Be Our Guest

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Today, I am guest blogging on Girl of 1000 Wonders. Thanks, Charlie, for letting me be a part of your book discussion!

So go check out my post, Another Side to the Story, on the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As is obvious from the title, it tells the story of the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, starting on the day that Juliet is born. Leveen does a great job of creating a history and rounded character for Shakespeare’s bawdy nurse.

And be sure to check back here at re: read pages later this week for an update on my writing plans and my thoughts on Jo Baker’s Longbourn.

BJL

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Can you see what I’m saying?

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I’m a chatty person. I love a good, long conversation. I have pre-conversations with people to work out how I think a talk will turn out, often working myself up in the process or laughing at how I think they will respond. What I’m saying is that dialog, external or interior, is not a problem for me.

What I do struggle with is the stuff in between. How characters physically interact, how they move within a scene and from place to place, how the characters take in what they are seeing and feeling, how to share what they are thinking without just making it a interior monologue. You know, basically the bulk of the novel. Often, as I discovered on a recent editing pass (read about that here), my writing descends into cliché and melodrama when I have to write an extended scene with no thought or speech. Clearly, this is an area I need to work on.

So the plan for the month of October is to focus on the art of description.

What better way to start than to look at some examples:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

In a review of this novel, John Updike (no slouch himself) had this to say about Atwood’s writing, “…scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous.”

Updike’s words handily sum up what I think great writing should contain. Every word counts to creating that bigger picture and meaning of a novel. The Blind Assassin was the first Atwood book I fell in love with at first reading.

Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

This novel is in my top 10 all-time favourite books. I find something new every time I read it.

Roland looked at Maud. The pale, pale hair in fine braids was wound round and round her head, startling white in the light that took the colour out of things and only caught gleams and glancings. She looked almost shockingly naked…. He wanted to loosen the tightness and let the hair go. He felt a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The novel had me from the start and when I read the following description all I could think was, as Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

The man called Isaac nodded and invited us in. A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes people with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry. I looked at my father, stunned. He smiled at me and winked.

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel.”

 

 

Structure vs. Chaos

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Lately, I’ve been feeling like one of those inflatable tube men that are put up in front of businesses that are having sales – flailing my arms, full of hot air, and not accomplishing much. Re read pages was supposed to help me focus on my writing by getting me to actually write, but I feel like it has become just another thing for which I’m not writing enough.

October is going to be different. And since I don’t just want to hope I’ll be different this month, I am making an October writing plan and giving my writing goals for re: read pages and my novel (a lot) more structure.

This is what I will have coming up this month:

Books to Read

Lives of Short Duration by David Adams Richards – Richards’ third novel, time to get back to reading my way through his works

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart – this will be the second time I’ve read this novel; Stewart died this past May at the age of 97

The White Deer by James Thurber – another reread, this is a novel I first read with my mother when I was little

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – a debut novel and historical fiction, my two favourite things

On Writing Wednesdays

I will also restart my discussion of various aspects of writing. To help support my novel writing, I’ve decided to dedicate each month to an area I am interested in/struggling with in my novel. For October, the topic will be description, and I plan on talking about examples of great descriptions, cutting unnecessary fluff, using description to add foreshadowing, and getting the details correct, and offering a sample of what I feel is my best bit of description produced in October (yikes!). I’m flipping my Wednesday and Friday schedule for this week, just so I can introduce my plan, so Friday will be a post on description, but next week everything will be back to (the new) normal.

My Novel

The goal for the month is 14,000 words, dispensed in 500 words (minimum) per day segments. This is doable. I’ll update my progress every Friday, including the weekly word count (yikes 2.0!). I really need to get words on a page because, as Jodi Picoult has said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

The hard part will be making it a habit to sit down at the same time each day (at the end of the day when the kids are in bed) and hammering out those words. Hopefully I will become a more efficient writer with each evening’s work.

So there is my October writing plan. I’m hoping making a game plan will keep me more accountable, but feel free to shout at me if I start missing deadlines or if you have some suggestions about how to keep on track I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

– BJL

This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

The first cut

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I’m editing my first 50 pages and needed a little perspective:

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?”  Steve Wright

Ah, better. Now back to editing.

 

For more quotations on editing, check out the blog Terribly Write.

J.K. Rowling is awesome

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It is time for me to come clean. I love the Harry Potter series. Love the books, love the movies. For me, the fact that J.K. Rowling is awesome is not to be disputed. I know there are flaws and I know you probably will want to argue with me, but you will never change my mind.

The little things Rowling puts in the text are just the best, which makes the Harry Potter series worth more than one reread. Here is a good example that just came to my attention thanks to @ArryPottah on Twitter:

The first time Snape speaks to Harry, he says, “Potter! What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”.

During the Victorian era, each flower type had a specific meaning when a flower was given. Asphodel is a member of the lily family and to give some an asphodel meant “My regrets will follow you to the grave”. Wormwood meant “absence; bitter sorrow”. Thus, Rowling was actually having Snape say to Harry “I bitterly regret Lily’s death.”

While the meaning of asphodel, I believe, is a little stretched to fit the situation (as far as I know asphodel simply symbolizes regret), the statement does still have a deeper meaning to the character. It seems so simple but I think details like that add so much to a story.