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Writers on Writing
You don’t have to know everything about writing and fiction and novels in order to begin your first novel. That’s true whether you’re writing or editing. But you do need to know something. A lot of somethings. There are many ways to mess up stories, so many pitfalls for the writer who is ignorant of craft and lacks both skills and experience. But no writer needs to remain ignorant, not today. Not when so many resources are available. Here are a few titles that have been fairly universally recognized as helpful to those hoping to learn the writing craft.
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster – Forster (A Passage to India) delivered a series of lectures on the art of the novel at the University of Cambridge. Although this book was written in 1956, Forster’s writing on character development, plot elements and story remain relevant today. He reduces the novel to its essential elements and provides a plainspoken approach helpful to both beginning and mature writers.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – With characteristic honesty and humor, Ms. Lamott (Small Victories) encourages writers to write authentically, to manage their progress incrementally, to use all their life experiences to inform their art, and much more. Her helpful advice is demonstrated by a story she tells about the book’s title. “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'” This has become a bit of a mantra in my own home as Lamott is one of our family favorites.
On Writing by Stephen King – Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft. King describes how the writing life coexists with the everyday by grounding his advice in his vivid memories from childhood all the way through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999. King believes the link between writing and living spurred his recovery. A tale well told.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King – Browne and King are professional editors who share the techniques they use to edit manuscripts. They write knowledgeably about the elements of dialog, exposition, point of view, interior monologue, and other techniques and take their readers through the same processes an expert editor would go through to perfect a manuscript. Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.
On Writing Well: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This title has become a classic textbook for learning the writing craft. On Writing Well has sold more than a million copies for good reason. Zinsser’s advice is sound, well-tested and applicable to many forms of writing.
Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud – McCloud analyzes the art form itself, detailing how to achieve emotional effects and tell stories in visual styles. He explores the creation of comics, from the broadest principles to the sharpest details (like how to accentuate a character’s facial muscles in order to form the emotion of disgust rather than the emotion of surprise.) He does all with a cartoon narrator mixing fun and serious instruction. This work is a wonderful view into how to master the human condition through word and image in a brilliantly minimalistic way. Comic book devotees as well as the most uninitiated will marvel at this journey into a once–underappreciated art form.
Beth Pocock is a Assistant Director at the Sawyer Free Library.
Recently I discovered a classic children’s book that somehow I had never read (or didn’t remember reading!) I found myself enchanted and thoroughly entertained. While children may get enjoyment from stories, sometimes adult sensibilities can get even more. Children’s literature can have surprising depth and resonance. Whether rereading a book from childhood or discovering a title for the first time, you can find new literary adventures in children’s stories.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – This is a tale of being lost, then found; of not belonging and then finding your place in the world. Mary Lennox, a spoilt child of wealthy, neglectful British parents in India, is suddenly orphaned and sent to live in England with an uncle she has never met. Left to her own devices she discovers an overgrown garden, locked up due to being the scene of her aunt’s death. She also discovers her cousin Colin, who has a phantom illness and just as bad of a temperament as Mary. With the help of the kind natured boy Dickon, Mary revives the garden and Colin’s health. The destructiveness of self-indulgence and the restorative powers of nature are at the center of the novel.
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – The magical world that Rowling has constructed is complete and complex, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves. The series starts out rather simply, but as the books progress through the adolescence of Harry, it becomes darker, more complicated and more violent. Rowling allows all her characters to have flaws and redeeming features (except for the purely evil Voldemort). Mature themes – fascism, racism, failure of bureaucracy, self-sacrifice, and the need for the sense of belonging — are all intertwined in the fiction. The story arc is carried throughout the seven novels, giving a satisfying literary journey.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – Animals that talk usually are cute, but White doesn’t try to hide the animals’ natural tendencies or the reality of farm life with treacle. Charlotte’s Web opens with eight year old Fern Arable convincing her farmer father not to commit the “injustice” of summarily slaughtering the runt of the litter, but letting Fern raise the piglet. She names him Wilbur, and after nursing him and playing with him, is made to sell the pig to her uncle. It is in the Zuckerman’s barn that we meet the all the animals who quickly inform Wilbur of his fate of eventually being slaughtered. But the practical, kindly and smart spider Charlotte, who is Wilbur’s friend, cleverly finds a way to save him. The animals are the center of attention in the novel, with the humans mostly there to manipulate. Even Fern, who initially witnesses the animal conversations (much to her mother’s consternation), fades from the barn as her attention turns to more human concerns. The story is more charming for reveling in the earthy world of the barn and the lives of the farm animals.
The Giver by Lois Lowry – Dystopia has been a hot topic for children’s literature recently, but The Giver was published over twenty years ago, the first in a quartet. Jonas lives in a colorless, emotionally muted Community that has chosen to Sameness to frame their safe, but shallow lives. They are able to keep their lives very balanced by a strict set of rules, and having one person the keeper of all memories — both joyful, like sunshine and family love, and painful like sunburn and warfare. Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory. But as Jonas experiences the expansion of his emotional life, he and the Giver question the basic structure of the Community. The novel examines the large issues of whether good can exist without evil, if safety and stability is bought at the cost of emotional depth, what is a community without a shared past.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo – Opal Buloni is a lonely 10 year old girl —- lonely because her loving but distracted preacher father has recently moved her to a small Florida town, but her deeper loneliness has to do with the abandonment by her mother years before. Her adoption of a stray dog, named Winn-Dixie after the supermarket she finds him in, changes her life. Through her dog she finds her circle of friends expanding. More importantly, she begins to understand that there are all kinds of loneliness in the world and that reaching out to others eases that pain. DiCamillo softly weaves a southern charmer of a story, with interesting characters and a subtle message.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.
Last winter was rather challenging, and I am apprehensive about how much snow we will get this year. I thought if I embrace snow, maybe it will help me brace for it! Bring it on! Ugh.
Know Your Beholder by Adam Rapp – I read this last March. The first paragraph describes Francis Falbo looking out his window and seeing people on the city street making their way on skis. This was very similar to what I was looking at! The entire story takes place during a snowy winter in Pollard Illinois. It is about Francis, who is a landlord in a house full of eccentrics, he being one of them.
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia – A snowstorm leaves high school music festival members stranded at high school music festival in an old hotel in upstate New York, that happened to be the locaton of a murder/suicide exactly 15 years ago. This book is a quirky mix of Glee, The Shining and an Agatha Christie story.
Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards – This novel starts out with twins being delivered by their father during a snowstorm. Much later, a long-buried secret comes to light. It is an astonishing tale of redemptive love.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – The narrator of the story finds Mr. Frome an intriguing mystery. He ultimately finds himself in the position of staying overnight at Frome’s house in order to escape a winter storm, and from there he observes Frome and his private circumstances, which he shares and which triggers other people in town to be more forthcoming with their own knowledge and impressions.
Snow Falling on Cedars by Dave Guterson – This novel goes between before and after WWII. In 1954, A fisherman dies in a close-knit community in the Puget Sound region and a Japanese man is accused of the crime. There is still anti-Japanese sentiments in the country at this time.
A murder trial is held during a snowstorm that grips the entire island of Puget Sound. The American newspaper reporter covering the trial was as a young man, in love with a Japanese woman, the defendant’s wife. The reporter and the accused man’s Japanese wife were high school sweethearts that faced opposition to their relationship by both sides of their families. There are more twists and flashbacks that show the complications and
Valerie Marino is a library assistant at Sawyer Free Library.
Murakami is one of my favorite authors. He is masterful in blending surreal, dreamlike events and characters into lives of mundane, often lonely young men and women. His writing makes you look at the world differently, and can make you look out for the spectacular in the everyday.
IQ84 – Murakami’s most grand work, it weighs in at over 1000 pages and was originally released as three volumes in Japan. IQ84 is a story about a cult, supernatural “little people”, an assassin, a math teacher / ghostwriter, a teenage girl / best-selling author and an eerie parallel universe with two moons. This book takes everything that makes Murakami great, and just gives the reader more of it.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami’s most current novel is also his most realistic, mature, and probably my favorite. It tells the story of 36 year old Tazaki (whose surname roughly means “to build”) in Tokyo who designs train stations and a group of friends (who all have colorful last names) that suddenly cut him off during college for reasons he can’t imagine. Like most Murakami characters he lives a solitary, simple life; deeply wounded by this until he is spurn into action, and he travels back to his hometown and around the world tying up loose ends with his old group along the way uncovering some shocking secrets and realizing that no matter what you do, sometimes people can grow apart. It is a magnificent coming of age tale that doesn’t hold your hand or answer all your questions.
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – A departure from his usual work, this book has Murakami writing nonfiction, exploring the circumstances around a deadly terrorist attack in Japan in which a cult released sarin gas in the subway at rush hour. Murakami interviewed people on all sides, cult members, victims, first responders and family members in an effort to go beyond what he viewed as sensationalist media coverage. Common themes of isolation and disconnectedness from society emerge from both the victims and the cult members. Underground is an interesting look at an important event in modern Japanese history, as well as a look into the Japanese mindset.
Kafka on the Shore – Arranged in the form of two seemingly unrelated plots that eventually find each other, Kafka on the shore is the story of a teenage runaway, a mentally handicapped man who can speak with cats, a transgender librarian, and a truck driver who was kicked out of the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Like most Murakami books it deals with the shadow of the legacy of World War 2 in Japan, the power of music, and lots of cats. The characters are an interesting departure from his usual young men.
Norwegian Wood – Titled after the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood is a tale of lost love against the backdrop of the social upheaval of 1960s Japan. The characters of the book deal with death, loss and accepting the consequences of their often poorly made decisions. This was the book that catapulted Murakami to celebrity status in Japan, and was a smashing success amongst adults and teenagers. The book was also adapted into a film released in 2010.
Lewis Parsons is a librarian in Research and Information Services at the Sawyer Free Library.
I love movies, especially older movies. Whether it’s during a Saturday date night, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, feeling blue and looking to be cheered up or being restless and looking for that comfy time, a good movie is always welcome. It doesn’t matter how many times I have seen it, I am ready to step into the world of film — with or without popcorn!
Here are some of my favorites:
Casablanca – The ultimate movie — it has everything: romance, adventure, and comic moments. No matter how many times you have seen it, there is always the intrigue of the letters of transit, whether Isla will throw over Victor for Rick, and will Captain Renault determine the wind blows towards or away from the Third Reich. The cinematography is terrific and so are many of the bit actors that give the movie its robust shine. But most of all, what makes the movie sublime is the great writing that has given us iconic quotes like:
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
… and, of course
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
My Man Godfrey – One of the best screwball comedies of all time, My Man Godfrey stars William Powell as the disillusioned rich man mistaken for a tramp by ditzy party girl, Irene (Carole Lombard), during a society scavenger hunt. She takes him home, and he becomes the butler for the dysfunctional family. Irene falls for him, and all sorts of mayhem ensues. My favorite scene — when Godfrey catches Irene faking illness to get his attention. A fun romp of a film with plenty of gem performances!
The African Queen– Set at the beginning of World War I, the missionary spinster and the hard drinking riverboat captain find a cause and love while traveling down the difficult Ulanga River. Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) is forced to flee from the German troops by hitching a ride on the supply boat captained by the rough Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). After a fight that causes Rose to dump all of Charlie’s gin overboard, she convinces him to follow the river to the lake and use the African Queen to blow up the German warship patrolling the waters. Facing troubles like rapids and a German fort, Rose and Charlie grow to love and admire each other, despite of — and maybe because of — each other’s totally opposite personalities. Hepburn shines as the prim and proper missionary who slowly softens towards Charlie. Bogart brings realistic heart to his Oscar-winning performance.
Roman Holiday – This movie makes you feel lucky to be ordinary. Audrey Hepburn is Princess Ann, whose life is fully regimented. Drugged by her doctor after having an hysterical episode, she runs away and is taken in by American reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). At first Joe doesn’t know who she is, but in short order, not only does he realize it, but also how to exploit her predicament into a lucrative expose. Princess Ann unknowingly exposes herself as she tries to enjoy her day of freedom — getting a haircut, enjoying an ice cream in the midday sun, seeing the sights with Joe as her guide. As the two spend time together they fall for each other. Inevitably reality intrudes, and the princess goes back to her royal life and Joe decides he cannot file his story. Hepburn give just the right balance of formality, naivete and delight while Peck is perfect as the jaded reporter charmed right out of his weary outlook.
Notorious – In Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense, Ingrid Berman is Alicia Huberman, an American daughter of a man convicted of treason. She is recruited to infiltrate a German chemical cartel composed of some of her father’s old associates. Her handler, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), at first sees her as the drunken playgirl that she has become to hide her pain. Alicia changes under Devlin’s influence, and they fall in love. But the assignment calls for Alicia to seduce, then marry, Alex Sebastian, an old lover who is part of the cartel. Jealousy and mistrust taint Alicia and Devlin’s relationship. When Sebastian realizes he has been duped, Alicia is in danger. Hitchcock’s brilliant cinematography is fully on display with subtle visual clues and amazing camera angles that distorts the viewer’s perception and ratchets up the tension. Both Bergman and Grant skate the fine line between love and hate, desire and duty.
To Kill a Mockingbird – The quintessential story of moral courage in the face of racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird is an unforgettable trip into a world that is bygone, yet still with us today. Told from the viewpoint of six year-old Scout and her brother, ten year-old Jem, the world of the 1930’s southern life in Maycomb, Alabama is filled with the small ordinary things of childhood — make believe games, school fights, and the neighborhood bogeyman appropriately nicknamed Boo. But things turn dark when their attorney father Atticus (Gregory Peck) agrees to represent a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Scout sees her father being disrespected by some in the white community, while being revered by the blacks. My favorite scene is when Atticus, after being defeated, leaves the courtroom, the blacks in the balcony stand to show respect as he passes. The black reverend nudges Scout (who has been watching the trial in the balcony section) and says:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’.”
Bringing a beloved novel to film is not easy, and adding to its luster and enjoyment is a total movie lover’s delight.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.