What Does the Author Owe the Reader? Questions about The Buried Giant

Just read The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I have a lot of questions. What in the world was the author trying to say? Should I be worried because I don’t know? Or should he?

The story is about Axl and Beatrice, Britons (Celts) in post-Arthurian England. They are elderly, and their memories are fading, but so are the memories of all those around them. They decide to leave their village, where they are being persecuted because they are old, and travel to visit their son. On their journey they meet a knight (Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, who has grown old), a Saxon warrior, and a young boy with special unnamed powers. They wander around, talk a lot, share some mild adventures,

As with others of Ishiguro’s novels,(like The Remains of the Day), much is suggested, little is directly stated.

The giant is mentioned in the beginning as a physical entity, a ordinary giant; by the end, the giant has become something else. The warrior, Wistan, says, “The giant, once well buried now stirs.” And I understand that the giant is now war and conquest.

I had the feeling that Ishiguro was trying to say something, trying to get me as a  reader to understand something. But I found myself more frustrated at the lack of directness than intrigued.

To give you – and me – something to think about, Ishiguro said:

“Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

(The genre question is another discussion. If you want to go more deeply into it, read this Guardian article in which Ursula Le Guin takes Ishiguro to task.)

My question is about more than genre; it’s about the relationship between a writer and his readers, and the unstated communication that goes on behind the words.

Is Ishiguro too subtle? If he’s trying to “say” something, get the reader to think a certain way about the effect of the book, is there a point at which subtlety, allegory, is overdone?

Does his subtlety diminish his skill as a writer?

If an author is trying to “do” or “say” something, and readers don’t get it, does that mean the book is a failure? If this wasn’t from Ishiguro, would readers enjoy it, and “get it”?

I shouldn’t have to know what he’s trying to say. I should be able to enjoy the book for the story itself and find the story satisfying. And I should be able to discern what the author is trying to say.

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Pilgrim’s Progress flickr Creative commons by PMM

Neil Gaiman, in his New York Times review of The Buried Giant, confesses his “inability to fall in love with it.”   He says, “I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist….” (you’ll have to read the rest of the quote online to see what Gaiman thought the allegory was.)

It may be too simple to state that the book is allegory (extended metaphor); certainly, it has the quality of allegory, like Pilgrim’s Progress. The boatman in the book, for example, immediately brought to mind Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead to the underworld.

Gaiman continues, “it guards its secrets and its world close.” Too close, maybe?

Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the book on io9, called it a “weird mess,” and said,

Ishiguro’s story is dark and very strange, and leaves you with questions and riddles rather than explanations. The end of the book is one that’s going to haunt and perplex me for a while — which, in the end, is the ultimate proof that this is a book worth reading.

Really? Haunt, yes, but must we be perplexed? Is it good storytelling to perplex readers? Or is it just that Ishiguro missed the mark in his intention?

If you really want to know, Ishiguro explains what he was trying to do, the “universal statement” he was trying to make, in the Guardian article. I certainly didn’t get that out of the book. You can take what you want from what he says, you can decide it says something different to you (like Neil Gaiman), or you can keep re-reading until you figure it out for yourself.

Do I have to read what the author intended in order to understand the book? Shouldn’t I be able to understand it on its own? In one reading?

My head hurts from all these questions. I liked the book, the story was intriguing and the relationship between Axl and Beatrice was touching. But I felt unsatisfied, frustrated by my lack of understanding about what the author was trying to say.

I don’t like working this hard to get meaning from a book. Lazy, I know. Give me a good murder mystery in which the detective sits everyone down at the end and explains who killed who and why and how and where. Miss Plum in the library with a candlestick.

See my Goodreads review of The Buried Giant

Enhancing Your Writing Creativity – Be Mindful!

Today I came back from my walk on the beach in a creative mood. I was able to irbeachdig into my novel and my mind seemed to be aware of nothing except my characters and what was happening to them. What a great feeling!

But, as we all know, writing isn’t that easy a lot of the time. What’s made a difference for me is that I’m purposefully drawing on the creative side of my brain – my right brain. The right brain is the feeling, intuitive, imaginative side.  And it’s the part of the brain that’s triggered when we meditate or, as I prefer to think about it, when we are mindful.

I spend much of my writing time in what I call left-brain stuff, as I work on a business-related blog and write a book on business skills for writers. So I’ve struggled with switching off into the fiction writing I’m now doing. It’s a different skill set, I’ve discovered.

But recently I came to a realization that there’s a way I can increase my right brain time to enhance my creativity. Here’s what happened: I’ve been studying meditation and practicing mindfulness for several years, as a stress reliever. You might think this is religious, but although it’s practiced by Buddhists, it’s also practiced by people of many religions – and no religion. A good definition, from Wikipedia:

 the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditative practice.

But with my practicing, I had never made a connection between mindfulness and brain function.

Then I had one of those Ah-Ha! moments while watching a TED talk by  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. She told of her experience of a left-brain hemorrhage and how her awareness was switched to her right brain when her left brain shut down. The right-brain experience she described sounded just like meditative practice, mindfulness, awareness of self. I saw that mindfulness is not just woo-woo stuff but it’s actually brain-based.

What I heard Jill saying in this video is that tapping into your right brain can increase your consciousness, make you more aware. Yes, make you more mindful. And, since your right brain is where your creativity lies, tapping into your right brain can, thus, enhance your creativity.

I love it when things fit together! Mindfulness is right-brain activity, and spending time in mindfulness before I write can increase my writing creativity!

So, how do you become more mindful? It has to be worked on, practiced, like anything else in life. We’re used to living in our left brains — don’t forget to take out the garbage – why did Mary not call last night, is there something wrong? – I can’t believe I did that stupid thing. We spend time in our right brains, but we keep getting tugged back and forth. What we need to do is spend more time in our right brains, being more mindful.

The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to go somewhere quiet, and sit and focus on your breath and body and what’s going on around you. What you’re doing is trying to get into – and stay in – your right brain, your creative side. When your thoughts wander, just acknowledge them and go back to focusing on your breath and body and increasing your awareness. I practice at least 10 minutes a day, and I often go longer. I’m by no means an expert, though, and some days are better than others.

Two books have helped me get better at meditation and increasing my mindfulness (think: right brain time). I did a lot of (left brain) research on the subject. This book — Breath Sweeps Mind by Jean Smith– provides an easy, practical way to learn how to meditate/be mindful. It only comes in paperback, but that was okay with me, because I was underlining and making notes as I read it the first time (yes, I’ve read it at least 3 times).

If you want to go further into the concept of mindfulness, in the context of Buddhism, I would suggest Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart. Again, I’m giving you the link to the paperback version, in case you want to mark/note (as I have), but this one’s also available in ebook format.

Now, when I get ready to write fiction, I spend some time in meditative practice, to increase my right-brain activity and creativity. It’s that simple. Oh, and you don’t need to walk on a beach to try it.

 

 

Why Reading Inspires Me as a Writer

"Ray Bradbury (1975)" by photo by Alan Light. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ray Bradbury (1975)” by photo by Alan Light. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What inspires you to write, to write better, to write more? For me, it seems there are three reading experiences that inspire me: reading great writing, reading interesting stories, and reading writing how-to books.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the first: great writing.

Ray Bradbury says, rather emphatically:

“I absolutely demand of you and everyone I know that they be widely read in every damn field there is; in every religion and every art form and don’t tell me you haven’t got time! There’s plenty of time. You need all of these cross-references. You never know when your head is going to use this fuel, this food for its purposes.”

All the great writers say you must read, read, read. Some examples I’ve come across recently:

Reading Great Writing

A new novel by a previously unknown writer, Christopher Scotton, who was discovered by Hachette (see, there’s hope for all of us!). His novel is The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a coming-of-age story that’s reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Stand by Me, and a little of Deliverance. What first caught my eye was the language. Some examples, gathered from random pages:

I was up Monday morning before Pops, just as the sky was beginning its run to purple and blue. I put on a full pot of coffee for him and sat at the kitchen table until he woke–coffeepot dripping and spitting as the first yellow light from the east fired tops of the Medgar mountains. Then stirrings from upstairs and the creaking of floorboards under weight.

(from the first page, but not the first paragraph):

June was midway to my fifteenth birthday and I remember the miles between Redhill, Indiana, and Medgar, Kentucky, rolling past the station wagon window on an interminable canvas of cornfields and cow pastures, petty towns and irrelevant truck stops. i remember watching my mother from the backseat as she stared at the telephone poles flishing past us, the reflection of the white highway line in the window strobing her haggard face.

(I’m not sure if “flishing” is a typo for “flashing” or an invention, but I’ll give him credit for a new word.)

We walked over to a corner [of the attic] piled with fishing rods, discarded creels, an old baseball bat, and various retired sporting equipment: Pops’ high school football helmet, an ancient leather fielder’s glove with none of the fingers linked. I tried to put it on, but the leather was unforgiving….I wandered over to a light-blue and yellow trunk with ARP written in gold lettering under the hasp. inside was my mother’s high school career. Her yearbook from senior year, a prom picture, sheaves of A-plus papers, class president certificate, first copy of the school newspaper she started, founding president of the Student Volunteers. All of her teenage accomplishments compiled before me like an old newsreel.

I also noticed in these cases how Scotton shows instead of telling. It’s one of the important things we ingest when we read great fiction.

Here’s another example, from The Gift of Rain by Tang Twan Eng, a lyrical, poetic novel. It begins:

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when i did not believe in fortunetellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into this world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

(skipping a paragraph)….The day I met Michiko Murakami, too, a tender rain had dampened the world. It had been falling for the past week and I knew more would come with the monsoon. Already the usual roads in Penang had begun to flood, the sea turning to a sullen gray.

Notice how Eng sets a mood immediately, how he establishes the place and the tone. And you know exactly what the book will be about – the author and this Murakami person. And, of course, rain. When I began reading, I settled back immediately with a sigh of contentment. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I also want to note how the author makes every single word count. Not one could be removed without altering and diminishing the power of the story. This is great writing.
Finally, and certainly not last, my favorite book of 2014, and one I have re-read and given to others to read: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

The story is about the experiences of two young people during World War II. One is a blind French girl; the other is a young German soldier. They meet in the town of Saint-Malo, as it is being bombed by the Americans.

From the prologue:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire street swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.

What a great beginning! It really grabs you as a reader. Doerr took ten years to write this novel, and it’s just about perfectly written. In another place, chosen at random:

Werner walks home oblivious to the rain, trying to absorb the immensity of what has happened. Nine herons stand like flowers in the canal beside the coking plant. A barge sounds its outcast horn and coal cars trundle to and fro and the regular thudding of the hauling machine reverberates through the gloom.

See what I mean? “Nine herons” (sounds like haiku, doesn’t it?) and “the regular thudding of the hauling machine…” One more – you really need to read this book:

Marie-Laurie wakes and thinks she hears the shuffle of Papa’s shoes, the clink of his key ring. Fourth floor fifth floor sixth. His fingers brush the doorknob. his body radiates a faint but palpable heat in the chair beside  her. His little tools rasp across the wood. He smells of glue and sandpaper and Gauloises bleues.

Read excellent fiction. Don’t read junk; you won’t learn anything from reading junk, and you’ll absorb the junk and think it’s okay. It’s not; not all fiction is created equal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories – The Fabric of our Lives – And our Writing

Fright

By DaigoOliva CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Stories are everywhere around us, and they weave together to make up a huge part of our lives.

I watched a TED presentation by Karen Thompson Walker about fear in which Walker, the author of a novel about the whaleship Essex discussed why we have fears. Primarily, it’s because we have a story in our heads about the subject (spiders, let’s say) that causes us to act in a specific way. She calls fears “unintentional storytelling.

Let’s say you are afraid of spiders, because you have heard stories about people being killed by spiders or people have warned you about them. You have created an unintentional story about spiders that keeps you fearful. The stories, you’ll notice, build up like a game of “telephone,” and the stories keep getting more fantastic and lurid.

In the case of the Essex, by the way, the sailors had heard stories about cannibals in the islands nearest them, and they didn’t go that way. The cannibals weren’t actually that bad, and that would have been the best way to sail. They chose the least scary way, the way their stories told them was least scary, which was the worst way. All died.

Where do we get our stories? The vast majority come to us when we are young, from our parents and others. The story of our religion is a good example. This story forms what we believe about life and death. The story of our family is told over and over, at the breakfast table, at holidays, at funerals and weddings. “Remember the time when…?”

Our stories about ourselves are powerful. In the Wise Heart, psychologist Jack Kornfield says, “Who would you be without your story?” I stopped and thought when I read this, and had a bid “Ah ha!” moment.

Who we are is the stories we tell ourselves. If I say, “I’m a writer,” I am what I think I am, what my story tells me I am. If the story you tell yourself is, “I can’t write,” you aren’t a writer. Take away the stories we have told ourselves, and others, and what do we have?

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the human need for stories.

Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.

In one example in the article, research subjects saw several triangles and a circle moving around and when asked what they saw, all but one subject had created a story out of the movement of these inanimate objects. We do this with animals too – my husband insists that the dog licks his face because she loves him. Ha!

Stories may one of the most important links our brains make. We are “wired for story,” and our brains are built to make sense of what we see, creating context so we can figure it out. Our survival depends on it. If our ancient ancestors didn’t have stories about sabre-toothed tigers, for example, they wouldn’t know to run when they saw one, or how to kill it, and they would not have survived.

Thinking about the stories we tell as writers can help us be better writers. Are you telling a riveting, funny, sad, important story?

A couple of books to help you think about storytelling and how it relates to your writing:

 

Overcoming Fear of Writing Success

FEAR

By Kevin B on Flickr

You are a writer and you want to be an author. But you may be sabotaging your success from fear. Remember the famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

I never really understood this quote until i started working in a previous career with people who wanted to start their own businesses I saw all kinds of self-sabotaging behaviors. Like the people who couldn’t close on a deal to buy a business or they couldn’t find the “perfect” location, or they looked for loans but gave up after a few “No’s” from banks.

Recently, I realized these same fears sabotage writers too.

Why does fear paralyze us?

1. Old voices. We all have voices in our heads, from times when someone (parent, friend, spouse) told us: “You can’t make a living as a writer.” “There are too many writers; you will never be able to break through.” “You can’t afford to quit your day job.” You may have heard one or more of these old voices. As long as we listen to these voices, and let their fears overwhelm us, we can’t move on.

2. Perfectionism. It’s great to want to do things well, but we often are way too picky about how things must be. We get stalled on that first draft, trying to make the first 50 pages perfect, when really just need to plow through and ‘git ‘er done.’

A friend gave me the best advice about writing:

“My rotten published book is better than your perfect unpublished one.”

3. Fear of Writing Rules. We figure we have to start at the beginning and work toward the end, in some kind of specific sequence. We are afraid that the Writing Gods will smite us if we deviate from the linear approach. When we (invariably) get stuck we figure there’s no way around. No necessarily. James Scott Bell, for example, suggests you start in the middle.

You can start anywhere, stop anywhere, work from anyplace, to any other place. The only rules are the ones you make yourself.

How to overcome fear of writing success

Note that the title of this post is “fear of success.” Some psychologists believe that we fear success because the emotions we feel when successful are too close to the emotions experienced when we are anxious.

Mindtools says we fear success:

  • Because we will have to change our lives
  • Our relationships might change for the worse
  • We fear the added work, responsibilities, and criticism (i might have to do a book tour!)
  • We might be asked to do things we don’t want to do.

Failure is simple, but success is more complex. The sooner you get over your fear of success, the sooner you get where you want to be – a published author.

Timothy Ferris, author of The 4-hour Workweek, has some suggestions for overcoming the paralysis of fears.

1. First, define your nightmare. What is the worst thing that could happen if you fail in your writing career? Spend some time creating a worst-case scenario. Then consider two factors: probability and severity. These are insurance terms, but they apply to many areas of life. First, what’s the probably of failure (on a scale of 0% (never happen) to 100% (guaranteed to happen). Be realistic. Then look at the severity – the cost – of failure. Consider costs as time and money. While I’m not a fan of dwelling on the negative, i do believe you need to look under the bed to convince yourself there really are no monsters under there (like Grover).

For many would-be authors, the only cost is time, because they have a full-time job or some means of support. Even if the probability is relatively small, the cost is also low, so why not give it a try? Convincing yourself you have the time to spend on this without a major negative cost is a good way to get past some of your fears.

2. Then, look at the steps you could take to repair the damage. How could you get your life back on track if you fail at your writing career? Could your ego recover? Some authors have put manuscripts away for years, only to get them out again when the time is right.

3. Consider the outcomes and benefits of positive scenarios. Think about what your life would look like in a “best case” scenario. Creating a positive, specific image of what you could be, and keeping focused on that image, is a wonderful way to overcome fears. Several years ago, I created a poster with photos of my goals (a house in Florida, a dog, a best-seller). Seeing the things I want happen gives me encouragement and helps beat back those fears.

4. Prepare to succeed. Start taking baby steps to your goals. Do one small task every day that will move you toward publication of your first novel or memoir or book of poetry. You don’t have to write 2,000 words a day, but you do have to something every day, even if it’s just writing a blog post or posting something writing-related to Facebook. I keep a writing progress spreadsheet, so I can see how much I’ve done.

 

Onward and upward!

 

 

 

 

My #1 New Year’s Writing Resolution – It’s Not What You Think

There is some magical thing that happens when you put something out into the world. We get what we focus on, what we work on. I have lots of specific goals for 2015, but only one firm resolution for 2015.

My #1 writing resolution for 2015 is not to write 2 hours every day on my fiction, and an hour daily on non-fiction, web course, and marketing.stones success

It’s not to get my first novel (A Hill of Beans) ready to show to an agent or editor, or get self-published.

It’s not to get my easy-start-business-for-writers course (The Thriving Writer) completed and ready for you to join, and have The Thriving Writer book self-published.

It’s not to have a website for my second book (Bridget Larkin’s Journey) completed, with her journal, images, and a first draft of her story done.

It’s not to get my Larkin Chronicles newsletter up and running, with monthly – or more often.

My #1 resolution for 2015 is to begin a writing production schedule and to FOCUS on that schedule. My schedule will include priorities and sub-priorities:

  • Fiction writing first, with Hill of Beans my top priority, then Bridget Larkin’s Journey
  • Then, because I need to make money in order to continue, The Thriving Writer – book and online course.
  • Then my blog and the Bridget Larkin’s Journey blog.
  • And, finally, planning for the future novels in the Larkin Chronicles series.

Notice these are not goals. This is a system. So, what’s the difference?

Goals vs Systems

James Clear, writing in Entrepreneur in December 2013, says we should forget goals and concentrate on what he calls our “system.” For example, my goal might be to write a book. My system is the daily/weekly/monthly writing schedule that will get me there. Clear says that by focusing on the goal we cause ourselves too much stress, not reaching a goal causes us unhappiness, and reaching a goal causes us to quit.

As Clear suggests, I’m thinking long-term. By setting up my writing system, I’ll be more productive in 2015, and future years. My specific goals may be in my head, and they will be replaced by other goals (new novels, different marketing efforts). But the system will continue.

My biggest problem for creating a writing system is the ups and downs of daily life. How, for example, do I account for personal and family commitments, getting together with friends, doctor visits, meetings for the volunteer group I’m a part of, and vacations/holidays?

Writing is the Big Rocks

Here’s what I’ve figured out: Using Steven Covey’s analogy of “big rocks, little rocks,” writing is my big rocks. I have to put my fiction writing into my system first, along with a (very) few personal commitments. Then smaller and smaller rocks, until I’ve accounted for my time.

Yes, I still need to make writing my top priority every day, and I need to do my writing first before I get stuck in the minutia (the emails, checking Facebook, cleaning up around the house). But having a system will allow me some flexibility.

Checking in/Metrics

For a long time, I’ve been a big believer in metrics (checking in to see how I’m doing, based on some specific numbers). Clear also suggests the concept of feedback loops (he uses a spreadsheet). He says:

Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything.

I try to keep it simple:

(1) I have a to-do list for each area I’m working in, because I like to check things off when they are done. By the way, I keep my lists in Evernote, so I can see them anywhere and in any of my devices.

(2) I have started using a writing production worksheet (thanks, Jamie Raintree!) to mark my progress on writing (words, usually, or time editing), marketing, and other writing-related tasks.

That’s all I need to keep me focused and keep track of my progress.

Onward and upward. For 2015, my suggestion is to think in systems, rather than goals or resolutions. You know mine now, so what are yours?

 

 

 

 

There is Only One Story

Campfire Tales

On Flickr by Clevergrrl

Everywhere I turn, I run into the concepts of story and storytelling, and I’m fascinated by the truth that these concepts are central to the human experience. I find evidence of story and storytelling everywhere. Most recently, I encountered a quote I want to share with you.

It’s from True Detective, an HBO series about two cops, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. At the end, the two have a dialogue about the meaning of life, and McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle gives a speech that includes this:

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there [Alaska] but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that [hospital] room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”

Marty: “What’s that?”

Rust: “Light versus dark.”

Is it really true that there’s just one story? I decided to put this statement to the test. Stories about fighting the bad guys (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) are certainly light versus dark. But what about a romance novel? A YA vampire novel? A comedy?

The “dark” can be inner as well as outside. There is the “dark” of loneliness, of fear of death, or fear of what might be called a “death in life,” that might be manifest in many ways.

Take a movie like Tootsie,  in which Dustin Hoffman dresses like a woman to get a job on a sit-com, and he falls in live with his co-star (played by Jessica Lange). Where is the dark? I believe Tootsie has a lot to say about who we are as humans, not just men or women, and our inner longing and loneliness (the dark). In the most poignant scene, the two are in her bedroom, with little pink buds in the wallpaper, and the longing in Hoffman’s character is palpable.

A concept that has meaning for this discussion is what’s called the “dark night of the soul,” the title of a 16th century poem by a Christian mystic named St. John of the Cross. The term is used by Roman Catholics to denote a spiritual crisis, but in its broader sense it can describe what spiritual author Eckart Tolle says is “collapse of a perceived meaning in life.”

The darkness is all around us, and in us too. Storytelling around the campfire is a perfect example of how we try to keep the dark away.

Darkest Winter

As I write this, we are at the darkest point of the year – the winter solstice, when days are shortest and nights longest. I’ve always felt this is a special time, because it combines the reality of darkness with the hope of light, as the succeeding days grow longer.

Gary Zukav, spiritual teacher, says,

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Christmas as the Light

The light vs. dark story is played out in many religions, but I wanted to mention Christianity as a premier example. We celebrate Christmas at midwinter, that darkest time of the year. We sing carols like Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which includes “light and life to all he brings.” I remember as a child going to a Christmas Eve service in which we sang “Joy to the World” while holding lighted candles. The church was filled with light.

The final lines of True Detective return again to the discussion of light vs. dark. Marty has said, looking at the sky, “it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
Then Rust says:

Rust: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”

Marty: “How’s that?”

Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

May your stories bring light to the darkness.

 

Using the Iceberg Principle to Improve Your Fiction Writing

I came across the Iceberg Principle a while back, and found many references to it in connection with Ernest Hemingway. But there isn’t much about how to specifically apply it to your writing. So here goes:

First: the Iceberg Principle, as explained by Hemingway

If you’re read Hemingway, you know he writes in a very concise, even terse, style. See this NYTimes article (or below in this article) for a sample, and note the dialogue – short, almost brusque sentences, and an occasional short paragraph of narrative, with very little description.

Old_Wikisource_logo_used_until_2006

Wikimedia commons: original image by Uwe Kils, Wiska Bodo-Losslessly

As I understand what Hemingway said about the Iceberg Principle, you have to know what you are writing about, but you don’t need to write every word of what you know. “If the writer does his job,” Hemingway says, “the reader almost innately gets a sense of the underlying story, even without all the details.”

Here’s a scene from The Sun Also Rises, from the NY Times article I mentioned above:

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park.”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.

“Do you still love me, Jake?”

“Yes,” I said

“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.

“How?”

“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”

“Don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”

“You ought to stop it.”

“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”

Her hand was trembling.

“I’m like that all through.”

“You oughtn’t to do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

“No.”

“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”

From this short scene, you can get a sense of:

  • the setting
  • how the characters feel about each other
  • their moods
  • the mood of the scene
  • the conflict between the two characters
  • a sense of foreboding
  • and an anticipation of what will happen next.

All in 156 words!

Hemingway had to know a lot about what was going on, he had to know the characters inside/out, and he had to have a strong sense of the setting and background. And, most important, he needed to know what was going to happen next in the story.

BUT, he didn’t need to tell you everything. He could show you in a subtle way, the tip of the fictional iceberg.

If you want another example of Hemingway’s style, to see the iceberg principle played out, read his short story Hills Like White Elephants.  

Then, the Iceberg Principle Applied

This principle works in all kinds of writing and business situations. For example, Chip Scanlon, writing for the Poynter Institute, discusses how reporters must interview many sources and do lots of research, before writing that article, which might contain only a small part of what the writer knows.

When I was writing business reports, I also gathered a great deal of information and had to distill it down to its essence, but I also had to be able to answer esoteric questions. Without a broad understanding of the issue, I wouldn’t have much credibility.

Finally, the Iceberg Principle Applied to Your Writing

How well you prepare to write your novel can make it sellable – or not. Using the Iceberg Principle when you are preparing to write and then writing, can make a difference. Some ways you can use the Iceberg Principle:

  • Build complex characters with lots of back story, not just the protagonist and antagonist.
  • Take time to create your setting completely, whether it’s a fictional world or a piece of the real world. Draw diagrams, maps, blueprints, whatever it takes to give you a sense of the setting. Write detailed descriptions of key places in the story.
  • If you want to create a fictional world, ask yourself all the questions that need to be answered about that world. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers have an article with a detailed list of questions you can work through to build your world.
  • Writing historical fiction? Be sure you know the details about the world in which your characters lived. Yes, this takes lots of time, but it will pay huge dividends in improving your writing.
  • Think about what is happening in the outside world while your story is going on. What events – local to global – might affect the characters and the story?
  • Create a specific timeline for your story – what happens when and what events happen in what order?

Following the iceberg principle in your fiction writing helps enrich your writing. It makes you an “expert” in the story you are writing, and helps your readers feel more involved with your story.

While your readers may not acknowledge your efforts in spending the time to gather the whole iceberg, they will be able to more quickly become immersed in your story and your characters.

As Hemingway said,

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

 

 

 

 

 

Nora Webster – A Novel that Doesn’t Follow the Rules – Or Does It?

Nora Webster, a new novel by Colm Toibin, doesn’t seem to follow the rules for novels. But, as the NY Times Book Review notes, this is a “deceptively quiet drama” that drew me in and forced me to keep reading to the end. In my recent reincarnation as a budding novelist, I have found myself analyzing other novels to see if they follow the path set by strict constructionists like K.M. Weiland and Larry Brooks.

If, at the surface, this novel is just “about” the life of a 40-something woman living in Ireland in the 1960’s going through the first years after the death of her husband, and not about some heroic journey or struggle, why did I like it so much and why did it keep me reading?

1. Nora Webster (the character) is appealing. I sympathized with her plight and wondered how I would respond to the death of a spouse. After the funeral, she must deal with nosy neighbors who come unannounced to offer sympathy but really to have someone to gossip about.

Nora also must deal with friends and relatives (including her own chidlren), who want to give her advice or criticize her decisions. Nora seems to be suggestible, making decisions without much thought. She is convinced by relatives to sell the family’s summer home. Although initially she doesn’t sound convinced, she makes an instant decision when she visits the place and realizes it will provide her with much-needed income.

Nora is also dealing with the memory of husband, who, she admits, was liked by everyone. Her family liked him more than her, and she must figure out new relationships with these people.

The NY Times book reviewer called her “icy” and says she is “distant and sealed off,” even with her children. This writer obviously has never had a spouse or loved one die. I that she was in shock and dealing with her grief, which left little room for her children.

Nora is forced to take a job, after she had loved being at home and married. Her situation sounded pretty awful to me, and she again gets swept along in events without much thought. I thought a number of times as i was reading this about the dictum, “Don’t make any big decisions for a year after a loss.”

Nora’s story ends three years later, when she seems finally to be coming out into the light after the darkness of her grief.

2. Nora’s story is interesting

Ever since I read Larry Brooks’ books (Story Engineering and Story Physics), I’ve tried to analyze novels for their structure. Every novel focused on a main character should have some kind of “hero’s journey,” either external or internal. In an internal struggle situation uch as this book, the character should show progress toward some kind of realization.

Nora’s struggle is quieter, as she tries to move forward day by day, dealing with family situations and work situations and financial situations. Her struggle did keep me reading, to find out what was going to happen to her and whether she was going to get her life together and become independent, if not entirely happy.

A novel should also have high points, “pivot points” as Larry Brooks calls them, at defined points throughout the novel. In the case of Nora Roberts (the character) the high points are not readily apparent. So I looked at the book and tried to find the 1st pivot point (at 25%) and the midpoint (at 50%) to see if the story structure was apparent.

The 1st pivot point comes as Nora and her sons visit her sister and her family. Nora asserts her independence by not going on the family outing and increasing the heat in the fireplace. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a victory of sorts for Nora, who never has been assertive.

At the midpoint, Nora goes to a meeting of workers and votes for a union, without consulting anyone or thinking it over. It seems she is again asserting herself, making her own decisions, when in the past she would have asked the opinion of her husband and others. This decision ends up with some serious repercussions for Nora, as her employers find out about the union and are very upset.

As I said, there’s nothing terribly mysterious or suspenseful in this story. No dramatic ending, either. It’s just the quiet story of a woman. I think that’s why the author chose the name of the book, and why he refrained from another title.

So, can a quiet book that doesn’t have any particular drama make readers want to keep reading? Yes. Even though I recognized that Nora Webster wasn’t going to be plot driven, I was drawn into Nora’s life and wanted to know that she would survive, become stronger, and make a better life for herself.

Sometimes the exception is just an exception.

 

Read my Goodreads review of Nora Webster.

Is Writing Talent a Myth?

talent

H. Michael Karshis/flickr creative commons

Diana Gabaldon, author of the very famous – and lucrative – Outlander series of historical romance novels, said in a recent interview with Kirkus Reviews that she sold her first book before she was even finished writing it. Gabaldon said she sent her unfinished manuscript, through her agent, to five publishers, and her agent ended up negotiating with three of them. So was it her talent that got her this first publication? Or was it luck?

I don’t believe in luck. There’s no such thing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: In my opinion, there’s no such thing as luck.

So if it wasn’t luck, was it talent? Or just good old fashioned hard work? Or maybe it was her ability to engage in “smart practice” – specific self-evaluation while doing her writing.

Over and over, I hear people say that you have to work hard, do the time, write-write-write. It’s the 10,000 hours thing, right? Well, not entirely. Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the 10,000 hours concept, says in a recent Reddit AMA:

practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

Note the conjunction of “natural ability” and a “huge investment of time.”

What about this “Natural Ability” Thing?

A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “Can Creativity Be Learned?” looks at some recent studies of creativity. On the one hand, it concludes, some individuals have “inherent neurological and personality traits” that make them creative. One study

found that highly creative individuals have more activity in the part of the brain containing the ability to make original associations, to blend information from various scenarios and experiences (known as “conceptual integration”), and to understand complex metaphors and comparisons.

This study concluded that the personality trait of “openness to experience” might make some individuals more creative. Another similar study concluded that

people who have brains that process information faster can also make more diverse connections and original associations, a hallmark of creativity

But, says the article, creativity can be learned or encouraged. You can actively build your tolerance to new experiences, as I’m doing with my trips abroad in the past few years.

What need to be “talented”? The Atlantic article suggests some factors contributing to creativity:

 

1.Time – maybe not 10,000 hours, but some time

2. Experience – of life? of hardship? of love?

3. Raw talent (the quick brain processing ability mentioned above), and

4. Openness to new experience.

5. To that I would add self-control, the ability to focus on a task.

Deep Work/Deliberate Practice

And this is where the concept of “deep work” or “deliberate practice” comes in.

Cal Newport  says that deep work is

cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

How to work deliberately

The best place to start on your way to deliberate practice/deep work is to consider this article by Geoff Colvin, called “Talent is Overrated” (PDF version). I’ve done a detailed analysis of this article, and I’d like to suggest you do your own analysis, to think about how you can work more deliberately, to drive the process of “smart practice” in setting up your plan for writing success. His article is for all creative professionals, and it’s very important for writers.

Colvin provides details about how to make your practice smarter and more deliberate, before you do the work, while you are doing the work, and after you’ve done the work. At each level, it’s about understanding what you are doing and why, and being very specific about your goals and whether you’ve met them. Sure, it sounds like the familiar feedback loop, but it’s more detailed, more, well, deliberate.

The “price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high,” Colvin concludes, which is why few make it. The most important take-away from this article, for me was the two questions Colvin asks at the end:

  • What do you really want?
  • What do you really believe? (About yourself and your potential)

Good questions to ponder for all writers. Even Diana Gabaldon. No matter how creative, how talented a writer you are, you’re going to have to work smart to achieve your goals. Every day.

Back to writing…