Craft Quote #5 – Why Do We Write?

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Photo: Goodreads.com

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
—George Orwell

George Orwell authored dystopian masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984, which are now required reading in many high-school English classes around the world, and still considered the process of novel writing to be a dire one.

So why did he do it? Why does any writer, famous, infamous, or aspiring, do it? Short stories and novellas are also a struggle to complete (in some aspects, even more so than a novel). Clearly there is some unknown entity that chases most of us writers. I, for one, have no idea why the strong urge to write has followed me through childhood and well into my twenties, even when I stifled art in pursuit of other careers it was only a temporary distraction and attempt at not being my mother’s worst nightmare. I may not understand what initially sparked my desire to write, write, write, but I have some idea of why I am doing it now; I love the empathetic perspective writing requires; there are endless cultures and lifestyles waiting to be explored and recreated; the rhythm and clarity of a well structured sentence is something truly wonderful; I’m a nerd for the emotions words create, and a sympathetic person that I also hate; there’s a story in me that needs to be written.

Why do you write? Do you remember the first time you picked up a book and thought I could do this!? Do you also remember how wrong you were about how easy it would be?

Craft Quote #4 – Good Writers Read [All] Books

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Photo: jennyhallart.com

Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

– William Faulkner

Almost every writer can be quoted as saying something similar, but it does not quite hit home until a Nobel Prize winning novelist, short story author, and most influential American writer of the twentieth century marks it as good advice (especially for us aspiring writers). Read often, read outside of your comfort zone, read the unexpected.

What are you reading? What are the most influential books you’ve read? Who are some of your go-to authors for inspiration or just a good old lit fix?

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyouLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

If you have heard anything about Celeste Ng’s (that’s pronounces “ing” her twitter and website will have you know!) debut novel Everything I Never Told You this first line is probably it. It’s plastered all over synopsis’ and reviews because Creative Writing 101 tells us the first line of a story is what will attract (or distract) a reader. Seeing Celeste Ng obviously had a good understanding of this I knew I was in for a good time. I picked up a copy from my mum’s bookshelf and quickly read a few paragraphs before pocketing it. My mum now supervises my visits to her study, with good reason.

Everything I Never Told You is about the Lees, a mixed Chinese and Caucasian family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When sixteen year old Lydia Lee disappears and is found drowned a day later, her parents Marilyn and James, older brother Nath, and younger sister Hannah go through the motions as an investigation starts and the events leading up to Lydia’s death are picked through with a fine tooth comb, forcing them to question how well they really knew Lydia. It’s not long before we find that Lydia was an integral part of the family which, without her, starts to fall apart at the seams like a cheap dress coat. The plot goes back and forth in time, through Marilyn and James’ early relationship and marriage, Lydia’s dealings with her school mates and few friends, all revealing secrets long the way. Perspective is switched from one family member to another which adds a closeness to each of their stories, including Lydia. At first this reads like a mystery or thriller but as the story unravels a majority of the focus falls firmly on each family member’s memory of Lydia and what they believe were the events leading to her death, rather than how she died or who is responsible.

As the title suggests, this novel focuses on things left unsaid and the repercussions that linger because of it, which was the main reason I was pulled through the book. I was curious who would find out about someone else’s dirty business, curious who would be left in the dark, curious about what was being left unsaid to us readers. Celeste Ng puts together poetic sentences and knows how to paint a scene with her words, making this book an easy and enjoyable read for me for the most part. But, there is a lot of hand holding through plot assumed too difficult for readers to figure out for themselves, which is unnecessary since those moments were very predictable. There were times I knew I was supposed to think Oh, no way! but would just think Knew it. and want to move on to the next juicy thing happening. This book is very “juicy”. Lots of drama and chaos on the surface, but little meat or real substance when in the thick of it. 

Everything I Never Told You pushed me to ask myself some questions: 1. Can a character be too unlikeable? Yes. 2. When is a character too unlikeable? When I stop caring what happens to him/her. I could not stand Marilyn and James, prime examples of parents who project their fears and shortcomings onto their children (if you’ve seen Trophy Kids on Netflix, ‘nough said). While Lydia is alive they neglect their two other children, Hannah and Nath. Marilyn seems to forget Hannah even exists as she sets the dinner table for four instead of five, and can usually be found helping Lydia with homework or in a daze thinking about her lost dreams of becoming a ‘woman doctor’. A dream long gone after marriage and three kids. When Lydia dies her parents go from neglectful, selfish, and oblivious to emotionally and physically abusing to their two remaining children.

When is a character too unlikeable? When they have literally no redeeming features. The kids are pretty shitty people too, but through no fault of their own.

Relationships and family dynamics are exaggerated to the point that whenever Marilyn talks to Lydia it is always about getting good grades and becoming a doctor. James only sits Lydia down to remind her how great it is to have friends, even boyfriends, and be popular. I know what Celeste Ng is trying to drive home, but it is overstated and at every opportunity. With Marilyn being Caucasian and James being Chinese American in 1970s Ohio race is discussed endlessly throughout the book. A nice perspective to write on, but again was exaggerated at every opportunity. James is self conscious about being one of few Asian people in Ohio. His teaching assistant (also Chinese, go figure) is surprised to see a family photo with him and his gasp white wife (and actually says this). Lydia is James’ favorite child because she looks the whitest.

And there is no way to make that sentence sound any less ridiculous.

James would love to take a wet wash rag to his skin and magically wash away his Asianess and cannot stand the sight of Nath because he’s a spitting image of him in complexion, appearance, and timid personality. He often yells at or hits Nath whenever a little too much of his younger self shows through Nath’s actions or speech.

His not getting a promotion is because he is not white. He has no friends because he is not white. He feels like an outcast in his own family because he is not white.

This is the point their relationships and dialogue became uninteresting and unbelievable and I stopped wondering what happened to Lydia since she was better off dead anyway.

I have never read a story where I ended feeling so conflicted about the framework and the author’s writing. Although I closed the book feeling slightly pleased by the ending I knew I was supposed to be weighed down by the revelations that came to light, but they were lost on me since I had stopped caring. I kept on reading for Celeste Ng’s fluid style and beautiful sentences. And the juicy bits.

What books have you read that left you feeling conflicted? Do you enjoy reading about unlikable characters? When do you think an author can make their character too obnoxious?

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

themartianIt is no secret that I love science fiction. I walk, live, and breathe Philip K Dick, and that is not an overstatement. So after seeing the trailer of The Martian and falling to my knees in astonishment that maybe – just maybe – a film would not completely annihilate the image I had of a book, I downloaded a copy and read it in record time to get ahead of spoilers that would inevitably come along.

Voted Goodreads Best Science Fiction of the Year (2014) and written by a self proclaimed “space nerd” Andy Weir, this debut novel is a hard science fiction unlike any that has been released in recent years. Hard science fiction sticks relatively close to the constraints physics has in the real world; that means detailed martian maps and excludes faster than lightspeed travel and mind reading alien babies. Heavy in technology, metaphysics, and a whole lot o’ chemistry, The Martian rivals classics like the Rendezvous With Rama series (Arthur C. Clarke) with similar crew dynamics, space exploration, and clever detail.

The Martian is a story of human resilience and resourcefulness. Think resourcefulness that kicks in when a group of people lift a train off a passenger who forgot to mind the gap. Aron Ralston resilience. The story follows the unfortunate aftermath when an Ares 3 mission on Mars is cut short due to high winds, forcing the crew of astronauts to abort their mission only six days in. On the way back to the shuttle astronaut and botanist extraordinaire, Mark Watney, is speared by an antenna and thrown out of sight of his crew. They search in vain before deciding he must be dead and they leave him behind.

Mark grips to consciousness in his breached suit, completely alone, with the low oxygen sensor blaring wildly and sums up his situation and sense of humor in the first line of the book (the one that decided I would upgrade my kindle sample to an entire book download): “Well, I’m pretty much fucked.”

Yes. Yes he is.

With no way to communicate with Earth or his crew members, the bitter thought that no one knows he is alive starts to set in, and he finds the only feasible way of being rescued is to wait for the next Ares mission to arrive. Stocked with 300 liters of water, 400 days worth of meals, twelve potatoes, and other supplies left in the Hab he quickly does the maths and finds he has enough to survive 490 days.

The next Ares mission will not arrive for another 1412 days, four years.
Indeed, he is fucked.

Mostly told through a series of logs typed by an incredibly sympathetic protagonist (now the king of Mars), the story shows how he deals with death and a sudden disconnection from society- with persistent belly laughs.

The Martian is laced heavy with scientific jargon but Mark’s humor being peppered throughout adds a layer that transforms otherwise mundane details into enjoyable moments of the plot. The act of potato farming has never been so interesting before it was placed on Mars, especially as Mark mulls over ideas for “human fertilizer” that will nourish the project. While every decision he makes turns into a choice between life and death (and the occasional choice between reading or listening to disco to pass the static time), all hell breaks loose on Earth after a young woman at NASA surveys photos of the Ares 3 site and spots signs that Mark is alive. The world holds their breath as media coverage turns to watch what, if all goes wrong, could be the first man to die on Mars. As the world looks on and does what it can to support the lone astronaut some scenes are reminiscent of Cast Away with a hint of reality television as Mark fights unknown terrain that tries to kill him at every turn.

The Martian is a story about human connection and how far people will go to help each other just because we have the same basic instinct to survive, even when the odds are stacked against us. Occasionally the plot takes a look into the personal lives of Mark’s crewmates revealing odd ball relationships and loyal camaraderie, but I found these moments the least interesting and barely necessary. Blame that on me already finding a great character in Mark Watney. While the other characters were attempting to form shape in the story they served as little more than background noise while I waited to get back to who I actually wanted to know about – Mark.

One thing the departures from the main protagonist serve for is dialogue and action. Since a majority of the story is told from one perspective these segments of the book read differently because there are multiple characters and we catch up with what they know and what they can and cannot do to help get Mark back to Earth. Still, the best parts of the book are Mark’s ramblings.

Following huge films like Gravity and Interstellar, this science fiction becoming a bestselling book and upcoming film is not surprising. The massive following The Martian has managed to garner in praise and movie deals (with actual good actors) goes to show this book has a great story to tell. Matt Damon will bring out Mark Watney’s charming disposition on the big screen with Jessica Chastain playing Commander Lewis. With science fiction attracting an absurd amount of viewers and unearthing a new generation of disciples The Martian is bound to fall in favor, but I am glad I read the book first – it is always be better.

Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrPrior to joining this book club as a way to broaden my genre horizons I had avoided the historical fiction section of any bookstore like the plague. But for some reason I was intrigued when I heard we would be reading All The Light We Cannot See, a story about Marie Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan boy, whose polar opposite lives eventually collide during Nazi occupied France. The potential for a romance and star crossed lovers situation were the first thoughts that came to mind after reading the synopsis, and I held onto this hope when I found out the book was five hundred and thirty two pages long, and even when Amazon would only sell hardback copies for $17… I decided I was in it for the long haul.

So after coddling this five pound book for a month and a half between Los Angeles, London, and Paris, floundering between liking it and not, I finally finished and marked another occasion where I don’t understand the popularity behind a book.

The language Anthony Doerr uses is no doubt beautiful and imagery particularly during Marie-Laure’s chapters make you feel as if you are fingering your way through Saint-Malo and the halls of her uncle’s creaky home, but the constant person, time, and location changes frequently put me off. At one point the story would be with a young Marie-Laure on one of her many walks with her cryptic father, and a few pages later the plot would be catapulted years into the future with a teenage Werner in military academy. These changes flip between Werner and Marie Laure every chapter so it is easy to decipher which character will be the focus, but being thrown into a random time and place every few pages frequently took me out of the story.

My main issue with this book is that I lost interest in it. The story was not lacking in interesting characters or page turning moments, but when I got halfway through (and realized that was only page 270!) reading the book turned from something to pass the time, to a chore. Rather than look forward to finding out more of the plot I counted the pages until I would be finished. And I looked forward to meeting with the girls in my book club to hear whether I was the only person who could not appreciate literature, or whether they too, had no idea why this book had such a huge following.

After all this it turned out I had to work so could not go to the discussion, but the general consensus was-’…I didn’t finish it/I didn’t like it,except for one girl who fell in love with the story.

I think it is best that I go back to avoiding the historical fiction section of my book store and venture into romance next time I feel like trying something new.

 

Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

theroadLet me start this off by admitting I went into this book as a skeptic. A nonbeliever of Cormac McCarthy’s literary prowess. Never mind his book-movie deals, video games, and prizes, perhaps his style just wasn’t for me, I thought, and it was about time I begin my life on the outskirts of society.

The first book I picked up of his was multi-award winning Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. Course. Violent. The odd decapitation and writhing in the entrails of the enemy. Yea… So, before committing to a kindle sample of The Road I knew two things about Cormac McCarthy:

  1. Amazon book suggestion seriously wanted him in my life.
  2. I had only made it a third of the way through the other book of his I read and it was a horrid struggle.

Blood Meridian judges me from my bookshelf, story half told, gathering dust between a Cajun style cookbook and a No Fear Shakespeare book. The shame.

leaf graphic

A polar opposite, The Road, was a pleasant surprise for me. Riddled with themes of dystopia and a touch of horror, the plot surrounds two characters simply called ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic world covered in a thick toxic ash. The man remembers life before this time but his son is too young to remember the former world which often draws a divide between the pair. In this new reality no one can be trusted, life is hellish, cannibalism is commonplace, and the few who remain trek an endless road to what they hope is salvation. The plot focuses primarily on the relationship and dynamic between father and son, with the man trying to shield the boy from a world of chaos only to realize not every bloated corpse or ‘bad guy’ they encounter on the road to nowhere can be avoided. And at this point, why shield the child from what is essentially his life?

As exciting as the majority of the book is I felt an occasional lull between events, probably because of some repetitive dialogue, no apostrophes, and no identification of who is speaking.

So when are you going to talk to me again?

Im talking now.

Are you sure?

Yes.

Okay.

Okay.

Who is speaking?! The son. No, the man? Why would you do this?

I rely on “…. said” more than I realized, it’s a crutch. Not being told exactly who is speaking takes some getting used to, but after the initial urge to add punctuation where needed subsides the story soon picks up into another character defining moment for the boy or a critical event in the relationship.

To kill or not to kill scenarios are a plenty and defeated moments where they just stop and ask; what are we carrying on for? Why?

Well thought out and beautiful metaphors propel The Road into my successful random reads and proves second time’s the charm in this case. McCarthy utilizes the sometimes double-edged sword of flashbacks to perfection, revealing where the seldom mentioned mother stands in the darkness of this new place and an additional layer of empathy towards the characters. Too. Damn. Good. To be honest, initially I found myself siding with the dad, wishing his naive son would keep quiet and appreciate all that was being done for him. But soon I jumped ship and took on the child’s perspective. Simply a scared young boy looking for the good in a derelict wasteland he calls home, hoping he can find one with intentions as pure as his.

All the emotions!

Cormac.

Can I call you Cormac?

Please forgive me, I was a fool.

A damn fool.