Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Classic Literature

Another in my series of posts where I talk about the things I like and the things I don't. This time, I'm looking at some of my favorites of classic literature - those books they make you read in school. I read a fair number of 'adult' books when I was a kid, but I mostly read science fiction and fantasy adventures. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is what really got me started as a reader (I've already discussed that here, so I won't bother including it on this list), and I definitely gravitated towards stories that held action and quicker pacing. When I read slower, more thoughtful works, I found them to be rather boring. Sure, I got their point, but often it seemed like they took far too long to say far too little. So here are some specific titles that worked for me, and some that didn't.

The Good

My favorite classic, and perhaps my favorite all-time book, is Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I didn't want to read it. It was part of my AP English class, one of the books on the list for my independent project analyzing representations of greed in literature. I hadn't read any of the great Russian authors, and when I started Crime and Punishment I hated it. It was all in some guys head, talking and thinking about doing things with nothing really happening. It took real determination to keep reading, but at some point, perhaps a hundred pages in, it clicked for me. I got into Raskolnikov's character. I understood him. The writing burst to life and I finished the next seven hundred pages in two days.

That book led me to other great works by Dostoyevsky: The Double, Notes from Underground, The Prince. It also led me to other great Russian writers: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. I loved their introspection, how they burrowed into the human psyche and revealed so many profound yet simple truths. I learned to appreciate action isn't always physical, and you can learn from characters that you would never want to emulate.

I do love Shakespeare though not all of his works equally. Hamlet is probably the greatest play, Much Ado About Nothing makes a better read, but most everything is enjoyable if only for the music in the words. For similar reasons, Nietzsche's works all number among my favorites though Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a work of philosophy/poetry/story-telling that is unequaled as far as I'm concerned.

Mostly I like good tales, interesting stories that transport me to a time and place, such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cervantes' Don Quixote. A little more modern fave's with a speculative twist are Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, and Douglass Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And a special shout out to Iain M. Banks, whose prose inspires me more than any other.

The Bad

I have to start this list with Moby Dick. There are lots of classics that I've read and been unimpressed with, but I can still see the quality of the writing and understand why others think highly of it. Moby Dick isn't one of those. It bored the hell out of me. Sure, the story had potential, and Ahab is an interesting character, but the entire thing was weighted down with useless diversions into mundane details of whaling. The writing was overblown and the pace far from riveting. Ahab and his obsession felt wedged into an academic tome, and I never really cared much about him or any of the characters. Melville's writing didn't do anything for me so it was a good idea with bad execution.

Pride and Prejudice is another one that never connected with me. Perhaps it's because I read it at the same time as Crime & Punishment, but the writing felt weak and the characters shallow in comparison. The truths it explored, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, held no interest for me. If these were real people I would leave their company and have nothing to learn from them.

And in spite of my love for the Russians, they also disappoint me on occasion. The Brother's Karamozov is a perfect example: I went in expecting to find another Dostoyevsky masterpiece but had no interest in the themes at play. And while I loved War and Peace, Anna Karenina was rather meh.

A few other 'classics' that left me uninspired: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye (though I do love the title), The Scarlet Letter, The Grapes of Wrath, and most of Dicken's works. Atlas Shrugged impressed me in high school, but up re-reading it as an adult I found it's message and delivery rather unsophisticated. And Victor Hugo deserves a mention as someone who's held in a reverence I just don't understand.

So how about you all? Do you agree with my choices? Want to show me the error of my ways? I'd love to hear what resonates with others and why.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sunrise - Absolute Write Blog Chain

Another month, another Absolute Write Blog Chain. This month's prompt was pretty loose - pick three words from a list. I tried to fit them into the feeling I have for April weather at the moment: optimism in bleak times. Enjoy the Spring and make sure to check out the other posts, linked below.


The old man emerged from the cave, greeted by a pale sky softly illuminating the rocks that formed his abode. The morning chill seeped through his raggedy furs and settled deep into his bones. He took no notice. Life was a constant ache, one pain followed another, and none of them deserved his attention. With a hunchbacked shuffle he weaved through the boulders until he found a patch of grass, shimmering in the soft light.

He knelt there, a slow process that brought the pain to the forefront, but he focused on his goal. He picked up the rock he had dropped the day before, the one with a shallow depression in the middle. Slowly. Carefully. Lovingly, he shook the individual blades of grass over the rock to collect the evening's dew. One drop fell, moistening the stone. Another fell, and beaded at the bottom.

It had been too long since the rain had come, fitful showers soon chased away by the ever-growing sun. The heat melted away the rest of humanity, and soon it would be too much for him as well, even up in his mountaintop palace. But he went from one blade of grass to the next until the makeshift cup in his hand held all it could.

Rising to his feet took more effort than kneeling and threatened to spill his precious cargo. When he stood, still bent with age, he gathered himself and faced up the slope. It was not an easy climb, but he knew every foothold, every nub of stone he could grab, every place he could sit and rest. Time held no meaning for him anymore. Eventually he reached the summit where his prize awaited him.

The flower drooped more than it had yesterday, but to his eyes it perked up at his approach, and he greeted it with a toothless smile. His hand shook as he poured his precious cargo onto the white petals radiating from a golden center, a gentle sun to contrast the angry one soon to crest the neighboring peaks. He saved half the water; the little plant couldn't take it all at once. He set the stone on the barren earth and sat on his usual slab.

The sky was red now. Not a welcome tone, but a fierce one, a harbinger the fools below would not heed. The old man waited on his seat; waited for the end to come. Soon enough. But at least was not alone.


And the rest of the links:
Angyl78 (link to post)
MJRevell (link to post)
Interfaced (link to post)
BBBurke (link to post)
Syrup (link to post)
Springs2 (link to post)
Forbidden Snowflake (link to post)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Guest Post at This One Time... At Writers' Group

My friend Erika invited me to take part in the blog her writers' group put together: This One Time... At Writers' Group. The theme for the guest posts has been music - we were each given five songs and asked to listen to them all and take inspiration from one and create a story. The results have been some great pieces and I feel lucky to be a part of the fun. Please click over and check it out:

This One Time... At Writers' Group

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Story Notes: Research - Group vs. Individual

As a new writer, one of the hardest things to understand is how to interpret all the absolute statements that are spoken of as rules, especially when they contradict each other. Sometimes it takes a little more in depth analysis and explaining to know how to apply the good advice.

Take for example the age-old mantra: write what you know (or, as I've seen it twisted around and presented more accurately: know what you write). It sounds simple and is good advice - as far as it goes. But combine it with another directive that I believe in - diversity is good - and there's some obvious conflict. Can you ever really know someone who is very different from yourself? Many would say no - in fact, many of those who champion diversity often point out that the privileged can never really understand what it's like to be in the minority. So if you can't know what it's like to be in a disadvantaged group unless you're part of it, how are you supposed to write about it?

It's a specific question with more general undertones. When we write, our stories have to include more than just ourselves, whoever we are. We write about people with different jobs, different genders, different ages, different worlds. We can't know everything about everything, so we have to simplify the task and know what we need to know.

One thing that means to me is that it's not necessary to know the entire group. Because any group is made up of individuals, and those individuals all have different experiences. There isn't a single answer to the question of what is it like to be a person of color in America. Is that urban city America? Rural Midwest America? Middle class America? Future post-apocalypse America? There are so many other variables in any story that any character you create should be a different person from anyone who actually exists, therefore the character's truth is different from any real truth.

This does't absolve you from research. If you are writing about someone/something different, you need to research the subject and get some understanding going. But it does mean that you don't have to because an expert in every aspect and you can extrapolate. You can take one person's account and build off it. I've found that to be important because I can usually find a few good information sources, whether it's from specific individuals or reading personal accounts, that relate to my story/character. A small number of personal stories cannot represent a whole people, but it's okay, it doesn't have to. Anyone who says otherwise has an agenda besides creating good stories.

When doing that research, listen to what individuals have to say, try to understand where that one person in coming from and what their truth is. You don't have to mirror your character on them, but connect to that truth, whether it's a feeling of isolation, a joy in finding others of similar substance, or a different way of seeing the world. It's the personal accounts that help us develop characters who are real, even if their reality is a hodgepodge of realities. Focus on the people and not the type of person. You can't represent an entire group with one character, or even one book, even if you belong to that group yourself. It isn't practical and it isn't good writing. But you can be faithful to a people if you're honest to the individuals who make it up.

The amount of research, the breadth and depth of your knowledge, should also be dictated by the needs of the story. If you're a white male living in suburbia and you want your main character to be a Hispanic transgender farm worker, then you're doing to need to do a hell of a lot of research, both into the groups of people your story will have to include, and also deep into the psyche of such a person who your readers will get to know real well. But if you're a twenty-something lesbian writing about a college kid who has a brief run in with the law before straightening out her life and falling in love, you probably don't need to delve quite so deep into the realities of being a police officer - but you should do enough to make sure that minor character acts in a believable way.

For me, I know I have limited experience. But I have crossed paths with quite a few people over the years. I also try to read a lot - biographies are a great way to learn about a person. I look at everyone I meet, and every character I create, as an individual with a story that's very important and meaningful to them. The more I understand that one person in front of me (even if it's only electronically), the more I can translate that into a real person on my page. I'm sure I will never know what it's like to be a transgender farm worker, but I can know what it's like to be an outcast, or to hide a secret, or to be confident about my differences, or to find someone who loves me just as I am. And I can try my best to learn what those things are like for someone else. Putting it all together, I write what I know and try to create a diverse and realistic world, full of individuals with their own truths. One character at a time.