Literary Black Holes – Part 2

I am an avid reader, and have been my entire life.  I read for the escape, the story, the characters.  I am normally something of a speed reader; if a book grabs me, say “goodbye” to Amy.

My children could be hungry and late for practice while I just finish “one more page.” I stay up far too late on work nights, completely engulfed by a great book.  When I do have to put the book aside and function as a responsible member of society,  I find myself thinking about the story.  I can’t seem to escape the vortex of a good story.  I’m literally sucked in.  I power through it, anxious to find out what happens.

Then, I’m sad. The book is over.  I’ve lost a dear friend.

Not all books affect me like this.  Some I can actually read at a normal pace – well, normal for me.  My family still thinks I read books freakishly fast even if it seems to me that I’m taking my time and really trying to savor each word.  The writer in me has been pondering this lately.

What is it about some books that completely take me over so that I ignore everyone and everything in my life, keep the book on a shelf and read it again while others I enjoy but don’t completely lose myself and all sense of responsibility as I read?  I can take them to the used book store without any feelings of loss, and sometimes I don’t even finish them.

Maybe its just genetics.  My sister does the same thing, but as a single mom with younger kids, it’s a little bit more dangerous for her.  She avoids good books until the perfect time; I used to do this too, but my kids are now teenagers who can at least feed themselves, get dressed, and out the door with their shoes on the right feet.

If its not genetics, and authors actually have something to do with this phenomenon, what is it that pulls me in?  Is it the plot?  The characters? The action? The realistic dialogue? I hadn’t ever really thought about these questions until I started writing  (actually doing it and not just thinking about it), and my life as a reader has changed.  I keep stopping and thinking about all the elements, the structure, of the stories.  I’ve slowed down . . . a little, but I still ask, what sucks me in?
The first, not-so-profound answer I came up with is that they’re just great stories.  It’s all of the elements put together in a compelling way that somehow pulls me in.  But that’s not really an answer; it feels like a cop out.  The books are good because they’re, well, good.  As a debate coach, I would hammer a student who used that circular reasoning in a case, so I need a better answer.

I guess, after much thought, it comes down to what I would call writing style, that elusive, indefinable way with words that every writer has.  However they approach their work, whatever it is they do to draw us in is their style.  Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not so much.

It’s much easier, and not quite so intimidating to think that I can pick and choose what I like and what I want to focus on in terms of my own writing style.  I now read, paying attention to why the authors made the choices they did in their story, and then if I want to, I can try that strategy myself or I can chuck it.  Any book I read, whether I get sucked in or not, has become something of a textbook.  What works?  What doesn’t?

This has even brought me back to some old favorites that I have re-read as a writer. When I’m writing dialogue, for example, I find myself randomly pulling old favorites off the shelf and opening up to sections of dialogue to see how that author wrote it.  It’s hugely helpful to have these masters sitting in front of me as I write, helping me develop.  And even if they aren’t “masters,” they’re at least published which, in my book, makes them a master.

The end result of all this reading and writing, my own writing style.  Maybe someday it too will suck some poor, unaware reader into a literary black hole they can’t escape until the last page.   (Wow – writing fantasy is fun too!)

 

Literary Black Holes – Part 1

This past year, I was blessed with a student who has an IQ many, many points above mine, probably higher than most anyone reading this blog.  He decided to read Atlas Shrugged.  My Dad had re-read it a few years ago and kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year.  It’s a hard back, weighing at least five pounds, and printed in, maybe, an 8 point font.  It’s well over 1000 pages.  I enjoyed The Fountainhead, so I thought I’d tackle Atlas with my student.  I think we started reading this past January.  He’s done.  I’m not.  I tried.  I really, really did.  Despite my student’s encouragement, it’s still sitting on my bedside table, buried at the bottom of my “to read” pile.  I just checked and I made it all the way to page 126.  I enjoyed some of the characters, but the story never grabbed me.  And there it sits, unread.

Great Expectations is another one.  I should be teaching that.  It’s on The List to teach.  I’ve started it four times in the last twenty years, the last time on audio this spring.  In fact the paperback is buried next to Atlas on my table.  Pip’s a funny kid, but the story does nothing for me.  If I can’t read it, there’s no way I can teach it and expect thirty, fourteen year olds to stay with me.  It’s a classic so clearly many, many people have enjoyed it.  I find it, well, boring.

Perhaps it’s the sense of obligation with these tomes that turns me off.   I read The Hunger Games series solely because so many of my students loved it and recommended it.  I  got sucked right into each of those books, reading each of them in a few hours and staying up until 1:00 am one night.  I even drove all the way to town with a student’s gift card to the bookstore to pick up the last one in the series.  She wanted it but could never get into town to use her card (yes, I live in rural Nevada and a trip to town is a minimum hour and a half event).  We made a deal.  I’d pick it up for her if she’d let me borrow it.  It’s a great series if you haven’t read it –  Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” meets 1984.  I loved it as does every student I’ve had whose read it.  That makes me think it’s the action that pulls me in, but in the past few months I’ve also read: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy Turner, The Goodbye Quilt by Susan Wigg, The girl who . . . series by Steig Larssen, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and a few romance novels.  All of these are certainly not action packed thrillers.

These authors have all, somehow, created stories that pull me in, grab me.  How do they do it?  I can come up with pieces to that answer but it’s different for each story. In some, I fall immediately in love with the characters.  I care about them and need to find out what happens.  For others, it’s the social commentary and internal conflict.  The whole idea of wondering what I would do if I found myself in that same situation.  For others its, I’ll be honest, the romance.  I like a good love story.  Sometimes it’s the history I find fascinating and how the author really captures a time period.  All these draw me in.

When I read the last page and close the book, I’ve discovered that it’s not one single thing that I enjoyed.  It’s all of it working together.  Some authors do every part very well, but I’m learning that most of them do a few well.  That’s good to know.  In my own writing, I can do one or two things really well to draw reader in.  I don’t have to master everything.  That’s kind of a relief, actually.  When it comes to my writing, I don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades master of none,” nor do I want the pressure to be a master of all.

Happily, I don’t have to be.

Quilt Stories (or Quilters’ Obsessions with Anything Related to Quilts)

After I started quilting, I discovered quilt fiction.  I had no idea until I started reading a few books with a quilt focus, but this is almost a genre unto itself and it actually has been since the mid-1800’s.  Apparently quilters’ obsessions with anything at all having to do with “quilting” has existed for centuries.  The first two quilt stories were published in periodicals in 1844 and 1845.  They were both called “The Patchwork Quilt,” and they both idealize the quilt as a symbol of domesticity.  The second story is by an author who is unidentified other than “Annette.”  It’s a sad little story about a woman who spends her teen years making her masterpiece of a quilt for her wedding.  Sadly, she ends up as a spinster and finishes the quilt for her younger sister who does find a beau to wed.   The quilt in this story represents love, marriage, and security, and the sister who achieves these goals gets the quilt.  These were highly valued for women in the 19th century who existed in the world of the “domestic sphere.”

It is interesting that contemporary quilt fiction also often uses the quilt as a symbol of domesticity, safety, and comfort though in these more modern stories, quilts perhaps don’t represent love and marriage so much anymore as they represent female solidarity and relationships.  In any case, the quilt is still a prevalent symbol in fiction.

We quilters are an interesting group.  We are not only obsessed with building fabric stashes and stitching, but when we take a break from sewing, many of us pick up books novels about our favorite pastime.  There are an amazing number of novels and stories all about quilts which I find fascinating.  There is even an index of quilt fiction on the web though it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002.  You can find it here.   In a general search of “quilt fiction” on Amazon, I hit 572 books.  That’s a lot for a pretty specific topic like quilts!  In a quick preview of these novels, it appears they can be broken into several sub-genres of quilt fiction (though this is based on a quick review, not any study):  contemporary fiction, historical, Christian, and murder mysteries.  The last two crack me up – they are so very different but both of them frequently use a quilt as a relevant symbol in the story.

My novel will definitely land in the first two categories; though I realize that contemporary and historical might not mesh, in my case they do.  We’ll see how it actually turns out.  In any case, they are the categories I am the most familiar with and the ones I enjoy reading, so it seems that’s what I’m drawn to write.  It’s also fun to combine two of my favorite pastimes: quilting and words (reading or writing) in this story.

I have no idea if publishers consider quilt fiction as a genre unto itself, but I do, and judging from the searches on Amazon and the shelves of fiction books available for sale in my favorite quilt shops, quilters do too.  If anyone who happens to read this blog is interested in reviews on quilt fiction, let me know, and I can add that as a monthly or weekly feature.

Starting in the Middle

I’ve been surprised over the past few weeks how this project is coming together, kind of piecemeal, not all orderly like I approach most of my life.  I am a list maker, an outliner, a planner.  My kids tease me that “Mom, it’s okay not to ‘have a plan’ for the day,” assuring me that it’ll be “alright.”  Really, it’s that bad sometimes.

When I started this novel adventure, I approached it how I usually approach a writing project.  I gathered all my resources; I researched, read, and took notes; I outlined and plotted; I developed characters.  And then, I thought I would start at the beginning.  That’s where I’ve always started every paper, essay, my Master’s thesis etc. – the beginning.  It seems like the logical place to start.  Apparently not.

Either I’m starting to let go and listen to my creative self a little bit better, or I just approach fiction a little differently, or at least a long fiction project, than I do non-fiction projects.  The short stories I have written I have started at the beginning and worked through until the end, but for my novel, I have random scenes written throughout.  I work on whatever I feel like.  If inspiration hits, I write that part.  It’s been so fun – who knew?

The other day I was reading a stack of 9th grade papers.  My students wrote them as a culmination of a fun end of the year Writer’s Workshop unit in which we studied “using punctuation in interesting ways to create voice.”  “How do authors use dashes, ellipses, fragments etc?  What do they achieve when they use them?” were the questions we asked as we read quite a few mentor texts, and they wrote practice pieces.  They could write their final piece on any topic; they enjoyed this assignment.  How do I know?  The final papers were super fun to read; they got it, the whole idea that language is fun and they can play with it to achieve an emotion or a mood in their writing.  As I was reading, twice I read lines that made me think of my story.  I had to stop right there, grab a piece of paper and write segments of scenes.  When I got home that night, I expanded them, and I still like them.

My muse is a funny thing.  I have no idea when inspiration will strike or what it will inspire.  However, I think my planning (or over-planning according to my kids) has been helpful because now when inspiration does strike, I have a good idea of where that piece will fit in the larger picture, but it’s certainly not exact.  I’m trying really hard to just go with it.  To let go, to allow this process to teach me whatever I need to know about how I work and the best way for me to work.   This is new territory for me, to work organically and not in a completely linear fashion.  But, overall, I think I like starting in the middle.  Now, if I could just think of a really great first line, life would be great.