitri, on the surface appears to share a lot in common with his father: he is impulsive and lives in the moment, allowing his feelings to be swayed depending on immediate desires, given to losing his temper and drinking too much. He does, however, have a deep desire to be seen as honorable and to do the right thing—a combination that causes a lot of issues for him but also causes him to be a likable, albeit frustrating, character. The second son, Ivan, is a reserved, intellectual type; a self-proclaimed atheist who nevertheless continues to entertain questions of faith and morality and often plays the devil’s advocate in debates. He comes across as the most sensible by today’s standards, yet is a tormented, questioning, uncertain soul beneath his calm exterior. His arc is one of the most interesting to watch, especially as the story progresses. The youngest son, Alyosha, almost doesn’t seem to be related to the rest of the Karamazovs. He is gentle, devoutly religious, attuned to the needs of others, and possesses a non-judgmental air that makes the people around him trust him and open up to him. While this may seem to make him too “perfect,” he is not without his flaws, and undergoes interesting character change as he deals with the problems the rest of his family faces (he also turned out to be my favorite of the three brothers).

Many other important side characters are introduced over the course of the novel: Smerdyakov, the epileptic cook/servant to Fyodor Karamazov who is rumored to be his illegitimate son; Grigory, Fyodor Karamazov’s loyal servant, and his wife Marfa; Grushenka, the mischievous, alluring young woman from town who wins the affection of both Fyodor and Dmitri and decides to toy with them; Katerina, the proud aristocratic fiancée of Dmitri who harbors a stubborn, jealous streak beneath her tightly-composed exterior; Father Zossima, the elderly monk who serves as a mentor to Alyosha during his time at the local monastery; Madame Khokhlakov, a young-ish widow with a penchant for dramatic rambling and meddling whose daughter, Lise, wants to marry Alyosha even though she often makes fun of him; and Ilyusha, a local schoolboy who falls ill and is befriended/mentored by Alyosha.

There are many other characters throughout the book—as is expected for a book so long—and at times it’s difficult to keep track of who is related to who and how they are related. Nevertheless, the build of characterization and the way in which the relationships are woven together is incredibly well-done. The drama that ensues from the combination of the characters’ actions and missteps propels the story forward and is, other than the themes, the main reason the novel is so compelling.

As a side note, I can foresee one objection to this story from modern readers: that all of the female characters, without fail, end up being hysterical, silly, or jealous at some point in the story. Although this is the case, I would venture to say that all of the characters, at some point in the story, end up in a similar state (the elder Karamazov and Dmitri being especially prone to this).  Even dear Alyosha cries or is vexed in nearly every chapter in which he is present. No one is immune to being swayed by their passions. So while it may be frustrating to the modern reader, I don’t think it merits any severe criticism, unless the criticism is applied to everyone’s dramatics.

 

Plot:

Since The Brothers Karamazov is so character driven, one might expect the plot to be relatively invisible in comparison. Not so. There are two plot structures—the larger lead up to the father’s murder and the aftermath of the murder, and the individual character arcs and subplots that are woven in around that main structure. Despite knowing from the first page that Fyodor Karamazov is murdered, there is never a moment where the circumstances around his death are obvious or where knowing his fate makes the story uneventful. Plot beats and arcs are methodically, precisely executed. Questions are raised at perfect moments, layering upon each other in a way that produced several moments of dread and/or surprise as I read. No spoilers, of course, so I cannot describe these threads in detail. But because all important plot questions are eventually explained, the ending is fulfilling even though there are other thematic or character-related questions that aren’t answered. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent plot.

 

Setting:

The novel is set in in the mid-19th century in the rural Russian town of Skotoprigonyevsk (try saying that three times fast). Dostoyevsky never lingers long on establishing setting, so much of the geography is learned in snippets along the way—in that sense, it’s important to pay attention to when the setting (streets, buildings, distances between locations) is described. Much of the cultural setting—politics, names of larger cities, laws, etc.—are descried in a similar way. But because the novel is so character-driven, and more often than not is focused on the conversations between said characters, the “lack” of setting descriptions does not feel like a void that is too big to fill. You won’t feel like you need to pick up a history book to understand the context.

 

Objectionable Content:

All objectionable content is low. Sexual content is never shown, usually implied, and only mentioned in dialogue when it does happen to appear. There is a mention of an alleged rape, but again, it’s in passing description and not something lingered upon except for backstory purposes. Mild language in select scenes. Violence is mild as well, though perhaps more prevalent than other types of content—there is a murder, which is described at various points during investigation, as well as other instances of people getting into fights, injuring one another. None of the instances are described beyond what is necessary. A character contemplates and plans suicide at one point in the story, though they do not follow through. One conversation details cases of severe child abuse in order to illustrate a larger philosophical point. Many characters drink alcohol.

 

Conclusion:

Where to begin?

The story, apart from themes, is incredibly well-done. Since finishing the book last weekend, I’ve been pondering the plot mechanics and admiring how Dostoyevsky layered the plot points and revealed new information. I’ve been admiring, too, how well Dostoyevsky captured human nature and wove philosophical and theological conversations into the dialogue to where it seemed natural instead of forced. It is rare to find a story that is solid on both fronts.

But the thematic elements are what make this novel a masterpiece. In the midst of all of the debauchery and chaos and drama and conflict, Dostoyevsky asks important questions about religion, morality, suffering, and justice: what happens to morality when God is removed from the picture? How can the suffering of innocents be reconciled to the necessity of free will? Do inner desires to do evil make one as guilty as the person who acts upon those desires? He does not give you the answers, but he explores them through the lives of his characters, and the story as a whole serves as a road sign to direct the reader toward where the answers can be found. To do this in such a large work takes skill; to do it well takes something far greater.

Now that I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, I know why it is so often considered his best work. That’s why I wholeheartedly rate it 5 stars. If you haven’t already read TBK, I encourage you to do so—don’t be intimidated by the length or the time period in which it was written. Encased in those hundreds of pages is a tale that will delight as well as challenge and will leave a sense of awe when the final line is read.

For the Love of Critiques

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Critiques are rarely welcomed with open arms. This seems especially true for writers—at least, it’s especially true for me. For many years I saw serious critiques about plot holes, characterization, and theme as signals that my stories were unlikable and uninteresting. It didn’t matter if a person told me the news in the kindest way possible or if they offered practical advice for how to solve the problem; all I heard when I came away from the conversation was “your story is broken,” which eventually devolved into “your ability to write well is broken.”

How silly of me! In hindsight I can see what a leap of logic it took to think that. But wounded pride has a way of bypassing all logic, and immaturity doesn’t help it either. Sensitivity to critiques is something that all people seem to struggle with, and the only cure to that struggle also seems to be the passage of time. I’m nowhere near being an artist long enough to claim I’ve conquered the beast, so to speak. Nevertheless, the topic of critiques has been on my mind lately, prompted by a writing conference I attended a few weeks ago, and it seems for the first time that I fully realize how vital critiques are to the creative process.

I’ve attended multiple writing conferences over the years. In all cases except one, the highlight of those events has always critique groups (which testifies either to my overriding love of helping others brainstorm their stories or my stubbornness to keep trying to share my work despite being sensitive to criticism). This year was perhaps the best critique group of them all—our personalities meshed from the first day despite writing such vastly different stories, everyone was good-natured about mistakes (we laughed a lot), and criticisms were given with grace and the intention to help each other. In short, it was everything one could hope for in a critique group. But what struck me the most was that I came home excited about the flaws that people pointed out in my writing. Not just tolerant of them, not simply resigned to the imperfections, not outwardly grateful but inwardly embarrassed that others saw the mistakes, but genuinely happy that I received critiques. My brain was (and still is) spinning from all the new ideas for solutions to fix the problems. Two years ago, I was part of another great critique group, full of people with interesting stories, good senses of humor, and humility in giving constructive criticism, but I did not come home from that conference with that level of energy. I had to ask myself: what had changed? The obvious answer: me.

I naturally expected that two years should change me and my writing in a marked way. In the time between the two critique groups, my story morphed from a sci-fi dystopian “adventure” to a sci-fi murder mystery with much, much, much better characterization. I did not naturally expect to see my sensitivity to critiques about my writing diminish so rapidly, however, considering how I hadn’t seen such a change between any of the other years I went to conferences. And, even though I’ve thought about it, I can’t quite figure out all the causes of the inward change. It might just be time working its magic. It might be an active attempt on my part to change my perfectionist tendencies from passive feelings to active tools. It might be that my story finally is something that’s objectively good, despite not being fully polished yet. It doesn’t really matter—the critique group, aside from being a place to get practical writing help, serves as a vivid marker of growth as an artist. The perfectionism that used to make me feel awful has been transformed, in part, into something that propels me instead of inhibits me. This was the first conference where the joys of critique groups were untainted.

We all know that we aren’t perfect, but we like to believe that we’re perfect enough that things can stay the way they are. We don’t like it when our flaws, known and unknown, are dragged out into the light and put on display. Who likes to be told that the scene they really like is, in fact, confusing, dry, or overly wordy? Who likes to be told that someone dislikes a favorite character? Who likes to be told that the main conflict of your story makes no sense? But how do we hope to mend those flaws if we don’t acknowledge them? Stomaching this process takes a lot of detachment, a lot of practice, and a lot of accepting that it’s unpleasant. It also, I think, takes a lot of moments of joy when you finally solve a plot hole, write a paragraph that sings with beautiful prose but is also comprehensible to a reader, or create a character that everyone loves as much as you do. It means realizing that affirmation and criticism can exist together in the same batch of feedback. For me, there’s so much satisfaction in polishing and sharpening my story—so much joy in my story as a whole—that any discomfort or embarrassment I feel over writing mistakes pales in comparison. Focusing on the love of creating makes the fear of failure dissolve. That, in turn, has made me grow to love critiques. Deriving joy from critiques is a sensation that I never want to lose—not only for the sake of my emotions, which need not be so attached to the art I create, but because critiques are so very important to growth. I don’t want to settle for an decent story when I have the tools to make it spectacular.

2018 Reading Recap

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I’ve mentioned this in several of my posts from this year, but 2018 has been a year of branching out reading-wise. Not one of the fourteen books I read this year has been a classic (at least, not ones from before the 19th century)! That’s a huge deviation from my usual choices. But 2018 has also been a year of discovering some great stories that I never would have found if I hadn’t decided to branch out. So, I thought it would be fun to do a recap of all my 2018 books as my last blog post of the year, complete with my Goodreads ratings and a small description of my thoughts. You might even find a book you want to read in 2019!

 

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Rating: ★★★★

This book is absolutely gorgeous and moving. Doerr’s prose is some of the best I’ve found from a modern author, the short chapters work very well with the shift if point-of-view between the two protagonists, and there are so many thematic meanings woven into the character arcs as they move toward overlapping at the climax of the novel. The reason it’s not 5 stars is because parts of the ending fell flat to me or were unnecessary content-wise. I highly recommend this one, though. It was a great way to start 2018.

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Rating: ★★★★

This was the first memoir I think I’ve ever picked up on my own accord, and I’m quite glad it was. Westover tells her story with honesty and frankness but retains a level of kindness that makes you root for her and hope for her success. Seeing a close-up account of a survivalist homestead nestled away in the mountains made me grateful I didn’t grow up similarly, while also provoking in-depth thought about types of abuse, the purpose of education, and how to manage family relationships when they’re unhealthy. For those who can deal with those subjects, I recommend this book.

 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Rating: ★★★★

On the heels of finishing Educated, I picked this memoir and was equally impressed by the quality of storytelling—though between the two, The Glass Castle was far harder to read. Jeanette’s journey from viewing her tumultuous childhood as normal to slowly realizing the dysfunction of her family and lifestyle was gripping, sometimes horrifying, and also raised important questions about familial relationships and mental health. I recommend this one as well, but only for those who are ready for what Walls has to say.

 

The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster by Tim Crothers

Rating: ★★★★

My third nonfiction book of the year took a different tone. After watching the movie based upon Phiona Mutesi’s story, I wanted to read the book and learn more about her incredible journey to becoming an international chess champion. The story did not disappoint, although the writing style wasn’t as compelling or fluid as other books, which deterred me from enjoying the content as much as the other memoirs I had just finished. I still gave if four stars, though—Phiona’s story is just that compelling.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Rating: ★★★★★

I picked up my second fictional read of the year because I kept seeing the pretty cover at my local library and decided to give it a try. I had no idea I would enjoy a modern story so much—but oh how I enjoyed it! The dazzling world of the Count’s life on house-arrest in the Metropol Hotel felt as if I was watching a wonderful historical drama; the prose was lovely, as if speaking to an old friend, and I particularly enjoyed the large span of time the plot covered. I enjoyed it so much that I choose it for my first book review on this blog. Although imperfect, it was an easy five stars for me.

 

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie

Rating: ★★★

I read a wonderful middle-grade fiction book in 2017, so I wanted to give another middle-grade story a chance. With such a delightful cover, how could I refuse? I did end up enjoying The Peculiar Incident. But the storyline was predictable as an adult reader: a girl moves to a new town, isn’t happy about it and misses her old home, but makes new friends as they work to solve a mystery. For the target audience, I’m sure this would read a lot more suspenseful, spooky, and enjoyable than my three stars.

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Rating: ★★★★

I admit that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up if a friend hadn’t suggested it to me, but, I’m glad I did. This story creeped me out and impressed me far more than I expected. Merricat’s psychological issues are apparent from the first chapter and her past sins are easily guessed, but Jackson still managed to keep readers guessing by writing the story from Merricat’s perspective, giving life to the strange world inside her head. Fans of Gothic tales would surely enjoy this one like I did.

 

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics by John Pollack

Rating: ★★★

I had such hope for this book! What could be more fun than to learn the history of puns (well, lots of things, but I had an interest in the subject)? And there was a lot about it that I enjoyed—most notably how the author wove puns into nearly every section and sometimes even every paragraph. Sadly, the overall style of the book was dry, and it took my months to trudge through it. I can only give it three stars, but if you like puns as much as I do, it may be worth it to give the book a try.

 

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

Rating: ★★★★

I should call 2018 the year of memoirs—A Rumor of War was my third one this year, and I was surprised by how good this one was and how quickly I finished reading it. Caputo speaks of his time in Vietnam—both the good and bad—with frankness but finesse. For me, it opened my eyes to all the struggles the soldiers on all sides faced with the nature of the Vietnam War, and I came away with a lot more knowledge and compassion than before I read it. It’s high on content (obviously), but worth reading.

 

The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 by Edmund S. Morgan

Rating: ★★★★

This delightful little book (it really is a short one) gives a quick overview of the history leading up to, during, and right after the Revolutionary War in America. I had studied the time period before, but I learned a lot—the logical connections between events became more apparent, all while Morgan added in little bits of humor and wordplay that made the reading process that much more enjoyable. It’s not detailed by any means but great for a comprehensive understanding of early U.S. history.

 

America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 by George C. Herring

Rating: ★★

This book was the worst one I read all year. The content wasn’t bad at all. America’s Longest War gives a detailed yet comprehensive overview not just of the Vietnam War but of the social, political, and domestic situations in all involved countries that influenced decisions throughout the time period. But Herring’s writing style was horrible to follow—one minute, a paragraph would be discussing the specifics of a new war policy, then the last sentence of the paragraph would give an overview of the policy maker’s fate years later, then the new paragraph would go back to discussing the policy. Word choices were odd and often awkward, though I got used to them the more I read, and the author inserted his opinion too much for my liking. It’s a shame that the writing was so hard to follow, because I could have learned a lot more from reading this book.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

Rating: ★★★★★

The Romanov Sisters was the most compelling and delightful nonfiction book that I read this year. Although about real historical facts, Rappaport wrote in such a way that the quotes of primary sources melded together with her summaries and interpretations, creating a narrative that sounded nearly like fiction and created suspense despite the ending being well-known. By the end, I felt as if I knew the Romanov family—I felt for their sufferings, hoped for their well-being, and felt grief for their deaths. I’m planning on reading more about the family in 2019, since one book cannot give you a proper perspective on them, but nevertheless, this was a delightful introduction, full of solid primary sources like letters, journals, and interviews, and full of solid writing.

 

The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

Rating: ★★★★

I’m a huge fan of Lewis’s writings, and although this one didn’t strike me quite as much as some of his other books, I’m still glad I read it (not simply because it helped me with research for my WIP!). The insurmountable question of God’s love, justice, and omnipotence in relation to human and earthly suffering is tackled in several thematic chapters. Although I personally didn’t agree with some of his assumptions and interpretations of Christian doctrine, those disagreements didn’t cloud the many poignant points he makes about the nature, origin, and purpose of pain. It gave me a lot of food for thought, which is why I give it 4 stars.

 

Letters to the Church by Francis Chan

Rating: ★★★★★

I ended my reading year with the genre of book that I’ve never been compelled to pick up: modern Christian nonfiction. Surprise surprise—that’s my theme this year, I think—I not only enjoyed this book but found Chan’s observations about the American church to be thoughtful, compelling, and convicting. I appreciate his humility in addressing such a weighty subject, his simple approach and lack of religious jargon, and his clear passion for the subject and his faith. It deserves a re-read to fully process it, which I plan to do soon, but for now I’d give it five stars.

 

 

Although this list is plenty long enough, I didn’t meet all my reading goals for 2018. I wanted to read 15 books, originally—I managed to squeeze in 14 at the last minute. I planned to tackle some long-awaited classics, but ended up not reading a single one of them. But, I think I accomplished a lot more than I anticipated back in January. I grew my interests, found new books that I loved, and fed other parts of my mental and spiritual life that were sorely lacking in 2017. I always liked nonfiction, but I learned I liked it a lot more than I previously thought. I have a new interest in Russian history and Russian literature. I finally understand what caused the Vietnam War. I’ve learned that modern fiction can be compelling and worthwhile to read. I’m happy with my 2018 reading list.

For 2019, though, I think it’s time to return to my classics, at least partially. I’m current reading The Brothers Karamazov, and after I finish that (which will take a while), I want to finally read some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, read more Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and maybe even finish out Jane Austen’s collection by finishing Emma and Mansfield Park. There are also lots of the Bronte sister’s lesser-known works that I want to finish. On top of that, I have a wealth of nonfiction I’d like to read: more Russian history, more Church history, more linguistics history, more biographies, more memoirs. Whether I’ll have the time to reach those goals is up in the air, but, even if I only get to another 14 books next year, that’ll still be great.

Retellings, Adaptations, and the Importance of Theme

Retellings

 

A few weeks ago, I asked the people of Instagram to send me some ideas for blog posts, as the business of the winter months had zapped me of my creative juices. One of my friends sent in a request for a post about retellings and adaptations and, at first, I didn’t think I had much to say on the subject. I’m not a huge fan of either, with the notable exception of some BBC adaptations of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Eyre. And the only retellings I’ve ever done were Bronte-esque versions of fairytales (Cinderella and Blue Beard, specifically). Surely, there are people more qualified to answer this question. But, I mulled it over for several weeks, and here I am; the question led me to some interesting musings about the importance of theme.

The first thought that came to mind when I started thinking about retellings and adaptations was: why are there so many bad Pride and Prejudice retellings? I’m not, of course, referring to differing opinions on what movie version is best (1995 vs. 2005), or if genre mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are a good idea (I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t have a solid opinion). I’m instead thinking about Hallmark movies that take the basic plotline of P&P and mesh it with bad acting and a dog show as the setting (ever heard of “Unleashing Mr. Darcy”?), or the countless spinoffs about Lydia Bennet or Mary Bennet or relationship drama between Lizzie and Darcy after years of marriage that you can find on Goodreads if you do a title search. It’s not simply the low-quality of these pieces but the utter disregard for the source content that makes them so awful. And yet, there are many successful and overall good retellings and adaptations of P&P—the aforementioned 1995 and 2005 movies are generally well-liked, and the YouTube series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” was a charming modern adaptation that also saw huge success. What sets these retellings apart? In short, theme.

Consider, for a moment, the theme of Pride and Prejudice—if it isn’t clear from the title, the theme is pride and prejudice (how clever, Miss Austen). However, upon reading many retellings or watching some adaptations, you might come to believe that the theme is, in fact, about miscommunication that causes drama. Or, you may come to believe the crux of the entire story is built upon Darcy being a jerk for drama’s sake and Lizzie eventually softening him, like some Beauty and the Beast motif. While it’s true that Mr. Darcy is rude for a good part of the story, and you could possibly stretch to make miscommunication a plot device, both of these things are not the center of the story. The original is a very clever exploration of how the vices of pride and prejudice can cloud judgment, cause people to make silly decisions, blind people to the truth, stop good relationships from being able to blossom, and lead to all sorts of trouble. It is not about romantic tension, dark and brooding characters, or trivial miscommunications. By extension, then, building a retelling based upon minor elements will result in a story that falls flat because it does not capture the core of the original (the reason why the story worked in the first place).

Another example that came to mind when considering poor adaptations was when I watched the 2009 version of Wuthering Heights a few years ago. The cinematography and acting were well-done, but the writers chose to focus on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine and romanticize it until it overtook the rest of the story. In doing so, they missed the broader and, in my opinion, more interesting theme of the story: the damage caused by revenge. Had they focused on the core theme, they could have incorporated some of the fantastic parallels and foreshadowing moments from the book that they otherwise neglected, and could have sustained the interest of the movie beyond Catherine’s death. Instead, the movie lacked the deeper meaning that the book provides.

But the examples I used are my opinions on the adaptations. What broader lesson can be learned, personal preferences aside? There are two that I can gather:

First, if you venture to do a retelling or adaptation of a story, take care to pinpoint the core purpose, theme, or structure of the original to incorporate into your work. Find what makes the original story work so well. Then, consider how that theme or structure will have to change to fit the new story. For example, say you want to write a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. You would first need to grasp the core conflict and theme of the original—as I mentioned before, the consequences of being prideful or prejudicial. You’d also probably want to include a relationship dynamic that mimicked Mr. Darcy and Lizzie, as their specific ways of showcasing the themes are what make the story unique. But that’s not enough. In the original, the specific ways in which pride and prejudice are shown are closely tied to the culture of 19th century England. You can’t simply take the plot or characters or general theme and plop it in the middle of 21st century New York City. You would need to consider what would be a period-accurate equivalent of the original dynamic, social expectation, or cultural value, then place the original themes into their proper places within the new structure. This often includes small tweaks or a little bit of research—nothing complicated. But the little bit of extra effort can create a much richer story than if you neglect to do so.

To use a personal example: last year, I wrote a mash-up of sorts of the Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. On the surface, the tales seem incredibly different, but I sensed an underlying commonality that drew me to want to do the mashup in the first place. To find that commonality, I analyzed the mechanics of both stories. The similarities were mostly plot or character related: a poor orphan (Cinderella/Heathcliff) mistreated by pseudo-siblings (the stepsisters/Hindley and Catherine), the death of the one parent who cared for the poor orphan, a moment in the plot where the orphan makes a debut as having higher standing in society. Those overlaps would become the bones of the retelling. But beyond that, I had to decide what I would maintain that was unique to each of the originals. I decided to keep the theme of revenge from Wuthering Heights and tell the story in the simple fairytale style of Cinderella. My retelling would be recognizable as both of the original stories while also being different. As far as I know, I was able to achieve it, but I would not have been able to do so unless I had first analyze the source material and carefully picked what elements I would keep in my retelling.

Second, if you venture to create a new story, take just as much care to pinpoint the core theme that you wish to convey. This was always a part of the writing process that eluded me during my teens. I would come up with a genre and setting I wanted, hammer out a plot, develop some interesting characters, and hope that a meaningful theme would happen consequently. I thought that coming up with a theme first was not only ineffective but pretentious—I didn’t want to tell preachy stories. I still don’t, but I’ve been learning that theme is just as important as plot or characters. If plot is the skeleton of a story and characters are the heart, then theme is the soul: you can’t have a whole “person” (story) without all three.

Theme does not have to be complex or grandiose; often, it is hiding beneath the story you already have, waiting to be discovered. Or, sometimes, it develops and expands as you set out to address a topic that is important to you. I’ve experienced both with the two novels that are my WIPs: the first, the one I’m currently writing, was centered on a specific theme but has grown into something much richer over the years as I uncovered nuances. The second, one that seemed mostly character/plot focused without much to tie it together, had a theme all along that I did not see until recently. Some of that is due to passage of time, but some, I think, is due to a personal change, a desire to give meaning to the stories I create.

How do you sort out themes for your stories? I can’t tell you a fool-proof method of doing so—I’m just starting to discover it myself. For me, it involves a lot of musing about life, a lot of reading and watching stories that move me deeply, and a lot of analysis of why those things move me. Theme, by nature, is abstract, and perhaps that is why it is so difficult to pin down in the writing process. But I know that whether I’m figuring out why I liked or didn’t like a movie adaptation of a favorite book or figuring out what my own writing is saying about the bigger truths of life, theme is worth considering. It may very well be the most important thing to consider.

Book Review: A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

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Title: A Rumor of War
Author: Philip Caputo
Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir
Length: 354
Published: Original edition was published in 1977
Rating: ★★★★ (rounded up)

 

Overview:

The first official American troops in the Vietnam War arrived in southern Vietnam in early 1965. Among them was Philip Caputo, a young Marine lieutenant eager to finally see some combat after years of training and stationing in non-combat areas. The original task of guarding the U.S. air base at Da Nang proved incredibly boring for the marines, but within a few months they would learn that the search-and-destroy missions that sent them beyond the base were full of dangers, stressors, and horrors that would have seemed unthinkable when they first arrived. A Rumor of War is Caputo’s personal documentation of those experiences, providing an up-close look at the complex events and struggles that faced not only U.S. troops but the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict.

 

Style/Voice:

I suppose by now that I’ve said this about all the books I choose to review, but the prose style of A Rumor of War is exceptionally good. There’s no fluff, no awkward, predictable cadences, and no rambling about details that are unnecessary, yet the sentences flow together seamlessly and the vocabulary is robust enough to keep interest. Most of all, Caputo is honest—you may not agree with him, condone his thoughts or past actions, or particularly like the dialogue or events he’s describing, but there’s never a sense that he is trying to paint it out to be better than it was or make it more dramatic for drama’s sake. Here’s an example from page 201:

“I did not go crazy, not in the clinical sense, but others did. The war was beginning to take a psychological toll. Malaria and gunshot and shrapnel wounds continued to account for most of our losses, but in the last summer the phrases acute anxiety reaction and acute depressive reaction started to appear on the sick-and-injured reports sent out each morning by the division hospital. To some degree, many of us began to suffer “anxiety” and “depressive” reactions. I noticed, in myself and in other men, the tendency to fall into black, gloomy moods and then to explode out of them in fits of bitterness and rage. It was partly caused by grief, grief over the deaths of friends. I thought about my friends a lot; too much. That was the trouble with the war then: the long lulls between actions gave us too much time to think.”

 

Characters:

Since A Rumor of War is a non-fiction memoir, there’s not much to be said about the people in the story using the typical characterization standards for more creative nonfiction or fiction. There’s little glimpse into the lives or personalities of many of the people aside from Caputo, but this is not a mark against the book—it’s more of a natural result of it being a memoir and its purpose of illuminating the realities of the Vietnam War at a time when many Americans did not understand what the soldiers had gone through (a purpose that Caputo describes in the preface of the book). The dynamic writing style makes up for any gaps in “characterization.”

 

Plot:

Typical plot conventions also don’t apply to this book, but nevertheless, the structure of the book is streamlined, easy to follow, and organized as well as possible for recalling events that happened over a decade before the first publication date. The chapters are in chronological order from his early life and the early years of his military career, to his time as a soldier in Vietnam, to when he finished his tour, to the epilogue when he went back to Vietnam as a correspondent. Unlike other nonfiction books that I’ve read about wars, this one made the complex events, battles, and geographical changes easy to follow as someone with little knowledge of the Vietnam War. That alone makes the “plot” of the book a good one.

 

Setting:

As can be expected, the main setting of A Rumor of War is South Vietnam in 1965-1966. Caputo does an excellent job painting a picture of the world around him during his time in South Vietnam, from the dusty airbase at Da Nang to the dark, ominous, nightmarish jungles, to the rural villages and back roads, to the swamps and marshes where the platoons chased enemy soldiers. His ability to transport the reader into those settings is, perhaps, one of the greatest strengths of the book, aside from the candor of his prose. He also, thankfully, handles the culture shock and culture differences with candor but without condoning derogatory descriptions or stereotypes beyond showing what would have been historical accurate to his experiences.

 

Objectionable Content:

This book, being a story about war, is full of what would be considered objectionable. Language of all types is strong and pervasive. Naturally, the events of the book are violent; Caputo does not shy away from describing the appearance of dead bodies that are mangled and falling apart, the effects of diseases (including stories like a man who goes crazy the heat causing the blood in his brain to boil), or the destruction of villages. Drinking and smoking are common. There’s one chapter in particular that describes some of the soldiers going into a larger city and visiting prostitutes, but the focus general deals with combat and war. In short, this is not a book that I would recommend for anyone who is sensitive to such content or anyone who’s not mature enough to handle reading about the nature of war.

 

Conclusion:

A Rumor of War is not an easy book to read in the sense of content; what Caputo describes is horrific, and for me had the effect of creating immense sympathy for the men who fought in the Vietnam War, both American and Vietnamese. Yet, it is also a book that is incredibly easy to read. Caputo is a skilled storyteller and crafted a book that is compelling enough to finish quickly. What’s more, Caputo invites readers to look at controversial events in a new way—to see the humanity in the soldiers and see the horrible cruelty that humanity is capable of. That alone makes this book a worthwhile read (although one I won’t recommend as readily as some of my favorite fiction novels). All these things considered, I give A Rumor of War four stars (rounded up from 3.5).

Using My Strengths: A Plot-First Writer’s Perspective on Character Development

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This past spring, I conducted a survey that asked over 100 authors to answer common writing-related questions like their favorite genres to read and write, their writing process, their future goals, etc. What I secretly wanted to know most, however, was if my assumption that the world was full of character-first writers was correct. Most writers I knew considered themselves to be character-first—that is, that their stories began with their characters and everything else grew up around them (contrast with plot-first, where the concept or plot develops first and the characters come out of that). When I got the survey results, I learned that my assumption wasn’t true. Although character-first scored higher, it was only by a slight margin. The ratio of plot-first to character-first writers was nearly equal.

I was pleasantly shocked. After that shock faded, I wanted to know where my fellow plot-first writers had been all this time. I had only ever met a handful of people who were plot-first writers like me. And, I willingly admit, I’d felt isolated from other writing peers because of it, although those feelings were in part due to self-imposed exile.

Thank goodness that phase of self-imposed exile is over. I will happily tell fellow writers that I’m plot-first and feel little need to qualify or compare. I do my best to offer my plotting skills to those who do not have them, and hope that character-first writer friends will help me polish my in-prose characters in a similar fashion. So reading the survey results was the icing on top of the confidence cake—a feeling that’s quite similar to what I described in a post that I wrote a few months ago about how discovering “my genres” gave me confidence.

But reflecting upon this subject led me to find the place where insecurity over plot vs. character first took root: the idea that plotting and characterization are on opposing sides of a spectrum and could never overlap. If I was good at plotting, then of course I couldn’t be good at writing dynamic characters. It was only when I learned to stop viewing plot vs. character as a strict dichotomy that I found a way to make my plotting brain work for me when developing story elements other than plot.

As is often said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. For the longest time I internalized the critiques about my characters and let the hurt turn into a combination of denial and a defeatist attitude. My perfectionism kept me from considering how I could improve but, at the same time, I would pretend as much as I could that my characters were the focal point of my stories. But as I matured a bit, I realized that many of the critiques were true. My characters often didn’t come across as I intended in prose. I could easily, if I wasn’t careful, forego showcasing character development in favor of making sure a chapter covered what was listed in my plot outlines. And there were times when I went ahead and wrote a story with no idea about my character’s true motivations. This usually wasn’t an issue for short stories because the conflict, plotting, and character arcs are condensed, but in larger works and when pressed for time, my true strength—plotting and organization—emerged as the dominant force and towered over everything else.

This realization was hurtful at first. Having poorly-developed characters is one of the biggest insults a person can say about your writing (most critiques I received in this area were far from being insulting, though—people were very nice about my shortcomings). But I waited for those feelings to pass. When they did, I realized…so what if my characterization isn’t great in my first or second drafts? No writer can create a draft where everything is strong. If writers who create drafts with great characterization but poor plotting aren’t doomed to never improve their plot holes, why did I feel doomed to never improve my characterization? That is, after all, the whole point of drafts: a starting point.

I also realized that my problem wasn’t the lack of skills to develop characters. If someone asked me to tell them about one of my characters, I could go on about their backstories, their families, their birthdays, even their favorite colors and foods. I spoke of them as if they were real people (which of course amused the non-writers in my life). The problem was that I was often ready to write about my worldbuilding or plot long before my character development was finished. As a result, my characters were fuzzy in comparison, and what came out on the page showed the disparity between the elements. This also reflected my approach to worldbuilding: create the overarching ideas and setting first, then place the people in it. Of course my work wasn’t done once I drew a couple of maps and created a timeline for major plot points. The lack of strong characterization in my rough drafts pointed to my writing process, not to my potential. I needed to give myself extra time to develop my characters if I wanted them to be as strong as my plot and worldbuilding.

With this discovery in hand, I knew I needed a new method for character development. Typical means of character development rarely yielded results for me—I couldn’t base a character off of a song or writing prompt, writing short stories for characters I knew little about didn’t get past the first paragraph, and I couldn’t “talk” to my characters in the way that other authors apparently could. I needed context; I needed backstory; I needed time. I’d resisted that natural bend because I tried to mimic character-first writers, believing that was the only way to be create compelling characters, but I had undermined myself. Organization could be applied to any part of the writing process. Structure could be built into plot and characters alike. Fighting against my strengths so I could try to make weaknesses into strengths would never work. I’d not only be unhappy, but my writing would never reach its full potential.

So, I started applying my worldbuilding and plotting skills to character development. I made backstory outlines. I used MS Excel to list character descriptions, personality types, birthdays, even create family trees. I made sure that the world around my character was well-developed before figuring out where they lived and worked. Most of all, I gave myself the time to mull ideas over in my head in the same way I had to ruminate about plot or worldbuilding decisions. I stopped stressing over making my characters perfect and dynamic in a short period of time. I stopped comparing my character development process to fellow writers who I deemed as superior to me. And I put aside my insecurities enough to ask other writers to help me solve character conundrums when I got stumped. Unsurprisingly, it works. I’ve made more progress with developing the protagonist of my WIP in the past few months than I had in the first two years since I created her—and that’s just one example. Some of that progress is simply time doing its magic, but in large part, I know it’s because I’ve shifted my focus to what I can do, not what I can’t do.

This “method” can apply to anyone, not only plot-first writers. It’s not just my personal experience that backs up this idea either—the famous “Strength’s Finder 2.0” test created by Gallup focuses on finding and cultivating your strengths to improve workplace and lifestyle fulfillment, productivity, and happiness. And I’m sure that other writers and artists have discovered and talked about this very subject. Even so, it deserves reiteration: focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses, and don’t try to make yourself into someone you’re not. If you’re plot-first, use that to your advantage. If you’re character-first, use that to your advantage. You aren’t doomed to failure just because your first few drafts aren’t how you or others would like them to be—and there’s no reason why you can’t fix the weak spots of your stories with the tools you have.

It’s easy to fall into comparison and feeling inadequate. That feeling still creeps upon me, like all artists, but once I stopped forcing myself to behave like writers who have different strengths than I do, it’s easier to ward off insecurities, create writing that I’m proud of, and delight in what I create. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, even if my writer friends never understand my love of outlines and spreadsheets.

My (Current) Top 7 Favorite Classics

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If you haven’t heard already, I love classic novels, and even though I’ve made a point of reading non-classics this year, that genre still holds a special place in my life and dominates my favorite books list. So, in lieu of my usual contemplative and thematic blog posts, I thought it’d be fun to gush a bit about my current top 7 favorite classics. Why 7? I had too many to condense into 5 but not enough for 10. Next time I update the list, I’ll aim for 10.

 

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This novel has everything I love in a story: extended family dynamics, drama spanning a long period of time, nearly 1,000 pages, and a rich and varied setting. But none of those things are why it’s my current favorite. Anna Karenina is not just about the titular character’s adultery and the drama that ensues—it’s a close look at the faults and strengths of human nature. Tolstoy does an incredible job at making each character understandable, even in their sins, yet he never indulges in condoning their mistakes nor fails to show that all of them, not just the ones with the greatest offenses, have flaws. Even when I disliked certain characters, I felt for them and was fascinated by them. That alone is a mark of brilliance. On top of that, the prose reads like a dream—aside from a few chapters where Levin debated Russian politics that I had no clue about, I could hardly put it down. Now if someone could make a TV mini-series that did justice to the story, then I’d be content.

 

  1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

This is a classic that people either love to the point of over-romanticizing or hate with a burning passion—and it’s clear to see why. The characters are all despicable in one way or another and the entire story is anything but happy. But that is, in part, why I enjoy this novel so much. First of all, it’s a family saga—a small one, sure, but one nevertheless. If you accept that the characters are not going to be likeable or admirable (unless you choose to ignore their issues), the story moves from a mishap of a Gothic romance into a compelling tale about the destruction that cruelty and revenge causes. And on top of that, the thematic arcs and parallels in this story are flat out beautiful once you spot them. The perfect execution of a theme added with my love of good drama and the spooky, gloomy setting make this story one that I keep returning to again and again. (It also needs a decent film adaptation—one that doesn’t romanticize Heathcliff).

 

  1. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

I’m not sure if this novel is usually listed amongst the classics, but if it isn’t, it certainly should be. Lewis is a master of weaving spirituality into stories without turning them into poorly-disguised theology books, and Till We Have Faces is the ultimate show of that skill—enough to make someone (me) who doesn’t love fantasy or myths fall in love with the book. Beyond the deep truths that are woven throughout the story, the part I love most about this story is the character arc of the main character, Orual. She is jealous, doubting, skeptical, hardened, angry, and so very, very human in how she handles the stages of her life that it’s incredibly satisfying by the time her arc is completed at the end of the book. I was left with as many questions as answers and even though I finished reading this novel a year and a half ago, I’m still scratching the surface of the themes it holds. Definitely one that deserves a re-read.

 

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Is this a predictable choice? Yes. Am I ashamed of that? Not in the slightest. There’s a reason other than women’s love of Mr. Darcy that makes this novel so appealing and enjoyable. Of all the novels I’ve read by the author (all but Emma and Mansfield Park), this one showcases her satirical skills the most, while still making the characters their own people instead of stand-ins for Regency tropes. Humor and sarcasm show up all throughout the prose and nobody is immune from being the subject of said humor. But, beyond that, it really is a good look at how pride and prejudice get in the way of truly knowing people. And the romances, however restrained and subdued they may be, are ones you want to happen by the end. (The icing on the cake? The film adaptations of this novel are great. Take note, film makers.)

 

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This one made the list for none of the things that are typically associated with the story of Frankenstein: spooky monsters, good ole’ fashioned Gothic horror, or drama. This novel has those things, but, not to the extent that you’d expect. There are no crazy scientists or green monsters running around. Instead, there are isolated, sleep-deprived college students, eloquent creatures pushed to the brink of murder, and lots of sailing. But the real gem in the tale is the commentary about the importance of friendship and human connection, and what horrible, horrible things happen when we’re either deprived of it—or deprive ourselves of it. Much like Wuthering Heights, the characters in this tale probably weren’t meant to become your favorites, but when you get past the melodrama and blatant moral shortcomings, Shelley has some pretty powerful things to say about humanity. Plus, yes, there’s that Gothic element that makes it appealing.

 

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

As the only American novel on my list, I think this one does a pretty good job at representing my home country. To Kill a Mockingbird is a quintessential tale of prejudice and racism in the South during the early 20th century, but it looks at those subjects with nuance and dexterity, coupling it with clear prose and a unique point-of-view. That point-of-view may be my favorite part of the story—by showing the audience the story events through the eyes of Scout, who had just started elementary school at the start of the novel, we’re spared the gruesome details of the court case while never losing a bit of the impact. Scout’s frank and innocent perspective brings the truth out more than if the story had been told from the perspective of any other character. It’s the sort of story that lingers with you for a long, long time, like the humidity of a Southern summer day.

 

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Even though it’s last on my list, I don’t lack any love for this story. It contains many of the other elements that the rest of the novels on my list have—a rich setting, poignant themes, and characters that are compelling even when they’re shown with all of their flaws. We get a front-row seat to watch Jane struggle with loneliness and disconnection from others, which makes her ability to rally herself and never waver in doing what is right despite the difficulty all the more admirable. Combine the poignancy of her character with the spectacular Gothic settings and the spooky mystery of Mr. Rochester’s house, and there’s no wonder readers have loved this book for generations.

 

What are your favorite classics? Do they show up on my list? Leave a comment and let me know so we can gush about them together! And I promise I’ll update the list when need be—I have a bunch of classics on my to-be-read and currently-reading pile that I suspect will inch their way toward the top.

 

Branching Out: Strengthening My Creativity

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When I was in elementary school, I took several art classes at a local museum. It was a time in my life where I preferred my marks on paper to be of pictures instead of words (although a quick trip through my old collections of notebooks will show that I was still a novelist in the making), and I came home with countless finished and unfinished projects. But what I remember most about those art classes was a drawing exercise that caused me a great deal of stress. The art teacher instructed the class to draw the still-life that was sitting in the middle of the table, but we could not take the pencil off the page once we put it down. We could not erase any of the lines we drew. We had one minute to create our drawing.

I cannot remember what I drew, or if I even tried to do it. All I remember is that my brain froze at the idea of not planning ahead and the constraining time limit. In the years following, I cited that exercise as an example of my deep need for organization even when being creative. Now, I still cite the story, but for an entirely different reason: as an example of how I missed an opportunity to grow.

I can’t blame my childhood self for not recognizing the learning opportunity, or my teenage self for using the story to solidify my personality. Both were moments in my life that required a different type of growth. But since I’m past both of those phases, I see the exercise in a new light. If an art instructor were to ask me to do the same exercise now, I would most likely laugh a little and give it a go—I’m not beholden to the idea that everything I create must be perfect on the first try, and I’m learning more and more that branching out from my typical means of creativity makes me more creative.

A more recent example: aside from a short period of time in my teens, I’ve never written poetry. I’m not one to read poetry, except when others compel me to do so. However, upon talking with a fellow writer who shared their poetry with me, I was inspired by what I saw. They used poetry as a means to explore character development or philosophical thoughts and didn’t follow typical rules of how to format stanzas or rhyme schemes. What they created was beautiful. I wanted to try to create something similar—so, I did. Several weeks later, I had fourteen finished poems and several awaiting completion.

Another recent example: prior to late 2017, I had sworn off modern literature. I often talked about how I wasn’t interested in nonfiction, biographies, memoirs, or self-help-ish books. And, I had no intention of reading anything below high school level. But I began to realize that my swath-like judgments might be unfair, among other reasons, and I decided to challenge myself to read genres that I normally wouldn’t. The results? I found several modern reads that I enjoyed immensely, all from different genres that I would never have picked up on my own.

I had feared, at some point, that branching out from my typical way of creating and consuming art would compromise a fundamental part of who I was. I wanted to stay true to those core allegiances—or, in less flattering terms, I didn’t want to be like all the other people I saw who had typical interests. I relished in a form of uniqueness that I had crafted for myself, based partly upon very specific creative tastes. That’s a fine phase to go through when you’re a young teenager trying to sort out who you are. But once that phase is over with, the illusion that growth has to mean deviating from the core of who you are needs to go too.

I still am a planner, not a pantser; I still am a plot-first writer; I still love outlines, Excel spreadsheets, and overgrown family trees; and I still love classic novels more than anything. Those things have simply become more well-rounded, informed by different perspectives and resources. Pulling from different arts—as well as from things that aren’t arts—only makes my creativity stronger and sharper. Plus, it’s fun to create with no pressure of needing it to be perfect. One of the joys of dabbling in hobbies and interests that are secondary or tertiary to your main passion(s) is how much easier it is to quiet perfectionist tendencies.

There’s an old quote about friendship that goes something like “make new friends but keep the old.” I think the same can be said for creative endeavors. The more I push myself to try new creative avenues, the more I discover that the world is full of wonderful things waiting to be uncovered. I just have to willing to branch out beyond what I know.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre(s): fiction, historical, literary
Length: 531 pages
Published: May 6th 2014
Rating: ★★★★

 

Overview:

All the Light We Cannot See was the first book I read in 2018, and that was due solely to friends of mine who recommended it several times. I had seen the book floating around my local library for a while and I thought the cover was beautiful, but, at that time, was still wary to venture into reading books published in the 21st century (2018 has been a year of realizing how wrong I was!). Nevertheless, when I saw it again at the library, I checked it out before someone else could snatch it off the shelf. Once I picked it up, I could hardly put it down.

In short, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of how the lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan boy, come together in the city of Saint-Malo during World War II. But the premise is deceivingly simple. The interweaving of Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories begin long before Saint-Malo, taking shape from the time they were small children living hundreds of miles apart—Werner in a poor coal-mining town at the beginning of Hitler’s rise in Germany, and Marie-Laure in Paris with her father, the locksmith at the Natural History Museum. The story traces their paths full of twists, revelations, and sorrows from childhood into young adulthood until the anticipated climax, which, despite being known from the beginning, is still as suspenseful and surprising as if it were hidden.

 

Style/Voice:

When my friends first recommended this book, they sang the praises of its beautiful prose, and it didn’t take me long to realize my friends were correct—the most striking feature of All the Light We Cannot See is the skill of Doerr’s writing style. Every detail is unusual but accurate, and illuminates (pun intended) the world in an immersive way. Even more impressive, Doerr uses telling descriptions often, but it never bogs down the flow of the story because of the details. He approaches narration almost like a scientist, and his extent of knowledge about the world of his characters is impressive, but every sentence also brims with life and emotion. Here’s an example from page 27:

“Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. “Can you see this?” ask the doctors. “Can you see this?” Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life. Spaces she once knew as familiar—the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street—have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big.
What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ear. In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair.”

The other interesting feature of the book’s prose is its chapter organization. There are fourteen sections (Zero-Thirteen) organized by date, but not in chronological order. Each section contains chapters without numbers and the chapters can vary from one-half a page to several pages. In description this seems overly complex, but Doerr switches points of view and timelines so smoothly and so clearly that it creates tension, emotion, and anticipation instead of confusion.  I felt as if I could relax my inhibitions because Doerr knew exactly where he was taking the story, which is a feat that few authors achieve.

 

Characters:

The story centers on two main characters: Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure is quiet, serious, patient, and perceptive of the world; Werner is reserved and calculating yet pure in his pursuit of knowledge. Their shared curiosity of the world is one of the many threads that tie the two together, and simultaneously separates and connects their different backgrounds and struggles. Marie-Laure lives a safe and secure life up until the war but faces a serious disability; Werner is physically well but lives in poverty in an orphan house. Marie-Laure must evacuate her city and move in with distant relatives to avoid the war; Werner must joint Hitler’s Youth and become part of the war whether he wants to or not. Although I ended up feeling more attached to one over the other, both stand out as compelling protagonists and carry the story well. I felt immense sympathy for the pain both felt during the course of the war.

The side characters are also vivid, from Marie-Laure’s father and great-uncle, to Werner’s sister Jutta, to German Sargent von Rumpel, to the other boys in Hitler’s Youth. The skill of Doerr’s prose even brings to life brief and unnamed people who move in and out of the backdrop of events. The only complain regarding the characters, without giving spoilers, is that I wish Jutta had more time within the story, not only to show more of Werner’s background but because of her importance later on.

 

Plot:

All the Light We Cannot See is a literary piece of fiction, but despite the focus on the day-to-day events of the characters, the plot is not sacrificed for their sake. And while the climax of the plot is known from the cover-flap synopsis (which, if handled incorrectly, could have made the story drag), there is never a sense of predictability. Tension builds slowly, emphasized by the often short chapters. Plot twists turn at perfectly unexpected moments. With the exception of some unnecessary moments later in the book, every scene and every chapter is necessary in either moving the action forward or revealing important details about the characters and world (sometimes both). I was overall impressed with how well Doerr integrated the plot in a way that strengthened the novel while not drawing attention to the framework of the story.

 

Setting:

The story spans several years and several places—Paris, Zollverein, Saint-Malo, the German countryside, Werner’s school (the National Political Institutes of Education), and great-uncle Etienne’s towering house, to name a few. But, as I mentioned when describing the prose style, the novel is so full of unusual detail that each place—whether lingered on for a moment or lived in for years—is alive and bustling, and the movement from place to place is fluid rather than jerky. Time period changes between chapters or sections are also clearly marked, which makes the transition easier.

 

Objectionable Content:

While the majority of the sensitive content in the novel is fitting for the time period and handled well, there is noticeable language once Werner goes away to school and to war. The nature of the war also lends to violent content—school and military training is harsh and needlessly cruel, bombs are dropped on cities, one character suffers permanent brain damage after getting beat up, characters are trapped under rubble, a character dies in an explosion. Sexual content is pretty low until a rape scene at the end of the novel (one that was entirely unnecessary for the story, as well, although the details are not gruesome).

 

Conclusion:

All the Light We Cannot See is a rare sort of book. At a surface level, it appears to be like any other World War II fictional book masking itself as a piece of literary fiction, but it defies all assumptions with beautiful, poignant prose and a story that, while it shows the sorrows and horrors of war, also infuses the world with wonder and light. In a sense, it is far more realistic than the stories that focus so much on being realistic that they lose all hope. I would easily give the novel five stars if not for two problems, one legitimate and one personal. First, the rape scene at the end is entirely unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot. Second, while all of the plot choices made in the story are realistic, there is one relationship that ends in a way that disappoints me to this day, and, I think, should have left on a more positive note. For those reasons, I take my rating down to four stars but still highly recommend the book.

Proverbial Winters: When Busyness Takes Over

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As is often said, there’s a season for everything. I’ve been pondering this not simply because I feel and see the first whispers of autumn when I step outside in the morning, but because my writing life has shifted yet again. The ease and free time of summer is giving way to the busyness and change of fall—which means less time to write.

This perennial busyness isn’t new to me. Summer, it seems, is the only time I have the mental and schedule clarity to commit as much time as I’d like to my literary projects, and it’s been this way since I was a teenager. The familiarity doesn’t stop my frustration, though. Writing my stories is my passion and I balk at anything that encroaches upon it. I know many writers who feel the same way. But because I’ve dealt with these seasons before, I’m in a better position to thrive despite them.

Common writing advice says to make yourself write everyday. To a degree, I agree. The importance of discipline and focus cannot be understated—yet, even for someone like myself who likes a strict standard of achievement, there must be grace for the times when writing doesn’t happen. Schedules fill. Other skills need cultivated. Creativity dries up. Fatigue sets in. Rest becomes a necessity, not just physically but mentally, and writers must set aside their writing for a moment. But rest does not mean quitting. Learning how to rest without quitting is one of the more important things I’ve learned from the “dry” periods of my writing life.

Just because I cannot write the draft of my novel—whether because of time restraints or creative dullness—doesn’t mean I can’t continue to work on my novel. I can research. I can outline. I can sketch a character or make a character board. I can draw a map or family tree. I can dabble with a short story. I can try my hand at a poem. I can replenish my creativity by enjoying, rather than creating, other creative endeavors (artistic or not): reading a good book, watching a movie, listening to music, attending a play, visiting a new city, trying new food, talking with a friend, going for a walk. All of these things, while not strictly writing my current project, are contributing to my current project.

Speeds vary, but most of the time, writing is a slow and culminating process. For me, it’s especially slow. The first draft of my current novel took me four years to create, and the second draft will no doubt take four more. And the draft after that? Who knows. But the quiet seasons of creativity have taught me that it’s okay to take a while. Not because I have unlimited time, but rather, because I cannot rush the process, no more than a child can rush through childhood and into adulthood in a year. Some things just take time.

I will never maintain the high times forever; there will always be seasons when very little seems to be happening. Proverbial winters, if you will. The sooner I accept it, the sooner I can understand it, and the sooner I can glean from it. After all, the less time I spend grumbling about how I don’t have time to write, the more time I can find to prepare myself for when it’s time to write again.

Learn The Rules, Then Break Them

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“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso)

 

How many of you have heard a variation of this quote? I have so many times that I can’t remember where I first heard it (probably on Pinterest, if I had to guess). But, regardless of the popularity, this quote holds a lot of merit, even though its application goes against our basic artistic desires.

Allow me to explain using a story. In the OYAN curriculum that I used in high school, the teacher limited the users of the program to writing a novel that a) followed the three-act plot structure, b) followed at least some conventions of the adventure genre, and c) was written in first person, with a protagonist that was close in age to the writer. Inevitably, every year, one or two students would pose the question, “Do I have to write in 1st person? I prefer to write in 3rd!” The response was always yes, you must write in 1st person. Whether every student did is unknown, although many followed the curriculum guidelines, and others also questioned the rule of having the protagonist within the age range of the writer. What if I want to write about a 40 year old pirate, or an 80 year old grandmother? What if I want to write a story without a plot? What if I want to write slice-of-life or romance? Very well, but only after you finish a novel within the guidelines.

I followed these guidelines to a T, but never realized their full merit until years later. They did not exist to limit creativity, but rather, to teach young writers the building blocks of a storytelling. Once I learned the foundation, I could build whatever I wanted on top, and, most likely, it wouldn’t crumble, and I wouldn’t have to start from the very beginning if I had to discard the idea. Writing a story with a 3-act structure made me conscientious of how to properly place conflict to propel a story forward. Following the conventions of the adventure genre gave me a chance to learn what genres I liked and didn’t like through experience. And writing in first person, with a protagonist who was close to my age at the time, was a stepping stone in learning good characterization.

As artists, we don’t want to go through that process—we don’t want to compromise our artistic expression for anything, much less for rules that we may or may not like. But completing the process backwards will, at worst, result in failure, and at best, result in wasted time. You may be authentic in the emotions you’re expressing, but if your grammar, formatting, and structure are so sporadic that people are unable to decipher your meaning, the meaning of your words won’t be able to shine. Instead, you must learn what it means to write a story at its base level before you can know how to write the story you envision.

Learning these “rules” takes time, and is a path dotted with failure. This is, no doubt, why it’s so discouraging and why so many writers want to bypass it in favor of boundless self-expression. But only when you understand the essentials of story can you change them in a meaningful way. Respect and knowledge of the art medium you’re working with must come first—in fact, that respect and knowledge is like a canvas for the beautiful paints of your unique writing style. Then, eventually, you can start using paints onto other surfaces too.  The hours of discipline and work are worth being able to give justice to the art you want to create.

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Finding My Voice

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The majority of my posts so far have been about things I know or have recently figured out—worldbuilding, book reviews, advice, etc. This is all well and good, but, I’m still young and still have a lot to learn when it comes to writing. It’s equally important to talk about those things.

I sat down the other night to work on the 2nd draft of my novel. After reading some spectacularly written books this year, I felt as if I was ready to give my 3rd person narrator a bit more personality. My first draft had sorely lacked any perspective from my main character, too, but after two years of story development, I was sure to be able to fix that without a problem. I was eager to get those new ideas down—and forgetful that my “author voice,” as some call it, was not my strong suit. It never has been. Why else have I only written about worldbuilding and plotting so far? It’s not something I feel bad about, but it is something that I like to forget about.

So I wrote about five pages of a new first chapter and liked it, at first. I was going to capture what I loved so much about Anna Karenina, or A Gentleman in Moscow, or Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre, but in my own way with my own literary sci-fi story. I thought I had. But a few weeks later, when I sat down to finish that first chapter, it wasn’t quite as rosy as before. Too many details in some parts, not enough in others; turns of phrase that felt very out of place; and was I trying too hard to show instead of tell, or telling too much? I had no clue. The only thing I knew was that I was unhappy with the words on the page.

My first response was frustration. I’m a perfectionist, after all, and my instinct is to think that because I take so long to perfect the ideas in my head, they had better come out on the page in perfect order. I know better than that, though, so I closed the document and decided to wait until I had a better grasp on what I wanted. That wasn’t going to be a quick decision—nothing in writing is ever quick.

As I’ve thought about my “author’s voice,” I’ve realized two things. The first is that if I want to better it, I’ll have to dedicate as much time to actually writing as I do to worldbuilding, plotting, or character development. Finding my “voice” is a skill that needs cultivated just like everything else. And, it’s a skill that I’ve been neglecting to practice as regularly as the others. I’m a slow writer (which I hope to write a post on soon), but that’s not an excuse to not write anything except for a few times a year. I tend to ignore it because it requires more work.

But secondly, I realized that I was getting caught up in the wrong sort of comparison again. So what if I have a lot of details in my prose, use phrasing that isn’t modern, or like a lot of commas? So what if characterization isn’t my best quality, I tend to be more serious than humorous, or I can’t write the most immersive first-person perspective? To whom am I comparing myself? I’m not Jane Austen, or Emily Bronte, or Amor Towles, or J. K. Rowling, or Stephen King, or my writer friends, any other author that’s existed or is still alive, famous or otherwise. I may very well admire some of them, but it’s pointless for me to try to copy them or subconsciously try to be them. It’s an unattainable goal, first of all, and second, it’s not even something I want. The works of others can be my inspiration, but not my measuring stick. What I’m writing is entirely my own.

As many have said before, the only person you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday. All things considered, then, I’ve made leaps and bounds and will continue to do so. Besides, that’s what editing is for.

Book Review: Educated: A Memoir (Tara Westover)

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Title: Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Genre(s): nonfiction, autobiography, memoir
Length: 334 pages
Published: February 20, 2018
Rating: ★★★★

 

Overview:

Tara Westover grew up in the shadow of Idahoan mountains, hauling scrap metal, learning midwifery from her mother, and preparing for the end of the world that her father thought for sure was coming. The Westover children received little input from the outside world, an incomplete education, herbal remedies to treat severe injuries, and isolation from peers and extended relatives. This made it easy for the family’s dysfunction and violence to go unnoticed and unaddressed. Only when Tara’s older brother broke away and went to college did Tara begin to think of a different life, and her struggle to learn the truth about the outside world, her family, and herself is documented in detail in the pages of Educated: A Memoir.

 

Style/Voice:

One of my favorite things about good prose is when the narrator—real or fictional—sounds like a friend sitting across from you, telling a story. That’s precisely how Westover’s memoir reads and is one of the reasons I became enthralled with the story. Here’s an example of what I mean (from page 3):

After Dad took up preaching against milk, Grandma jammed her fridge full of it. She and Grandpa only drank skim but pretty soon it was all there—two percent, whole, even chocolate. She seemed to believe this was an important line to hold.
Breakfast became a test of loyalty. Every morning, my family sat around a large table of reworked red oak and at either seven-grain cereal, with honey and molasses, or seven-grain pancakes, also with honey and molasses. Because there were nine of us, the pancakes were never cooked all the way through. I didn’t mind the cereal if I could soak it in milk, letting the cream gather up the grist and seep into the pellets, but since the revelation we’d been having it with water. It was like eating a bowl of mud.

While descriptive, Westover is also straightforward in her word choices, which creates a certain cadence that propels even the tiniest, simplest details forward. But even more interesting is how this style is paired with the very personal feelings and observations of Westover’s memory and perspective—while she’s a credible narrator, it’s also clear that everything she writes is simply her experiences and fallible memory. Pairing the subjectivity of her perspective with a clear but descriptive prose is the perfect combination. There was never a time where I felt as if I wanted to skip parts of her story, except in the sense that her story is a hard one to process.

 

Characters:

The “characters” of Educated: A Memoir are Tara, her family, and eventually the friends, professors, and acquaintances she meets once she’s away from her childhood home—although many names have been changed for the sake of privacy. In that way it’s hard to call them characters, but nevertheless, they’re a compelling cast: her bipolar, radically religious father; her earthy, overwhelmed mother; her stubborn and outspoken grandparents down the road; her violent and manipulative older brother, Shawn; her soft-spoken, creative brother, Tyler; the list goes on and on. Each of them is flawed—some very deeply so—and the dysfunction that’s brought about because of her father’s instability is like watching a train crash and burn. However, it’s the deep realism of the story that makes the people involved so interesting.

 

Plot:

Since Educated is a memoir, the plot is more like a journey with Tara from her early childhood into adulthood. It’s known from the beginning that education, and her eventual ability to receive one, is a pivotal theme that drives the way the scenes are put together in the book. Chronological time is also a large influencer on the sequence of the story. In that sense, then, the plot of Educated is very well structured, easy to follow, and thorough.

 

Setting:

The majority of the events in this book take place on the Westover family homestead, tucked away in the mountains of Idaho. However, as the story goes on and Tara moves, we also get to see her experiences in nearby towns, college, and overseas studies. The specifics of where the story takes place are not nearly as important as how well Westover brings them alive by her prose style—it’s easy to be transported into the events in a chapter or scene and feel as if the place is as real to you as it was to the author.

 

Objectionable Content:

Educated is not an easy story to read, and Westover’s honesty about her life means reading content that some people may not feel comfortable with. Sexual content is low, but violent content—from severe injuries to physical, emotional, and verbal abuse—steadily become more prevalent as Westover grows older. There are characters that clearly have mental disorders that go untreated, leading them to violent and erratic behavior, and Westover herself is manipulated and abused by one of her siblings. Many of those violent scenes are told in detail. In addition, language can be coarse and certain characters repeatedly use racial slurs and derogatory insults.

 

Conclusion:

Education was one of the first memoirs I’ve read on my own accord, and in my mind, it’s the perfect example of what a memoir should be. Westover’s writing style is balanced between descriptive and concise, personal and objective, and her story is one that’s so absurd to people who’ve grown up and lived without dysfunction that it’s hard to put it down. She tells her story and perspective with honesty. It’s for that same reason that I don’t recommend this book to everyone—the details of the abuse and dysfunction in her family is not a light read, and some will find it too much to handle. However, this memoir is nevertheless compelling and expertly written, which is why I give it a solid four stars.

The Arts Aren’t Easy

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Something about the arts compels people to be a part of them, perhaps because they speak to our deep creative natures. This is something that should be fostered in each of us—it’s a beautiful thing. But there’s a danger in thinking that it’s easy for anyone to excel at creative endeavors because humans are innately creative beings—not because they aren’t open for everyone, but because the arts take as much effort as any other skill.

I’ve been guilty of this myself. Because I write and used to play piano and am decent at drawing, I got it in my head that painting would be just as easy as those things. I forgot that none of those arts were easy when I started. My attempt at painting a beautiful picture of clouds instead turned into a gray-ish, blue-ish, yellow-purple-ish conglomeration of colors that wasn’t pleasing to the eye. If I wanted to become a better painter I could (I don’t have a passion for it, so I’m fine with being mediocre at the moment), but that would require lots of research, and studying, and practice, and failed attempts to create something good. My disposition toward creativity couldn’t exempt me from the learning process.

And while this is true for all areas of the arts, I think it’s particularly easy to write off (pun intended) writing as something that everyone can do because everyone has to do it. We write professional and personal emails, text daily, post on Facebook, journal, craft essays for a college course, and take notes in meetings and classes. Some even dabble in poetry, write fanfiction, or aspire to write a novel. However, one quick look over these daily communications and it’s clear that not everyone can write in a truly compelling way. Our writing capacity doesn’t equal an ability to write well.

This has nothing to do with debating over our writing preferences, any more than our differing tastes in musical genres has anything to do with being able to look at someone who’s not taken the time to practice piano and knowing they aren’t very good yet. Like every skill, writing well requires hard work. Any person you know who can communicate efficiently in an email, craft beautiful song lyrics, or create a story you don’t want to put down has practiced for years to do what they do. The only exception might be a childhood genius, but it’s rare for us to come across them in our day-to-day lives (and even they have to hone their skills).

The work that authors put into writing well is often unseen. If we can write a nice email or a Facebook post that gets hundreds of likes, it can’t be that hard to write a short story or a novel or a news report, right? Yet even the ability to write your Facebook post is the result of years of grammar and reading and school work from the time you were a small child. You didn’t wake up one day with the sudden knowledge of a written language! You worked hard for it, and your skills now are a culmination of your learning experience from childhood on into adulthood.

How much more do writers who create more intricate pieces have to work to make those pieces shine? As much work as a painter working on their masterpiece, a musician practicing late into the night to perfect their performance, the dancer showing up to the studio day in and day out, the actor taking hours to perfect their facial expressions—even as much as a carpenter paying attention to the millimeter measurements and the grain of the wood, an attorney reading page after page of law and legal history, the scientist checking and double checking their experiments, or a solider training from early hours during boot camp. That, then, is why not everyone can write. Not because you don’t have the potential, if you choose to fulfill it, but because it is a hard-earned craft like every other craft in the world. You can only do well if you’re willing to put in the work.

This is no condemnation, especially not for those who like to dabble in the arts but don’t want to devote large amounts of time to learning them. Life isn’t all about becoming the very best at everything, nor is it about never pursing anything unless you can be the best. No person is able to be good at everything that interests them and casual interest is just as valid as life-long dedication. But it’s important to remember that the beautiful art around you (in fact, most of our society, beautiful or not) is because of the work of others, and it’s an insult to undersell and underappreciate their work. Remember to give credit where credit is due. Appreciate those around you who have the skills and experience in areas that you don’t. Show that you value their work by the way you talk about and consume their creations. Pay good money for what they create (and don’t try to get a big discount from your friends every time you want something they make). Understanding the process of what it takes to create makes you appreciate the final product even more. Not only does it boost the morale of the artist and create a better environment for them to create within, but it fosters an attitude of wonder within you.

And what better way to live than in wonder of the world?

My Favorite Worldbuilding Resources + Methods

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Last week, I talked about my approach to worldbuilding and emphasized that knowing solid worldbuilding techniques is more important than how you specifically worldbuild. But, that doesn’t mean specific tools and methods aren’t important—you have to utilize something if you want results. So today’s post is about all of my favorite worldbuilding resources as well as my specific methods of using them. Best of all, nearly everything is free.

 

Resources:

  • Pinterest

One of the most useful worldbuilding tools is also the most likely to plunge you into procrastination, so using Pinterest requires self-control. However, it’s an amazing way to compile information and gain a visual sense of what your story looks like. Pinterest is an online social-media platform where you can create collections or “boards” of pictures. It’s commonly used for DIY projects, recipes, and fashion, but many writers use it to compile storyboards and character boards. There’s a plethora of beautiful photographs to choose from and organizational options to create sub-categories within your own boards. The boards you create become a collection of worldbuilding information that you can reference during character development, outlining, and writing prose. For instance, I’ve referenced my story boards while writing in order to craft vivid descriptions of the environment or atmosphere of a scene. It’s easier than searching through Google Images and saving pictures you like to a folder on your computer.

 

  • Excel (or equivalent)

No fancy math skills required—Excel spreadsheets are a perfect way to compile all your story info in an easily accessible and organized space. It’s a free program on computers with Microsoft software (Apple devices come with a similar program called “Numbers”). For worldbuilding specifically, I like to use spreadsheets to make timelines for historical events in my worlds’ past and to calculate dates and times. The flexibility of the program makes it easy to add or delete information and or to reorganize the order of the items on my lists. And, as a bonus, Excel is also great for any other story information you have: character lists, plotting, specific settings, or family trees. Excel is user-friendly and the basic functions are easy to learn through online tutorials or playing around with the different features.

 

  • Spotify (or equivalent)

Much like how writers use Pinterest to create storyboards, many writers use free music streaming services like Spotify to create story playlists. I’ve found this to be a useful worldbuilding tool in a more abstract sense, although for historical or contemporary novels it’s a great way of compiling what music would have been popular during the time of the story. For worlds that are a little less realistic, creating a story playlist is a great way to figure out the ambiance and mood of the world, to create what sort of music they might make, and to find inspiration through the styles or lyrics of songs. It’s a fun way to add depth to your story that isn’t research-heavy—although, like Pinterest, exercising self-control is key unless you want to get sucked into playlists for hours on end.

 

  • Baby naming sites

Baby naming sites are more commonly cited for character development (for good reason), but they’re also a great way to reinforce the culture(s) of your world and come up with names for cities, monuments, land markers, regions, countries, and neighborhoods—especially if you don’t want to create new names for everything in your world. Sites like Nameberry and Behind the Name have hundreds of lists to choose from, whether by style, language or origin, similarity, or meaning. If you either have a specific country or time period for your story or are drawing inspiration from a culture/time period/country, you can easily find lists of names that fit the bill. Because many places in our world are either named after people, events, words, or their appearance, using “people names” is a great way to give your world a bit of realism. There are also sites, such as the U.S. Social Security’s site, that list the most popular names in a time period, region, or decade that can be handy depending on the genre of story you’re writing.

 

  • Office supplies

This is the only item on the list that isn’t free, although most writers have stacks of notebooks, pens, pencils, papers, and binders somewhere in their houses; consequently, it’s probably my favorite item on this list. A simple piece of paper and a pen is all you need to create a map, a national flag, a family tree, graphs and charts, a timeline, or fashion sketches. These simple items require the most creativity, but also get you the most hands-on in creating and knowing your world (except, perhaps, for research). They’re also the most flexible—no matter your genre, length of story, or goals, you can create a method that works for you. I’ll explain more of how I use them under the “methods” section of this post.

 

 

Methods:

I’ve described each of these methods briefly under the resources list above, but specifics are always better. Below are brief overviews of how I go about using the resources above to worldbuild.

 

  • Storyboards (Pinterest)

When creating storyboards, I always focus on the aesthetic details that I imagine and, much like my worldbuilding method, I expand the web from there. For example, if I know that I’m creating a fantasy world that’s heavily influenced by 17th century France, I’ll search for 17th century French architecture, landscapes, and fashion. I intuitively know what I want the world to look like, so I only pin pictures that are pleasing to my eye. If I also know there will be elements of magic or fantastical creatures, I search for those as well. There are often storyboards that have similar aesthetics that are great ways to quickly find pictures you want. Once I’ve accumulated anywhere from 3o to 50 pins, I go to my board and take in what I’ve saved. Is there an aesthetic already emerging? What colors are there? What’s the mood? If there’s anything that stands out in a bad way, I delete the pin. I continue this process in short spurts (since I don’t use Pinterest every day) until I’ve created a board that captures my growing vision of what the storyworld looks like. The boards I create often morph and change over time as I do worldbuilding outside of Pinterest, but I often refer to the pictures and mood when I finally get to the writing portion of the process and need to know precisely what I’m describing in my prose.

I also use Pinterest boards for research purposes, especially when I’m developing a world that’s heavily based on or directly related to cultures in our world. I use the feature to create sub-boards within a larger board for board worldbuilding categories—food, fashion, architecture, natural landscape, etc.—then search for relevant information. If, for example, I was writing a historical fiction novel about 17th century France, I would look for examples of the foods they ate, clothing they wore, holidays and celebrations they observed, literature they published, quotes from historical figures at the time, etc. The result has the same benefit of being a visual, aesthetic representation of what I plan to write, while also substituting some of the research I would have to do for historical accuracy.

 

  • Creating maps

If you’re lucky enough to write a story that’s set in a real country, region, or city, then creating a map means a search on Google images. But if you’re creating any sort of fictional world—whether it’s a fake small town set in modern day, a fantasy world, a new country, or the futuristic Earth—you’ll have to figure out the layout of the land. A whole post could be dedicated to how to create maps and I’m no expert, but how I go about creating them is fairly simple. If it’s an entirely new place, I can start from scratch; if it’s based on existing geography, I have to determine the landscape and position on the globe before beginning. I start with a blank sheet of paper and sketch a rough estimate of what I imagine the section of the world I’m mapping to be—whether it’s a town, a city, a country, or a continent. I use light pencil so I can easily erase and re-arrange my ideas. If, for example, you were creating the blueprint of the house your protagonist lives in, you’d decide the square footage, how many stories, then how you imagine the layout to be—where’s the bedroom? How big’s the kitchen? Do they have a yard? For something larger—like a town or city—I first figure out the landscape (hills? flatlands? rivers? forests?), then draw the roads, and then draw the buildings.

Entire continents or countries are much harder, but I begin by only creating the major features—coastlines, territorial borders, rivers and lakes, mountains, major cities, and major roadways/means of travel. Subsequent maps can go into more detail or you can create smaller maps for each city or region. The point is to figure out a) where important places are in relationship to each other and b) how the natural landscape is going to influence the weather, roads, and layout of the area. This grounds your story (no pun intended) and makes it easier for you to know what you’re doing and what’s likely to influence the culture, history, and resources of your world.

 

  • Timelines/Histories

This is not for the faint of heart or for those who need a more free-flowing writing process—but creating world timelines and histories is a great way of nailing down important events and understanding the development of cultures. I only begin creating timelines and histories after I’ve done a lot of research and worldbuilding (a.k.a. when my worldbuilding web is expansive and strong). Then I begin my listing all of the “big events” that I know already in the order that I know they occur. Usually, somewhere along in this process, I have to rearrange events to make more sense, which is one reason why I like to write it down. Then, connect the dots between these events—if there are large gaps in time or events that happen back to back but seem unrelated, find connections and tie everything together. Doing so will reveal gaps in your worldbuilding web as well as cause you to have to think logically about what you’re creating.

For histories, I like to focus on smaller chunks rather than attempting to write a whole book about my world (I’m not quite that crazy about worldbuilding). I pick influential families, the development of a country’s government, or what caused an important war and write overviews of the events that occurred. Think of it as writing a Wikipedia article for your topic. The ones I’ve written have ended up being anywhere from ~4-10 pages double spaced, so nothing too laborious. Knowing that you can explain the history of your world in a concise and complete way is one way of knowing that you have a good grip on your setting and will be ready to convey it to your readers through your prose.

 

  • Story binders

I put this last on the list because, although it is a method I use to worldbuild, it also overlaps into other story development (character and plot) so it isn’t strictly a worldbuilding strategy. However, I love tangible organization, so creating story binders is my way of taking all the development I do and putting it into one place. You can make it as creative or plain as you want—take the maps you’ve drawn, lists you’ve made, histories you’ve written, and even pictures you’ve collected, slip them into clear protective covers, and keep them all in a binder of your choice. Keeping all your hard work in one place a) helps make sure you won’t misplace vital information and b) makes it easy for you to reference back to what you’ve created when you’re in the middle of writing and can’t remember if the coffee shop is to the left or right of the bookstore on Main Street, or if the characters will have to trek through mountains or a forest to get to the town where the treasure lies. Plus, it’s fun. It’s like scrapbooking without all of the stickers and glue, and far more practical.

Holistic Worldbuilding 101

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Unsurprisingly, worldbuilding is one of my favorite (if not most favorite) parts of the writing process. My natural inclination toward research and logic only encourages that love. But, I know that many writers—new and experienced alike—struggle with worldbuilding. Some even dislike it. I also know that countless writers have talked about how to successfully worldbuild. I’m late to the party and don’t have some new, fancy system to revolutionize your pre-writing experience. However, I have nearly ten years of experience creating settings and worlds that just might be of use to you. My hope is that my advice will spark some creativity and confidence.

Before you begin thinking about creating a story world or developing an existing setting, you need to know one thing: worldbuilding is a long process. There’s no quick way to do it well. It doesn’t matter the size of the setting, the genre of the story, or the length of the story (except, perhaps, if you’re writing children’s literature or short pieces). This is a potentially daunting and annoying fact. But the sooner you accept that a lot of time and work are needed to get results, the sooner you can get to work and create something good.

The second thing you need to know about worldbuilding is that a holistic approach is going to get you the best results. I mean “holistic” in the medical sense, which is the “care of the entire patient in all aspects of well-being, including physical, psychological, and social” (thanks, dictionary.com). This sounds complicated, but what does that mean? We’re not dealing with medicine; we’re dealing with stories. But if you take that principle—that all areas need to be addressed for wholeness—and transfer it over to your story setting, it should make sense. You need to develop all aspects of the world in order to create a whole and robust setting.

In the past, I’ve seen authors give lists of all sorts of areas to develop, from education to waste removal to natural resources, and I think that’s a wonderful idea, especially if you have no clue what to consider. However, I’ve found it hard to go down a list like that and create a cohesive storyworld. Our world is not a list of details—it’s a dynamic, multifaceted web of disciplines and systems. Just think about how impossible it would be to get a bachelor’s degree in every area of study. There are far too many areas to cover in a lifetime! Yet, when you worldbuild, you have to consider all of those elements and how those elements influence each other. Every detail is part of a bigger “ecosystem.”

How do you do that? The same way that historians, scientists, psychologists, artists, and educators go about understanding our world. Literally. All of these disciplines require building up to a multipart and nuanced view of their field. For example, historians learn how morals, religion, poverty or wealth, politics, natural landscape, culture, and technology (among other things) create change and conflict. Just like any other exploration of the world, you must ask the questions and discover with the answers.

Begin with the basics. These are often little details or hunches that are already in your story: the historical time period, the magic system, the strange creatures that lurk in the woods, or the coffee shop that your protagonist visits every Tuesday. Develop these ideas by asking “why,” “what,” and “what if.” What caused the American Civil War that your protagonist’s brother is fighting in? Why are magic users in your world required to wear very specific hats in order to harness the magic? What happens if the creatures in the forest leave the forest? This is where research is going to be your best friend—look into the literal things that are in your story or your sources of inspiration for the things that you’re making up. Learn the history of the time period, create the menu for the café, or sketch the anatomy of the forest creatures. Make the things that you already know into strong, detailed elements.

Then begin to expand, like a spider weaving its web. The elements that you develop should naturally lend to more details and more spheres of discipline. Studying about the Civil War will lead to general U.S. history, fashion of the time, social differences between the states, what food people ate, what music they played and listened to, their forms of entertainment, their architecture, the politics leading up to and after the war, what the rest of the world thought of the U.S. at the time, the history of slavery, etc. etc. Creating forest monsters will lead to learning about similar mythological or real creatures, the ecosystem of the forests where they live, what they eat, where they sleep, what their instincts are, how they relate to other creatures in their habitat, how they came into existence, how they impact the societies that live near them, etc. etc. You want to develop the history, science, education, government, culture, and society of your world in the same way you strengthened the unique starting elements of your story. Make each part of the web as strong as the next and continue expanding.

Eventually, after months of research and planning and revising, you will reach a point when your world is nearly whole. You know important history; you know the clothing they wear; you know what languages they speak; you know the strengths and weaknesses of their culture; you know what sports they play and you know what holidays they celebrate. Search for holes in your web. That’s where the lists of worldbuilding elements does come in handy, because you can make sure you’ve covered obscure details. Also continue to ask those “why” and “what” questions; consider crisis situations, probability and improbability, logic, and natural laws of the world. The more complex the questions, the more it will prompt to you make your world complex.

Continue this process until you’re satisfied. There’s no definite place to stop worldbuilding and, depending on the genre, you may feel as if you’ve mastered your world sooner or later than other writers. You know your story best—just as you know when you’ve developed your character into someone who’s dynamic and realistic, you’ll know when your world is alive enough to jump off the page. It’s better to focus on the method rather than the specifics of how you go about it. If you know how to develop the world, you’ll be able to apply those techniques and principles to each unique piece of fiction that you create. You’ll be able to adapt your specifics to fit the needs of your story, instead of following other authors who may or may not have the same goals or talents as you do. And, you’ll be able to come up with creative ways to circumvent writer’s block or fix plot holes.

Also, remember that you will need to understand your story world in far greater detail than you will ever put into your story in order for the world to feel alive and dynamic to the reader. But all the hard work you put into those details are worth it—it’s the same thing that happens when you develop characters and end up knowing them far more personally than you get to reveal through the course of your story. You have to be sure of what you’re doing because that confidence is what translates onto the page. Taking the time to worldbuild is the surest way to gain that confidence.

 

In case this process still seems too abstract for you, here’s a condensed version of my method:

  1. Begin with what’s already in your story
    1. Identify what you have to work with: history, politics, creatures, specific places, laws, magic systems, etc.
    2. Develop those elements until they’re strong and fleshed-out by asking: what, why, and what if?
  2. Look at the elements you already have and look for connections to other disciplines
    1. When you find connections, branch out and develop these new areas
    2. Connect all of the disciplines together
  3. Once your web is well-developed, look for holes
    1. Consider logical outcomes, probability, and natural laws
    2. Develop weak areas
    3. Go down your worldbuilding list and make sure you covered everything

 

Also, in case you don’t have one of your worldbuilding lists handy, here is a non-comprehensive list of things to consider when you research or develop your world (these are the things I develop during parts #2 and #3 of my method):

  1. History
    • Specific region
    • Country
    • Surrounding countries
    • Continent
    • Global
    • Wars
    • Trading history
    • Historical preservation
    • Museums
    • Monuments
    • Unsolved mysteries
  2. Science
    • Biology
    • Chemistry
    • Physics
    • Ecology
    • Genetics
    • Geology
    • Oceanography
    • Archeology
    • Psychology
    • New research
    • Animals
    • Insects
  3. Language
    • Languages spoken
    • Alphabet(s)
    • Accent(s)
    • Slang
    • Naming trends
    • Naming traditions
    • Standard greetings
    • Polite language
    • Cursing
  4. Art
    • Music genres
    • Singing
    • Musical instruments
    • Theater
    • Dance
    • Color theory
    • Painting
    • Drawing
    • Photography
    • Sculpture
    • Architecture
    • Literature
    • Folk tales
    • Fairy tales
    • Mythology
    • Poetry
    • Entertainment
  5. Industry
    • Jobs available
    • Civil service
    • Factories
    • Businesses
    • Offices
    • Level of industrialization
    • Wages
  6. Government
    • Structure
    • Citizen’s rights
    • Voting
    • Censorship
    • Political parties
    • Immigration
    • Trade deals
    • Taxes
    • Bureaucracy
    • Military
    • Disaster relief
  7. Law
    • Local law
    • Federal law
    • Judicial system
    • Court proceedings
    • Prison/jail
    • Sentencing
    • Law enforcement
    • Crime investigation
    • Criminology
    • Lawyers
    • Crime rates
    • Regulations
    • Passing laws
    • Loopholes
  8. Environment
    • Geography
    • Landscape
    • Native wildlife
    • Native plants
    • Natural resources
    • Fuel
    • Conservation
    • Maps
    • Means of travel
    • Roadways
    • Housing
    • Types of buildings
    • Neighborhoods
    • Cities
    • Urbanization
    • Natural laws
    • Cemeteries
  9. Economy
    • Denominations of money
    • Banks
    • Trade
    • Booming or recessing
  10. Technology
    • Vehicles/Transportation
    • Plumbing
    • Electricity
    • Heating/Cooling
    • Waste removal
    • Computers
    • Aircraft
    • Water purification
    • Communication
    • Medical
    • Weaponry
  11. Religion
    • Types of religion(s)
    • Morality
    • Philosophy
    • Societal norms
    • Popularity of religion(s)
    • Cults
    • Traditions/rituals
    • Worship
    • Afterlife
    • Legal regulation
  12. Family/Relationships
    • Typical family unit
    • Parental roles
    • Number of children
    • Extended family
    • Family hierarchy
    • Care for elders
    • Care for children
    • Dating/Courting
    • Engagement
    • Marriage
    • Divorce
    • Friendships
    • Siblings
    • Adoption
    • Orphan care
    • Single-parents
  13. Holidays/Celebrations
    • Religious holidays
    • National holidays
    • Birthdays
  14. Health/Medicine
    • Medical training
    • Hospitals
    • Treatments
    • Chronic illnesses
    • Crisis intervention
    • Medicine
    • Alternative medicine
    • Epidemiology
    • Most common diseases
    • Prenatal/postnatal care
  15. Food
    • Available crops
    • Agriculture
    • Traditional meals
    • Imports
    • Special treats
    • Desserts
    • Spices/herbs
    • Preservation
    • Daily diets
    • Weight loss methods
    • Restaurants
    • Beverages
  16. News/Media
    • Journalism
    • News coverage
    • Speed of news
    • Censorship
    • Technological impact
    • Weather forecasts
    • Mail systems
  17. Education
    • Schools
    • Grade levels
    • Duration of education
    • Higher education
    • Tutoring
    • Expense of education
    • Apprenticeships
  18. Fashion
    • Standards of modesty
    • Trending fashion
    • Every-day wear
    • Formal wear
    • Hairstyles
    • Makeup
    • Shoes
    • Work clothes
    • Jewelry
  19. Culture/Society
    • Cultural norms
    • Gender roles
    • Age of adulthood
    • Rights of adulthood
    • Rites of passage
    • Age of consent
    • View of wealth/poverty
    • Regional differences
    • Biases/prejudices
    • Sub-cultures
    • View of work
    • View of marriage
    • View of success
    • View of death
    • Vacations
    • Pets
    • Hobbies
    • Leisure activities
    • Organized sports
    • Organized groups
    • Time management
    • Pace of life
    • Societal vices
    • Taboo subjects

 

Next week, I’m going to share my favorite worldbuilding resources (all of which are free), so stay tuned!

Book Review: Nest (Esther Ehrlich)

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Title: Nest

Author: Esther Ehrlich

Genre(s): historical fiction, middle-grade fiction

Length: 336 pages

Published: September 9, 2014

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

2018 has been the year of unexpected reads. I decided in the winter that I was going to branch out and choose books from genres I’d never touched. Nest by Esther Ehrlich was one of the first, picked up on a fluke because (much like the protagonist) I love birds and couldn’t resist the cute cover, despite the fact that it was middle grade fiction and I’m years removed from that age. The synopsis looked promising but I had no idea that the story would be full of depth, tackle hard issues like chronic illness, mental health, and death, and handle those subjects with delicacy.

Nest is the story of the Orenstein family: Mr. Orenstein, a psychiatrist, Mrs. Orenstein, a dancer, Rachel, the elder daughter, and Naomi (called Chirp because of her love of birds), the younger daughter. They live a happy life in 1970s Cape Cod until Mrs. Orenstein falls ill and is diagnosed with MS. Unable to cope, she becomes deeply depressed, and the rest of the family has to grapple with how to handle the changes that follow.

 

Style/Voice:

Nest is written in first person, and it’s usually tricky for adult authors to capture the voice of younger protagonists. But Chirp’s voice and personality is present from the first paragraph and is not only realistic for an eleven-year-old, but also energetic and compelling enough to pull readers into her world. You don’t have to be the same age to feels as if you’re walking in her shoes and feeling what she feels. Here’s an example from the beginning of the first chapter (p. 3):

“I should have taken the shortcut home from my bird-watching spot at the salt marsh, because then I wouldn’t have to walk past Joey Morell, whipping rocks against the telephone pole in front of his house as the sun goes down. I try to sneak around him, pushing so hard against the scrub oaks on our side of the road that the branches scratch my bare legs, but he sees me.
“Hey,” he says, holding a rock and taking a step toward me. He doesn’t have a shirt on; it’s been broiling all week.
“Hey,” I say, real friendly, like I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m a girl and he’s a boy who might pop me with a rock, since he comes from a family that Dad says has significant issues.”

What I love most about Ehrlich’s style, aside from the readability, is that she uses specific details to showcase Chirp’s personality and hint at deeper meaning while maintaining the innocence a child’s perspective has. It’s clear to readers that Joey’s family is probably abusive just from the first page of the book, but Chirp mentions it with a brief statement that’s almost humorous. I can imagine a younger sibling or cousin talking the exact same way. Chirp’s voice and perspective really come into play later in the book when even more serious content is present; it gives balance to the sadness while also highlighting just how sad and real the issues are. Because I won’t tell spoilers, I can’t go into much more detail, but the prose of this story is that of someone who has a lot of skill and knows her characters well. It’s still a book aimed for middle-school age kids, so readers who want a more complex or raw style aren’t going to enjoy the prose as much as I did. However, compared to other middle-grade novels I’ve read, this one has a richer voice and easily sucks you into the story.

 

Characters:

The characterization of Nest’s cast is simple, but that isn’t to say it lacks depth or interest. The Orenstein family, at first glance, appears fairly typical: father, mother, and two daughters. But each of them has a distinct personality, background, and struggles that make logical sense within the story and make them sympathetic. Mr. Orenstein is a psychiatrist, looking at the world clinically but not without care. He struggles to deal with not being able to help his wife in her severe illness despite having worked his whole life with people who have had problems, while also struggling with how to help his daughters when they don’t want to talk to him or simply need him to be present in small moments. Mrs. Orenstein is a loving mother and incredibly vibrant before her diagnosis, but even her love for her family can’t pull her up out of depression after she loses her ability to dance. Rachel, the older sister, is a young teenager who has to begin navigating early adulthood while stepping in for her mother at home. Her anger and frustration throughout the novel is justifiable and sympathetic, instead of being cliché teenage angst.

And Chirp, who is only eleven years old when the events of the story takes place, is perhaps the most complex character (most likely because we see into her thoughts and feelings). She’s emotionally reserved but incredibly curious about the world, filled with wonder about the flora and fauna around her and often escaping into nature to deal with what’s going on in her life. As her mother grows increasingly ill, she has to learn to cope with her feelings in a way that makes sense to her, while also dealing with the frustrations that come when you’re between childhood and the teen years. Because of Ehrlich’s style of prose, the reader is sucked into Chirp’s life and able to witness her turmoil and growth—as well as the turmoil and growth of her family—through a unique perspective. In fact, the most compelling part of this story is the complex emotions that Chirp navigates as the plot unfolds.

The side characters, whether or not they appear for a short or long period of time, also feel like real people, not cardboard cut-outs standing in for a role. This is why I called the characterization of the story simple but not plain—the perspective of the novel is not one overly concerned with complex storylines, but what is present is strong. The characters may lack the intricate backstories and subplots of larger novels, but they’re compelling nevertheless. They aren’t your run-of-the-mill cast for a children’s story.

 

Plot:

The plot of this novel is character-driven, and its main focus is on the Orenstein family navigating Mrs. Orenstein’s diagnosis, deteriorating health, and changing home dynamic. At risk of giving more spoilers than I probably have, I can’t say much more. But the clean and compelling prose style paired with the interesting protagonist and point-of-view make this the sort of book you don’t want to put down. Its lack of strict plotting doesn’t mean it lacks structure; it’s a well-crafted story that almost leans literary in how it ends, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. Some may find the ending dissatisfying because of that literary element, but it is a fitting ending for the theme and tone of the novel.

 

Setting:

The setting of this novel is both a great strength and it’s only big weakness. As mentioned earlier, Chirp loves nature and particularly birds. Their location near Cape Cod provides the perfect area for her to slip away and watch the native wildlife, and many important scenes revolve around the physical places where she goes. There’s a perfect level of detail to create a vivid world while not distracting from the story. It also feels as if the author knows the area very well, so the various places that Chirp and her family visit feel meaningful and purposeful instead of disjointed. However, my only real complaint with the setting is that it doesn’t feel like a historical novel even though it’s marked as one. It’s supposedly set in the 1970s; there are some hints to it—for example, the types of clothing everyone wears or mentions of their family background since the Orensteins are Jewish—but if you aren’t paying attention it’s easy to miss them and wonder if the story is set in the 21st century. I would have liked to see more of a historical presence in the setting, but since the setting or history of the time isn’t the focus of the novel, it’s not enough to detract from the story.

 

Objectionable Content:

The book is geared for younger readers so it avoids much of any language, violent content, and sexual content. However, the book does deal with really heavy subjects: serious illness, depression, mental health institutions, suicide, death, and grief. There are also hints that a neighboring family has issues with physical abuse. The book handles all of these subjects delicately and doesn’t linger on any of the gruesome details, but readers who are sensitive to those topics should know that they are present throughout the book. It may not be suitable for some kids that are in the target age group depending on how sensitive they are.

 

Conclusion:

Nest is the type of story that is easily underestimated. The cover is peaceful and endearing; the synopsis hints at plot conflict but seems rather benign; and for an adult picking it up, it looks like a good but typical middle-grade piece of fiction. But this story packs a punch emotionally, beyond many classic and adult novels that I’ve read. This is the only book that I can remember that’s made me cry—and I cried more than once. Ehrlich handles difficult subjects with grace and precision and empathy; somewhere along the way, you forget that you’re reading a novel and get immersed in the conflicts, sorrows, and joys of the Orenstein family. This is why I wanted to review this novel, because otherwise, I doubt many readers will even hear about this book, much less pick it up and give it a chance. I highly recommend that you do, and I easily give Nest five stars.

Humility: The Secret to Meaningful Critiques

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There comes a point in every writer’s life when you turn your work over to someone, waiting with your heartbeat drumming in your ears to hear what they think—only to have them crush your hopes with a heavy dose of criticism. Sometimes it’s gentle but clear disinterest; sometimes it’s grammar nit-picking; sometimes it’s a rant about what they would do if it were their story; sometimes it’s a grocery list of all the things that aren’t good enough. The sting may last a few hours or may cripple your self-esteem and send you on a month-long sabbatical. No matter what form it takes, pure criticism does more harm than good in the long-run.

Many writers (and artists in general) have talked about how to handle receiving criticism. One of the biggest struggles an artist faces is learning to detach themselves from their work so that criticism—whether founded or unfounded—doesn’t get under their skin. However, I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to focus on the role of the critiquer, what goes wrong in the critiquing process, and what can fix it (hint: it’s humility).

For reference, I’ve been sharing my writing and critiquing the writing of others for nearly 10 years: that includes writing swaps with friends, formal critique groups, and hosting a mini critique group of my own for about a year. The biggest problem that I’ve seen is that many critiquers begin with a mindset of self-centeredness. We’re self-interested creatures by nature. Without any correction, you’ll be focused on how the story makes you feel, how much you like a certain character, how close the story is to your favorite genre(s), and what you don’t enjoy. Yes, that includes how much bad grammar makes you mad, the character name you think is silly, and how bored you were after the first paragraph. These are good clues to start with—a potential audience isn’t going to put much thought into why the story was boring. They’ll just put the book down and not give it a second thought. But as a critiquer, you have to do more than the average reader.

The problem with simply stating your opinions and feelings on a piece is that it doesn’t help the author figure out what to do. Telling them that the first page is boring but not explaining why or offering a solution is the same as telling the author that they’re helpless to improve their story. You offer them no hope. You offer them no first step toward making it better. You tell them, indirectly, that their story is not worth fixing. Offering a critique without advice is the same as complaining about a problem but not wanting to change it. You may feel good about what you said, but the author certainly won’t.

This is why humility is so important as a critiquer. Humility takes the focus off of your own enjoyment and on to the betterment of another person. Your goal should be to help the author polish and perfect the rough parts of their story, not destroy it. You may very well have a nonsensical, poorly constructed pile of words on your hands, but what’s more likely to turn that pile into something wonderful: pointing out that the pile is ugly then leaving, or offering to help that author transform the pile into a readable and enjoyable piece? Both of them involve being honest and pointing out all of the flaws, but only one results in a better finished product.

A humble approach is also an optimistic approach. You have to envision the piece of writing in front of you as its ideal, finished product in order to help the author fix the problems. You have to get on board with the author’s vision—not your own—and determine how to best achieve that vision. You have to cheer them on and help them to remember that they’re capable of fixing what’s wrong, and to do that, you have to care more about their success than your personal satisfaction.

Even with this in mind, there’s no clear-cut way to give a “good critique,” especially since every writer wants something different out of the experience. Some writers have thicker skin than others; some are at different phases of their work and need different types of feedback; and sometimes, neither party is going to be happy with the results of the critique. However, my rule of thumb is to always clarify their expectations and offer clear advice for improvement for every area that’s lacking. Focus more on their goals than your preferences. Treat the art you’ve been entrusted with as if it were your own. If you approach critiquing with the author’s and story’s betterment in mind, you’re going to give them a meaningful critique that won’t leave them sitting in the rubble of their story, no matter how frank you are. And, in the end, you’ll get far more enjoyment in co-creating something beautiful than in voicing your own opinions.

How Genre Gave Me Confidence

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Did you know that “family saga” is a genre of literature? I didn’t until last month when a research project sent me looking into the world of literary agents and I saw it listed as one of the genres a particular agent was interested in. It was the quintessential “light bulb” moment for me. I’ve been writing variations of family sagas for years, but didn’t have a way to describe what I wrote. To say I was excited would have been an understatement.

See, I’ve spent most of my serious writing life as a “not-quite-this-genre” writer. My old childhood novel was dystopian, but it’s not that kind of dystopian. At one point I described one of my novels as a sci-fi murder mystery, which still wasn’t completely accurate. I’ve written stories (mostly short stories) that are just one or two genres, but when it came to my larger aspirations, it was like I was describing a pile of sundry items that would eventually come together into a legitimate and interesting story.

It also seemed, of course, that no other writer I knew had this problem. People wrote fascinating characters, tried out unique formats, and decided to forgo traditional storytelling rules—but all within genres that were well-known and well-loved. They had friends who also wrote genres they loved; they garnered lots of fans who would pick up their story because of the genre posted at the top of the description; they recommended new books that fell into their favorite genres, and those books became popular. But then there was my string of adjectives—where did it belong? Or, rather, where did I belong? I never felt ashamed of what I loved to write, but I didn’t want to feel isolated either.

That’s where genre came in: first learning the difference between literary and commercial fiction, and then finding out about family sagas. From what I understand, literary fiction focuses on the art or theme of the story while commercial fiction focuses on the characters and readability of the story. Neither one is inherently bad or lesser than the other—their goals and focuses are simply different. But I had spent years attempting to fit myself into the category of commercial fiction when all along I wanted to write literary fiction. I felt out of place because I was, but I had put myself in that position by not exploring the possibilities.

I realized that many of my favorite stories were literary; I realized that there was a whole world of literature from all time periods that I had never tapped into; and I realized that “literary” was the key word missing from my list of adjectives. The category of “literary fiction” was like a box to put all of my sundry adjectives in. Once I didn’t feel the pressure to write like other authors I saw, I felt free to pursue a different path. And, I was free to love commercial fiction for what it was meant to be instead of what I wished it was. The angst I had felt, even around my writer friends, disappeared.

Then I happened upon the term “family saga” during that research project I mentioned at the beginning of the post. My curiosity was piqued—it sounded so familiar, but why hadn’t I heard of it before? One Google search and I realized that I’d found the missing item for my collection. I had been writing family sagas or variations of the genre for years, but had always described it like if you took a television drama and put it down in book form. Now, I not only had an easy way to describe it to others, but I had examples to show them too.

However, I learned something far more substantial throughout this genre journey—even if I hadn’t found genres that fit my stories, my stories were still valid and interesting. I had been too caught up in comparing myself to other writers and had bought into the lie that what I was creating wasn’t good enough because a few people around me didn’t want the same thing. But that clearly isn’t true. It’s pure silliness and pride to look at a world brimming with art and filled with history and think I’m the only one who likes a certain thing. That was made clear to me when I found the genres that I love most and saw how many other people loved them too.

One of my favorite writing quotes is by C. S. Lewis: “Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else.” The popularity or conventions of a genre aren’t what make a good story—the passion and joy of the author does. In fact, a good story crosses over genres. So the genres that I found and love so dearly now are not names to drop, badges to display, or labels to divide the good stories from the bad ones. They are tools to help us understand the stories we have. They are seeds of camaraderie. They are reminders that we aren’t alone.

Finding my genres gave me confidence—now it’s my job to use them as tools to grow my writing journey.

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)

 

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Since this is the first book review for my blog, I’m going to describe what kind of reviews I plan to write. First, I promise to avoid as many spoilers as I can—I’m not a book critic and the purpose of my reviews is to give potential readers a better understanding of what they might be getting into, not to dissect the stories for learning purposes. Perhaps I’ll save that sort of analysis for a later time. Second, I’m dividing the review into sections to make it easier to read and to make it easier to find the information that’s most pertinent to you. And third, I aim to keep the tone of my reviews positive, even if I review books that I disliked. So, with that out of the way, let’s get started!

 

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Author: Amor Towles
Genre(s): historical fiction, literary fiction, Russian fiction
Length: 480 pages
Published: September 6, 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

 

Overview:

“He can’t leave. You won’t want to.”

These are the opening words of the cover-flap synopsis of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. The synopsis, along with the beautiful cover art, was enough to entice me to give this book a try and put that claim to the test.

Spoiler: it’s very true.

A Gentleman in Moscow is set in 1922 in Moscow, Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. The protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel because he “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class” (p. 5). In other words, not even the rebellious poem he wrote before the Revolution can cover up his aristocratic blood. He’s moved from his posh hotel room to a cramped little alcove in the attic, his plethora of possessions are whittled down to only what will fit in the room, and then is left to settle into a life far, far away from any area of influence. Once the initial thrill wears off and monotony sets in, can the Count find meaning in a world where he no longer has a place? That question is explored and answered throughout the next thirty years of the Count’s life at the Metropol.

 

Style/Voice:

I was skeptical at first about Towles’ writing style—not so much because I found it hard to read, but that it’s hard to settle into new writing styles when I’m used to novels written in the 19th century. However, the style captivated me for two reasons. First, the author opens the novel not just with one unique format, but two: a poem penned by the protagonist, then the court report from the Count’s trial. The rest of formatting is also unconventional and very cool, such as:

  • The book is divided into five “books” along with an afterword
  • Each chapter name begins with the letter “A” (I’m amazed that Towles was able to come up with so many clever titles)
  • Footnotes are scattered throughout the book, where events are better explained or attention to drawn to small details

Second, the 3rd person point-of-view is far more personal and boisterous than I expected. As soon as I settled into the flow of sentences, I felt as if it were the Count talking to me, not the author describing events and feelings. Here’s an example from page 109 of the book:

“At five o’clock on the twenty-first of June, the Count stood before his closet with his hand on his plain gray blazer and hesitated. In a few minutes, he would be on his way to the barbershop for his weekly visit, and then to the Shalyapin to meet Mishka, who would probably be wearing the same brown jacket he’d worn since 1913. As such, the gray blazer seemed a perfectly suitable choice of attire. That is, until one considered that it was an anniversary of sorts—for it had been one year to the day since the Count had last set foot outside of the Metropol Hotel.”

Doesn’t that paragraph sing? To me it sounds as if someone is sitting across from you, sipping coffee and telling you a story. The voice of the prose made even the most mundane scenario from the Count’s life vibrant and enjoyable. But, if you’re going to dislike something about the prose, it’s going to be that very same personality. The author reuses similar phrasing over and over again. For instance, “that is to say” pops up as a way to begin a sentence more than a handful of times. But I found the repetition more endearing the more I read because, as I mentioned earlier, it sounded like an old friend who has a catchphrase or two. I don’t think it overpowers the energy and skill of the prose.

 

Characters:

The inside of the book cover describes the characters of this novel as a “glittering cast,” and although I hate gaudy descriptions, I yet again agree with the synopsis. The characters are one of the best parts of the story. Reading this novel felt less like reading and more like watching a movie where everyone, even the lady dusting counters in the background, is played by award-winning actors.

The protagonist, who’s almost always called the Count, is more than the typical charismatic aristocrat in every 1920s period drama (although he’s about as charismatic as you can find). The reader gets to watch him grow over the course of three decades, test his perceptions of the world, face challenges he never anticipated, find new adventures, and struggle with the natural progression of age. He is faced with physical limitations, restlessness, political danger, and most of all, the lingering question of purpose. He is a friend to many but known closely by few, which puts him in the perfect position to meet the new guests and employees of the hotel as well as butt heads with them. His charm and confidence in his wide array of knowledge gets time to shine and time to be put in its place. What I found most amusing about his characterization was how the Count’s perception of himself is contrasted with how he truly is, or how others perceive him—he thinks himself an adventurer, at ease with people, charming, and always ready to think of his feet, yet he still clings to his traditions and has a hard time admitting that he could become set in his ways. It was hard for me to not be fond of him even when I didn’t agree with his morals and choices.

The same is true about the side characters. None of them are known as intimately as the Count but are just as bright and alive on the page. Unlikely relationships and friendships abound, reinforced by the centralized setting and the wide variety of the Metropol guest list. By the end of the novel I met a temperamental head chef (Emile), a calm and skilled restaurant manager (Andrey), an inquisitive daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat (Nina), a cunning actress (Anna), an American diplomat (Richard), a reserved orphan girl (Sofia), an anal-retentive hotel manager (the Bishop), a kind and motherly seamstress (Marina), a revolutionary poet and childhood friend (Mishka)—and that’s just the beginning. It seems like a lot, but Towles manages to make each of them distinctive and memorable despite being one in a crowd.

However, the downside of such a large cast is that it was sometimes unclear about which characters needed to be remembered. All of the Russian names of the hotel staff were hard to keep track of at the beginning, and some characters who seem important turn out not to be by the end. But even so, I enjoyed the variety of the cast and how the author presented them as people instead of vessels for ideologies. They all come from different walks of life and philosophies, and all of their perspectives, motivations, and experiences seem accurate for that era in history. I’m no Russian history buff, so I’m not certain how accurate it truly is, but I appreciated being able to immerse myself into that time period, draw my own conclusions, and not be told who to agree with. The author also does a good job of creating bright characters and showing the beauty of life while contrasting it with the horrors that Russians endured during that period of history. Neither mood is overbearing, and that balanced approach helped me become attached to Count Rostov and his makeshift hotel family. Their strong characterizations power the conflict of the novel.

 

Plot:

This story is, naturally, more character-driven than plot-driven—which means I have less to say in this section than the previous one. Nevertheless, the plot is strong, keeps a good pace, and doesn’t feel haphazard or directionless like other character-driven novels. Plot twists are well done when they occur, pacing is skillful (I could hardly put the book down), and tension builds in all the right places, especially at the end. The novel concludes without everything being wrapped up neatly like most literary novels, but unlike other stories in this genre it ends on a hopeful note.

 

Setting:

Towles’ style naturally lends to a setting that’s tangible to the reader. The level of detail is reminiscence of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, in that it makes history vivid and personal instead of distant and textbook-ish. Having the novel set in one location for (nearly) the entirety of the story not only creates interesting relationships but also a sense of normalcy for the reader and grounds the otherwise overwhelming cast of characters. The Metropol becomes home just as it does for the Count.  Plus, the reader gets to enjoy small history and cultural lessons while they’re following the characters around in their daily lives—by the end I had learned quite a lot about how to run a hotel and the Russian government. The level of detail that goes into painting the setting may be agitating and feel unnecessary for some; but in my opinion, the author doesn’t get too far into setting the scene that he neglects the characterization, plot, or purpose of why the scene is there. In fact, the important details throughout the story are far more impressive than they are distracting—the amount of research that Towles conducted before writing this novel is apparent and pays off in the end.

 

Objectionable Content:

I was very impressed with the low level of sexual and language content in this novel—very few parts of the story felt like they didn’t belong. Sexual content is there, clearly, as the Count has an on-again/off-again relationship with one of the female characters, but the detail is limited, mostly left to the imagination, or easy to skip if you don’t want to bother with anything close to scandalous. Language is also there, but doesn’t distract from the story. Many characters drink alcohol on a regular basis and characters get drunk multiple times. Violence is also dotted throughout the novel, but isn’t heavy and not described in great detail. It exists more because the historical context is naturally very heavy and violent instead of it being used as a story device—most likely because the subject and tone of the novel keeps it from becoming overwhelming. Also, there is mention of suicide and a planned suicide, but the character doesn’t go through with it in the end.

 

Conclusion:

No book is perfect. Looking back on A Gentleman in Moscow, there are characters that I lost track of and still don’t understand their importance, and foreshadowing that didn’t quite add up. The prose style and added footnotes will not be something that everyone likes. I found the Count and the rest of the cast of characters endearing, but can see how others may find those same quirks and flaws agitating. Some clichés, especially with the Count’s personality and some later plot events, do pop up. And if literary fiction isn’t your cup of tea, you may not enjoy the ending since it’s decidedly open. However, I immensely enjoyed this book and finished it in a matter of two days despite having a packed schedule. I didn’t want to leave the characters or the Metropol behind, but they left me with a glimmer of hope in my mind and the feeling that I had experienced a rich and whirlwind lifetime in the span of a few hours. I’m glad that I gave a modern novel a try, because otherwise I wouldn’t have found this gem.

I easily give A Gentleman in Moscow 5 stars.

 

Active vs. Passive Perfectionism

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I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer, much less any artist, who doesn’t struggle with perfectionism.  In fact, I know few people outside of those categories who don’t have a bout of perfectionism every now and again.  But despite how many people struggle with this problem, I’ve never met a perfectionist who’s conquered their perfectionism.

I haven’t, either, but I’ve started to conquer it.

I’ve been a perfectionist since I was young: taking painstaking hours to make sure the details of my art projects were perfect and symmetrical, proofreading my school assignments at least four times before turning them in, triple-checking my science and math exams, and having a keen eye for when an outfit, room, or space was off aesthetically. Not to mention the tendency to critique everyone and everything in sight.

Of course, that also means that I’ve wrestled with anger over grades that were lower than 100%, shame because of less-than-sparkling reviews of my work, disappointment with stories and social events that overpromised, and discouragement over the quality of my writing that lasted for days, weeks, or sometimes months. For all perfectionism “gifts,” it always burdens ten-fold.

I never thought I would conquer the pitfalls of perfectionism. For years, I had lamented the frustrations of always desiring excellence, setting impossible self-standards, and falling into procrastination in the face of imperfection to many artist friends—often with laughter in a “you feel my pain, don’t you?” way. Those artist friends laughed with me, clearly empathizing with my problems. But we always ended on a note of defeat. Nothing would ever be good enough, so what else can you do but chuckle and suffer through it?

Well, if you think of yourself as a victim to your perfectionist whims, of course there’s nothing to do but suffer through it. That, or try to beat the perfectionism out of yourself by repeating the “first drafts are always bad” mantra over and over again. I tried both approaches and ended up frustrated and just as discouraged as when I started. There’s only so many times a perfectionist can try ignore their nature before giving up all together (what’s the point of creating something purposefully lackluster, after all?).

That’s because perfectionism, like any other personality trait, cannot be stamped out when it’s part of your nature—but you can’t let it run loose and expect it to behave, either. You must accept it, then train it: just like a stubborn child learns to funnel their stubbornness into something like leadership, passion, and integrity instead of selfishness and foolhardiness, or a sensitive child learns to funnel their sensitivity into compassion, empathy, and tenderness instead of being offended all the time. Only then can weaknesses be conquered and strengths be given the space to shine. That is why I started calling this new, matured perfectionism “active perfectionism.” No more following instincts on a whim and feeling as if you can’t do anything about it—you take control of the negative parts and work them out of your system until you’ve mastered them. You look at the world with curiosity and hope for improvement, not despair when you don’t reach the goal.

Instead of looking at the rough draft from the night before and lamenting over how horrible it is, an active perfectionist takes note of every area that could use improvement then figures out how to improve it. They see mistakes and imperfections not as personal failings, but as opportunities to learn, grow, and do better next time.

Instead of being afraid of failing or as if failing is inevitable, an active perfectionist is confident that they can create something they’re happy with because they recognize that perfection is a process more than a product. If they’re willing to put in the work, they know they can get the results, and they keep reminding themselves that they are capable when doubt creeps in.

Instead of finding something wrong with everything in the world, an active perfectionist knows that humility is more important than personal tastes. They balance their own feelings with objective standards of measurement, and always strive to build up the weak areas around them through constructive feedback, not negativity.

An active perfectionist gets things done, does them well, and has fun while doing them. What perfectionist wouldn’t want that instead of wavering self-doubt, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction?

I say all this while still struggling to master being active with my perfectionist tendencies. I still feel self-conscious and discouraged about my writing. I still find fault all around me. But I find it much easier to take negative feedback. I have more joy in my stories than I did two or three years ago. I’m motivated to work every day on my writing, even if that means a little bit of outlining here or a little research over there. I don’t feel as frustrated when I don’t get 100% or first place. I’m not embarrassed by my old work. I choose to see beauty in the world instead of falling into cynicism (and I’m catching myself when I do fall into it). And it’s so much easier for me to get back on track when I do slip into procrastination. I feel capable of becoming the writer that I want to be instead of trapped in what I always thought was mediocrity. I’m no longer a victim of perfection.

I may not have conquered passive perfectionism yet, but I’m on my way—and, after all, that’s the whole point.