What I Read in January: Gilead and All the Light We Cannot See

37. Wiener Dogs Reading Books - Scarlet reading Nova's Imaginary Girls by czilka

I have a confession to make, dear readers: I have been a bad, bad writer the last year.

I didn’t carve out time to read.

This is a huge mistake on my part. Reading is SO IMPORTANT for anyone who is seriously trying to be a writer. Regular reading is the second most important thing a writer can do to improve her craft (with regular writing being the most important, obviously). You want to read everything you can get your paws on. Reading good books shows you how other skilled writers tell their stories, helping you learn the tricks of the trade while(hopefully) inspiring you to do better work on my own projects. Reading bad books, on the other hand, shows you what not to do (I’m not naming any names *cough 50 shades cough*) and helps you improve your writing by learning from the mistakes of others.

I could ramble for days on the benefits of daily reading. I genuinely think it’s the best thing ever.

And yet I only managed to read 15 books in 2014. *facepalm*

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I know, I’m the worst. But I’m vowing to work on it in 2015, so there’ll be no more shameful facepalming come 2016!

So far I’m off to a slow but acceptable start. I kicked off the new year by reading two fantastic titles that have inspired me to keep picking through my ever-growing book collection.

The first book completed in 2015 was Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. 

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I’d picked up Gilead in a discount pile at Barnes and Noble last summer, and, because I sucked at reading last year, never got around to it. I didn’t even think about it until its follow-up novel, Lila, came out last fall and everyone started raving about it. I read that Lila took place in the same universe as Gilead and Robinson’s other Gilead-based novel, Home, and my interest was piqued. I’d never heard of a literary fiction writer basing multiple novels in the same universe and recycling characters in a non-series format; I’d always associated that move with Sci-Fi and high fantasy genres, so a non-genre writer breaking with convention and doing work like this was very interesting to me.

Intrigued, I dusted (yes, dusted) off my copy of Gilead and started reading it before bed. And I am SO glad I did. It is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, hands down.

An epistolary novel whose protagonist is a dying Congregationalist minister writing letters to his young son that he hopes will be read when his son is a man, it is a story that at its core is about living life and trying to live it right. As a non-religious person, there were admittedly parts when the prose dragged a bit, so the reading was a bit slower than it normally is for me. But even at its preachiest parts I never lost interest. This is VERY good, because by the time I came to the last page I found myself crying over the realization that I’d just read a near-perfect novel and I was just overwhelmed in general by the experience.

I mean, with passages this simplistically beautiful showing up on page after page, how could I NOT shed a couple of tears when the story ended?

gilead shot

“Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realization — ‘This is why we have lived this life!’ There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

 

After I wrapped up Gilead I shifted gears and moved on to one of 2014’s most praised releases, Anthony Doerr’s World War II bestseller All the Light We Cannot See.

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I am not a huge fan of stories set in World War II (they just aren’t my thing), so I started this book with the intention of looking at it from an industry perspective, much like how I approached the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey. I wanted to break it down and figure out why it caught on as well as it did and became such a big sensation. I figured even if I didn’t like the book’s content, at least I’d learn something useful about America’s current cultural zeitgeist.

Then I started reading it…and five hours later I finally came up for air, halfway done with the novel.

Needless to say, I was COMPLETELY wrong about not liking this book. It is genuinely fantastic. I fell in love with the two protagonists, a blind French girl and a math savant German boy, in a way that I never expected I would. And the plot is absolutely riveting; I can’t remember the last time I read half of a book in five hours. I literally couldn’t put it down. But what I loved about this book is that at its core is that it’s a story about people being good, even when the world around it is as evil and horrible as the world could be, and Doerr accomplished this so fully and so sincerely that I couldn’t help but have a little bit more faith in humanity once I came to that final page. I can honestly say that All the Light We Cannot See is a story that will stick with me for years to come.

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Returning to an Old Story, Choosing a Main Character, and Being Generally Irked (But Also Excited)

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I have good news and bad news, dear readers. The good news: I’ve started writing my thesis novel again. Yay! I’ve been patting myself on the back all morning for deciding to pick it back up after shelving it almost a year ago (I need all the self-indulgent reassurance I can get. I’m a writer. It’s how we roll).

The bad news: I can’t decide who my main character is. Which is the reason I stopped writing this story in the first place.

Boo city.

The dilemma I’ve run into (and been running into for the past year) is that I have two strong and compelling characters, one male and one female, who are competing with one another for the coveted spot of main character. Now, I am not a person who subscribes to the rule that you can only have one main character in a story (Thelma & Louise being a prime example of a story that breaks that rule), so when I first encountered this problem I decided to resolve it the easy way by just letting them both be main characters. Easy, right?

Well, when your characters are normal, sure, maybe you can do that. But my characters are decidedly abnormal. See, the part that I neglected to mention is that my characters are both psychopaths, and as it turns out, having two psychopaths as your main characters kind of doesn’t work. Like, at all.

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I got about a third of the way through the first draft of having these two psychopaths pitted against each other on the page and got increasingly frustrated, because the more I wrote the more I realized that I wasn’t rooting for them. I didn’t want either one of them to accomplish their goals and finish out their quests. What’s more, I didn’t care enough to see if they did accomplish their goals or not; I disliked them so much that I just wanted to get away from them. They were just too unsympathetic, too unlikable, and I hadn’t included a character who was strong enough and sympathetic enough to offset their extreme darkness. And without having a character to root for, I lost interest in the story. I came to the realization that if I, the person who thought up these characters and brought them into existence onto the page, had this kind of reaction to these characters, then readers were going to as well. And so, a little less than a year ago I gave up on the story with the intention of never returning to it again.

The problem is the little bugger’s been nagging at the edges of my brain ever since, refusing to give me any peace of mind and keeping me from working on the other story idea I’ve been playing around with for a few years now. It’s really rather rude.

So, since I’m apparently not allowed to work on any other creative projects until I give this psychopath story another whirl, I’ve decided to return to it with a new approach and an actual plan in place (my god, what a concept. A writer with a plan!). First, I’m rewriting the entire story from scratch. This sucks because I’ve written ~150 pages of it in the first draft, but necessary, because of those ~150 pages maybe 10 of them are good/salvageable. The plot and characters got jumbled around a dozen too many times for me to make any sense of it, and trying to work with those original pages will just confuse me further. So that first draft is getting locked away in my desk and not being looked at until the second draft is finished. Then after I finish I’ll go through the first one and see what if anything I can pull from it and incorporate into the new story.

Second, I’m putting my foot down and limiting my story to one psychopath/main character. This is turning out to be harder than I thought, because like I said above, both characters are strong and compelling in their own rights. I’ve polled fellow writers and friends for their opinions on whether they’d rather read a story about a male psychopath or a female psychopath, and the results were a 50-50 split.

Naturally.

At least now I know that a.) I’ve got two cool characters and b.) I’m insane for having trouble choosing between them (fun fact: I care more about point b right now).

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to be ambitious and write BOTH versions of the story, one told by the male psychopath and the other by the female. Since writing two novel-length manuscripts of the same story told by two different characters doesn’t sound all that appealing to me (shocking, I know), I’m planning on condensing the story down into either a long short story or a novella. Then I’ll see which one turns out stronger and proceed from there. And I’m choosing to not think about the possible scenario where they both turn out strong and I find myself in the same position I’m in now, because that can’t happen, right? Right? (Ugh.)

 

ryan gosling novel

A Bewildered 20-Something’s Goals for 2014

Happy (very) belated New Years dear readers! I hope all of your holidays were fantastic and filled with plenty of quality time with your loved ones. I know I’ve been a terrible blogger recently and have been slacking a *lot* when it comes to posting, but there have been reasons I swear!  Namely, I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my bewildered 20-something self in the new year, which was surprisingly more difficult to figure out than I thought it would be. Is it possible to have a quarter life crisis before you’re 25 (rhetorical question, please don’t say no)? Well, either way, I *finally* put together my list of goals for 2014, and seeing as I’ve owed you a post for weeks now, dear readers, I figured I’d share them with you.

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Zimmy Sunday #19: The Secret Life of Walter Zimmy

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Happy Sunday dear readers! Zimmy and I are officially in holiday mode, if you couldn’t tell by the picture (and yes, he really does love it when you rub his belly with your foot. He’s a rather derpy dog), and very much looking forward to spending quality time with our family eating all the things in all the land and watching whatever Christmas movies happen to be on cable. Writing will slow a bit until after Christmas, but that is fine, because I made a *lot* of progress on the novel last week! I cut about 70% of the work I’d written during NaNoWriMo and have replaced just about all of the cut content with new material, material that I’m actually happy with quality-wise (gasp!). I’m not completely done yet, but I’m hoping to find time to add some things here and there in between celebrating with friends and family, and then go back to full time work on Thursday. In the meantime, though, time to enjoy the holidays. Have a wonderful rest of your weekend, dear readers, and happy holidays!

All I Need To Write

Today is yet another day spent slaving away over revisions, dear readers. Progress is being made, albeit slowly, but there are times when I find myself losing focus and inspiration, and when that happens I’ve definitely found myself trying a number of these different options. So far the best has been Some Animal Friends, i.e. Zim, A Room With a View has turned out to be the worst, and Internal Motivation is somewhere in the middle. I haven’t tried A Ticking Clock, though. Maybe that will end up solving all my writing problems!

Zimmy Sunday #17: Being John Zimovich

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Happy Sunday dear readers! I hope your weekends thus far have been relaxing and that you’re keeping warm, especially if you’re in the Bay Area. Seriously, how is it this cold here?? As you can see, I’m relying on puppy cuddles to keep me warm this days, which are proving to be very effective indeed (though as you can see, Zimmy is a teensy bit grumpy and unamused by me squishing him so much).

Writing has been a bit slow this week, unfortunately, so there isn’t much to report there. Most of this week has been spent trying to do chapter outlining and figuring out how to simplify an increasingly convoluted plot, which has been more than a little bit frustrating. I’m hoping to work through the worst of it this week, though, so fingers crossed I can stop repeatedly banging my head into my desk sooner rather than later…or at the very least, move on to a different problem with the novel, of which there are ever so many to choose from. Ugh.

But that will be Monday Alex’s problem; until then, I’m spending today curled up with the Zimster watching football, because it is too cold right now to do anything else (and because I’m feeling lazy). Have a fabulous rest of your weekend, dear readers!