Posts Tagged ‘books’

ReflectionsMost writers I know are very interested in books and resources about writing.  I thought today I’d share a review of a book that touches on some helpful writing ideas, from one of my favorite authors.  Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is not quite a book about writing…and not quite an autobiography…but a good bit of both.

It’s a collection of essays that are less about writing than they are about storytelling, which is not quite the same thing.  It’s not much about the craft of writing, and definitely not about publishing.  It’s about something more integral, about the art of crafting a story rather than how that story becomes a novel.

So don’t come here looking for one essay about how to create a character, another about plot arcs, or a third about the advantages of outlining.  Some of those elements may come in, but you’ll only find them as one possible aspect of an essay about, for example, the influence of Anglo-Saxen myths on modern fantasy, or the ultimate responsibility of writing for children.

That second topic may be one of my favorites addressed here, in the essay “Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility.”  That sounds rather weighty and apt to be moralizing, but it isn’t at all.  Without being overwhelming about it and certainly without advocating for Victorian stories where bad little children swiftly meet bad ends, Diana Wynne Jones gets at the influence books have on children.

I’ve certainly “met” books later in life that have influenced me, but I think stories touch us and shape us in childhood in a way that later books don’t.  Diana Wynne Jones obviously understood that, and obviously believed in the power of books to be a positive influence.  I don’t mean that her books are moralizing, but I think they do build strength and courage and belief in oneself and one’s own imagination.  Good lessons for anyone, at any age.

I also particularly enjoyed “A Talk About Rules,” which discusses how seemingly-ironclad rules change.  I think this essay may be the key to why the book isn’t more about rules of writing–because it’s evident she doesn’t much believe in them.  To quote: “What you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action and bizarre adventures.  And the frame that holds this mess is the story.”

I mentioned autobiography at the beginning, and the book frequently tells stories about Diana Wynne Jones’ own life.  She tells wonderful, improbable stories about growing up in a town where everyone was insane, during World War II when the whole world had run mad.  She talks about her own writing process (something that always fascinates me about authors I love), about the influences on some of her novels, and about her experiences being an author.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that some of the stories become repetitive.  This is a compilation of essays and talks that were originally spread across years, and when they’re all put together, you find that she describes the same details of her childhood three or four times.  Perhaps slightly heavier editing would have resolved some of this.  As it stands, it’s not too big an annoyance, although it may be an argument for reading this a few essays at a time, rather than straight-through.

If you really want a book about writing, I recommend Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine.  But if you want a book about stories (and about Diana Wynne Jones) this collection is delightful.  And perhaps by focusing more on that deeper core, she’s created a book that would be as interesting to readers as it is to writers.  Really, to anyone who enjoys stories–particularly if you enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ stories!

Dreams. When you google “dreams,” you get the definition of sleep—namely how to interpret the images you see while you’re sleeping.

Just goes to show you that even searching for a dream doesn’t mean that you’ll find what you’re really looking for. And, honestly, my sleep dreams are mostly stress induced. My best dreams tend to be the ones I fantasize about while I’m awake and functional.

My dreams vary from day to day and shift from subject to subject, but I blame that on wanting a lot out of the time I have to explore those dreams. I want so much out of my life and I have allotted time to achieve those moments…but I can want as much as I’d like. The problem I run into is the capability factor. You know, the “hey I’m actually capable and I should put some effort into this dream” thing. Ultimately, if I’m going to actually feel the dream leave my fantasy and enter the reality that I have made with my life, then I need to make the actual steps towards it.

No one else can do that for me. No one else can encourage me to do it if I won’t move. No one else can flatter me enough to try harder. It’s all on me.

Now, the problem that I constantly run into is the commitment to myself. I constantly tell myself that it’s a silly notion to think that I could actually achieve what I crave because, come on now, who would really want to read what I have to say? Who would actually care? Why do I care if people actually care?

Because, if people don’t care, then my dream is just a figment. Just a fragment. Just a moment lost in my mind. Because, if I care that I become successful with my dream, then I might be disappointed to hear that I’m not the reflection of a diamond’s potential, but the darkness of the rough surrounding the gleam.

In all honesty, I do hear the ridiculous doubt in myself, in my ability to try, and the eyes immediately start rolling around.  I know I need to stop questioning my ability to achieve what I think I might really want. I know that I need to let myself praise my work, so that maybe I can see the goodness in it. So that maybe I can become the light that I so wish to be. After all, the only thing holding me back from that sparkle is me.

I’m sure every dreamer feels this way. So, how do we jump start the confidence and leave behind all the “poor me for not being good enough because I’m too afraid that I’ll fail horribly” attitude?

Maybe the start is to simply stop fearing the end, and enjoy the hope from the beginning. Or, maybe it’s as simple as letting myself believe in the dream as fully as I do while I’m sleeping—by letting the dream be real enough to feel like I can hold onto it.

Then again, I’d like to start being the person I’m meant to be. No more maybe this, maybe that. It’s simply time. It’s now time to stop liking the idea and actually step toward it.

It’s time to stop questioning myself.

Hands1I like action movies, spicy food, and long walks on the beach. Sounds like a dating site mantra, right? Well, there might be something more to this.

Real people have tastes, real people have likes, dislikes, and preferences. Real people discriminate both positively and negatively. Real people are unique. Shouldn’t our characters share similar attributes?

It’s easy to get lost in our plots, interactions, world building, story structure, prose, and a million other important building blocks of storytelling. But in any great book I’ve read, characters are at the center of it all. Characters who seem like real people.

My advice, learn about your characters. In an outlined, plot-driven story, it’s easy to forget about their decisions. It’s easy to make them do something because the plot requires it. But is that decision something our characters would make if truly given the option? Do we even know?

Spend some time building your characters. Get to know their families and friends. Discover what sorts of people they hang out with, and what they like to do in their free time. What decisions have they made in their past to get them to where they are today? What are their hobbies?

In addition, I recommend truly looking at whether they play inactive or active roles in your story. In other words, are your protagonists responding only to how your antagonist set them up, or are they actively progressing and growing based on their own motivations? Commonly, protagonists play inactive roles in the beginning of stories due to the antagonist’s inciting incident, then grow based on their experiences and interactions. However, most great stories I’ve read show the characters actively making hard decisions and progressing the story themselves – and from the very beginning – instead of being pulled along by the plot.

Now, should all the characters likes, dislikes, and preferences be included in the story? I say no. But as the writer, it is important you know them. Give hints to some, and reveal others. This will make a character jump out of the page and come to life.

In short, characters are people too! Know them better than your best friend, even better than yourself. You alone know their pasts, their present, and their futures. Show us who they are, connect us to them, and we won’t be able to put that story down.

They say there are no original stories, they’ve all been told. What’s a writer to do then? That’s easy. Take a familiar story and change it up, twist it around until it is totally different and unique again. That seems to be the trend right now in books and movies.

Hook

Hook

This weekend I watched Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Warm Bodies. I review the movies on my blog. H&G isn’t so much a twist on the familiar fairy tale as it is a continuation. It answers the question of what these poor children did after they killed the witch. They became witch hunters, of course. Another continuation story I love is Hook, although that story could also fall under the What If category. What if Peter Pan grew up? Robin Williams is excellent as the grown-up Peter Panning, by the way.

Fairy tales are perfect stories for adjusting because almost everyone already knows the original tales. The characters are familiar and the plots ingrained in our memories, thanks in part to Disney. Changing the setting, or genre, or point of view of the original makes the same old fairy tale new and exciting again. Sometimes the author and/or director can make the adaptation work, such as Red Riding Hood, and sometimes it bombs, like in Beastly. I liked him so much better as the Beast.

220px-10_Things_I_Hate_About_You_filmOne of the most retold plots isn’t a fairy tale, really. Romeo and Juliet has been a big redone a million times (not an exact figure), because it works. One of my favorites is West Side Story. I still cry whenever I hear the song Somewhere. And the latest version is Warm Bodies. I absolutely loved the zombie aspect, very timely. Shakespeare’s work has been modernized to great success. I will never tire of watching 10 Things I Hate About You. The Taming of the Shrew was brilliant originally but the modern twist made it more relatable to today’s audiences—and freakin’ hilarious!

I don’t know about you, but every time I leave a movie theater of finish a book, I always ponder how I would write it differently, how I would change it to be my own. So don’t worry about writing a story no one’s ever read before because that ain’t gonna happen. But you can find a way to freshen up an old classic. Find a plot hole in your favorite story and plug it up with your own vision. Ask what if? Put the characters in a totally different world and see what happens. Swap the good guys and bad guys. What if  Cinderella wasn’t as sweet and innocent as we’ve been lead to believe? Maybe Robin Hood only stole to cover his gambling debts? Who knows? The possibilities are endless.

What are your favorite twisted-up classics?

What mind do you read with?  I find it all rather complicated—sometimes I have on my reader-mind…or my editor-mind…or my writer-mind.  With the reader-mind, of course, I just enjoy what I’m reading and get carried along by the story.  With the editor-mind, I wince at comma splices and notice repetitive word choice.  With the writer-mind, I appreciate the craft, and have some idea of why the reader-mind is having such a good time.

Based on conversations with friends, I think this is something that often happens to writers.  We engage with the craft in so many ways, it changes all the ways we engage with a story.

Now and then one mind comes out when I’d rather it didn’t.  The editor-mind has had fits over some of Mercedes Lackey’s word choice.  And the writer-mind nearly got me into real trouble with a paper in college.

We were supposed to write a literary analysis of a book of our choice from a selected list, and I’d chosen Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme.  I have to confess, one reason I made that choice was because, hidden among those sixty stories, there was one called “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend,” which is about exactly what it sounds like (that, I think, was the fangirl-mind at work).  But that wasn’t the main reason.  Mostly, I was fascinated by Barthelme’s use of pop culture references.

Pop culture turns up in stories all the time, to good or bad effect, but this was particularly interesting because Barthelme’s stories are bizarre.  Fragmented, fractured, plots go in strange directions, characters may be in fantasy stories or they may simply be delusional, the writing style changes midway, some stories are all dialogue or all stream of consciousness and, well, it’s all bizarre in pretty much every direction it can be.  And then in the middle of the chaos, just as I had completely lost any sense of normality or touch with the real world, Barthelme drops in a reference to Rolling Stone or Nietzsche, and suddenly I felt I had a touch-point again.  Suddenly the bizarre was again accessible and I felt reconnected to the story.

My writer-mind thought this was fascinating.  What an amazingly cool device in writing!  You can tell a completely mad story, and keep the reader grounded by giving them something familiar in the midst of it.  I still think that’s wonderful.

But my professor wanted me to be looking at it as a reader.  All right, so you read a bizarre story that you can connect with because the writer used a trick with recognizable references.  So?  What does the reader get out of this?

I still don’t have a good answer to that.  So I wrote something vague about disconnecting from the world and then reconnecting in order to learn something about the world.  My professor didn’t really like that as my conclusion and to be honest, neither did I, but I got a decent grade–so I guess it worked out.  The real difficulty was that my writer-mind got very excited and got me into writing about this, and then it was all the wrong angle for the paper I was supposed to write!

Most of the time the writer-mind helps me out, though.  I like being able to appreciate the cool things writers are doing.  Mostly it just gives me a different way to enjoy what I’m reading.  The editor-mind does interfere with some reading…but I guess it also encourages me to read good books!

So do you run into this reading?  Do you find it benefits or detracts from your reading to have all these different minds at work?  And do you know any reliable way to turn the wrong ones off?

Or maybe this all seems quite fragmented and fractured and disconnected from reality, and I ought to have thrown in some pop culture references to keep you connected.  But after all, why do you think I even mentioned the Phantom of the Opera? 🙂

To become a better writer, I am challenging myself to become a better reader. In the past, my reading time was limited between my son’s at-bats during his little league games and waiting in the car to pick my daughter up from band practice. So you can imagine that not a lot of books were completed. This year, I resolve to change that. Now, I’m not going to promise to read 100 books, or even one a week. I gotta have some time to take care of my three kids and write my next novel, Lip Smacked. But reading for an hour before bed every night is a realistic goal I can achieve. Whether I read a YA urban fantasy, books on writing or tackling a classic, I will read every day. And some time during the year, I will finish reading The Count of Monte Cristo because according to Matt and Kody, it’s freaking awesome! Yeah, we’ll see._48034224_neilgaiman

In addition, I’d also like to read all of Neil Gaiman’s books. Why Neil Gaiman, you ask? Because he’s hot and looks like he could be Severus Snape’s younger brother. (And if you don’t know who Severus Snape is, I really feel sorry for you.) Plus, Neil’s just an all-around cool guy. Right now, I’m reading Coraline to my five-year-old daughter, Angela, so that will soon be crossed off the list.

What are you planning to read this year?