Tag Archives: reading as a writer

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.

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Re-reading a Classic: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Today in Minnesota, our weather resembles an Alabama summer day. The Finches would recognize this kind of weather and the storms that follow it. While re-reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I was aware of the weather that she described, especially during the summer. They didn’t have air conditioning in 1935 in Alabama. No one moved very fast when the sun floated high in the summer sky, the temperature was north of 90, and the humidity interfered with normal evaporation. But children seem unaffected by weather extremes, especially the children in Lee’s novel.

The first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I was only a little older than Scout Finch. At that time, I was also under the influence of the movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We had gone as a family to see the movie, and afterward my parents allowed me to read the novel, one of the first adult novels I’d read. In my young mind, I wanted Atticus to be my father, Jem my brother, and I wanted to be Scout. As a family we talked about the movie, but I didn’t talk about the book with anyone. Talking about it could dilute its power I thought.

Reading Lee’s novel as an adult and a writer is a much different experience.  From the first sentence I was acutely aware of the distinctive narrative voice Lee created to tell this story. I knew immediately that it was an adult Scout although there is no clue as to how old she is when she’s telling the story. There’s also no clue as to her audience. So it is as if she’s speaking directly to me as the reader. This technique was pure brilliance for this particular story. It gave Lee the opportunity to scrutinize the adult world of that time and place through an intelligent child’s eyes, one sensitive to her brother’s moods and curious about everything and everyone. Jean Louise, “Scout,” Finch is by far one of those memorable characters that can follow a reader for years after completing the novel.

Atticus is another. Far from perfect — and Scout notes his imperfections when she notices them — he’s a man who’s a single father at a time that would have been unusual, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to marry again anytime soon. This was something I loved about him this time around. He stands up to his sister and anyone else who would try to tell him how to lead his life or suggest that it was time he marry again. And I loved the way he defended Calpurnia — the only mother Scout had ever known — as well as treated her with the utmost respect. When I was a kid, I thought Atticus was about as far different from my own father as any two people could get. But on this reading, I realized that they actually shared a similar philosophy about relating to others. With my father, that philosophy actually hid his deep prejudices from public view.

My favorite scenes in this book have followed me from childhood until now. The first is the scene of a conversation Scout has with Atticus on their front porch in the evening of a day that has been particularly trying for Scout at school. Atticus explains to Scout the notion of empathy — imagining yourself in another person’s skin and his life to understand his point of view better. Another is the extended scene of the mad dog when Calpurnia calls Atticus home to deal with it and how surprised Scout and Jem are at their father’s hidden talent. You can live with someone and still not know everything about him or her. The scene in front of the jail at midnight when Atticus guards Tom Robinson from a potential lynch mob, and Scout, Jem, and Dill show up to protect Atticus. The school scene when the children are back in school after Tom Robinson’s trial and Cecil Jacobs does a current events report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany. The teacher, without a hint of irony, explains to the class that it’s wrong to persecute the Jews and it would not happen in America because America is a democracy, and the persecution comes from being prejudiced against the Jews, and just how wrong it is to be prejudiced against anyone in America because America is a democracy. What a sly writer Harper Lee was! And to this day, I still see a very young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, standing in the corner of Jem’s room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons via MGN

Harper Lee’s writing inspired me to work hard at my own writing during the last two weeks. It has made me take special notice of the narrative voice I’ve chosen for different pieces, and how I’ve created the tone of the work. It’s made me think about how she accomplished the scenes she included and why she structured them the way she did. But the most important effect of this novel on me from this reading is feeling a kinship with Harper Lee as a writer, understanding what she probably went through during the writing process, and admiring and respecting this inspiring novel all the more.

BOOK REVIEW: “Our Blue Earth” by Richard Carr

In December of 2014, I wrote my last review of Richard Carr’s poetry. Earlier this year, I learned that not one but two new collections of poetry by Richard Carr had been published. Both were available at Amazon where I purchased them. The first, Our Blue Earth, I’ll review today. The second, Fitzpatrick, I’ll review at a later date.

The first thing that startled me about Our Blue Earth was the cover: a large black crow regarding me as if daring me not to read the book and what might happen if I didn’t. Crows also appear often in the poems, sometimes as part of the scenery but most often as what I took to be an ominous descriptor of something — a dream, a voice, a place as in “crow territory.”

That night in my old bed/in the old house I dream/of this: A crow/standing on the top of a telephone pole/throws back his head. There is no sound.

The “blue earth” of the title has a double meaning of sorts. The first meaning of the town of Blue Earth in southern Minnesota, or the county of Blue Earth in Minnesota. It is a county of prairie and farms, and farms and farming figure prominently in this collection; and where Richard Carr grew up. But “blue earth” could also be our planet, known as “blue” earth (or blue marble) thanks to NASA photos.

The poems inside focus on Blue Earth, Minnesota, but I read them as being also about planet earth, about humanity in a larger sense. I don’t know if Carr intended that. As a writer, I know that readers bring so much more to a piece of writing collectively than what the author or poet brings alone.

Carr in his dedication calls the poems in this collection “persona” poems. What does that mean? I think it means that the pronoun “I” that he uses in the majority of the poems does not refer to Carr himself, but to a separate narrator “I,” giving distance to what “I” experiences in the poems. I was startled by Carr’s use also of “we” and especially “you” in the poem “Asked to Recall” — the only poem in the collection that pronoun appears as the subject. Carr also steps way back in a couple poems, writing about “the boy.” While these poems are not personal in the sense that they are about Carr, he must draw on his experience growing up on a farm in Blue Earth, his family, and his departure and returns. One way of examining a life is by creating a persona to inhabit that life which is what I think Carr is doing in these poems. As a result, he also pulls the reader  deeper into the poems, giving the “I” to the reader, or addressing the reader as “you” or including the reader in the “we.”

These poems inhabit an unsentimental place where memory can be dark, gritty, and sour. Nature exists and just is rather than being either benevolent or evil. Life goes on no matter what happens. Carr’s images startle, haunt, and provoke — “a wizened politburo of crows,” “a feather of mist passes on the water,” or “night hauls its groggy paunch across the plains.” My favorite poem in this collection is a lovely sonnet, “Serpent Wind.” Carr manages to take something as common as wind and make it into something truly creepy:

A steady west wind slithers in the screen,/pulls through the open window, flex and glide,/a careful snake, a voiceless hiss, unseen/except the sleepy curtains move aside.

Sorrow lives in Blue Earth, as does confusion, resentment, disbelief, and acceptance. I would call this collection probably as close as Carr may come to writing personal poems, i.e. poems about himself and his experience and acknowledging them as such. But if you’d like to explore a different world from your own and feel like it is in fact yours, I highly recommend Richard Carr’s Our Blue Earth.

Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.

 

Obstacles and Creating Suspense in Fiction, or “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

book-cover-doomsday-bookWhat would it be like to travel back in time in Oxford, England to the Middle Ages? A young historian finds out in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The “present” is December 2054. The young historian, Kivrin Engle, is to be sent back to December 1320, a time deemed relatively safe by the powers that be in the history department at Oxford. Two sections of that department are involved in this project: Medieval and Twentieth Century, the latter because they’ve had more experience doing time travel, and have more experienced techs to operate the “net,” the mechanism for the time travel.  What could possibly go wrong?

When I began reading this novel, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was reading it on the recommendation of several friends. The time travel aspect really intrigued me. And then, the medical detective story surprised and delighted me.  What truly fascinated me, especially as a writer, was how Willis used obstacles to build and maintain suspense throughout her story.

Structure first: It is a 3-act dramatic narrative structure with two distinct threads contributing to it. The first chapter is the set-up or first act. The second act lasts until about the last chapter overall, but there are also climaxes for each of the medical stories.  So, there is the overall time-traveling story that alternates between 2054 and the Middle Ages, and two sub-stories regarding medical issues, one a virus, the other a bacterium. There is Kivrin the protagonist, and then there is Mr. Dunworthy, the point of view character and protagonist in 2054.  What do they each want? Once Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, her primary goal is to find “the drop,” i.e. the place where she arrived. The first obstacle in her way is falling ill when she shouldn’t have fallen ill.  Once Kivrin has left 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there was some kind of problem with the drop. He spends the rest of the book trying to find out what went wrong, why, and how to rescue Kivrin.

manor-middle-ages

Manor in the Middle Ages

The obstacles: In the Middle Ages, Kivrin starts out being so ill she’s delirious and hallucinating. She speaks modern English which the people who find and care for her don’t understand. She must overcome their suspicions about her and gain their trust. She must fix her inner translator so she can begin by speaking Middle English. She’s cared for by a noble family and a parish priest. They believe her to be from France, of a noble family because of her clothing, and that she had been attacked and robbed on the road. Once she begins to recover, her translator kicks in, and she learns about her rescue. She realizes that she must find the location of the drop so she’ll be able to return to 2054. She believes the nobleman’s prive knows the location because he found her and brought her to the village and their manor house. She spends most of the rest of the book trying to either find him or talk with him. The customs of the Middle Ages, especially those governing the behavior of men and women, and the way people communicated, stand in her way. The matriarch of the manor stands in her way. And then the children stand in her way. And then she discovers that something had gone wrong with the drop, and a dangerous bacterium threatens to stand in her way. Each of the obstacles arises organically from the time, the people, or the customs. Kivrin’s focus on finding the drop keeps the pressure on and increases the suspense.

doomsdaybook

The obstacles: In 2054, the first obstacle to Mr. Dunworthy is that the tech who did the drop falls deathly ill with a mysterious virus. That virus needs to be identified, and then the source of it identified, in order for the doctors to be able to treat it effectively.  Arising out of this obstacle, Medieval’s head, Mr. Gilchrist, refuses to let Dunworthy back into their time travel laboratory because Gilchrist is afraid the virus came through the net from the Middle Ages. Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, the Oxford area is quarantined by the government which restricts the movement of supplies and people into Oxford. As a result, the quarantine becomes a major obstacle to Dunworthy — the phones don’t work well, travelers are detained and must be housed and fed, techs outside of Oxford for the Christmas holiday refuse to return, and the sick tech is too sick to tell Dunworthy what the problem was with the drop. Poor Dunworthy. Wracked with guilt about Kivrin, pushed and pulled this way and that by the people in and around the University, all he wants is to get into the lab, solve the problem and get Kivrin back.

By writing in close to each protagonist’s point of view and mind, the reader witnesses the chaos of emotion within them as well as their thoughts. This also contributes to the suspense. There were times I began to feel some irritation at Willis for having Dunworthy or Kivrin keep repeating themselves about their goals, but that just enhanced the pressure of the obstacles thwarting them. When Dunworthy falls ill, all looks lost.

What a wonderful example of a novel for creating and maintaining suspense! And what a riveting story. I loved the characters, I loved the humor that Willis injected into the very serious situations, and I loved the emotional release that the ending provided. A masterwork of fiction that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading speculative fiction, time travel stories, historical fiction, or medical detection stories.  Bravo, Connie Willis.