Classic!

It’s amazing how many readers wince at the word “classics.” As Mark Twain so aptly put it, “‘Classic’ – a book which people praise and don’t read.” Yes, classics are (usually) long. Yes, classics are (usually) wordy. But there’s a reason they’re classics! I have a few of my favorite classics listed on my Book Recommendations page, but if you’re looking for a good classic to start with, here are a few suggestions and reasons why it’s a good one to start with.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Why? Unlike most of Dickens’s books, it’s short. Also, you probably know the story if you turn on the television at all the month before Christmas. A good way to ease into the classics.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Why? This is one of those great books that has an engaging surface plot and plenty of under-the-surface pondering. You can enjoy the action of the plot, then chew on the meatier details between readings.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Why? Serious bragging rights. If you want read one classic to make yourself look good, make it this one. You tell people you’ve read Les Mis, and jaws will drop, followed by the question, “Isn’t that like twelve hundred pages?” It’s long, and it’s tedious at parts, but it’s also incredibly moving. Also, if you get to the end of this one, you feel like you can read anything in the world. Once-daunting classics will now be mere child’s play.

If you have a younger child that you’d like to get interested in the classics—or if you’re just looking for an easier way to get a few classics under your belt—check out the Great Illustrated Classics. I had several of these as a child and loved them. They’re abridged and simplified, with a picture on every other page.

Also, here’s a list of 100 middle-school classics. I haven’t read all of them, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend all of them (I disliked Tale of Despereaux, and after my experience with Heart of Darkness I don’t think I’d care much for Lord of the Flies), but it’s a good list of some less-daunting classics.

Do you enjoy classic literature? What are some of your favorites?

Winds-day on Saturday

There was a crazy windstorm on Saturday night that knocked out the power in several places around Seattle. We were only in the dark for a couple of minutes, but the house is surrounded by trees, which thankfully did not blow down, but did drop plenty of their needles and leaves and branches on our (long, long) driveway and lawn. It was sunny this morning, so Scout and I bundled up and headed out to work. I raked up the mess while she ran circles around me giggling. Somehow, raking becomes a lot more fun when you have a laughing toddler running around.

So that inspired today’s writing prompt:

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How’s your character’s work ethic? Lazy, workaholic, sporadic, always starting and never completing . . . Write a scene where one character’s work ethic affects another’s life or routine.

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Also, check out Emily’s response to last week’s writing prompt over at A Cup of English Tea. It’s a beautifully written piece. If you respond to my prompt on your blog, be sure to send me the link in the comments here! I’d love to read it!

“Whenever you’re stressed, you wear the yellow tie.”

It’s been one of those weeks, folks. I’ve gotten abysmally lost three times on the way to three different libraries. My baby girl decided she only wants to take one nap a day. And it’s been pouring rain all—week—long.

If my name were Russell Morlin Duritz, I would be wearing a yellow tie.

Instead, I’m wearing Christmas socks and sharing exciting news!

On December 12 from 4pm to 8pm, I’ll be at the Woodinville, WA, Barnes and Noble with a stack of freshly-released copies of Demon’s Heart!

I’ll also have a bowl of chocolate and a few other fun things to hand out. Stop by to say hello and to eat my chocolate! I’d love to see any of you that are in the area!

Reality Check

I read a lot of YA fiction, and the bulk of it is fantasy. There’s just something about fantasy that speaks to me. I enjoy the new worlds, the new rules, the creativity of it all—and the fact that there is so much truth to be found in something that’s not real.

But every once in a while, I top out. I reach a point where I can’t look at another fantasy book without cringing. It’s like eating too many sweet foods: they taste good, but there comes a point where you just need something salty.

Thankfully, the library seemed to sense that I was in need of a good dose of reality this week, and my hold on The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown came in. I’ve been waiting on this one for months, and it was worth the wait. It’s about the US rowing team in the 1936 Olympics. I have zero experience with rowing (except that I knew a coxswain once), but the book combines personal stories, rowing background, university rivalries, and international tensions (read: Nazis) in a way that makes it just as hard to put down as any novel.

What are your reading habits? Do you stick mainly to one genre or spread around? Do you ever find yourself sick of your favorite genre?

And seriously, if you have any desire to read a good nonfiction, check out The Boys in the Boat. One of the best reads I’ve come across for a long time.

It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.

It’s Monday again already? I spent the past couple of weeks in California, then returned home just in time to throw together a craft table for a church activity and then transform into a bearded lady for a murder mystery. I’m ready to sleep for a few solid days now.

But first, the writing prompt. I’m going to continue with the setting practice, since I got a lot of response from people like me who really struggle with getting the setting balanced in their novel. And, in the spirit of all the traveling I’ve been doing . . .

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Take a point in your story where a character is traveling, whether it’s a long or a short journey. Describe not only what your character sees, but also how it makes her feel, what it reminds him of, the emotions evoked.

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“Everybody has imaginary friends.”

I’m convinced that the only way to write well is to write for yourself. Whenever I start writing something because I think others will like it better this way, my writing plunges to the depths of humiliating awfulness. I never quite understood why, but I knew that was just how it worked.

And then I read “The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy” by Kate Hattemer, and a lightbulb clicked on.

Here’s an abbreviated version of Elizabeth’s rant as she tries to clue Ethan in to life:

“Andrezejczak,” Elizabeth said, “you’re doing it again. ‘I’m singularly unequipped.’ You think you’re the only real person. You think you’re the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.”

“You are?”

“Of course I am. . . . Everybody else has unattainable crushes too,” she said. “And imaginary friends. Some part of their mind that they talk to when they can’t deal with talking to real people. You just happen to name yours.” (255–256)

When we look at others, we can only see so much. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that those perky, outgoing, talkative people can share the same fears and insecurities that are so prominent in our own minds. That those successful authors, those Pinterest-perfect mothers, those brilliant artists can ever doubt themselves. That anyone else could possibly have enough in common with us that they will appreciate the stories that come from our hearts.

It’s true that each person is unique, that none are exactly like another. But there is a reason that good stories resonate with people across the world. We all have hopes and doubts and fears and dreams. We are all human.

So if we all share these deep core elements, why does it never work to write something we think others will like, rather than something we like?

When you look at someone, you look through the filter of your own perception. You can’t see everything that person is. You can’t fathom the depths and complications of another’s mind. It’s hard enough to come to grips with your own depths and complications. If you write for the person you see through that filter, you write for someone who doesn’t exist.

But you know your own soul. You know the truths and twists and turns that make up your own being. And if you write something that rings true to your own soul, you’re going to get a lot closer to the core of the rest of the world.

So have faith that everybody else is “amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.” Remember that “everybody else has . . . imaginary friends.” Go forward and write your stories for yourself, knowing that that is the only way you can possibly write for others.

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What do you say? Do you ever find yourself writing to please others, instead of yourself? Have you noticed whether it makes a difference in your writing?

I see, said the blind man . . .

I have a major setting problem. I see everything clearly in my head, but I’m not great at remembering to put it out there for the reader to see as well. This is why I really love my writerly friends who will critique my work, because about half of their comments are along the lines of, “Emily! Stop dialoguing and start describing!” My next draft after it comes back from my readers is generally a process of inserting setting and description all throughout the book.

Thus this week’s prompt:

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Take a prominent setting in your book and describe it in detail through the eyes of one of your characters.

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The essay of my discontent

I was pretty good at handling senioritis until my last essay in high school. We read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and I hated every minute of it. So, knowing that I could safely fail the essay and still get the heck out of there, I decided to write the essay about how much I despised Heart of Darkness.

However, as I began writing, I realized that Heart of Darkness is really very well written. There is a reason high schoolers are forced to read it. My problem with it was the content–the utter bleakness of Conrad’s perspective of humanity. I didn’t agree with him in the least, and so I wrote my essay on how his great writing really contributed to how terrible the book is.

So what makes a good book? The quality of the writing or the quality of the content? Or is it not so much the quality of the content as much as content that agrees with your Weltanschauung? Or conversely, content that makes you question and probe your views of the world? Can beautiful writing make up for a dragging plot? Can sheer level of entertainment make up for low-quality writing? Can deep, thought-provoking concepts be conveyed in less than stellar writing?

I really don’t know. I’m not even sure where I fall on the spectrum. This is why the book business is such a gamble: there is no set grading scale for a book. Every book with affect every person in a different way. Every person will see every book through different eyes. There is a dizzying amount of variables on both the author’s side and the reader’s side.

What do you think? Is writing style or content more important? Can you enjoy a book deficient in one or the other?

Never say never, whatever you do

What can a mouse and a pigeon teach us about writing? I shall enlighten you.

Did you ever watch An American Tail as a kid? It’s about this family of Russian-Jewish mice who escape to America (because “there are nooooo cats in America!“). The little boy mouse, Fievel, gets separated from his family and meets up with a pigeon (Christopher Plummer), who sings this long song in a French accent about how you should “never say never, whatever you do.

And I want to sing that song at the top of my lungs every time someone posts a list of “THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER IN YOUR LIFE DO WHILE WRITING OR ELSE YOU WILL NEVER GET PUBLISHED AND YOU MIGHT POSSIBLY BURN FOR ETERNITY.”

Can I tell you a secret?

There is no recipe for writing.

There is no rule book you can follow to have words come together in combinations that will electrify your reader. Not even the Chicago Manual of Style. (Gasp!)

Listen, there’s “proper” grammar and “proper” syntax and plenty of rules on how to use English “correctly.” I studied all these things in school. I used them in editing. I understand their importance.

But I defy you to find any author with the slightest shimmer of brilliance who hasn’t defied those rules somewhere in her books. Madeleine L’Engle. Charles Dickens. JK Rowling. Neil Gaiman. Louisa May Alcott. Harper Lee. Lois Lowry. They all break rules.

So should we just throw all rules out the window?

Not at all. See, there’s a balance. Write a book following all the rules of standard English, and you have the lamest textbook ever written. Write a book flouting all the rules of standard English, and you have the most unreadable trash ever written.

But follow the rules most of the time—keep your writing in check most of the time—lull your reader into a false sense of security—and then, when something needs to stand out, when you need to draw attention and make a point, you tear that list of rules in two and you drive your words home in the style that’s coming out of your heart.

So next time you start to doubt your writing because some random person in the wide world of the Internet posted a list of arbitrary rules, don’t. Start singing in a Christopher Plummer French accent and go on your merry way, leaving a trail of broken rules behind you.

How do you feel about rules? Are you a die-hard prescriptivist? Are there any “rules” that you think are particularly dumb and useless?

A New Perspective

Phew. Between last-minute church responsibilities, General Conference, getting ready to fly to California, and general lack of sleeping, I missed a lot of blogging last week, including Friday’s post of responses to the week’s writing prompt. You can check out Julie Holmes’s quirky response here.

Figuring out this writing prompt schedule is a work in progress. Devoting two days a week to the writing prompt is a little much for me, since I have a lot of other topics I’d like to cover, so I’m going to switch over to this system that happened by accident last week–i.e., I’ll post the responses to last week along with the new prompt each Monday.

And speaking of the new prompt:

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Take a scene from your story and rewrite it from a different character’s point of view.

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Happy writing!