I’ve been reading Emily Croy Barker’s “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic” at the moment and something in the way that she describes her heroine’s pursuit of magical abilities got me thinking about honing my own craft: writing. In
a lot of ways, hunched over my favourite novels time and again feels like learning from master wizards.
Like Barker’s protagonist, Nora, who spends days hunched over old magical textbooks and rejoices in her abilities to mend a broken pot, I feel like the process of crafting a good story is equally as slow, but just as rewarding as if any real magic has been produced.
The delight of creating a phrase that conveys just the right emotion feels like pure magic. A scene that translates words into experience is alchemy. Apart from allowing the critical part of the brain to take some control during edits, I like to think that there is some magic to learning just the right turn of phrase.
Here is a list of my current five favourite writing resource books, in case you are in need of inspiration on your quest for your own literary magic:
I was surfing the net instead of editing my latest writing project when I came across a long list of clichésnot to include in submissions for a particular literary magazine. It was a pretty long list, including ideas like “twins separated at birth meet accidentally and fulfil a destiny,” “spunky female heroine who dresses as a boy” or “vampires as tragic romantic figures.” I get it, I do. Clichés…overdone. I mean, hey, Stephanie Meyer kind of did vampires to death and the whole wizard/magical doorway thing has been told in a lot of stories. Except…I still kind of like clichés.
Dude Looks Like a Lady
When I think about all of the stories that I liked as a kid, they all had some element of clichéin them. One of my favourite series of all time is Tamora Pierce‘s Lioness and Wild Magic series which are all about the spunky heroines. All of the Meg Cabot books have a heroine with something to say too. In a way, I think Pierce’s books are/were groundbreaking, except that the idea of girls dressing like boys to achieve a goal isn’t exactly new. Shakespeare used it in The Merchant of Venice and it probably wasn’t even his idea first.
If these story ideas have been around this long, they must have some merit, right? What about music? There are some songs that get redone over and over again simply because they have pleasing chord progressions. (I.e. The Piano Guys’ version of “Let it Go” is a particularly spectacular example of a cover that rocks). In a way, subverting a clichéis just the literary version of doing a mashup. Since mashups are pretty popular out there, I have to ask:
What’s the big deal with clichés?
Wizards are the New Vamps
If you haven’t already read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, it might just blow your mind. I’m noticing a trend lately that stories that use familiar elements from childhood books like Narnia and Harry Potter are making a huge comeback. On the one hand, you could argue that these authors are in a way telling the same story over again from a slightly different perspective. In The Magicians, Quentin has a somewhat similar experience to Harry Potter in that he attends a wizard school. SPOILER ALERT: he even visits a Narnia-like place. For all intents and purposes, Quentin is a hero who goes through a magical doorway after learning some magic and has lots of adventures that involve magical beings.
Would you call Grossman’s story clichéd? (I’m sure some a-hole out there has said it).
But here’s the thing. When done well, clichéscan be powerful stuff. Take Rainbow Rowell’s new book, Carry On. Not only does it have a Hogwarts-esque wizarding boarding school, but there is also some vampire romance and a lot of mythical creatures. Some might say there’s a whole lot of clichéfantasy elements in this book, but Rowell finds a way to make these popular ideas different and fresh.
I think what differentiates between literary awesomeness and boring cliches boils down to this: it’s how you use it that matters.
Is it possible for a clichéto come back into fashion, kind of like bell bottoms and that heinous acid wash denim has?
Everybody’s Doing It
There’s a theory floating around out there that there are only seven basic plots. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but it’s something that I think about a lot. As a writer, I’m always trying to write something different. Something unique. Except, if there really are only seven basic plots, then one could argue that there are only a finite number of stories to be told.
Maybe we tell stories and keep on employing clichés they hold some sort of cultural meaning or value? Maybe, we shouldn’t give vampires and wizards and spunky heroines so much trouble. After all, they’re just here to tell a good story.
I like to think that eating healthy is a personal goal. It’s right up there with getting more sleep, making it to the gym and trying desperately not to eat that pan of brownies that is currently beckoning to me from the freezer.
Confession: I already ate half the pan of brownies.
It was while I was feeling insanely guilty about that half-pan of brownies that I started to think about the language of diets in North America.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
If we want our bodies to be “pure,” we do “a cleanse,” a sort of baptism for our innards. We want our lettuce to be natural, organic, and well, green. We shop at Whole Foods and avoid the Dirty Dozen. It’s all very wholesome. Sometimes, we even have to battle the sugar demon.
While I have wondered if throwing holy water on those brownies and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” would make the sugar cravings stop, I’m not totally convinced.
In a lot of ways, it seems like the language of clean eating has invoked some religious connotations, whether its proprietors meant to or not. Our notions of healthy vs. not healthy have been wrapped up in a larger narrative of clean vs. dirty, as if eating that stupid banana (instead of the brownies) will absolve us of our dietary sins.
The Food Narrative
In our attempts to ward off these diseases, the narrative of food has become steeped in religious imagery. From a linguistic point of view, clean eating bases its ideas on eating foods that make the body pure and clean. The message implies that if you eat the cleanest food possible and make your body like a temple, you will save yourself from the hellfire of disease.
Okay, enough ranting for today. I’m off to gnaw on a piece of celery.
I have always written slowly, first in a notebook, poring over my scenes until I am sure that they are well polished and later on the computer. The whole process of piecing together a story always drove me a little nuts (can you drive yourself nuts?) My inner perfectionist was constantly holding back the more productive parts of my brain. So when I happened upon this article in the New York Times, I began to wonder which process is better: fast or slow?
In this age of instant entertainment, is the slow writing process still relevant?
If Robert Heinlein Says So…
1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
This is the advice that Sci-fi guru Robert Heinlein once wrote. It’s not new advice. In fact, it’s been kicking around the e-verse for a good long while. In some ways, I can see how this advice is still relevant for the digital age. Sites like Wattpad and other online reading sites certainly promote a faster writing process, but do they warrant the quality that goes along with the quantity?
Binge Readers Anonymous
Recently, I’ve been obsessed with a new Jonathan Strauss series, Lockwood & Co. Luckily, Strauss has been cranking out the latest instalments of the series out pretty quickly, about several months apart. I should also point out that Lockwood & Co. is a fantastic series. Strauss isn’t the only author doing this either–Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation series is another prime example.
While I might have been tempted to pooh pooh the whole fast-writing phenomenon, I kind of love it. Who doesn’t want to find out what happens in their favourite book series ASAP? I know I do. And there’s nothing more infuriating than a writer who puts out an awesome first book in a series and then just never finishes the series… (*ahem* Jasper Fforde, I’m looking at you, friend.)
Since it is so easy to access entertainment online, it makes me wonder if this new trend has to do with the fact that our consumption of TV and movies is on average more of a binge-watching experience. I could probably reminisce about the days of yore when people actually had to wait for a certain night to watch their favourite show, but I’m not that old and some people probably still do that.
So, here’s the thing: I can totally see how this fast-moving, binge-reading trend could continue. I could get on that bandwagon.
I write really really slowly, so that bandwagon might just run me over.
Motherhood of the Travelling Diaper, Or No Time to Write (Among Other Things)
It was while jiggling my son on my knee whilst also attempting to use the bathroom (all the while a creepy clown melody from some evil toy echoing across the hallway) that I realized I was a mother. I mean, it’s not like I was like “oh look, I have a baby,” but let’s just say that it was one of those defining moments.
Several weeks passed before I showered, slept or wrote.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for slow progress. The day that my son first lifted his head (after several weeks of physio) I began to think that maybe there was something to this baby steps thing. For a newbie parent, it’s kind of comforting to think about things as taking some time to develop. Watching my son wake up to the world around him has made me understand something about my own writing:
Slowing down and living in the moment means that we appreciate it more. Maybe we don’t know how the story will go just yet, but in that moment, the clarity that comes with slowing down is worth everything.
Oh, and Jasper Fforde, if you’re out there, I’ll forgive you for taking an eternity to finish writing Shades of Grey Two.
What do you think? Are you a fan of book series that are quickly produced? Or is good reading still worth the wait?
Without even thinking about it, 2014 has just about slipped by. It’s been a pretty eventful year. Between new jobs, popping out a baby, and new writing projects I’ve hardly thought about what 2015 will bring. So here’s a list of all of the things I probably won’t do…
1. Eat Kale
2. Like Kale
3. Read many nutritional pamphlets
4. Smile at small dogs in coats
5. Disagree (loudly, vehemently) with strangers about the weather
6. Listen to books on tape (what is this? the 1980’s)
7. Grow a lady-mustache
8. Interpretive dance my way down the sidewalk
9. Grow a mullet
10. Be more accepting of loud breathers
11. Mimic loud breathers less
12. Stand in health section of book stores with a box of 12 donuts
13. Chew louder than others at food court
14. Sneeze competitively
15. Train an ant circus
16. Speak in iambic pentameter on Shakespeare’s birthday
17. Correct pronunciation of supervisor
18. Find the cure for baby brain
19. Write a 7000 word dissertation on Dr. Seuss
20. Buy a donkey
21. hyperventilate when asked to make a donation at the checkout line
22. Floss the cat’s teeth
23. Eat only purple food.
24. Sleep. HAH!
When I think about violence in literature, Dr. Seuss isn’t usually the guy who comes to mind. Recently, a man was trying to have Seuss’ classic beginner book Hop on Pop banned from the Toronto Public Library. He claimed that the book was promoting “violence against fathers” and that the library should “issue a public apology” as well as pay for any damages resulting from the book.
That’s some pretty hardcore dislike of Dr. Seuss.
But then I thought, HEY. This guy is obviously pretty upset about the whole fuzzy creatures hopping around on their dad issue. Let’s have a look from his perspective, shall we?
…Maybe our beloved Dr. Seuss isn’t so innocent after all?
Literary Indignities I Have Found
Yurtle the Turtle is a classic tale of a king turtle who is dissatisfied with his throne. Or…perhaps it is a story that encourages anarchy, being that the one sneezy turtle at the bottom of the stack ends up toppling the tower of turtles (and consequently the social hierarchy that Yurtle has been happily building).
In Horton Hatches an Egg, Horton is forced to look after Maize’s egg when she no longer wants to be a mother anymore. Endearing story of loyalty? Or does this book really promote the willful abandonment of children?
For that matter, Thidwicke the Big Hearted Moose saves his own hide from the hunters who are pursuing him at the end of the story by ditching his friends who are living in his antlers. At the end of the book, it’s not Thidwicke that ends up dead and stuffed on a wall–it’s his friends. In this way, it’s kind of like Seuss is saying “throw your friends under the bus to save your own butt!”
And of course, my favourite: Green Eggs & Ham. A fun book about trying new things? Perhaps…unless you look at the dangers that might arise from trying green eggs and ham in real life. Does Green Eggs & Ham in fact diminish the apparent dangers of consuming botulised food?
YOU BE THE JUDGE.
My Good Friend Subtext
No, really. It’s a good idea to use your judgement here. I mean, I just spent the last four paragraphs making up a lot of crazy stuff about some pretty great kid’s books. Why? Because I can.
I’ve talked a bit about the power of subtext and reading between the lines before, but I think what is fascinating about interpretation is that anyone can read meaning into a book despite what the author’s intentions might have been. That’s the thing about reading between the lines…any interpretation is possible.
What other children’s books could be read from an alternative perspective? Are there any books that you secretly (or maybe not so secretly) think should be banned?
So there’s this book that is being translated into English called Er Ist Wieder Da, or Look Who’s Back. Written by German writer Timur Vermes, it’s a satirical book narrated in the voice of Hitler waking from a coma in modern day Berlin. In Look Who’s Back, the people of Berlin assume that Hitler is a comedian who refuses to break his character. Throughout the course of the narrative, Hitler rises in popularity, becoming a TV celebrity with his own YouTube channel. He even creates his own political party. Not surprisingly, Vermes’ book is causing quite the controversy.
I’ll admit it, I’m curious. I mean, it’s a fascinating choice for a narrator. However, I have to wonder:
When it comes to serious historical events and fiction, how far is too far?
Hitler in the Media
Hitler has been haunting our collective unconscious through media outlets for years. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges and even Disney have their own versions of Hitler as a buffoon. If you’ve ever watched “The Great Dictator,” you’ll see Hitler portrayed as a moron who doesn’t seem all that dangerous. There are actually quite a few of these portrayals–especially prior to Hitler’s death.
One Disney cartoon called “Education for Death” has some particularly interesting depictions of Hitler:
Even more fascinating: after Hitler’s death, the overarching message in the media shifts from satirical figure to satanic monster. Of course, in any media representation, we have to consider bias and context. It is impossible to represent real historical figures with complete truth or accuracy.
This steady output of Hitler representation begs the question:
If there is already so much in the media about Hitler floating around out there, why is there such an uprising in regards to Look Who’s Back?
Nobody Wants to Root for Hitler
Vermes is quoted in The Guardian as saying that “If [Look Who’s Back] makes some readers realize that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognizable as such, then I consider it a success.”
This got me thinking. It’s true, I think, that the message Vermes aims to promote is an important one to convey. It’s also an uncomfortable notion. This is probably why there is a lot of uproar right now about Look Who’s Back.
Reading a book that is narrated from the first person has the effect of bringing the reader close to the narrator–whether they want it or not. When that person is the one and only Fuhrer, well…things are bound to get kind of awkward when you inexplicably find yourself trapped in the mind of a guy who committed horrifying acts. Am I right?
But here’s the real kicker: while I do think that first person point of view humanizes the narrator, I doubt that Vermes is trying to make us feel any kind of sympathy for Hitler. I just think he’s trying to remind us that Hitler was human (albeit a really evil one).
The Other Guys
If we take Vermes’ notion of the dictator a little further, this humanization of Hitler takes on a whole new meaning. Edward Said has this literary theory about Otherness called Orientalism, or the representation of a person or group of people as different–and often evil–in literary fiction. The reason for this Othering? A cultural need for distancing; it is the equivalent of Us and Them and what it does is clearly show just how different that other person/group really is.
Othering is a way of creating feelings of superiority. It’s wrapped around that feeling of relief that we aren’t like that, so nothing so heinous as following an evil dictator could ever happen to us.
I think Look Who’s Back takes this idea of the Other and issues a challenge to this way of thinking. The message? By humanizing someone who was so terrible, he forces the reader to face the reality that humans can do very bad things and sometimes people get duped into following them.
How Far is too Far?
I’d like to think that there is a clear answer to this question, but there isn’t. There is the problem of translation too, being that Look Who’s Back is originally written in German. Will the story translate well across the continents? Across all nationalities? Vermes’ book crosses lines by portraying Hitler in both a comedic and potentially humanizing light. At the same time, it might just be an uncomfortable enough literary experience to issue an insight that is difficult to hear: monsters are man-made.
Would you read Look Who’s Back? Or is Vermes going too far with his comedic portrayal of Hitler?
You might have heard of my book boyfriend before. He’s got dark hair, handsome, stubborn and lives in the Anne of Green Gables series. I really can’t get enough of Gilbert Blythe. But since good old Gilbert might not tug everybody’s pigtail…here’s a little belated Valentines’ Day gift from me to you:
Because it can be tricky to figure out just who your ideal book boyfriend match is, I made a flow chart.
There are not many topics that my husband and I disagree on, but one topic in particular sends us into a heated debate:
Hermione & Ron or Harry & Hermione?
I’ll admit it. I was rooting for Harry and Hermione, although by the final book I had come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t disappointed with the finale of the Harry Potter series either.
J.K. Rowling’s recent announcement that she should have paired up Harry & Hermione at the end has a lot of readers peeved (aka my husband). As a reader and writer, I have to admit that even though it’s sort of like J.K. Rowling just helped me win a 9-year debate, I’m conflicted.
Just whose story is it? Do authors have the ultimate say or should they just stay out of the way?
Something Rotten in the Potterverse
It’s easy to see why the Potterverse is churning. I get it. It’s hard to hear from your favourite author that she regrets an important plot point. Not only does it make it harder to read the books knowing that somewhere poor J.K. is kicking herself, but it also just makes the reading experience awkward.
Now that her secret displeasure is out, how can readers enjoy what actually does happen in the books?
In one article, Rowling is even compared to Dolores Umbridge. That’s a mighty big insult in the Potterverse. For those of you who don’t know about Umbridge, it’s a little bit like if someone said:
“You’re being a tad pseudo-fascist today, did you know?”
Harsh words for a lady who wrote some pretty great stories.
Death of the Author
Should J.K. Rowling leave the books to her loyal fans? Like the J.K. – Potterfan relationship, it’s complicated.
Roland Barthes, a literary theorist, would say it’s not complicated at all. In his essay “The Death of the Author,” he argues that once the book is written, the author should not factor into the meaning or importance of the story. He writes:
“The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author.”
I see his point, I do. I mean, it’s the story that should be important, not necessarily what the author thinks. And yet…the author is the first person who experiences the story and enjoys the characters. It isn’t just fans who love the Potterverse–J.K. Rowling must love it a whole lot too.
Everybody’s Doing It
J.K. Rowling isn’t the only one to express a desire to change her already published books. In fact, there are a number of pretty famous authors who have gone back and updated their works several years after publication.
Once The Lord of the Rings trilogy became successful, J.R.R. Tolkien went back and edited several parts of his earlier work The Hobbit. One of the most notable changes is the chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” where after editing, Gollum was no longer quite as eager to bet his precious ring.
Stephen King added several scenes to The Stand years later, as did Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. Even Charles Dickens changed the ending to Great Expectations some time after it had been out in the world of readers.
If Dickens is doing it, it’s kind of hard to argue. Or, maybe you never liked Dickens and this is more reason to think he is a verbose jerk. Is J.K. Rowling’s new “edit” a literary faux pas or authorial rite of passage?
Rap isn’t my favourite music, but the other day when I heard a podcast on CBC about rappers being arrested for the content of their lyrics, I was intrigued. Sure, there’s a lot of violent ideas floating around the rap-o-sphere, but the crux of the segment on Q was this: is it fair to use art as evidence of a crime? I would take that argument a little further: If we consider the old adage “write what you know,” is it okay to hold an artist accountable for what they write?
Truth isn’t Always Stranger than Fiction
It could be that using art as evidence is totally bunk. I mean, yes, Sylvia Plath was kind of loony. Her writings were creepy and she met a rather grisly end. In this way, it’s kind of easy to see how art imitates life in a real way. Way back in the day of pantaloons, Voltaire got sent to prison countless times for making fun of the government and the Catholic Church in his writings, which were used as evidence too.
But here’s the thing: not all art is representative of real events. Dare I mention James Frey and his not-so-true memoir “A Million Little Pieces?” The Oprah of 2003 was mighty peeved when she learned that Frey was stretching the truth. It was verisimilitude, he claimed (I think)–or maybe other people argued that for him.
What it makes me think is this:
Truth and fiction are kind of intertwined. So just how much do you want to read between the lines?
Marketing Gone Awry
Later in the CBC program, it came out that in many cases, those rappers whose lyrics are being used against them openly say that they have committed these acts of violence and drugs as a marketing strategy. Some of them never actually dealt drugs, but the act of spreading that “truth” gives their brand credibility. It seems a lot like a less PG version of verisimilitude–a popular literary strategy where authors imply that at least some parts of a work of fiction are true based on elements inside the text, song, what have you that are real.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand drawn treasure map is one prime example. When the book came out, there were even people who searched for the fictitious treasure island because of the map. Okay, so a treasure hunt is not the same as the rather violent lyrics of many rap songs today.
I still can’t help thinking that it is just a tad creepy that any artist–regardless of what they write–would have their words used against them in court.
Write What You Know
Let’s forget about the rappers for a while. What about the other side of this whole art as confession argument? Let’s say for the moment that truth and fiction are hopelessly blurred, and sometimes it backfires.
In other literary news, John Green is in the doghouse for his latest work, “The Fault in Our Stars,” because he is neither a teenage girl, nor is he (hopefully) dying of cancer. Some readers were outraged upset about this real-life detail, since it was not his experience to write about.
One reviewer writes:
Was this John Green’s story to tell? None of the readers of this novel who have not experienced the kind of loss depicted here have a right to laugh at any of it. (Read more of this review here).
…It’s a pretty complicated issue. John Green arguably hasn’t lived that experience. However, I would argue that many writers haven’t really experienced what they write about first hand. I mean, let me know if I’m wrong here, but J.R.R. Tolkien never went on a long journey to Mordor, nor did he know any trolls or wizards. The jury is still out as to whether or not he was a hobbit. And if Terry Pratchett only wrote about what he knew, Discworld probably wouldn’t exist, considering that most of the things that he writes about are fantastical (but awesome).
If writing not entirely truthfully means being disrespectful and singing or rapping about violent acts can land you in the slammer, what’s an artist to do?
What’s your take? Should art be used as evidence in a court of law? Just what should writers be writing about anyway?