Sunday, June 25, 2017

What makes a book "good"? Part 1 - Originality

I read a lot - an average of two books a week. Some of these are easy, quick reads - contemporary women's fiction, romances. After I've read a few "lighter" books, I go back to more "literary" books. But I've been thinking about what makes a book "light" reading, and what makes a book "literary." A very condensed definition of a "good" book is... a good story well told. The two elements to any work of fiction are the Story itself and Writing Style.

The story can be further broken down into several categories - these are not set in stone:
  • Plot - this is the "what" in a story; what happens to whom, when, why, where, and how
  • Characters - who is in the story? Characters are usually human, but they don't have to be.
  • Setting (sometimes called World Building) - sometimes the setting is to important, it's like another character
  • Tone - as Sebastian said in "Little Mermaid," "I need to set the mood" - what great old movies did with music, writers achieve with words
  • Themes - is there an overall theme to the story? It is about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, ambition, greed, indecisiveness, hubris....
  • Symbolism - do some elements have a deeper meaning? Do they stand in for something else? Is the snake only a snake, and is the dream just a dream?
The writing style is more illusive, but here are some elements:
  • Prose - how does the author put words and sentences together
  • Dialogue - is it realistic?  Does it add to the story?
  • Narrative - is it a page turner? Do you want to read more not just to find out what happens, but because the story is so beautifully told?
For this post I'm focusing on prose. What I have noticed in some of the books I've read lately, is that originality is vital to good writing. But it's not originality for the sake of being original. The originality in "good" writing has a purpose, and it draws the reader in - it provides an "aha" moment. The reader will think, "Yes, that's exactly right. I don't know why I didn't think of it that way before."
Here is one example:  

In The Sleepwalker, Chris Bohjalian writes about the mother who has gone missing, presumably after sleepwalking:
"She was, at once, never there and always there, as undeniable yet untouchable as the sky... And so there lived a hollowness in the heart of the house. The three of us were missing the semaphore that was wife and mother. We needed a new language and new rituals, but it was going to take time for them to evolve." (Page 63)

Oh yes, good writing also often includes words one has to look up - like semaphore.

Have you been reading a good book lately? Please share your own examples!





Wednesday, January 25, 2017

All Writing is Re-Writing

I'm back to blogging and I hope to post much more often.  Please follow along and talk back to me!

As I work on my current novel - Expecting - I'm deep in the process of rewriting.  I tell my students "all writing is rewriting."  Truman Capote said "good writing is rewriting."  On Writing Well by William Zinsser, renowned writer and English Professor at Yale University, is a succinct, brilliant book on writing and Zinsser includes two pages of his own draft of the book.  It is marked up excessively - words changed, deleted, sentences shifted around.  There is some edit or deletion on every line.  And as I like to point out, it is his fourth draft. So if this (late) brilliant writer and teacher of writing at Yale needs four drafts to get it right, how many do I need?

"We write words, and then they are on the screen, or even more permanent, on the paper. There they are!  All our lovely words look so nice - why would I want to change them? I can't take away any of these wonderful words... or can I?  I can if I want to write more clearly. I tell my students to delete any words in a sentence that do not add to the meaning of the sentence. Reduce the clutter. Excise the excess. Throw out the baggage." (Zinsser)

Rewriting is hard work, much harder than a first draft. It's fairly easy to get some words down on paper, or on the screen, but it's much harder to hone those words, choose the best ones and discard others, find proper replacements for overused words.  Choose active voice instead of passive. Find a synonym. Avoid an adverb. Clarify a subject. Re-write . . .  Ay - there's the rub.

After the first draft comes the second draft, then the third, then the fourth and so on. Honestly, as writers we are never "done." Our books are never "finished." We just come to the place where we have decided it's in pretty darn good shape, and let's get it to the agent, or the publisher. And then after more edits the publisher decides that it's "publishable."  But we could still go in and change a word, improve a description, add a scene. Writing is hard work, and much of that work is the rewriting process.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Things We Keep"

School is over and now I can read whatever I want!  I have read two wonderful books in the past 10 days and will share my thoughts on the first one here.

The Things We Keep is about a woman (Anna) with early-onset Alzheimer's disease - very early.  She is only 38 when the disease manifests itself and dissolves memories, the most recent first, and turns a vibrant young women into a shell of her former self.

Soon after her diagnosis Anna leaves her husband and checks herself into an assisted-living facility (Rosalind House), where she will live out the rest of her days.  At 38, while she's still lucid, she makes this life-altering decisions.

The book is interspersed with Anna's viewpoint, and it starts with when she checks in - 15 months from present day. Anna's story alternates with Eve's story - the cook at Rosalind House.  Her husband killed himself after admitting he was instrumental in a huge ponzi scheme, leaving Eve and her young daughter to fend for themselves, with no money and little dignity.  Her daughter Clementine also has a point of view in the book.

It's the way Hepworth weaves the stories and plot-lines together, the various and monumentally different points of view, that is laudable.  Somehow she manages to get into the head of a bereaved and angry young widow, a woman who is losing her mind, and a 7 year-old girl.  That in itself is an amazing feat.  When all the plot-lines join in the end, I was a bit confused, but once I went back and pieced them all together, it made sense.

I would recommend this book to anyone who works with dementia patients.  Anna becomes intimately involved with a fellow resident whose name she can never remember, so she calls him "Young Guy."  They love each other.  It's obvious to the reader, and to Eve, but not to the folks in charge.  To me, the message of this book, the thing we keep, is our ability to love and be loved.

Here are a few lines to whet  your appetite:

Anna's points of view:
"'Put this on," Dad says, handing me a pair of blue doo-dahs for my legs. His cheeks are flushed, and that's when I realize I'm naked, apart from a white sheet. He digs back into my closet and pulls out a pair of under-things. "And this. I'll be in the dining room."
I don't move. I'm perfectly happy where I am. . . .
He leaves and I look at the things in my lap. With a strange, almost scientific aware, I realize I have no idea what to do with them. The blue things go on my legs--I know that much. But there are three holes, two small and one large, as well as a long thing with silver teeth and a big silver circle."

 In another scene, near the end of the book, her brother -- who has been her primary caretaker -- takes her to see a doctor.  He does all the talking, even though the doctor addresses Anna.
"Dr. Li glances at me, presumably to see how much I am taking in. The answer is all of it. Every word.
"I'm sorry," I say.  I concentrate on my words to make sure this comes out right. "It sounds horrible, what you said. I know I'm . . . not getting things right anymore, I'm getting confused and doing strange things. But I'm . . ." I pause to wipe my face. "I'm still here. It's just -- you have to look a little longer and harder to find me."
Our of the corner of my eye, I notice the doctor push her chair back, trying to pretend she's not there. Jack slides forward in his chair and looks at me. And for the first time since I checked into that place with the old people, maybe for the first time since I was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Jack sees me."

Read this book.  You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Guest blog - re Identity in Deaf Culture

My cousin David was kind enough to read my last blog and provide his feedback.  i found it so helpful and insightful I wanted to dedicate a page to it - and here it is.  For context, read my blog on Identify in Deaf and Black culture first.  Enjoy!

Hello Katie, here are my comments…

Oliver Sacks did something similar, he was a trained neurologist who did not start out with much experience or knowledge of deaf culture.  Nevertheless he took the time and care to research it and came out with a fairly decent book, Seeing Voices.  I saw him on the book tour when he came to UC Berkeley actually (this was 1989 or ‘90.)

I have a coworker who is black and deaf, but he does not identify as Black.  He identifies as Deaf.  He grew up in Berkeley which of course is multi-ethnic and went to the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley (and graduated from it four years after it moved to Fremont in 1980.)  Growing up, he was always around other Deaf, using American Sign language almost exclusively (meaning little or no use of speech or lipreading), and racial identity was only a very minor part of it.  He says, “I don’t know how to be Black.”

All Deaf and hard-of-hearing live within the Hearing world whether they like it or not, and it’s a constant struggle in so many ways.  Where we have struggles with racism, so we have what is being called Audism in the struggles that Deaf persons face in the world.  Audism is the belief that hearing loss is an unmitigated curse that must be eradicated at all costs, with no acknowledgment of the contributions of American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.  Or the acknowledgement is there but with a patronizing attitude.

Tom Holcomb confronts this in his very fine book (I attended one of his book tour events, too, he’s a fabulous speaker) called Introduction to American Deaf Culture.  You can peek in both of these books on Amazon.

Your essay focuses on the positive aspect that is Choice, but I felt something should be said about the factors in our lives that influence, redirect, even oppress our choices.

Hope this helps, dear cousin!
David

Monday, January 18, 2016

Identity in Deaf and Black Culture

I have been pondering issues of identity in Deaf culture as I conduct research on my current novel, featuring a few hard of hearing characters and at least one Deaf character.  As I think about issues of identity in Deaf culture, I have compared it in my mind to issues of identity in Black culture. Although I am not Black, I am married to a Black man and our three sons are all different shades of brown.  So I have witnessed their identity choices - do they consider themselves Black and part of the Black community?  We were part of a Black church for the first 20 years of our marriage -- first a very large African American church in Jamaica, Queens, Allen A.M.E. Church, then a small, mostly African American church in East Elmhurst, Queens.  In those churches our sons were part of Black religious culture, celebrating Black History Month, absorbing values and music and food of Black culture.  For the last 10  years we have been part of a multi-ethnic church in Jersey City, New Jersey. But we have lived in diverse neighborhoods since our first son was born, and all three of them have always enjoyed a mix of friends from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures.

Our sons are different shades of brown and have made choices concerning their identity.  We have told them growing up that they are both Black and White.  They don't have to choose. They are both.  Our society might want them to be in one category  - the U.S. Census only recently allowed people to choose more than one ethnic background.  But most forms require people to choose one ethnicity, which is absurd as so many people have a mixed background. Light-skinned Blacks can either identify closely with the Black community, consider themselves Black or "mixed," or "pass" as white.

Clara Lee Fisher (woman) is a
descendant of
Madison Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings had six children, four of whom survived infancy.  Three of those children chose to "pass" as white -- daughter Harriet, and sons Bevery and Eston -- and one chose to identify as Black - Madison.  They were all quite light-skinned.  They chose their identity - they considered themselves part of either the White community or the Black community.


I think something similar happens in the Deaf and hard of hearing community.  Those who are hard of hearing either identify strongly with the Deaf community, and choose to be a part of that culture, or they choose to assimilate into the larger hearing community.  Just as dark-skinned blacks cannot choose to identify as White, those who are profoundly Deaf cannot choose to identify as hearing.  But for the light-skinned Blacks, and for the hard of hearing, there is a choice to be made.  Sometimes parents force that choice early on, but in adulthood, every hard of hearing person can choose to identify closely with the Deaf community, or to assimiliate into the larger hearing culture.

Yesterday I observed a ballet rehearsal and the instructor is hard of hearing.  She told me that when she was young a nun told her mother that she should be enrolled in a Deaf school.  Her mother refused, so this instructor was raised in a mainstream school and did not grow up learning with and associating with Deaf children.  She assimilated into the hearing community instead of the Deaf community.  As an adult, she functions within the realm of the hearing community and feels most at home there.  Others in her position feel equally at home in the Deaf community.  Choices.

This is my theory.  I would love to hear feedback from those of you in the Black and Deaf community who have more experience and knowledge than I.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What do whales have to do with writing?

You might think this a strange title for a blog post, or for any piece of writing.  Indeed, what do whales have to do with writing? According to Herman Melville, brilliant author of Moby Dick, quite a lot.  After reading the introduction to Moby Dick (a book I asked my youngest son to get me for Christmas - one of the classics I have never read) I almost felt I didn't need to read the book. The introduction, written by David Herd, Professor at the University of Kent at Canterbury, was so brilliant, so insightful, I had to think about it for awhile, to absorb it -- like a great sentence in a good book.


Melville was erudite, and he compared the act of writing to two things -- to reading, and to whales.  I'll start with his comparison to reading. Melville "reads to write" as Professor Herd states. I often tell my students "good readers make good writers." This is very true, but it seems to be more obvious in a book like Moby Dick, where Melville begins his book with "extracts," quotes about whales from many varied books: the bible, Shakespeare, Milton and whaling songs. He has read voraciously, and thus writes out of an abudance of material. The books he has read are fodder for his writing.

In an early scene in the book, Ishmael receives a gift of money from Queequeg, and he uses the money to pay for his own and Queequeg's room and board.  As Professor Herd describes it, this transaction is "a lovely sequence of events, Ishmael receiving a gift, passing it on, and in the process turning it into something else..." and this "hints at the way Melville circulates learning: receiving words from another writer and passing them on, although not before he has turned them into something else. Which makes the book a bit like a library."  Good books are like that. They do not stand alone, but stand on the backs of all the books the author has read.

The second allusion is more like a simile.  Writing is like a whale's spout.  How?  Whales dive into the deep and gather up sustenance, only to surface and spout out water, or vapor. What they produce is not what they took in, but something new.  Just as a writer absorbs all he or she has read, and spouts out someting new - a novel, a poem, a song. This wholly unique way of thinking about writing enthralls me. What do you think?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Students' perspective

I asked my students to give me their perspective on my feedback.  Two of my students sent me a paragraph to describe how they feel about comments/feedback to their writing.  I thought it would be enlightening to hear directly from them.

JEF:
"The response I get in regards to my writing are very helpful, and serves a role in its evolution. Without your corrections and comments, I would still be confused over tense and subject agreements, and placed commas in awkward spots (and I most likely still do). The only problem I have is that you are often not strict enough with your feedback. Sometimes, I would notice errors in my work, and often feel that my writing is scattered and nonsensical. I would like to see more comments into how I can improve my writing not only with grammatical/spelling corrections, but also as a whole. I may be taunting the lion here, but please do not hold back."

AR:
"I was always told that I had a knack for writing. I let that comment feed my ego. I always thought I could out write everyone around me. My experience in college has been a very humbling one. It's the first time a college level English Instructor has critiqued my work and proofread my writing. I never saw my writing any other way until now. I discovered throughout my professor critiques that I had a habit of using too many filler words. I caught myself doing it in later assignments and corrected myself during my first and second drafts of the writing assignments. Now that I'm writing at a college level, I welcome all and any critique of my writing. It has helped me improve myself as a writer. I write much more efficiently as a result."