Godin: An Enemy of Fear…

…an enemy of fear is creativity. Acting in a creative way generates action, and action persuades the fear to lighten up.

Seth Godin

Churchill: You Have Enemies?

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

“You have enemies?  Good.  That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Winston Churchill

The Re-View: Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip (2005)

Od Magic by Patricia McKillip, originally published in 2005 by Ace Books (Penguin).mckillip-od_magic

A literary fantasy set in a magical kingdom resembling Renaissance Europe focusing on the viewpoints of five central characters. A gardener, a professor of magic, a princess, a guard, and the magician’s daughter find themselves entangled in the laws governing all magics regardless of size.

What I Liked

The language, the language, the language. Always the language. I try to be more aware of technical details on other levels, and I appreciate well-laid plants and interesting character arcs, but reading McKillip is just wonderfully indulgence in metaphorical language. Given that Od Magic focuses on the magic, on one thing appearing to be something else, metaphors reflect and carry that image throughout the book.

What I Noticed

This book, both as print and audiobook is particularly well packaged, in that Kinuko Y. Craft’s cover illustration, which includes both front and back captures the essence of the book precisely. Further, only after finishing the book can we the readers understand the importance of some elements in the image. When I was a kid, my parents got me classics–LIttle Women, Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi–with several plates of illustration in them. I wish they did that with books like this: adults appreciate illustration as well!

Od Magic

The Re-View: Od Magic by Patricia McKillip

Or maybe I just want to keep seeing Craft’s vision of McKillip’s worlds… The audiobook is read by Gabrielle Cuir, who is as much a master of her art as McKillip and Craft. The richness and flexibility of her voice match McKillip’s literary style, making the experience of listening to the story much more immersive than reading the book.

What I Learned

While I was re-reading this book, I was also reading Talent Is Underrated by Geoff Colvin (Potrfolio/Penguin, 2008), in which he argues that research shows that the achievements of high performers comes about not due to a genetic advantage or a gift from the gods, but from deliberate practice. He defines deliberate practice (in contrast to undirected, random , time-filling practice–like what a lot of us did as kids when we “practiced the piano for thirty minutes”) as

1) designed specifically to improve performance,

2) can be repeated a lot,

3) feedback on results is continuously available,

4) mentally demanding,

5) not much fun.

We acknowledge that sports and music, and even painting and drawing, require practice, but literature is expected to spring from the authors head as fully formed as Athena. Writers are born not made. Except, Colvin argues, we aren’t. He gives Benjamin Franklin as an example of someone who set about to follow an intensive regime of deliberate practice which resulted in dramatic improvement in his abilities. Once you realize that writing is a skill, like any other, comprised of discrete components each of which is amenable to improvement through deliberate practice, things get interesting.

Stephen King suggests that writers exist in four planes, bad, mediocre, good, and great, and while a writer can move between mediocre and good, it is impossible to go from bad to mediocre, or from good to great. I think Colvin would argue instead that it is possible to move from mediocre to good through random practice, natural improvements that come from unconscious learning. Taking one’s skills from good to great would require deliberate practice, which takes time. 10,000 hours, which means ten years of practicing twenty hours a week.

It is simply difficult for writers to put in that much time, especially if you realize that perhaps the most important skill is creating the first draft. Editing and re-writing is not drafting, even though they are important skills to have.

In view of this, Dean Wesley Smith’s relentless hammering on the importance of drafting, and of making each writing session a practice session for one particular skill, makes very, very good sense. It is the foundational habit for improvement–crucial, if you can even believe it is possible.

I grew up reading, and making up stories in my head. I didn’t compulsively write stories–in large part because it would have taken time away from reading.  For a long time, I didn’t think I was allowed to be a writer, because I hadn’t done it as a child. That writing papers for school came very easily to me simply didn’t count, nor did the fact that I did write poetry compulsively. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized this was a choice I could make for myself, without waiting for a divine permission slip.

And so back to Od Magic and Patricia McKillip. It is tempting to close the book with a sigh and say, “that’s such a great book. So beautiful. I could never write like that,” and let that be the end of it. I am trying to learn not to do that. I am trying to find something I can focus on, one aspect that I can practice.

Metaphor, language, letting one thing stand for another in order to evoke emotion, to paint pictures. It’s what poetry is, in large part. I read somewhere–I can’t remember who wrote it–that it is good to get in the habit of assigning words to things. How are you feeling? Give it words. What does the tree look like? Give it words. Taken a step further, I can (and have) made it a deliberate exercise: think of a topic, write down all the words you can think of, without censoring, without worrying about whether it makes sense. And read poetry; see how others use metaphor, briefly or extended. Inject them all into my blood so when I write, I bleed images.

The Re-View appears the first Monday of the month, featuring a book first published at least ten years ago. I only choose books I really like: if it appears, it means it gets four or five stars.

J. K. Rowling: It Is Our Choices…

"It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

J. K. Rowling

Lana Del Rey: If You Are Born an Artist…

If you are born an artist, you have no choice but to fight to stay an artist.

Lana Del Rey

Aristotle: Excellence, then, is a state…

Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.


Arthur Miller: Where Choice Begins…

Where choice begins, Paradise ends, innocence ends, for what is Paradise but the absence of any need to choose this action?

Arthur Miller

The Re-View: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

Historian, The

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, originally published in 2005 by Little, Brown.

A literary historical thriller set in the early- to mid-1970s with letters presenting scenes set in the 1930s and the 1950s. A teenage girl stumbles on her father’s past dealings the Dracula and finds herself plunged into her own desperate search for the truth.

What I Liked

Kostova used a mastery of lush, metaphorical language to evoke a strong sense of place for each of the varied locations in the story: notably Istanbul, Bulgaria, Romania, but also France, the Netherlands, England, the Adriatic…  She also planted information well in advance of needing it–a crucial skill for thrillers, I think. The premise of the book itself, that the garlic-fearing Dracula of Bela Lugosi’s portrayals is Vlad the Impaler of the fifteenth century and, moreover, is still alive–or rather, undead–today, allows her to delve into the horrific legends of both Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, and thicken the gothic atmosphere.

Maps! The publisher gave us maps! I love maps! Why doesn’t every book have them?

What I Noticed

As I found myself underlining dark, black, red, white, and light where they occurred in the text, I gradually realized that Kostova was relying a fair amount on national origin to convey a sense of either threat or safety. At one point, Paul, the father of the unnamed main character, is looking at the face Helen during a emotionally tense scene (p. 435 in my hardcover), and is reminded of her family history. He is relieved, and on some level, absolves her, when he remembers the other side of her family, “mild, patrician, Tuscan, and Anglo”. I was very uncomfortable by the characterization because it felt like contrasting the literal dark and light of her ancestry. That being said, I am also hyper-aware of the conflation of metaphorical light and dark with race and ethnicity, because of some topics in my own work, and the legend of Dracula, especially, is rife with metaphors of the dark. I’m not sure what to do with the awareness, but it’s there.

What I Learned

As a reader, examining writer’s point-of-view (POV) choices is always fascinating, because I want more. Tell me more about what everyone is thinking and doing. I hate for anything to happen “off-camera”, and being limited to one character, while fascinating, can also be frustrating. Since I also get frustrated because no book is ever long enough for me, I understand that an author must make editorial choices to prevent a book from rambling on too long. Kostova had to deal with several different points of view in order to tell the full story. She handled this by maintaining a first person POV for the skeleton of the book, then fleshing out the story through letters, or through one character telling a story to another, which worked, brilliantly. How those different parts fit together into the physical book, however, varied. An actual letter is given in italics within the text. When the protagonist’s father tells her a story, it is usually given its own chapter. His words are not enclosed within quotation marks, but the speech is identified by inserting “my father said,” as a clause within the first sentence. In the second half of the book, however, Kostove abandons the main character’s narrative (by necessity, as she is much closer to the climax with a great deal of backstory still needing to be provided), to focus almost exclusively on the letters of her father. The editors chose not to continue the use of italics to identify the letters, probably feeling that it would be disruptive to the flow, but instead enclosed them within quotation marks. However this lead to starting every single paragraph for at least a quarter of a six hundred forty-two page book with double quotation marks. And when that paragraph was dialogue, the quotes were nested. And of course, the dialogue, very rarely, quoted another individual, so the editors gave us “‘” to start the paragraph. It would have been much better–much kinder to the reader–to have found another way to offset the letters of the father. The easiest, perhaps, would have been to parallel the oral stories by writing “my father wrote,” in the first sentence and leave it at that. It certainly would have been more comfortable to read–the constant quotation marks meant that I was forever checking to be sure that I was recognizing dialogue and narrative properly.

I was aware also of her choices to ‘show’ or to ‘tell’. Writers are, of course, universally enjoined to “show, don’t tell”, but the flip side of that is every motion must be portrayed in excruciating detail. I paid particular attention to Kostova’s choices of when to give detail and when to summarize because I’m trying to understand the balance of the two, and how it changes the reader’s experience. While I started out crankily wielding the editor’s pen and underlining phrases like “she looked at me oddly”, I realized very quickly that only some much attention can be lavished on details. Kostova’s lush descriptions would be weighted down and overbearing if every single thing were spelled out. Sometimes the narrative is better served by summarizing, by telling and getting on with it. This is particularly true, I suspect, for a thriller, when pacing is everything.

~A note: remember that while I may point out weaknesses, I loved this book. Go read it.~

A New Series: The Re-View

A book review series: The Re-View.

I love books. I am, before anything else, a reader, and if I didn’t have other obligations that demanded I interact with the real world, I would do nothing but read. I am also a writer, and I’m trying to learn to read books as a writer. This means I’m reading with a pen in my hand, making notes and comments, trying to interact with what I read. It doesn’t cheapen the experience, which I was afraid of, but gives the book more depth and helps me to understand what the author is doing throughout the work.

A book I haven’t read is a book I haven’t read, whether it was published yesterday or last century, or a few centuries before that. The newest book isn’t always the best book. When I look for the next book to read, I don’t just look for the latest book to come out, although I always look forward to finding new books by authors I love. I just want to find another book to fall in love with.

In that spirit, I’m going to start a new series, The Re-View. I will review books, but with a twist: only books that have been out for a while. I’m taking a shot in the dark and saying books that have been published no more recently than the last decade, but I might change my mind about that. Or make exceptions to it. Or not. Who knows?

I only finish books that I like, and I don’t have the energy to write a negative review, so anything I review here is something that I’ve loved. That being said, I intend also to pick it apart, to understand what worked and what didn’t. I want to learn from it. Toward that end, I’ll focus on three areas: what I liked, what I noticed, and what I learned.

My goal is to look at one book a month, on the first Monday, but I might increase it. We’ll see.

Richter: Our memories…

Our memories are the only paradise from which we can never be expelled.

Jean Paul Richter


In Loving Memory

Marcia Kay Purdy

September 24, 1952 – December 2, 2014

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