When I started revamping this website, I added a section of books on writing. The idea is to add books as I read them, or as people (usually members of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region) recommend them to me. I figured since there are a gazillion choices out there for books on the craft, it might be nice to have a place where real people–people who might know each other, mostly through the WCDR–leave their comments on a book they’ve read. I’d feel better about buying a Donald Maass book if my writer friend told me exactly why it rocked his world, for example.
One of the first books I added to the list is THE EMOTION THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I found out about the book at a writing marathon last summer, when I walked by a fellow writer’s workstation and saw it sitting there, next to her laptop. Then I went back to my station and ordered it. I have a thing with eyebrows and shrugging–they are my go-to physical descriptors. THE EMOTION THESAURUS is exactly what I needed in order to think deeper when it comes to body language and emotional cues and reactions.
Soon after, one of the book’s authors, Angela Ackerman, noticed we’d added the book to our database. From then on, she’s acknowledged our little blog and resource site whenever she can. Maybe it’s because she’s also Canadian, or maybe it’s because she’s just a nice and supportive person, but she didn’t just quit at tweeting about us.
A few weeks ago, Angela contacted me with an idea. She’d checkout the website and read up on out Pay It Forward Scholarship, a new idea brought forth by WCDR board member Phil Dwyer. We have 5 books available to “borrow” at our monthly speaker events. A WCDR member can pay a fee (usually $10) to borrow the book for a month. The money goes to the WCDR’s scholarship fund, which are awarded out yearly to members of the organization. Angela so very generously offered to send us a copy of THE EMOTION THESAURUS to add to our PIF selections.
We said YES! obviously.
So, last weekend, the book was added to our PIF selections.
Do yourself a favor and check out the book, whether it’s by contributing to our PIF initiative, buying the book at a store, ordering it online, or downloading the ebook (which I’m told is extra convenient for having it right there to refer to no matter where you’re writing).
You can also check out The Bookshelf Muse, Angela and Becca’s website, which is PACKED with resource for writers.
Thank you, Angela, for recognizing The Writers’ Community of Durham Region and Reading as Writers!
Generally, I read quite a few books I don’t really enjoy.
It sounds crazy, stated just like that. Why would I spend time reading something I’m not enjoying? Why—when I have 180+ books sitting on my shelf to be read, a public library with hundreds of books waiting to be read for free, and more books I’m sure to love being published every day—would I waste some of that time on reading for displeasure?
I can’t give up on a book. Well, I can but it’s very difficult. When I mention this to people, I get this type of response: Life is too short to waste on crappy books. This is a very true statement.
But how do you really know a book is crappy? How do you know it’s not worth your time and should be discarded?
Let me share with you the reasons I stick with an unsatisfying read until I’m about to stab my eyes with a fork:
I buy a lot of books, so when I decide to stop reading one, that stack of bound pages with a bookmark sticking out of it calls to me, reminds me I left this task unfinished. This often leads me to pick up the book again, much later, and give it another try. This is how I discovered that enjoying a book can be about timing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve absolutely loved a book on the second or third attempt at reading it. I’ve put off reading the latest releases of some of my fave authors because I just wasn’t in the mood for their writing style/story/genre at the time—why should it be any different for any other book I’ve picked up? Maybe I just wasn’t receptive to it at the time, but in a year, I will be. For that reason, I often put books back in the queue after a couple chapters read, when I can tell I’m not really as into it as I should be.
If a book has been published, it means more than one person believed in this story (unless we’re talking about a self-published work through a vanity press, where anyone can publish anything). Because of this, I keep telling myself that there has to be something there. Now, of course a certain novel series about shades of grey has reminded us that the “something” it has might not be anything good. But for the most part, we know as writers that we strive to tell the best story we can, the story that grabs us and refuses to stay untold, so I gotta assume this book I’m not really liking is someone’s baby. I have this trust in the writer and in the publishing people that this is going to be worth my time.
IT GETS BETTER:
I remember a popular book I read years ago that had the slowest beginning ever. Well past a third of the book, I was rolling my eyes going, “When is this gonna get good? I’m gonna die here with this book in my hands and it still won’t be done.” The only reason I stuck with it is because someone had written on Facebook that they had read it and that though it sucked for almost the first half, the second half made up for it. So, I kept at it and I did end up enjoying it thoroughly. When I’m contemplating putting a book down, I think, Just one more page. Maybe this next chapter will be good. Just a bit more.
NEW BOOK SEDUCTION:
I have this thing where I develop this crazy obsession with a new book—by reading the jacket flap, reading an interview with the author, having someone recommend it to me, etc.—and suddenly the current book I’m reading feels like this annoying commitment preventing me from going out and experiencing the book I’ve just developed this huge crush on. Then once I’ve got that book in my hands, another delicious book will walk by and catch my eye and suddenly, I have to have that one now. I can’t help myself. I have a bit of self-control and self-awareness so I’m able to tell myself to STOP. There will always be a shinier, prettier book out there. I’ve committed to this book and just because we’re in a relationship now doesn’t mean it’s suddenly sucky; it can still give me butterflies.
I could’ve missed out on many books I loved if I’d given up and moved on to something else. But still, sticking to a book isn’t always a good thing. I’ve been so stubborn about not calling it quits that I’ve quit reading altogether for extended periods of time, just so I can still carry the book around and say I’m “still reading it.” To combat this, I decided to use those blah reading days to catch up on other reading, such as my magazines that tend to pile up. Also, I’ve realized that I get more writing done when the current book I’m reading isn’t that stimulating. But if this goes on too long, I shelf it and I move on. Then I come back and try again. Or I keep glancing at it and telling myself I will come back to it someday, when I’ve gone through the 180+ books I have waiting for me.
Are you a quitter? Do you stick with it? Why?
Does Setting play a big part in your current work-in-progress? Is it an element you put a lot of focus on as a storyteller?
For me, Setting isn’t something I’ve put much thought into. Where my stories take place is pretty generic. In fact, I kind of wanted it to have an it-could-happen-anywhere feeling. Well, not anywhere, exactly. I picked generic Canadian suburb towns. But I want it not to feel so different from some generic American suburb, either. It’s very important to me that my stories be set in Canada, but not for them to be so “Canadian.” I just want those who will pick up my novel to be able to picture its story taking place somewhere not so far from where they might be. So my setting is a group of neighborhoods with cookie-cutter homes, a few schools, a Walmart, and a much cooler, big city close enough to visit regularly, but far enough to make it a world away.
If I was writing science fiction or fantasy, then I know it would be vital for me to look at worldbuilding as an essential element of my fiction. But since my settings aren’t firm places I can anchor myself and my stories into, and they’re not remarkable in any way, I’ve allowed Setting to slip away into the far corner of my mind, the big back-burner of my creative process. That’s always bugged me, except I couldn’t really articulate why.
I just reread a novel where Setting is so integral to the story that it’s almost a character in and of itself. The novel is BANANA ROSE by Nathalie Goldberg. Kevin Craig actually let me borrow his copy and urged me to read it. I did and I loved it. Months went by and echoes of the novel’s setting kept calling to me. In this story, the characters start out in a commune in Taos, New Mexico. As the story unfolds, hippie Banana Rose ends up leaving New Mexico for quite a large chunk of the novel. The entire time, you find yourself physically yearning for her return to Taos. The way Nathalie Goldberg describes Taos, the way she has her characters interact with the land, creates such a vivid, magical place. This is what kept calling to me long after I finished reading.
It made me think about my own setting. Although my story isn’t about its setting the way BANANA ROSE is built around its setting, I still wonder if my setting deserves more attention from me. The three basic elements of fiction are said to be Character, Plot, and Setting (or Place). Setting isn’t only comprised of the actual buildings and streets that hold up your characters. Check out this list of the elements of Setting.
When I looked at the list, it was clear that Setting is actually something I have paid special attention to. The passage of time, the way weather affects the mood of the story, the specific time of year, the social era we’re in—these things are all important to my story and they’re all things I’ve focused on when crafting my manuscript.
Still, I think there’s room for me to utilize my setting, to layer the elements listed in that article into my scenes. The reason BANANA ROSE’s setting was so huge in the novel is because of how the characters interacted with it, how much Banana’s love for Taos was conveyed in such a believable way that she seduced me into loving it, too. This is what I try to keep in mind now, as I write along.
How much do you guys think about Setting when you write? Do you have any tricks or tips when it comes to layering it into your work?
It’s not just a good idea, but an absolute imperative that we leave ourselves behind when we read. This is never truer than when, as adults, we read as writers who write middle grade fiction.
We can’t write middle grade fiction without unplugging from the sensical. I often say that we have to be able to eat the dishes. The song The Candy Man Can talks about eating the dishes literally, but to be truly non-sensical we must eat them figuratively. We have to remember all the wonders that made us gobsmacked when we were children. Not just the scary things like the figures we saw in the shadows of the curtains, but the non-scary factual things that are so wondrous we forget that they’re true.
One of the things that can sometimes make me giddy with wonder is the fact that we are stardust. It’s not just a song by Joni Mitchell. We are literally stardust. In fact, ninety-three percent of the human body is composed of stardust. Turn off your adult mind for a minute. Sit in the darkness with nothing but your childhood mind and the fact that we are made of the stars! I dare you not to feel the wonder.
If you write middle grade—or even young adult, or adult—you must be able to tap into your inner child. You are, after all, creating a new world. A child sees everything she sees with wonder. One of the best ways to prepare yourself to write with your child mind is to read with your child mind.
When the awestruck Miss Honey mentioned how far away Matilda appeared to be, Matilda replied, “Oh, I was. I was flying past the stars on silver wings. It was wonderful.” That is where you have to put yourself as a reader. Inside the book. Inside the story. You must believe! One thing you do not want to do is go back to a childhood favourite with an adult mind and discover that all the wonder is lost through the new sensical filter of the disenchanted workaday mortgage payer.
So, please, whatever you do…don’t be afraid to eat the dishes. Read those children’s books you loved. Become Wendy again. Become Peter Pan. By God, even become Tinker Bell if that’s what it takes! After all, you’re preparing yourself to enter a world of enchantment. You’re preparing yourself to write new tales of wonder for future generations of stardust beings to slip into. Make sure they get to fly past the stars on silver wings. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Now click your heels three times and travel someplace far away. And while you’re there, don’t forget to eat those dishes!
Kevin Craig is the author of three published novels (Summer of Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, & The Reasons). He has two plays in the upcoming 8th Annual InspiraTO Festival in Toronto. Kevin was a founding member of the Ontario Writers’ Conference. He is a proud member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) and is about to step into the role of Vice President on its Board of Directors.
My ritual for book browsing never changes. I wander past the tables laid out with books until one catches my eye. I pick it up, flip it over and read the blurb. Then, if it intrigues, I submit it to THE TEST. The first paragraph; the make or break moment, that one opportunity for the book to grab me. On the strength of that first paragraph, I either put the book down or I march it over to the checkout counter.
The opening is critical for selling a story. Depending on that first paragraph, the story can either pause dramatically at the door as it’s announced, or slink into a corner and forever be a wallflower. What makes the difference? I thought I’d share some of my personal favourites and why they made an impression on me.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R Tolkien:
This has to be my all-time favourite opening paragraphs. There are so many rich, tactile descriptions. You can feel the ends of worms or smell the oozy, nasty scent, and feel the dry sand running between your fingers. But none of it actually describes what a hobbit hole is only what it is not. With such a rich description of what we already know, Tolkien gave us a perfect understanding of what we could not possibly know—the very nature of hobbits and their homes. With the final line, “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”, Tolkien sets us up to be as alarmed as Bilbo himself when he decides to run after an adventure.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens:
Hands up everyone who has seen the movie. Any of them. Fewer have read the book, which is a shame. The story opens up with, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” I laughed so hard when I read that line. I’m pretty sure I grabbed the nearest book browser and shoved it under her nose. Read this! I even went home and subjected it to anyone who would listen. Aside from its humour, it’s clever and sets up the story perfectly. Death is the end, for the most part, but Marley was dead, to begin with. Charles Dickens, never known for his brevity, managed to convey the story in three well-chosen words. Brilliant.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” I referenced this in my last RAW instalment, Reading Neil Gaiman: Stories that break the rules can shine, but I can’t write about powerful first paragraphs without mentioning Lolita. I was gripped with this first sentence and sold by the end of the paragraph with the line, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” In a word tragedy, murder, and unapologetic obsession! It still sends chills down my spine. It speaks to character, strong voice and plot. We get a sense that the story has unfolded and we are a witness to how the tragedy unfolded. Once again, strategic words used to convey story.
Those are my top three openings, the ones that have latched onto me. Share with us your personal favourites and what makes them memorable.
Cryssa Bazos is a 17th century enthusiast and historical fiction writer. She is a member of the WCDR, currently serving as Special Events Coordinator on its board of directors, and she is also a member of the Romantic Novelist Association. Her works have been published in the Red Tuque book anthologies and in the Word Weaver. Cryssa is currently blogless, but you can find her on Twitter at @CryssaBazos
Doing something different…
I decided to pick up the kind of novel I don’t usually find myself gravitating toward when faced with aisles of book to choose from. In fact, the whole genre is falls under isn’t really my thing. I chose to read this novel for a few reasons:
First, because I endeavor to be a student of the craft, and part of that requires me to read. Read a lot, read all kinds of books. I’ve been feeling very book snobbish lately. It feels great to finally know exactly what I like as a reader, to be able to seek out what I know will resonate with me. But there’s also a need to expand my taste, and even to find out what I don’t like and to understand why it didn’t work for me. So, I pick up books that might totally crash and burn as experienced through my filter.
The other reason is that I keep a subscription to The Writer and Writers Digest magazines, and authors are routinely featured in articles. There’s something about reading an interview where the author talks about their storytelling. It takes that book cover I might’ve walked past and not paid attention to and it makes it personal. It makes me really see this work as something more than just a book among many others.
So, that’s what happened. I walked by this author’s book and I remembered the article I’d read. All of a sudden, I was interested in experiencing that author’s work even though the book cover, the blurb, and the genre wouldn’t have invited a second glance from my eyes otherwise.
I read the book and I absolutely enjoyed it. Score. I bought another book by the author. It felt like a nice detour from my usual reading route.
I went to update my Goodreads info and I stumbled on reviews for the book. The big one-star reviews really stuck out and I had to read to find out what the deal was. See, I’d just picked up this book I had zero interest in reading and I totally enjoyed my reading experience—what could be so bad to warrant a one-star rating?
And as I read, I realized that book rating is such a subjective thing, it might as well be worthless—at least when looking at the big picture. I’m not trying to be negative at all here. This is the little epiphany I had as I read the review. This reviewer felt that obviously, this author must have a club of brain-dead fans who just hand out perfect scores to every single one of her books. Only those who like books without any substance will enjoy this book. The premise was simple, characterization flawed and clichéd, the writing boring…blah blah blah. Now, I can be an unforgiving reader. I’ve said some of the things this reviewer said, only aimed at other books that didn’t work for me (well, not the brain-dead thing, though I have been a bit of a reading bully toward the 50 Shades readers…). Certain things that writers do make me roll my eyes and I’ll write a work off if too many of these “things” are present in it. So, I tried looking at this person’s review from that angle. But still, to me, all she accomplished with her review is to insult any reader who has dared to read the book.
Who exactly does this help? What is the purpose of this?
It made me think…
It made me think about my filter, what dictates how a work will be received and interpreted by me. Notice how above, I stated that a book can “crash and burn as experienced through my filter”? Well, that’s the key. That’s what I seem to forget. See, the reader’s filter is always right because they’re the reader, and the work is created for them. But at the same time, the reader’s opinion doesn’t mean much to anyone else because we’ve all got our own filter. The filter is always changing as we grow, we learn, we become writers, we become better writers, etc. So, those opinions, those reviews, as much as they can mean everything, they mean nothing at all. It’s fleeting.
Now I understand why many authors say they don’t read their reviews. Sure, it’s nice to know from readers who love the work, but mostly, it’s just a subjective analysis that means very little as soon as it’s put out there in the world.
I’ve read—or attempted to read—enough books that did nothing for me, that left me wondering how they were ever deemed good enough to be published. I’ve also read enough reviews that trashed books I love, books that changed or rocked my world. I’ve reread books I loved in the past, yet can’t get through in the present—remember this post? That would be further evidence that the filter is fleeting. It’s not that I was wrong then, or ignorant. I was reading differently, and I experienced the work differently.
My review is for me. In this case, a book I would’ve never considered ended up taking me on a worthy ride. I can only assume that my filter allowed me to experience the work as the author intended it to be experienced. For those one-star raters, the book wasn’t meant for you, at least not at the time you read it.
What I learned…
Well, I’m going to be a little more aware of this when I spew my opinions on a book, especially when I didn’t like it. I’m going to stop trashing books (even 50 Shades, seriously) because all that does is insult anyone who has read the work and found any kind of enjoyment in it. It’s not nice. It doesn’t mean I can’t have my opinion, but I’ve just realized my opinion is only useful for me. Sure, my opinion can match other people’s opinions, but still, it’s fleeting.
I’m also going to stop checking ratings and reviews when it comes to deciding whether or not I should give a book a try. There are better places to find reasons, like in a revealing author interview, or through suggestions made by a friend who can give it that personal connection.
I also learned this obvious little nugget: Just because one dislikes a book doesn’t mean it sucks. To that reviewer, I’d say, “Just because you hated the book, doesn’t mean it sucks. And it doesn’t make me brain-dead for having enjoyed it.”
What really matters is that I went out and bought another book by the author, and I let everything else fade away.
What are your thoughts on sharing opinions on books?
There is one thing that fuels a writer, whether they are writing fiction, non-fiction, news articles or blogs, and that is feedback. Feedback from writers; feedback from editors but most importantly, feedback from readers. Of course, there are writers out there that don’t feel they require feedback; that their writing is perfect and anyone that says otherwise just doesn’t get it. For the rest of us, though, feedback ensures that we are heading in the right direction, that we are achieving what we are trying to accomplish.
No problem you say? Well, yes, there is a problem. Feedback can sometimes seem as elusive as Bigfoot and about as reliable as a figure skating judge.
Why is there such a discrepancy? We’ll break down the sources of feedback into three categories, Readers, Writers, and Editors. With the exception of Editors, those categories can often fall into sub categories based on the genres that the readers and writers prefer. It’s up to us, as writers, to sift through the feedback ranging from the loud and opinionated to the silence and everything in between.
An editor’s feedback is brutal and honest. It is about the best feedback a writer can get. The problem is, the writer has to get to that point and in order to do so, the writing process requires initial feedback.
A reader will give you feedback on the story itself; how it flows, whether the characters feel real or if they are just plain confused. This, to me at least, is the most valuable.
How is a writer’s feedback different from a reader’s feedback? Once a person becomes a writer their perspective changes; they become more technical. Things like minor punctuation problems or grammatical errors stand out like sore thumbs and quite often interrupt their enjoyment of a piece. They lose that innocence, if you will. How they read forever changes. I know mine did. So their feedback will be more technical and focused.
With any of these groups, if your writing is outside their area of reference, the feedback can be less effective.
Paints a gloomy picture, doesn’t it. Fear not, you can still glean good feedback from all categories.
Here are some steps on how to get the most effective feedback.
1) Be open to all feedback, the good, the bad and the downright ugly. If you are not, you will not be ready for an editor’s feedback. Remember, you learn from your mistakes and everybody makes them.
2) Be clear what you are expecting when you give someone your work. Leave the substantive editing to the editors. Ask for feedback on particular scenes, characters dialogue. Does it flow, were they confused, is it clichéd or is it just too over the top.
3) Remember who you are asking for feedback. Do not expect substantive editing from readers. Don’t go looking for someone to polish it up for you, or make it perfect.
4) And finally, if you are asked to read for someone else, make sure to refer to #1. Ask what they want; be clear on what you feel qualified to offer.
It is the law of averages. The more feedback we receive, the more complete the picture. Take everything with a grain of salt. Take what you need and file the rest. And say thank-you anyway.
As for why we need feedback, I like to compare it to cooking sauces or soups. “Here, taste this. It’s missing something.” Does that sound familiar?
If asked for feedback, ask this one question, “But what if I don’t like it?” A good writer will respond with, “Then tell me what you didn’t like.”
Remember, too much good feedback will stop a writer from advancing, thinking that they are already good enough. Too much negative feedback will cripple a writer and prevent them from moving on.
As for the infuriating silence, that can indicate that the subject is outside the readers comfort zone, or familiar genre and they honestly don’t know how to give any feedback that would be useful. It could also indicate that they couldn’t be bothered or don’t feel qualified.
So know your readers, and above all, be open to change.
Dale Long is a writer that refuses to be pigeon-holed. Right now, the complexities inherent in the Horror genre have captured his undivided attention. When he is not delving into the darkness of the human psyche, or sifting through the history of Christmas carols, you’ll find him blogging about his writing journey. He can also be found behind the desk of his Late-Night talk show-esque part of his blog, The Author’s Voice, interviewing upcoming authors as well as some famous specials guests.
Check out his website here.
Reading as a writer changes you. Even in books by well-established authors, sometimes small things stick out, as if they have been highlighted. A typo, or leaving a question unanswered screams at me.
Despite the many people who have read a novel before it gets printed, these things can still happen. I’m sure we can all think of a book or two where something not quite right stood out.
This is why writers need to find as many people as possible to read our work before it’s either submitted to an agent, publisher or self-published. Only then can we feel confident it’s ready for the world to see.
But whom do you talk to about your work? When I started to get back into writing two years ago, I first looked for and researched a highly recommended writing group. I found The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR), a group that absolutely motivates and inspires, no matter what your writing level.
I signed up for some of the many workshops in Durham. Being a writer is about learning, and constantly evolving.
I followed WCDR on Facebook, asked lots of questions. I joined NaNoWriMo in 2011 and 2012, and joined several discussion/support groups that helped me finish my first novel.
I’ve gotten to know a few fellow writers well enough to ask questions, and even get feedback from on my novel. I recently joined Twitter, and have “met” many new writing friends, all at different levels.
As much as many of my friends and family express they want to read my writing, they simply don’t have the skills needed to spot changes needed to make to make it the best possible. (Although a couple have surprised me)
Unfortunately, only another writer can truly understand how many hours, energy and coffee go into writing. How we check our e-mails constantly, hoping for feedback or constructive criticism. How the waiting for feedback that never comes makes us wonder and worry. (Was it so awful they didn’t want to reply and hurt my feelings?)
I’ve been told that work-shopping a current project with other writers, whether it is in an on-line setting or in person, can be invaluable. They can usually spot where your work is weak, or point out your strengths. Not only that, but also work-shopping and reading others’ works in progress can be beneficial to all involved. The WCDR has a listing of current writing circles to help a writer get started. It makes perfect sense, and I plan on work-shopping my novel soon.
As I’m currently revising my first novel, I’d love to know how more seasoned writers have gotten their works to that final stage. Do you ask family members, friends, or total strangers? What works best for you?
Mel. E Cober was born in the once tiny town of Tillsonburg, Ontario, but has lived in Durham region the last decade. She is currently in the editing stages of her first novel, “Box of Secrets.”. She’s a member of The Writer’s Community of Durham Region and she also has a strange obsession with the color orange.
Have you heard that all writers are thieves? If you’re a writer, you should’ve. It’s the truth.
This isn’t a bad thing. There’s nothing new about storytelling. It’s all been done before. Over and over again. Writers steal ideas all the time. They spin stories that have probably been told before. Writers emulate others’ writing styles. Really, it’s pretty fun stuff.
I’ve been stealing from writers for roughly three years now.
It all started when I realized I was reusing the same descriptions, the same expressions over and over. My characters walked here, sat there, nodded, and shrugged all over the page for a while. But then it got sort of blah, even to my newbie eyes. I just didn’t have the skills necessary to cook up new ways to describe things. I had no affinity for poetry (still don’t) so visually evocative and/or attractive word combinations just didn’t stand out for me.
But once I realized whatever writing style I had was best characterized as meh, I started reading with more focus. I started reading like a writer.
I began noticing things. My eyes picked up on the cool ways a particular writer described things. Here’s where the stealing comes in: I started carrying a notebook with me and keeping a list of these cool descriptions. I mean, some of them were pretty basic—I was a total newbie with no experience or knowledge about writing. It started with things like simple ways to describe moving really fast from one place to another: One could rush by, zoom past, book it over, pushed past, etc. Pretty soon, I had a decent list. I even had an impressive list of speech tags, that I’ve never looked at again (because I actually thought a writer was supposed to never use said and go for the fancier tags if she wanted to sound legit).
I don’t look at this list anymore. In fact, I didn’t actually use it much. But the act of writing everything down helped me retain it, helped give me a base from which to start building my own writing style.
When I read now, I pay attention. Finding a line that’s oozing with style makes me stop and take it in. It gets filed in my brain somewhere, and then when I’m sitting at my computer, a trace of it might end up in my own writing. Lately, I find what I most strive to emulate is the tone contained in certain writing styles. I may not be actively remembering particular words, but I’m paying attention to structure, to voice.
When you start paying attention, you can’t help but take information in. You notice things that don’t work for you, and you notice what does. Your mind goes, I wanna do it like that! You’re sort of indirectly stealing. This is a great thing. This is reading like a writer, and it’s essential for the development of one’s own writing style. You’ll hear, time and time again, that if you want to write better, you must read. And then read some more.
I said I’ve been stealing from writers for about three years now—before that, I just didn’t care. It’s not until I started stealing from writers that I started appreciating writers.
Do you steal (or borrow, if you prefer) from other writers? How does it show up in your own writing?
When submitting a query for a novel manuscript editors and agents want “comparables”; titles that either address the same issues or share a writing style. While some of us seek to emulate certain writers, most of us strive for unique voice and to tell a story that’s never been told. Since the latter is virtually impossible we hope for a fresh take on an old topic told as only we can tell it.
A couple of years ago as I prepared for a pitch conference I searched and searched for a novel that addressed the plight of decent men who’d been prohibited from seeing their children, a phenomenon I’d encountered not less than a dozen times as I wrote a novel centred around that very thing. I found none. So I switched tactics and searched for a protagonist who’d had good intentions but made a bad decision for which he was endlessly punished. That was a well-explored trope, but I settled on Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, because the writing style is sorta kinda like mine. There were heavier-handed bleaker tales, such as David Gilmour’s, A Perfect Night to go to China, but my story isn’t quite so dark. Finally, I settled on Avery Korman’s, Kramer versus Kramer, but I’d been warned that old titles didn’t have the spark of newer ones. Newer ones that were hot, but not too hot.
I’d never been totally content with these choices, even though I was secretly proud that I had landed on a story that hadn’t been told. And one that several men personally thanked me for writing. I was a pioneer! I’d gone where none had gone before!
I don’t believe in coincidences. Life just balances itself out.
After taking a workshop with Cordelia Strube at the Canadian Authors’ Association conference last spring, I downloaded a copy of her book, Planet Reese. And then forgot about it. Then, when she spoke at the WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region) breakfast this fall, I asked her to speak at a Simcoe County Writers’ brunch and bought a copy of Planet Reese. (Cordelia has written about seventeen books, but I bought only one. Twice. )
This time I read it. (This is where I get to the reading as a writer part.) I not only found my comparable title, I almost ditched my own novel. Planet Reese had a “soft” rather passive protagonist who was an environmentalist, lived in a basement apartment after splitting with his wife, had a father who was dying, a difficult relationship with his mother, couldn’t see his children because he was blocked by the mother in numerous ways, carried a mystery about his sister, and was suspected of molesting his daughter (he didn’t). Oh yes, and he had a thing about shoes. All elements found in my story.
My joy at finding a comparable quickly waned. I wrote to Cordelia. She wrote back. I blogged about this exchange. In short, Cordelia urged me to carry on, that no two stories were exactly the same, and
suggested we were both quite brilliant.
Had I not been a writer, the reading of Cordelia Strube’s sad/funny tale would have been a bit smoother, more entertaining perhaps, but as a writer, reading is always a multi task, multi layered endeavour. We seek to improve our own craft by noting how other authors have handled POV, voice, time transition, information weaving, and so on, while we also sit back and just let the story take us. It’s more work, but much more gratifying. And in this case, it landed me with a perfect comparable title to take to a pitch.
Deepam’s recent literary activity includes being a finalist in both the WCYR’s Poetry and Roses competition and Barbary Turner-Vesselago’s Freefall writing contest. Last year, she won first prize in WCDR’s Whispered Words short prose competition with her story, What’s Left. Her story, Choose the Hammock, published in carte blanche magazine, was submitted to the Journey Prize and The Canadian Magazine Awards. She is currently working on the final revisions of her novel, The Cost of Weather, in order to submit it for consideration. In May, Deepam will begin working on her memoir of India with mentor Donna Morrissey through Humber College’s Creative Writing program.
Deepam organizes writing and yoga retreats in Costa Rica, Canada, and Italy.
She has taken numerous courses and workshops in the craft of writing, including two years of A Novel Approach with Susan Reynolds, a year-long course to complete the first draft of a novel or memoir.
Deepam is the president of the Writers’ Community of Simcoe County, and you can check out her website here.