Monthly Archives: February 2017

Writer’s Notebook: Virginia Woolf

This week’s author in the Creative Writer’s Notebook was Virginia Woolf (duh!).

The exercises in this section were very fun, I thought, though the first one, a writer’s diary, felt like a repetition of the very first exercise, an interior monologue.

The second was fun, it was writing the same scene from three points of view– first person, third person, and through dialogue. This exercise made it quire clear how the different perspectives change the way you can write about something. When you write in first person, it limits how much you can explore the thoughts, ideas and even actions of anyone other than that character. You can only know things the character was told or overheard.

Third person, which many writers use, allows you to explore many perspectives and many characters, which was exactly what I experienced when I wrote my scene in third person.

Finally, writing the scene as only dialogue was challenging. (Perhaps I took the exercise too literal, again, because I didn’t use any dialogue, or hardly any, in the other two versions of the scene, and I’m sure I could have if I wanted to.) First, because I wanted to add in movements but, of course, I thought I could only use dialogue between the two people. And I could only manage to let myself break that rule once or twice.

What was interesting, was that even though it was supposed to be the same scene, because I wouldn’t allow myself to use dialogue before, it meant my last scene of dialogue was more a continuation, but, I think that’s ok. After all, this is about being creative. There is no right or wrong way to do this.

The last exercise inspired by Virginia Woolf was my favorite; interesting because it was the vaguest one of them all (though that is in fitting with my character, I suppose).

All the direction given was to write a short piece using one line from To the Lighthouse as inspiration: “Little daily miracles.” I wrote about the first thing that popped into my mind, my first kiss (and my the first and last first kiss). It was a fun little exercise, with plenty of things I would have enjoyed to write about, but, maybe more of that later.

I’ve enjoyed the several pieces that allow me to write about myself or my own thoughts. I enjoy the autobiographical bits. And actually, what had got me started writing again in the first place was that very thing, just writing some things for myself, with the thought that someday, maybe people will be interested enough in me to want to read the inner workings of my mind. But, even if no one is that interested, it’s still fun to write, and gives me a personal clarity that can be hard to come by otherwise.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I’ve seen the movie once before, so when I saw the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg I was interested to see how the two compared.

It was a fun and easy read. The story is made up of three different kinds of chapters. Initially we meet Evelyn Couch, an anxious, depressed and dissatisfied housewife. In avoiding visits with her elderly mother-in-law, Evelyn meets Mrs. Virginia Threadgoode,who slowly  but surely tells a fun and heartwarming story of her own family, focused mainly on Idgie Threadgoode.

Interwoven between present day with Evelyn and memories Mrs. Threadgoode shares are snippets from local papers that add a little extra insight and character to the story.

While the story is very much a tale of Idgie Threadgoode and the capers she got up to, well into her adult life, it’s just as much, though more subtly, a story about Evelyn Couch meeting her midlife chrisis head on, and coming out the victor.

And that makes it an even more heartwarming story, because as I was reading it, I could identify with some of Evelyn’s anxiety and depression. And, who among us could truthfully deny the existence of our own Towanda inside? (And if Towanda is your favorite part of the movie, it’s even better in the book.)

As an introduction into Fannie Flagg’s books, Fried Green Tomatoes was every bit as good as I was hoping and expecting. And though I don’t remember the movie sso well, what I do remember follows the book quite solidly (as it should, since Flagg wrote the script).

It looks like I now need to add some other Fannie Flagg books to my ever-growing, never-shrinking reading list. And maybe one of these days, I’ll actually get around to reading some of them.

Writing exercises inspired by James Joyce

So back in September I bought a book called Creative Writer’s Notebook. It’s a collection of writing prompts and exercises, 70 in total, inspired by the writings of 20 classic and/or well-known authors.

I had intended to wait to start working my way through this notebook until I had finished the project I was working on (see older blog posts about how I wasn’t doing any writing), but, I’ll be honest, I’m just not into that story anymore right now. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel particularly lovey or loving (I’ve got enough for my husband and the cat each day, and then I’m about at my wits end), or maybe I’ve just procrastinated and the passion is gone for now. Whatever it is, I’ve decided to take the easy out and start working through this notebook. If I do one author’s exercises a week, I’ve got 20 weeks, not including any other writing I do that I can blog about, which I truly do intend to get back to.

The challenge, as I’ve discovered via journaling my own thoughts, is that I’m tired. I work full-time, eight hours a day five days a week being around other humans and trying to make them happy. Then, usually, I come home to cook and clean, which frankly feels like a second job. And if I intend for my writing to go anywhere, I need to treat that like a job. And I just don’t have the energy to work three jobs when I’m already fatigued and working through (honest confession here) anxiety and depression each day too. I’m not going to give up on this dream (with where I’m at in life, I simply can’t give up on this one), but I’m going to go a little easier on myself and make a plan and set some easier goals, and if I don’t enjoy what I’m working on, I’ll move on to something else.

So, this Creative Writer’s Notebook. The exercises I’ve done so far, three inspired by James Joyce, as noted in the title of this blog, have been very different. The first was an interior monologue, essentially writing down your thoughts, following them on paper wherever they go. This exercise I had actually kind of accidentally done (though more formally than just writing down my thoughts as they pass through my brain), and it was upon realizing that I’d kind of already done the first exercise that I decided to continue and finally dust off this second half of my blog (the book reviews are going wonderfully, of course).

The second exercise was making up portmanteau words, words with double meanings. Examples from the book include “kissmiss,” “smog,” and “eleventeen.” This was the exercise that stumped me. Perhaps it’s just the phrasing, but I couldn’t think of many. What I came up with were “brunch,” “sniggle,” and the name of a character from another one of my stories, “Mr. Snidely.”

The last Joyce-inspired exercise was to write descriptions of family members using the same number of words as their age. This, of course, posed some little challenge for me, because my brain naturally was wondering if that meant 23 descriptive words about my husband in various sentences, or do I have only 23 words, so don’t waste any? (Sometimes I don’t think I’m very good at the creativity bit, I’m too orderly.) Anyway, I just did it, and it was fun and an interesting way to think about writing descriptions, and to see what kinds of things I focus on when describing. Looking over what I’ve written, only my first two descriptions had anything physical in them. I tend to focus on character traits, not hair or eye color or the chiseled features or long nose someone may have.

So this gives me something to think on, as I would be the first to say I frequently neglect physical descriptions of my characters, and this may be something my readers would like to see more of.

Gilded Cage

For all that dystopian stories aren’t my favorite, I sure find myself reading enough of them.

Gilded Cage in the debut novel by British author Vic James.

Set in, you guessed, dystopian Britain, the country is ruled by the Equals, a select group of people who have a magical gift, called Skill. Those without, the commoners, are required to serve the Equals for 10 years.

The story follows one family that decides to serve together after the eldest daughter secures them positions with one of the founding families among the Equals. But the family is split up when the brother is sent to work in the factory town. Naturally, the eldest sister finds herself crushing on an Equal, while her brother is roped into revolutionary actions. And finally, within the Equal society, there are others who are working to overthrow the system.

The three main characters are the sister, brother, and the youngest son of the Equal family they serve. And of the three storylines, I’m most intrigued by Silyen, the Equal’s story and why he does what he does. The brother, Luke, has an interesting story, caught up with revolutionaries, but it seems quite simple and plain, revolutionaries working toward a specific and obvious end. Abi, the sister, was the story I was least interested in. At least throughout the first book, she seemed nothing more than the token love story, and a cliche one at that, falling in love with the “master,” if you will.

In the beginning we see Abi as a strong, smart, sacrificial character, giving up her full-ride to med school to serve her days with her family. However, after that initial glimpse, we see hardly anything noteworthy from her. At this point, I almost feel like a character turn-around in book two would feel out of place and unbelievable. So, needless to say, I’d be quite happy to see book two focused on Luke and Silyen, as well as Silyen’s illegitimate niece who is surrounded by nothing but questions thus far.

The story was good, the first installment of a series with potential. However it read much more like a teen novel than an adult fantasy novel, using slang including “uni” for university. The language was simple, which isn’t a bad thing, just not quite my taste. But it won’t stop me from reading a second installment, whenever it comes out, if nothing else for the conclusion to the political intrigue that underlies the entire plot.

Hidden Figures

I saw the preview for Hidden Figures shortly after I’d seen the book at work. Right away, I knew I wanted to read it. Astronomy and all its facets has always fascinated me, and I knew Hidden Figures would too.

Having read the book after seeing previews for the film (haven’t yet seen it, though), the book certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected.

The book chronicles the lives of several women–black women–who began working for NASA (or rather its precursor, NACA) in the thick of World War II, and paved the way for not only the astronauts to enter space, but for equality and integration to spread throughout the organization.

The book focuses mainly on four women and how they fought for advancement, seeking titles of mathematicians and engineers instead of being stuck being computers.

After having seen the preview for the film, I was honestly expecting something more biographical of the women–and more interaction between their stores.  Hidden Figures read more like a brief history of how black women worked their way into traditionally white, male jobs. And while it was still interesting and a good read, I found myself having to readjust my expectations in order to finish the book.

My one issue with it was that it just wasn’t long enough. As author Margot Lee Shetterly herself said, she had to cut some parts out. And as I read the book, I wanted more. It seemed like this book could easily have been 400 or 500 pages, including more biographical detail and going deeper into the interactions between the women. But, perhaps that is what the film will accomplish.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, satiating my appetite for learning, even as it whetted it more. I’ll have to revisit my to-read list, I know I’ve got a few more science-related books on there.

Mississippi Blood

I timed my dive into Greg Iles’ trilogy at the perfect time. I wasn’t even half way through Natchez Burning when I got my mitts on an advanced reader copy of Mississippi Blood, the final installment of the trilogy.

In Mississippi Blood, the excitement goes (mostly) from on the streets into the courtroom, where Dr. Tom Cage is tried for the murder of his former nurse, the even that was catalyst to the tragedy and adventures that followed. While you might expect the court room to get a little dull, Iles keeps the excitement up. In the court room, we learn little by little the true events, and all the pieces begin to fall into place.

Additionally, there is plenty of action going on outside the court room. For while many adversaries are out of the picture, some still remain a real and present danger to Natchez Mayor Penn Cage and his family.

Iles also keeps us guessing, because as the trial progresses, we learn of half truths and hidden motives,and the final reveal doesn’t come until the final pages. And when you realize it, I’ll bet that you, like me, never saw it coming.

Iles keeps the final book in this trilogy as exciting and suspenseful as the first books, making it a trilogy that is fun to read all the way through. The only complaint I had was that I got tired of the mayor’s constant angst with his father’s lawyer, despite having been told that he, the mayor, would be privy to exactly none of the defense strategy and information. Without giving it all away, I can sympathize with the mayor, but, at the same time, the rants–to himself and to others–got a little tiresome to read.

All in all, Iles keeps the story moving, and it’s worth all 700 pages.

Throughout the entire series, Iles has dealt with history and race very neatly, tapping in to the past for inspiration, and giving a very possible (and likely very real) representation of race in more rural areas even today. The series definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted–it is full of violence, swearing and, to a lesser degree, sex. But Iles isn’t gratuitous in any of it, instead using it to develop characters and add depth and reality to the story.

So if you enjoy history, thrillers, adventure and good writing, give the Natchez Burning series a try. And look for Mississippi Blood, hitting shelves on March 21.