Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Fire in Fiction

At last year's Surrey International Writers Conference, I took a master class from well-known agent Donald Maass. Laptops and notebooks in hand, we rewrote a scene from our own work, adding tension to dialogue, looking for sensory details only our protagonists would notice, etc. The scene I worked on that day is, IMHO, by far the best-written scene in my WIP. (Unfortunately, it's not terribly relevant to my plot based on how the story developed in later scenes, and my critique partners are telling me I might need to kill this particular darling.)

The Fire in Fiction (2009) amounts to nine of those master classes. (And the exercises from ours are found in Ch. 3.) It's full of ideas for strengthening your fiction, along with examples from published novels, most of them recent, with exercises that strike me as actually useful. The copy I read belongs to the library, but I'm going to be getting my own for use in polishing the WIP for submission. I recommend it highly for writers who are ready to go beyond the usual writing guides with their lectures on how to outline and interview your characters and excise adverbs.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surprised by Hope

My pastor recommended N.T. Wright to me as a theologian who might appeal to someone who loves CS Lewis, but doesn't think he has all the answers the way I did 20 or 25 years ago (have I really been reading Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters for that long? I'm getting old!), and who occasionally wants to slap Lewis silly for his sexism.

Surprised by Hope (2008) is my third Wright book, so I'm obviously getting enough out of his work to keep coming back for more, but it must be said upfront that he's no CS Lewis when it comes to turning a phrase. Then again, few of us are. Lewis is one of my all-time favorite prose stylists, right up there with Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian, and (really!) Judith Martin/Miss Manners. No matter what he's saying, how he says it is pure readerly joy. His sentences flow with all the beauty and freedom of a clear mountain stream tumbling over rocks. Wright's prose, by comparison, is more of a slog through molasses.

But I do like his approach to theology. He uses some of the same arguments for faith as Lewis, but presents them less as proofs than as matters for consideration, which I find comforting and refreshing as someone who just doesn't seem to be wired for certainty. In this book, he focuses on the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which many of us Christians recite in the Apostles' Creed but otherwise rarely think about. Wright contends that it's a crucial point, because it proves that God's purpose is to redeem creation, not to destroy it, so it cuts into the subtle heresy of dualism that's common in many parts of the church--a dualism which in its most extreme form leads to Christians who are anti-environmentalism because God's just going to destroy this world soon anyway, and to turning away from the fight for justice and meeting material needs because saving souls is what matters.

Royal Mourning and Regency Culture

To be honest, I skimmed Royal Mourning and Regency Culture (Stephen C. Behrendt, 1997). It's research for my alternative history, in which, among other things, I have a British royal death or two. It occurred to me as I was revising that I know next to nothing about the relevant mourning and funerary customs. The nearest real royal death to my fictional ones was the 1817 death in childbirth of the Princess Charlotte, at the time the only legitimate grandchild of George III and therefore after her father the Prince Regent heir presumptive to the throne. Her son was stillborn, and the double tragedy set off a series of belated marriages among her uncles, ultimately leading to the birth of the future Queen Victoria.

Behrendt's book looks at the cultural response to Charlotte's death as an early example of the kind of public grief we've seen in our time over figures like JFK or Princess Diana. He analyzes everything from poetry to commemorative prints to essays tying Charlotte's life and death to the post-Waterloo uneasiness and social upheaval facing England at the time. Reasonably interesting stuff, if you're a research geek like me...but I still ended up skimming, since I was seeking general principles to apply to my fictional deaths rather than trying to learn all the details of poor Charlotte's real one. (Charlotte's death resonates with me more than you'd expect for an obscure royal who died well before I was born, because it's highly possible she had preeclampsia, which there but for the grace of modern medicine would've killed me, and I first read about her case not long after my daughter was born.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Graveyard Book

It took me just a few hours to read The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman, 2008). It's YA, so it's not a long book, and there's a spooky lyricism to both the writing and the story that kept me turning the pages.

It's Jungle Book in a graveyard, basically, with ghosts taking the place of the animals and bringing up a boy who alone of his family survived a gruesome murder. An eerie, wistful coming-of-age story...really, it's hard to describe this book. If the concept appeals to you at all, you should just go read it.

The Now Habit

It would be premature to say The Now Habit (Neil Fiore, 2007 ed.) changed my life. I just finished it yesterday, after all. But I do think it solidified my thinking on issues I was already learning how to deal with and gave me some good new strategies as I try to be more productive and build a better life for myself.

Unlike a lot of books on procrastination, The Now Habit examines the root causes of the problem instead of just teaching a new system for your calendar and to-do list. And in Fiore's view, being a procrastinator doesn't mean you're lazy, but that you've learned a less than optimal coping strategy for dealing with perfectionism, fear of failure, and/or being stuck in a situation where you feel powerless. So he asks you to examine the reasons you're putting something off and offers strategies to help you feel safer and/or more powerful. Also, since a common reason for procrastination is the fear that you'll never get to relax again, his system requires you to schedule breaks and time for play first. I'd stumbled across that idea on my own. I have a daily list for the projects and tasks I'm working on outside work, and once I've crossed everything off for the day, I'm done. Instead of working on tomorrow's work, I curl up with a book or watch fun TV, and it's downright reinvigorating.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

For Liberty and Glory

For Liberty and Glory (James R. Gaines, 2007) is a joint history of the American and French Revolutions, viewed through the lens of Washington, Lafayette, and their friendship. Though I know quite a bit about both revolutions, Gaines highlights linkages between the two beyond the obvious and brings the social and cultural context forward more than most histories of the era.

Gaines doesn't explicitly say so, but reading his account of events in France made me wonder if the difference in population density impacted the outcomes almost as much as the fact the Americans had some experience of self-government and came from a system that already limited the powers of the monarchy, while the French were trying to move all the way out of absolutism at once. America, a country with low population density and no city close to the size of Paris, could handle the chaos of a revolution and the weak central government prior to the Constitutional Convention because such uprisings as there were were isolated, and they didn't have a big, half-starved city providing angry mobs to drive the revolution to unhealthy extremes.

Before reading this book, I didn't know much about Lafayette, but I ended it admiring him. He wasn't the most brilliant figure of his age, militarily or politically, but he was honorable, courageous, and consistent--he had his principles at 19, and he followed them still at 70. And I have to admit to getting a bit verklempt at the end, when Gaines points out just how much of Lafayette is in the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic--i.e. the current one, the one that gives every appearance of being here to stay. That's the vindication of history for you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reading Drought

Every once in awhile I'll go through a phase where I just can't finish a book. I pick up novels and get annoyed by the characters a chapter in, or by the writing a few pages in. I start nonfiction histories and am interested for a few chapters, but ultimately get lost in a sea of unfamiliar names and stop caring what happened to any of them. And it's frustrating, because there's nothing like the pleasure of getting lost in a good book.

I'm in such a drought now, as evidenced by the fact I haven't blogged about a book in over a week. In that time, I've cast aside a pair of novels, one a YA historical novel that was just a tad too Afterschool Special in its life lessons, the other a double period piece--it was written 80 or 90 years ago, about events that took place ~350 years ago. In the right mood, I could've enjoyed both books, but this week I didn't feel like being preached to by the former, nor putting up with certain old-school conventions of the latter. (No protagonist of mine, whatever his century, woos his woman with "punishing kisses." He just doesn't.) I've also abandoned two nonfiction histories which started out promising but turned dry and slow-paced.

I hope I get past this soon. I started a new research book this morning, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture, by Stephen C. Behrendt, on the cultural impact of Princess Charlotte's brief life and tragic 1817 death in childbirth. This just shows what a geek I am, but so far it's a page-turner. I'm also about to start a semi-research book, For Liberty and Glory, by James R. Gaines, about Washington, Lafayette, and the American and French Revolutions, which sounds so fascinating it had better be good. And if that doesn't work, I've got a Bernard Cornwell in my TBR pile--nothing like a writer you know and trust to tell a good story.

What about you? How do you get out of a reading drought?