Writing Advice Book Review: ‘Reading like a writer’ – Francine Prose

A selection of the classic novels that my wife owns and insists be put in front of my Warhammer 40k Books

A topic I know I have dealt with before (See Reading with intent: Musing on Writing), but after listening to Ms Prose’s audiobook, I thought it was worth revisiting briefly.

I picked up this audiobook on the Libby Library app, on a whim essentially, as I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. I’m happy to say it has been 9 hours well spent, as Ms Prose’s book of writing advice – nay – her book of reading advice is both entertaining and inspiring. And I mean inspiring – as soon as I finished the book I hunted through my bookshelf at home for the volumes of classic books I knew that my wife owned, and that were now acting as the respectable disguise for my ’embarrassing books’ (30+ Warhammer 40K novels). 

Reading like a writer is logically set out. Almost like a physics text book it starts with the smallest particles (words) before working its way up to more macro concepts (sentences, paragraphs). Nothing is missed by Prose as she targets character, narrator (i.e. point of view), dialogue and gesture. And each topic is illustrated by quotes from classic authors (she has a strong preference for your long dead white guys – the only women authors I can remember she mentions are the Brontës and Woolf.)

The main lesson she gives here though – the underpinning conceit of the whole book – is that writers need to learn how to read closely. How it is critical to look at the work of the masters of writing, or even just authors we love, and consider what is it about their work that we love, that makes them masters? How do they decide to break up paragraphs? Why are their sentences beautiful? What are the characters saying in this section, and what are they NOT saying? She asks us to look at how the authors use, or misuse, individual words. This close reading is apparently a learned skill, but an important one for writers trying to improve their craft.

So I’m going to try it and do exactly this. I am going to try and read short stories and novels, and even dip into my wife’s list of classic books and try to specifically identify the words and the sentences and the dialogue that they write, and try to figure out why it resonates with me. 

At the very least, I hope to pick up a few nice turns of phrase.

It’s a fantastic resource, and I recommend you pick it up. The audio book was great, but I’m going to grab a physical version to use a proper reference.


Funnily enough, thought I would start this practice of close reading with a short story from the Weird Compendium – a massive volume of short stories that was edited by the Vandermeers. (On another note I’ve also decided I will finish reading this book in 2019 – it is too early for new years resolutions?).

The story “the Aleph” is by Jorge Louis Borges, and it has some beautiful writing in it:

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series.

The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

I love that line ‘ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her‘, the pain of realising that even though someone you love dies, life moves on, other people move on. I feel like I can appreciate that pain, that grief, as it reminded me of my father’s death, and then the mundanity of living that just kept going on despite his absence. The person is gone, and eventually memory of them will be gone too.

Beyond this somewhat bleak introduction to the story, I actually found the Aleph pretty funny. The main character is talking with a person he clearly hates, one who is as pompous as he is fatuous and who is in the midst of writing a poem encapsulating the whole world. This generates some great lines that I felt carry a dry sarcasm:

So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn’t write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so…


The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

Even better is this section, that could almost be a warning about over-reliance on a thesaurus:

He then reread me four or five different fragments of the poem. He had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first “blue” had been good enough, he now wallowed in “azures,” “ceruleans,” and “ultramarines.” The word “milky” was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as “lacteal,” “lactescent,” and even made one up — “lactinacious.”


The Aleph, Jorge Louis Borges (available here: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf )

I was tickled by the coincidence that the first story I looked at with the aim of interrogating the writing had sections picking on the writing of one of the characters!

So going my 2019 Goal is to look for beautiful sentences, paragraphs and words in my favourite stories. I may even drop a few of them here on this blog! Feel free to drop a few of your own favourite bits of writing in the comments.

(Secret 2019 Goal: to slip the word ‘lactinacious’ into a work email.)


So, its been a few days since I posted last (checks notes) ah…2 or 3 weeks then. Eep! Oh well. I haven’t been lazy – I’ve actually been doing some writing:

  • My directionless primary wip is sitting at 18,850, although a lot of this writing has been outlining and world building. Progress nonetheless.
  • My secondary wip is sitting at 7,200 words. This has also advanced through outlining etc, but it already had far more structure than the primary wip, so this feels a bit more advanced, despite the lower word count.
  • I just started revising the short Lovecraftian story The Envelope that I finished a zero-draft on a month ago. I figured it was time to open the vault on that one, and get up in its guts.

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Review: Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays on Subversion, Tactical Profanity, and the Power of the Media

5 stars

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This is a fantastic book of essays by Kameron Hurley, and one I’m very glad I read. Kameron approaches her essay topics with a fierceness that challenges the reader to re-examine things that many of us (i.e definitely white male me) take as default or normal. The book looks at the widening of geek-culture to include more diverse voices and the intense and organised resistance that this change faces.

It is also a masterclass in persistence and tenacity, which I found very impressive.

I used the word fierce deliberately.  Karmeron’s writing is a passionate defence of creative women’s place in the world, and is clearly borne of an underlying anger – an anger at the constant efforts to suppress her and other women’s voices. Kameron is attacking the institutions of privilege and patriarchy, but I feel it is important to say this does not mean it was an attack on men – it is not.

As I said, I am a white male. Reading this book I felt questioned. I felt challenged. I felt occasionally guilty (when I recognised behaviours or actions that I had been involved in myself). But I never felt blamed*.

Highly recommended.

*Just thinking – the fact I felt I had to say make this disclaimer is a kind of playing right into to a presumption itself. Why on earth would I assume going into a book that it would attack me for being a man?  Because I have been constantly told that feminism is aggressive and anti-man, which is, of course, nonsense. 

Quick note: I will keep an eye out for future Hurley essays and I can see why she won a Hugo (For “We Have Always Fought”). I’m also now totally committed to reading some Joanna Russ – Hurley makes mention of her work a few times, and FromCouchToMoon did a great review of The Female Man back in 2015.

Book review: Children of the Different by S.C. Flynn

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The group were getting ready to go on a Wrecking when Arika’s Changing started.

Narrah heard the strangled choke in Arika’s throat and spun around. Arika was lying on the wooden floor of the hut, her limbs tense. Her green eyes turned up in her head and then closed. Narrah gulped. His mouth was dry and his heart was racing as he watched his twin sister turn pale and shiver like rippling water. Her little face looked very fragile under her black shoulder-length hair. The water lily drawn in dots of white clay paint that curved around her left eye from forehead to cheekbone twisted and jumped. Narrah had painted the lily on his sister’s face with his fingers just yesterday. How long ago that seemed now.

‘It’s started,’ Manya, the twin’s foster-mother said. ‘It is time.’

Children of the Different, S.C. Flynn

Ok, a couple of things:

1) Apologies to S.C. Flynn. I was asked to review this book as an ARC, and I said yes.

I then completely failed to do this in any sort of reasonable time frame.

So my sincere apologies.

2) I actually forgot the main reason I said ‘yes’ to this review in the first place – which is the awesome cover! The version I’ve posted is animated, and is cool as hell.

(You might recognise the style as Eric Nyquist who also did a version of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach series).

Onto the review.


Children of the Different: 3 of 5 stars

Nineteen years ago, a brain disease known as the Great Madness killed most of the world’s population. The survivors all had something different about their minds. Now, at the start of adolescence, their children enter a trance-like state known as the Changeland and emerge either with special mental powers or as cannibalistic Ferals.

In the great forest of South West Western Australia, thirteen-year-old Arika and her twin brother Narrah go through the Changeland. They encounter an enemy known as the Anteater who feeds on human life. He exists both in the Changeland and in the outside world, and he wants the twins dead.

After their Changings, the twins have powers that let them fight their enemy and face their destiny on a long journey to an abandoned American military base on the north-west coast of Australia…if they can reach it before time runs out.

– goodreads summary, Children of the Different

It’s worth noting at the beginning that Children of the Different is a self-published book. Whilst many self-pubbed books catch easy criticism for being incomplete or raw, I’m happy to say that the author has clearly taken the time and effort to produce a polished and finished product. The main characters – the twins Arika and Narrah – are believable and sympathetic, interesting and well rounded. The writing is professional and clear. It’s on par with YA novels that are traditionally published.

Children of the Different is a solidly written dystopian YA story (are there any other kiind?) that does a fantastic job world-building a post-apocalyptic/fantasy reality, that an ending that I felt was a little abrupt and ultimately didn’t quite ring true with the promise laid down by the the earlier story.

Excellent set up, but loses a few points on the dismount. Still, bronze medal at least.

The world building was what really grabbed me – it is truly creative/imaginative even though relying on a few established tropes.

We have the world-destroying disease and the creation of a zombie-equivalent (Ferals) – both staples of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. We also have a societal split, with those wanting to revert to a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and city people those who want to bring back the glory of scientific achievement. These are established tropes of the genre, but tropes are fine provided the author brings something new to the party – and where the Children of the Different really shines is in the introduction of the Change and the  Changeland.

Children of the survivors go through ‘the change’ a process which mentally thrusts each youth into the Changeland – a dramatic and dreamlike reality  – and come out of this trance state with special powers – or as psycho ferals. The variety of powers available does not appear limited, although i would suggest most of them are mental in nature (so no-one in the book comes out with super-strength for example). In the main these powers are done well – Arika’s powers particularly drive the first half of the book and are varied and interesting.  Later on, I felt that Narrah’s powers (that come much later in the book) were a bit less satisfying, and a bit more convenient from a plot perspective? I don’t know, maybe I’m being too tough here.

In any case, the time spent in the Changelands are easily the highlights of the book, its dramatic and imaginative, all the more for presence the Changeland villain, the Echidna.

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If anyone had suggested that an echidna (pictured) could successfully be recast into a genuinely creepy villain, I would have laughed. But Flynn’s villain in the Changelands had real presence, and cast a nicely threatening atmosphere over the time spent there.

I felt the book rushed a bit towards the end, didn’t make full use of the Changelands and kind of squandered the real-world villain.  Nothing here was unforgivable, but I did walk away at the end vaguely unsatisfied. There was so much promise in the concept that I felt it needed more. Maybe it needs a sequel 🙂

I should say that I finish many YA stories a little unsatisfied,  so these problems could be entirely on me.

I think that this was a solid read with a great premise, and if you are interested in a different kind of YA novel you should give this one a chance.


Let me know if/when you’ve read it and let me know what you think! Do you agree? Disagree?

Cheers

KT

Staring into the Abyss: Researching Crime & book review ‘Young Blood’

 

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Young Blood; Bob O’Brien

 


Young Blood, the story of the family murders – Bob O’Brien

4 out of 5 stars

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that my home town of Adelaide has a bit of a dark reputation, with bizarre unsolved child abductions, bodies hidden in barrels, and of course the Family Murders, which is the subject of this book.

The family murders were basically a series of five teen boys and young men who went missing in Adelaide, to be found sometime later clearly subjected to horrific sexual abuse, and in a few instances gruesomely butchered after death.

Written by Bob O’Brien, an officer who actually worked the case this book is excellent. Unlike some other true crime books I have read, this one avoids excessive conjecture and drama; instead it is clinical in its descriptions and analytical in it’s approach. This may make it a bit dry for some readers (those who prefer some titillation with their true crimes), but for me I found it just about perfect. It is a methodical and by all appearances very complete discussion of police investigative procedures. Gory details are factujaly included but never glamorised.

This book fits amazingly into the category of research for me, as the novel idea I am working on involves police investigation, of a complex murder, in the 80’s (at least partially)! The logical approach, the interrogation methods, the practicalities of evidence gathering and control…

Basically the hard part will be making sure I don’t accidentally steal huge chucks of it for my own stuff.

I might have said it before (back when I reviewed Cruel City) but reading true crime is a far different beast when you are reading about your own town. What happened to these young men and boys defies belief, and it’s almost impossible to keep the a comfortable distance from the facts when they are set in the streets you walk down.

It’s an uncomfortable realisation when you suddenly actually understand that these monsters live in the same world as you do.


Daily Word Count: 364

Total Word Count: 4,577

Really didn’t want to write today, but after I started the things started to flow a bit better. Slowly progressing.

Feels good.

Today’s Soundtrack

Book Review: Aimee & The Bear

Christ, I was in a bad mood today. Shitty day at work, sick wife, starting to get sick myself.

I was deeply glad that I only needed to type 350 words today, I don’t think I could have gotten much more done, but at the same time it’s really nice to achieve something on shitty days like this.

‘Strike a blow’ as my father-in-law is fond of saying.

Daily word count: 359

Total word count: 5,716


Having been away from blogging for a year, I’m way behind on book reviews. I don’t want to spend too much time on these, but there are a few I need to get done.

Firstly “Aimee and the Bear” the first book by Toby Stone published by Hic Dragones.

Aimee and the Bear – 5 of 5 stars

Aimee and the bear.jpg

 

You might remember my GIF-tastic review of Toby’s second book, Psychic Spiders – a book I won being silly on Twitter.  I really enjoyed Psychic Spiders – but I thought Aimee and the Bear was better.

Amy is a young girl in a terrible situation; her mother is cruel, tormenting and abusive. Whenever she finds the abuse too much, Amy grabs the hand of her dirty old teddy bear and escapes into a fantastic and magical world. Here she goes to Night School. Strange teachers conduct odd lessons, and every child has a guardian who brings them to school. In this world Amy becomes Aimee, and her teddy bear becomes a hulking and savage protector.

Together, Aimee and the Bear need to find a way to save the Night School from the Witch, and at the same time save Aimee’s baby brother.

The basics of this novel are solid – great writing, with genuine moments of humour and horror along with a plot that is not nearly as easy to guess as you might think from my brief summary. The ‘real world’ characters are believable and depressing, and the ‘Night School’ characters are delightful and bizarre.

What makes this stand out (for me) is the emotion behind Amy’s real family, her mother’s terrorising, her step father’s weak uselessness, and her grandmother’s wilful blindness. The abuse and how it is dealt with by Amy – still very much a child – is powerful, troubling, and in some points devastating.

This is a brilliant, occasionally heartbreaking, always uncomfortable story that I highly recommend.


Today’s soundtrack:

Book Review: Perfections – Kirstyn McDermott

What would her mother think now, if she knew of all the times her eldest daughter had ignored that advice? Those hurried, hopeful encounters in her teens. The desperate calculation of her early twenties. Until she could no longer convince herself that Dr Chiang may have been wrong. Until, finally, she forced herself to give it up. To pack it away. The desire, the longing, the need which she felt for near her entire life. Curled within her heart. Within her broken, bloodless womb. Only rarely, now, does she hear them. The ghosts of those children she can never conceive.

Perfections: Kirstyn McDermott

Busy, busy, busy…and barely blogging :(. I’ve been trying to finalise this review for a week now! 

A great dark urban-fantasy story; satisfyingly true to its Australian setting. Kirstyn writes some great dialogue, and has a deceptively smooth writing style; she makes the reader comfortable before expertly ratcheting up the tension. Some excellent twists and dark events, although I got the feeling that she pulled a few punches. It’s enjoyably creepy – a fine lighter horror read. Recommended.

I was provided a free electronic copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Continue reading 

Book Review: Snapshots: Missives From Beyond the Pale by Glenn C Loury II

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Somewhere out there is the first woman to look mortality in the face and realize that this life is all there is.

We call her Patient Zero.

The disease spreads through humanity like wildfire, a contagious apathy deadlier than any cancer. Stripping away our illusions killed millions. How long had we told ourselves there was more? That beyond life lay heaven or… something. Alas the wool fell from our eyes, no more denying the void before us. The gaping mouth of death that led to empty bowels wherein our memories were digested and, in time, forgotten.

How could we face our children? Those who were once precious to our eyes now appeared as mere ambulatory hunks of flesh born into the grave. Another shovelful of dirt heaped atop them each day.

Patient Zero – Glenn C Loury II

A small collection of flash fiction pieces, rich in imagery and delightfully poetic. At 43 pages I read this in a single sitting (it was $1.49 on Australian Amazon, I understand its 99c US) and enjoyed it, but I do think I might have got more out of it had I read paced myself – perhaps only read one story a day? Continue reading