NaNoWriMo recap

 

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I have finished this year’s NaNoWriMo feeling, as I do every year, that I have created something that is both impressive and completely horrifying. Impressive in that I committed to writing 50,000 words in one month and actually accomplished that feat. Completely horrifying in that I do not believe it is publishable and therefore it must be hidden.

Something about writing brings out the worst sort of hoarder in me. I have thought about joining writing critique groups, but the idea of asking other people to read what I have written and provide feedback terrifies me. It does not seem like an even exchange, I think, for someone else to have to trundle through my writing. And so I avoid doing the exact thing that a person should do with stories: share them. I started this blog as a small step towards facing that problem, but I find that I post sporadically, and then only after a lot of hesitation and obsessive editing.

Lately, I have been reading a lot of books about asking for things, when you need them, and about being willing to deal with rejection. I do not generally read a lot of non-fiction, which makes this reading binge unusual for me. After reading Amanda Palmer’s brilliant ode to The Art of Asking, I have been reading a lot more of what is called pop psych, or popular psychology, which mixes research with anecdotes. The anecdotes have shown that many people have a problem with asking and fear rejection. Knowing that it is not something I am alone in has helped, but only so much.

I think I read in one of those books, I cannot remember which, that storytelling is a basic human need, one thousands of years old that pre-dates many other human traditions. We created language so that we could communicate, and we created stories so that we could connect. Ironically, storytelling has been one of those things that has been the opposite of connect for me. I have been so focused on the idea that what I have written is not good enough that I have kept it locked away in the attic of who I am. I suppose that feeling of not being good enough can be expanded to many other areas of my life, but writing has been a tough one for me.

Why, then, do I continue to write? I asked myself that question when I had completed this year’s NaNoWriMo. It seems like writing is one of those things that I am compelled to do no matter what. But what is the point of telling stories no one else will hear? I now have ten completed 50,000 word manuscripts that I have written for NaNoWriMo, and instead of revising, instead of editing, instead of finding a group of fellow writers to read and write with, I hide them. In my day-to-day life, I have allowed that part of me, the part of me that is a writer, to be hidden from friends and family and colleagues. This year, I decided, I am going to try to find a critique group. I am going to tell my story.

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Review Fridays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion is not for those who are romantically nostalgic for the past, those who would ignore the facts in favor of what they imagine it was like in 1960s America. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, some of her best nonfiction is collected, articles ranging from topics as varied as John Wayne, Howard Hughes, California hippie communities, and the Las Vegas marriage industry. Didion observed all of these things with a sharp eye, but she is not unsympathetic. Her writing has a clarity and irony to it and manages to skewer without being cruel.

Her best writing, in my opinion, is about her native state, California, in the article which lends the collection its name. Subtly, she lets the reader in on her frustration with young people who are aimless, kids and runaways with naive views on important topics. One girl tells her that her father wrote her a letter imploring her to go back to school, and she wants to eventually, but doesn’t see the point at the moment. After some thought, Didion asks the girl and another boy what they wanted to be when they were young, but they are vague about it. A lot of the people she meets are vague about what they mean. In another scene, she writes about a group of people she met and her observations of what happens when they allow her to watch while they take acid. It’s a very funny scene because nothing happens for hours, only some noises from outdoors, until finally one of the men breaks the silence with a “wow.”

Didion avoids mocking these people, however. She instead makes them human, using dialogue to her advantage to allow the reader to make judgments rather than doing it herself. She can see that the hippie community is not just about drugs; the overly innocent and naive people she meets are part of a larger political movement even if they do not realize it themselves. The leaders take advantage of the larger aimless group, encouraging their ignorance and the idea that words and thinking are egocentric and bad. Didion writes an impassioned defense of language:

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words—words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

The collection as a whole reinforces this idea of the invaluable nature of words. Didion lets the stories speak for themselves, only offering her opinions to lend her narratives an extra jolt when needed. She is one of the rare writers who has an instinct for when to save the unveiling of the most important point for the end.

My favorite quote comes from the last essay in the collection, “Goodbye to All That”, about her decision to leave New York City: “I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.” It is a quote that mirrors the tone of the entire collection, a series of essays which are well-written and surprising, sometimes devastating, but pragmatically representative of a time and place.

Jane Austen Week: Finale

Today, I am wrapping up Jane Austen week with a quick overview of a minor character from each of the remaining novels.

Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram is the eldest son, set to inherit Mansfield Park. He regularly makes poor decisions, incurs nearly-ruinous debts, and has friends of the sort who would abandon him at the first sign of trouble. Yet, he still has John Yates, my favorite minor character of the novel. He makes quite an entrance:

The Honourable John Yates, this new friend, had not much to recommend him beyond habits of fashion and expense…. Mr. Bertram’s acquaintance with him had begun at Weymouth, where they had spent ten days together in the same society, and the friendship, if friendship it might be called, had been proved and perfected by Mr. Yates’s being invited to take Mansfield in his way, whenever he could, and by his promising to come; and he did come rather earlier than had been expected…. He came on the wings of disappointment, and with his head full of acting, for it had been a theatrical party; and the play in which he had borne a part was within two days of representation, when the sudden death of one of the nearest connexions of the family had destroyed the scheme and dispersed the performers. To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! and being so near, to lose it all, was an injury to be keenly felt, and Mr. Yates could talk of nothing else.

Jane Austen likes nothing so much as letting us laugh at human nature, and here she sparkles with glee. In one paragraph, a character is built entirely in a series of deft descriptions. Mr. Yates is Tom’s theater-obsessed friend, the one who brings intrigue to Mansfield Park with an inappropriate play. And, with the play, he manages to disrupt relationships and turn over the solid stability of the conservative country house. Because of him, Maria’s relationship with Henry Crawford progressed further under the guise of theatricals than it might otherwise have. Mr. Yates finishes with a flourish, eloping with Julia Bertram and thereby becoming an official part of the circle of Mansfield Park. I like to imagine them living quite happily ever after, visiting a reformed Tom occasionally at Julia’s childhood home, and hosting merry parties and plays for their friends.

Northanger Abbey: Mr. and Mrs. Morland, who appear hardly at all in the novel, are the parents of our heroine, Catherine. They seem to be one of the better sets of parents written for a heroine in Jane Austen’s novels. Think, by comparison, of Sir Walter Elliot, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Dashwood, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Morland do not cause the drama of the novel. They do not interfere, are not overly anxious or emotional, are not downright neglectful, do not intimidate their children, do not demand that they marry rich. They are simply ordinary people with a few too many children, but who do their best to help and support them and allow them to have their own adventures. Indeed, Catherine, with her happy childhood, hardly seems born to be a heroine. Most of the action takes place away from home, in a world where Catherine cannot imagine people having hidden bad intentions because she was raised by good, honest people. Mr. and Mrs. Morland are, in my opinion, the best parents any heroine could have.

Persuasion: Captain Harville is a friend of Captain Wentworth, the hero of the novel. He has many deep conversations with Anne Elliot, including the one which led Captain Wentworth to hope that Anne might still care for him and brought about The Letter, one of the most stunningly gorgeous romantic letters in all of literature. According to Anne, good company is being with “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” Captain Harville fulfills that requirement perfectly. Persuasion is a novel full of exceptional minor characters, a masterpiece that was finished but not yet polished, with plot ends not convincingly tied up before Jane Austen’s death. The characters do truly carry the novel, and Captain Harville is one of the most outstanding.

Jane Austen Week: Nancy Steele

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Nancy Steele from Sense and Sensibility.

As much as I love the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the exclusion of Lucy Steele’s sister, Nancy, does not make a whit of sense. In the novel, Nancy is the silly and irrational foil to her controlled and manipulating sister. Nancy loves nothing more than to chat about “beaux”, and her nonsensical speeches bring comic relief to what is at times a very dark book. However, she is also necessary to the structure of the novel and removing her somewhat impacts the integrity of the plot and Lucy Steele’s character.

It is difficult to think of what environment could possibly have produced the Steele sisters. Lucy is clever, but she is also calculating. Cold-heartedly, she holds onto a man whom she knows loves another woman. But she does not care. She wants to make a good marriage, and it does not seem like she is much interested in whom she marries or whether his feelings change as long as he is rich. Only caring about her marriage prospects, she pretends to want to be friends with Elinor, but secretly is out to tell her to back off of what is hers. She is the exact opposite of what a heroine should be. Her sister, similarly, lacks moral substance. She has very little of either sense or sensibility and is in fact the one who ruins her sister’s plot.

I think it is a fault of that otherwise brilliant film adaptation to exclude Nancy. Lucy is smart and can read others well. She would know better than to tell Fanny Dashwood that she was secretly engaged to Edward, who was due to inherit as the elder son, though he had no interest in gaining wealth or power. Nancy is absolutely required, Nancy who cannot control her tongue and does not have the sense to stay quiet. She is needed to advance the plot, to reveal the secret to the entire cast of characters, and to set in motion the events that will lead to a happy ending for Edward and Elinor.

As I have been thinking about Austen’s minor characters, I have found that so many of them are essential to the plot. Foolish Nancy Steele is the one who outs her sister Lucy’s secret engagement, and it is that which eventually leads to Mrs. Ferrars disinheriting Edward. Without Nancy, there is a possibility that Mrs. Ferrars might have been persuaded to accept Lucy as a match for Edward, if given time. She was already well on her way to doing so, but not quite there, when Nancy gave away the secret. Lucy finally won that approval after marrying the other brother, Robert, who benefited from Edward falling out of grace and inheritance.

As readers, we know that Lucy is cunning, but she also possesses an immense power to make a good impression on important people. Without Nancy, it is impossible to say how the novel would have turned out. Thinking about the minor characters and the amount of planning that went into them has given me a new appreciation for Jane Austen and her masterpieces.

Jane Austen Week: Mary Bennet

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

Oh, Mary. Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, you were meant to be born into a different era. There are plenty of women today who would prefer to stay home and read rather than go to a party. You are a classic introvert. You’d totally find a small group of friends who understands you instead of being forced to stay home all of the time, playing the piano for people who don’t appreciate it and making extracts from the books you read. I think that, today, Mary Bennet would be a PhD student, very book smart and focused on her research topic, but ultimately not very people smart or social.

Mary Bennet tends to be the forgotten Bennet sister. While the others are out dancing and flirting with men, Mary is dedicated to learning things. Out of all Jane Austen’s characters, isn’t Mary Bennet the most modern in that way? She seems to care more about what she knows than how many partners she can acquire at the latest ball. She is the extreme opposite of Lydia and Kitty; she is serious and bookish, but she has forgotten how to have fun and relate to other people. The very modernity of her character has made her interesting to novelists writing sequels, with varying degrees of success.

Jane Austen later said that Mary Bennet would have married one of her uncle’s clerks and lived out the remainder of her days in Meryton. There she could no doubt rule, prim and proper, intelligent and willing to play music, but not to dance. Mary could have been something quite spectacular if she had been truly gifted, if she had been allowed to give voice to all that she discovered in her books. I am torn about Mary. On one hand, I sympathize with her, destined to be in the shadow of her prettier and livelier sisters. On the other hand, she does not possess the natural talent to shine in London or on a larger stage. She is no Jane Fairfax. Meryton is just about right for her.

With a preternatural sense of character, Jane Austen always creates satisfying endings for her characters, even the minor ones whom no one seems to notice much.

Jane Austen Week: Jane Fairfax

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Jane Fairfax from Emma.

Was there ever a character better born to be a heroine than Jane Fairfax? Doomed to be a supporting character to Emma Woodhouse, she is far more accomplished and likeable than the heroine. She is clever and beloved by her friends, forced to leave them to make her own way in the world. Her one fault is entering into a secret engagement, of which, from the likes of Lucy Steele, it does not seem Austen entirely approves. Where Emma is selfish and has little patience for her silly neighbors, Jane Fairfax borders on perfection.

I am going to preface this by saying that I adore Emma Woodhouse. Really and truly, she is one of my favorite heroines in all of literature. However, I can see quite clearly that she is not perfect. It is her imperfection that makes me like her even more. She sometimes does not say the right things, her judgments regarding others are faulty, and she makes lists of things to do for personal improvement and rarely follows through on them. Emma is good at planning, good at figuring out the ideal way to behave, but she will not do the required amount of work. On the other hand, Jane Fairfax does.

Jane is accomplished at singing and at playing the piano, but it is clear that this is not simply natural talent. Miss Fairfax is a hard worker. When Emma would give up at things as being too time consuming or not worth the effort, Jane not only perseveres but achieves a true proficiency. Her work ethic is the exact opposite of two of the other major female characters: Emma and Mrs. Elton. Emma plans to be the best at things, but soon forgets about her lists. She is a true dilettante. Mrs. Elton is far worse than that. She slyly puts into conversation that her friends think she is just the best at everything and waits for all around her to agree. She is often disappointed.

From a writing perspective, it is interesting to think about why Jane Austen chose to focus on Emma rather than Jane Fairfax. She admitted that she thought, in Emma, she was creating a heroine whom no one besides herself would like much. The hidden engagement causes intrigue in the story, but Jane Fairfax has more in common with previous heroines. Where Emma is wealthy and declares that she has no intention of ever marrying, Jane is poor and will have to rely on her accomplishments in order to earn a living. Jane is kind, but will speak her mind when she feels compelled to, such as during her answer to Frank Churchill at Box Hill. Her story is hidden within the larger text of Emma, but Jane is still allowed to shine. She shines so strongly, in fact, that Emma is jealous and refuses to make friends with her, choosing instead the easily manipulated Harriet Smith.

I think that the ending Jane Fairfax is given is a bit unfair to her. I will assume that it is impossible to spoil a 200-year-old book and add that Jane Fairfax deserves better than Frank Churchill. I sometimes wonder about their past in Weymouth, what led practical Jane to enter a secret engagement with a man whose entire fortune depended on the whims of an unpredictable aunt, and I wish that Jane Austen had chosen to write that story as well. The Frank Churchill of Emma is not worthy of her. But perhaps the Frank Churchill with whom she fell so desperately in love at Weymouth would have appeared to better advantage.

Review Fridays: Cocaine Blues

Kerry Greenwood’s series of books about Phryne Fisher has been turned into a delightful television series. This is one of the cases where the adaptation has the upper hand of the book. The script can be cleaned of excesses, the characters can be fully rounded, and the perfect casting simply adds to the improvements. The book Cocaine Blues shows promise, but it reads like the first in a series. It reminds me in many ways of the Lord Peter Wimsey series: a wealthy person who solves crimes for fun, a person well-versed in many matters, and who is infinitely attractive, seemingly perfect, yet somehow still likeable.

Phryne Fisher, a native of Australia living in England after her father inherits a title and money, returns to her home country at the request of a man of her social circle. He is worried that his daughter, Lydia, is being poisoned by her husband. Miss Fisher investigates the matter circumspectly and in style, picking up companions to help her along the way. She stops a woman named Dot from exacting revenge on her former employer’s son and then hires her to be her lady’s maid. Two taxi drivers, Bert and Cec, are wannabe revolutionaries, but are also supremely down-to-earth and street smart.

One of the problems, I think, is that the book tries to do too much. Besides the investigation into what is wrong with Lydia, there is a butcher abortionist (which, to my frustration, in no way ties into the larger plot) and an attempt to identify the King of Snow, the leader of a cocaine operation. The villain was somewhat easy to figure out. I suspected what Lydia’s poisoning meant because it seemed to be lifted straight from one of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. Yet, the characters are interesting, particularly Phryne, who shares a lot in common with her namesake.

I am torn about this book. On one hand, it was a good start to the series. I can see the potential in the characters and the setting. There are not many books set in Australia that become best-sellers in America, and the time-period and scandalous nature of the heroine could help the series to evolve into something spectacular. On the other hand, I am not sure if I will pick up the next book. Devoting time to a series is a big commitment, and at the moment there are twenty books in the Phryne Fisher series. I am tempted to find the latest book in the series to see if the potential does in fact play out, but I am afraid doing so would ruin the earlier books in the series.

In short, I recommend this book, but only if you intend to commit the time and energy to tackling the entire series. The complete list of books and reading order can be found here.