On Writing

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (On Writing by Stephen King)


on writing coverIn his memoir on writing, King frequently uses the phrase ‘you must kill your darlings’. Meaning, axe your favorite parts when they detract from the main point. Hypocritically, he ends the whole book with a giant un-cut darling: his car accident in ’99. Though he claims the story illustrates the healing power of writing, he’s just talking about the generalized healing power of work. Setting aside the ending hypocrisy, and the meaningless beginning biography, King packs some powerful big-picture thinking about his craft into the middle chapters that make the whole hodgepodge well worth a read.

I’ll summarize:

To write, you must read and you must write. A lot.  Bad writing stems from a fear of being misunderstood. Passive sentences stink. Active sentences rock. You must learn the fundamentals of grammar before you break the rules. Adverbs are weeds that need to be cut. Quote attribution should never be more complicated than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. The shape of a paragraph has more meaning than the details of a sentence. Write how you speak – if you use simple language in real life, use it on the page – if you speak like an academic during the day, then write like one at night. Write your drafts quickly, all at once. Take a break before editing. Listen to the beat.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288
Ending: Hypocritical
Incidental Learning: You came to learn about writing, you end up learning a lot about Stephen King
Further Reading: Another great writing manual/memoir is ‘Bird by Bird‘ by Anne Lamott

The Martian

“The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.” (The Martian by Andy Weir)

“As with most of life’s problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.” (The Martian by Andy Weir)

The MartianIf you were to guess the genre of The Martian based on the title, cover, and press, you’d probably think ‘sci-fi’. Yet, you’d be wrong. Science fiction envisions a future based on current trends, scientific discoveries, or blind hope. Science fiction novels focus on atmosphere, create new language, or scare you with their believably. The Martian does none of this. After reading the first few pages, you might take another stab at picking out a genre for this book: survival. Yet, your standard survival genre novel hinges on the reader being scared for the characters’ lives. It is almost impossible to be afraid for the excessively competent, always-optimistic Mark Watney (aka The Martian). So where does that leave us?

The Martian creates its own genre. It is a genre of pure problem solving. Mark is confronted with a problem (i.e. surviving on Mars) and he solves it step by step, letting the reader in on his original, humorous thought process as he plants potatoes, calculates oxygen levels, and plans for every scenario. The sparsely defined outer space setting is merely an excuse for more problems to thoughtfully solve. Unlike any other book or genre, you leave this one with the sense that all of life could be led like this – moving from one solvable problem to the next – if only you yourself could keep the setting and background noise down to a minimum.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 385 pages
Ending: Satisfying, but I wish Weir would’ve gone on to show life back on earth and how this adventure had changed it
Incidental Learning: Science – tons of it, problem solving, outer space, mars, space travel
Further Reading: I’ve heard that the TV show MacGyver might be in this same problem solving genre, but I can’t confirm myself.

Marry Me

Box of Europa EditionsIf I had one wish for you, it would be that you would distractedly pick up this book, preferably from a surprise box full of Europa editions, and read it without first looking at a summary, blurbs, or any other reaction-spoiling reviews. Then, upon seeing its girlish pink cover juxtaposed against the hilarious dark, anti-romance contents, you would fall over with laughter and immediately read aloud each of the ultra-short stories to whomever may be in the room at the time.

Unfortunately, this is not the way recommending books usually works. By the time you’ve given a title, author, and brief description, your recommendee already has a set of expectations in hand. They’ll come to the book hoping for something amusing, savage, and original – and their own reading will be colored by your off-hand adjectives. So here’s what I’ll say to you: there is a book out there well worth reading that you currently know nothing about. It may be the one I unsuspectingly read and so wish for you to stumble upon, or it may be another. The only way you’ll get to it is by randomly selecting un-recommended books with only your wits and intuition to guide you. Whatever your reaction to the book ends up being, it will be unspoiled by the opinions of others, and sweeter because it is all yours.

Recommended Action: Buy  – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 160
Ending: Since each story takes up on 1/2 a page, there are about 300 perfectly biting endings
Incidental Learning: The dark corners of Dan Rhode’s mind
Further Reading: You’ll doubtless wonder: where do I get more flash fiction? It is so wonderful, why doesn’t everyone write like this? Unfortunately, I haven’t found the answer to these questions myself, so please comment if you know.

Half a King

“I didn’t ask for half a hand, Yarvi had said, trapped where he so often found himself, on the barren ground between shame and fury. I didn’t ask for half a son.” (Half a King by Joe Abercrombie)

Half A king coverI’m glad that people are around to write the same books over and over. They form a perfect road map for you to write in that formula yourself. All you have to do is to find a string of a specific genre and make note of the commonalities. Through reading several examples of this ‘coming of age’ fantasy sub-genre, such as The Sea of Trolls or The Ranger’s Apprentice, I have a very clear idea about what I’d need to do to write my own best seller in this genre.

First, you must start with a somehow inadequate pre-pubescent male character. You may vary the inadequacy however you wish – physical, character, or self-perceived will all suffice. Then, throw their life off course. They may get captured, betrayed, or you can attack their home village. To get back home, they must overcome no less than three big challenges that showcase their strengths (bravery, cunning, or leadership are all winners). Bonus points may be rewarded for a subtle, unfulfilled romance, a few philosophical realizations, and some sort of secret that is revealed only in the last chapter.

Now that you yourself are capable of writing in this formula, feel free to do so. The world won’t be any worse off with a few extra copies floating around – for they are particularly relaxing, easy going reads.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 333
Ending: complete, but with room for sequels
Incidental Learning: How to write your own formula novel, survival
Further Reading: After reading this one, you may not want another formula fiction. If you want to stay in the fantasy genre, I’d suggest one of these two, entirely unique, works: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or The Once and Future King

God Help the Child

“Now she’s pregnant. Good move, Lula Ann. If you think mothering is all cooing, booties and diapers you’re in for a big shock. Big. You and your nameless boyfriend, husband, pickup – whatever – imagine OOOH! A baby! Kitchee kitchee koo!” (God Help the Child by Toni Morrison)

god help the child cover

As I reflect upon my reading life, I realize that some of the most exquisitely pleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had have been with shorter works of fiction. Novels of just that perfect length – short enough to read in one sitting, but long enough to have some depth. I read Ocean at the End of the Lane outside, under an umbrella on a sunny afternoon, only getting up for some iced tea. I also remember being entranced by children’s books, such as When you Reach Me and The Phantom Tollboothnot being able to get out of bed until I had inhaled one after another.

There is something so satisfying about not knowing anything about a book when you sit down, then having experienced it in its totality just a few hours later. I think this specific reading experience is what turned me on to Children’s fiction in the first place. It wasn’t necessarily the age of the characters or the innocence of the humor, but instead that ‘just right’ length – more like watching a movie than committing to a whole TV series. God Help the Child also hits this mark. With its 178 pages and huge type face, it’s impossible to doubt that you could sit down and not get up until its final words. And this is just what I recommend: experience this book’s poetry and acrid realism all at once, without leaving your favorite reading spot for anything less than an emergency. This is how it was meant to be read.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 178
Ending: Succinct
Incidental Learning: Growing up in New York as an African American in the 90’s, children’s psychology
Further Reading: Any of the shorter works mentioned above. I’d also include LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, Blish’s Seeding Stars, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free

 

the life changing magic of tidying up

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” (the life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondo)

Life-changing magic of tidying up

If I were to tell you to hold each object you own in your hand and thank them for the support they offer you on a daily basis, what would you do? If I were to ask you to greet your home as if it were an old friend, would you laugh? Of course you would. However, if the excessively sincere, outdatedly earnest Marie Kondo asked you to do these things (as she will when you read her book) you’d find yourself thinking: why not? Though not a polished writer, Marie has a way of convincing her readers with her incredible sensitivity for every person’s (and every object’s) feelings. She cares so much about making the world a better place through what she terms ‘tidying’ that it’s just impossible not to want to help her out with that mission by starting in your own home.

I’d write more, but I’m too busy organizing my home by category, holding each object, and asking myself, does this spark joy?

 

Tower Lord

“She always wondered why there were no screams, no tears, no despair sending her into thrashing hysterics… all she actually did was sit and stare at the burnt stranger in the mirror. Most of her hair was gone, the scalp a mottled relief of red and pink flesh. The flames had caught the upper side of her face, the scars ascending from the bridge of her nose… like an ill-fitting mask worn to scare children on the warding’s night.” (Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan)

Cover Tower Lord

I fear that, lately, I’ve been enjoying analyzing, criticizing, and writing about books more than I actually enjoy reading them. I confess that I mostly continued on to this book after Blood Song to see how Ryan handled the tricky mid-trilogy novel with all its associated pitfalls (adding too many characters, getting too broad, not connecting to the over-arching plot, etc). I enjoyed seeing Ryan deftly overcome these challenges slightly more than I actually enjoyed the enumeration of battles and death.

I also have to confess that, as much as the ending annoyed my feminist self, it also delighted me because it provided something to write about. Until this book, Ryan had hitherto upheld the basic principles of epic fantasy, which decree that, if females are included in the main story line at all, they must be perfectly beautiful and irrationally moody. Ryan not only introduced three strong (only slightly moody) women here, but also deformed one of them with horrible burns to her face. This undermining of tradition brought a humanity to that character, and to the whole cast, that isn’t frequently seen in this genre. Yet, throughout the whole book, my inner critic kept nagging: how long can he keep this up? In a world with magical healers, how long can Ryan allow a once-beautiful woman to remain scarred and be at peace with herself? Unfortunately, the answer was: only a few hundred pages.

Though I will be reading the concluding book to the Raven’s Shadow trilogy promptly on July 7th when it is released, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to read an epic fantasy where the author could sustain a fully realized, albeit scarred, female lead.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 601 (audiobook quality: excellent)
Ending: Satisfying, but disappointing as detailed above
Incidental Learning: Throwing knives, survival
Further Reading: If you are looking for a more feminine look into fantasy, I’d suggest checking out N. K. Jemisin.