This morning I read, in Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee, “Every consequential moment in life pivots around a dynamic of action/reaction. In the physical realm, reactions are equal, opposite, and predictable in obedience to Newton’s third law of motion; in the human sphere, the unforeseen rules. Whenever we take an important step, our world reacts—but almost never in the way we expect. From within us or around us come reactions we cannot and do not see coming. For no matter how much we rehearse life’s big moments, when they finally arrive, they never seem to work out quite the way we thought, hoped, or planned. The drama of life is an endless improvisation.”
If I relate this to dialectic thought, an action (thesis) gives rise to reaction (antithesis) which does not live up to expectation (conflict) which leads to a different action (thesis) which gives rise to reaction (antithesis) which does not meet expectation (conflict), and so it goes never to find synthesis (until the end of the novel that is, but not in real life). So is McKee unknowingly proposing and antithesis to Hegelian dialectics? And how can I fit the idea that every consequential moment, the moment I’m trying to capture, pivots around action/reaction?
Let’s move on from beauty and ugliness to the third call for action, “To find the happiness in misery and the misery in happiness; dismay the happy, or delight the miserable.” The action would be finding happiness in misery and a reaction could be finding the misery in happiness, thus finding both. Or, the action could be dismaying the happy and the reaction being delighting the miserable. There is a lot of action and reaction going on in my call to action for my art. Let’s look at the many possible combinations:
action: find the happiness in misery and the misery in happiness – reaction: dismay the happy, or delight the miserable
action: dismay the happy, or delight the miserable – reaction: find the happiness in misery and the misery in happiness
action: find the happiness in misery – reaction: find the misery in happiness
action: find the misery in happiness – reaction: find the happiness in misery
action: dismay the happy – reaction: delight the miserable
action: delight the miserable – reaction: dismay the happy
action: find the happiness in misery – reaction: dismay the happy
action: dismay the happy – reaction: find the happiness in misery
action: find the happiness in misery – reaction: delight the miserable
action: delight the miserable – reaction: find the happiness in misery
action: find the misery in happiness – reaction: dismay the happy
action: dismay the happy – reaction: find the misery in happiness
action: find the misery in happiness – reaction: delight the miserable
action: delight the miserable – reaction: find the misery in happiness
I think that covers it. So what am I looking at? Are each of those an image I want to create? Are they all aspects of one image? Are they all different consequential moments in the life of the continuum of happiness and misery? I like the idea that they are fourteen different ways to approach finding my photograph that captures the essence of happiness and misery at the same time.
Action / Reaction as an aspect of contradictory abstractions made me think of Dynamic simplicity, an aspect of visual design that is emphasized in Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson.
Mr. Patterson says, “Simplicity brings order and stability to compositions . . . However, if everything were as simple as possible, life would be very boring. We need to balance order with tension, which brings movement, activity, and a sense of the dynamic both to our pictures and to our lives. . . . So pictorial composition, like living, always involves balancing tension against order.”
So is this dynamic of tension (action) and order (reaction? or synthesis?) the physical dialectic of my art?
Today’s images were inspired by the work of Arthur Dove and Francis Picabia. Specifically Arthur Dove’s “Nature Symbolized No. 2″ (1911) reminded me of something I did back in April with Foolish, Ambition, and Cleave. I sliced up the printed photograph and spread it out like a fan. Today, I cut the center circle from my filter and cut it in curves then spread them out and taped the shape back in the open circle. Then, inspired by Francis Picabia’s orange and white ‘Dance” paintings (1912), I added my orange string lights, expecting them to not really take the shape but add a soft blurred edge in an attempt to replicate the interesting softness Picabia brought to his cubist surfaces. However, the orange lights replicated this shape clearly to nice effect.
Today’s Surprising Connection
This morning I started reading Complete Poems by Marianne Moore and came across a poem called “The Animals Sick of the Plague.” I recognized the title instantly as the play the kids put on for the New Year’s party in The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny. I had never heard of that fable before I read Penny’s novel. Now here it is in the section of Marianne Moore’s poems called “Selections from The Fables of La Fontaine (1954).”
I’ve been playing around with creating found poetry from The Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper (1653), one of the texts suggested for submissions to the next issue of Heron Tree.
Culpeper believed that the medicinal properties of herbs were connected to stars and planets, writing, “I knew those various affections in man, in respect of sickness and health, were caused naturally (though God may have other ends best known to himself) by the various operations of the Microcosm; and I could not be ignorant, that as the cause is, so must the cure be; and therefore he that would know the reason of the operation of the Herbs, must look up as high as the Stars, astrologically.”
The book is a really fun read, and the man was very poetic in his description of herbs and remedies, so I’m enjoying using the text for found poetry. I am also continuing my study of drumbeats in relation to poetry and this week I’m looking at 1, 2 &, 3, 4 & and 1 &, 2, 3 &, 4. For fun, I decided to combine the two and attempt to tame some of Culpeper’s words into my drumbeats for today’s quadrille.
Let Her Be With a Fixed Star
Upper crust of the earth, shooting forth like a star, the planet that governs, the stronger the better, written fixed before the nature of planets, take notice those houses, they delight star fashion, smell somewhat sweet up as high as the Star under them.
The concept of this series of posts is to stop reading craft books, learning from other writers’ chosen examples, and learn from novels, choosing my own examples. However, I had one craft book from the library that I hadn’t finished, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It’s very good, and I noticed examples of some of the things I read in the book while I read this week’s novel, Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey, as a novelist.
Choosing the Novels
Though I have lists of books and somewhat of a plan for an order of what I would like to read and study, I am already learning the importance of being flexible. One of the main issues for my reading list is availability. My hold on Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng became available so A Widow for One Year by John Irving is getting pushed back another week.
I signed up for the second section of the Wesleyan University course “The Modern and The Post Modern” on coursera.org. The novel for the that section is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I don’t think I’ve read it, so I’m excited to get to that one after Irving.
Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN)
So this week I’ll be focusing on what I’m learning from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It covers a lot more than spoken dialogue. He explores dialogue as three modes of talk: said to others, said to oneself, and said to the reader or audience. He says the three functions of dialogue are Exposition, Characterization, and Action. As you can see, his study of dialogue covers all the aspects of a novel.
Though the book covers more that just dialogue in the traditional sense of quoted speech between characters, I thought I would also focus in on the questions from my original list that have to do with dialogue:
What is the first line of dialogue? What is the main character’s first line of dialogue? Did it reveal the main character’s main concern? Did it foreshadow what was to come? Does it showcase the character’s personality? Do I like this first line of dialogue? How many words is it? Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one?
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension? Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking? How can I apply what I like to my own work?
Is the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?
Through this exploration, I will hopefully have a whole new list of questions inspired by McKee’s book.
The way Dialogue influenced my RNLN got me wondering if other craft books will influence my reading as well. One of my main goals for this project is to learn how to evoke emotion in the reader, so I think I’ll re-read my copy of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass while I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng to see if the craft book helps me focus on finding useful examples in the text that will help me improve my writing.
It’s All Coming Together
I keep talking about enjoying the synergy of my studies, but this week’s serendipity was pretty funny. Last week I mentioned the fun fact that Henry Mancini wrote the theme song for Remington Steele which I’ve been enjoying on Amazon Prime Video. I didn’t realize when I chose Unspeakable Things for RNLN that it was set in the eighties and went a little nuts with the pop culture references mentioning Remington Steele many times. 😄
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was available as a free e-book on Project Gutenberg, so it is the first book in this series that I read on Kindle on my laptop.
After years of reading on kindle, I finally looked at all of its great note-taking features and went through them on Monday’s focus post. While reading this novel as a novelist I used the bookmarks to mark plot points, and the four highlighting colors I assigned:
pink – POV orange – contradictory abstractions yellow – dialogue blue – character introduction and description
Though stylistic expectations have changed in the time since Madame Bovary’s publication—people aren’t patient with pages of setting description for example—there is still a lot to be learned.
Things I Learned
One thing I learned is that I’ve reached a time in my life when re-reading a book I read in college is the same as reading it for the first time. Whatever memory I had of Madame Bovary was thrown in the trash long ago to make room for the new. It may be time to re-read other things that I read a long time ago.
First, a little overview: Madame Bovary was originally serialized in Revue de Paris in 1856. The French government charged both Flaubert and the publisher with immorality but they were acquitted. Though the novel was considered immoral and scandalous, it was also considered the first example of realism in literature.
The novel begins with Charles Bovary as the main character, a non-remarkable, even simple young man whose mother has designs for him to have a better life. But the real main character is Emma, his second wife after his first undesirable wife suddenly dies. Emma is a romantic who is never satisfied with her life. She wants everything to be exciting and passionate, and Charles’s love and adoration is never enough. She thus takes a lover and when that goes badly, she takes another. Needless to say, that goes poorly as well, and she brings ruin to her family.
Plotting: Though Madame Bovary was written in the mid-1800s, it follows the same patterns of rising action of a contemporary novel. I found it fascinating that just marking the midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points of the novel from the location numbers got me to the main plot points. So I divided them again to see what came up. At each of these locations I found another important plot point: Charles’s marriage to Emma, the birth of their daughter coinciding with mentions of her impropriety around other men, her illness after Rodolphe drops her leading to the beginning of their financial ruin, the moment the bills are called in and Emma has officially brought ruin on her family. All of these scenes come every 520 locations on my kindle. Though the text seems to ramble on, it has a concisely mapped plot.
Omniscient POV: Omniscient, god-like point of view, in which the author can get in and out of each character’s thoughts at will, was much more popular in Flaubert’s time. Unlike the annoying, and out of place head-hopping in Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, the change of POV didn’t take me out of the story. And being able to know the different character’s thoughts let the reader in on important secrets that the main character is not in on. This was used in one of the best parts of the book in my opinion. At the very beginning of Emma’s first affair the reader is told her lover’s intentions to drop her:
Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen-table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”
You would think that this would make the whole love affair pointless to the reader, the only conflict being Emma’s broken heart and whether or not Charles finds out and how he reacts, but somehow Flaubert convinces the reader that Rodolphe may have had a change of heart right up to the moment Emma is prepared to run away with him. The reader knows he’s a cad, that he doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and yet he draws out the affair for so long, that the reader has time to imagine that change of heart.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Another way that Flaubert uses this omniscient point of view is to jump into character’s fantasies and compare them with reality. He uses future tense to show the reader the character’s desires:
“Léon with solemn steps walked along by the walls. Life had never seemed so good to him. She would come directly, charming, agitated, looking back at the glances that followed her, and with her flounced dress, her gold eyeglass, her thin shoes, with all sorts of elegant trifles that he had never enjoyed, and with the ineffable seduction of yielding virtue. The church like a huge boudoir spread around her; the arches bent down to gather in the shade the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illumine her face, and the censers would burn that she might appear like an angel amid the fumes of the sweet-smelling odours.
But she did not come.”
Flaubert uses “would” to slip into Leon’s imagination; to show the reader his hoped for future event. Then slips back into past tense to show reality again with the opening line of the next paragraph, “But she did not come.”
Description: Though Flaubert goes on about what people are wearing, and the description of the town where Charles Bovary sets up his medical practice goes on for about eight pages, there is plenty to be learned from his descriptions. One of my favorites is from inside Rodolphe’s head when thinking about his mistress:
Then the difficulties of love-making seen in the distance made him by contrast think of his mistress. She was an actress at Rouen, whom he kept; and when he had pondered over this image, with which, even in remembrance, he was satiated— “Ah! Madame Bovary,” he thought, “is much prettier, especially fresher. Virginie is decidedly beginning to grow fat. She is so finiky about her pleasures; and, besides, she has a mania for prawns.”
I’m not sure why I love that so much, but contrasting beauty with a mania for prawns makes me smile.
Another thing I noticed about Flaubert’s descriptions is he is very detailed about his physical descriptions, but also includes actions within those descriptions. Like when we first meet Charles as a boy:
“. . . standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village chorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces, He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.”
In this example where and how he stands as well as his clothing is used to show that he doesn’t belong.
And when we are first introduced to Emma:
“Mademoiselle Emma tried to sew some pads. As she was a long time before she found her work-case, her father grew impatient; she did not answer, but as she sewed she pricked her fingers, which she then put to her mouth to suck them. Charles was surprised at the whiteness of her nails. They were shiny, delicate at the tips, more polished than the ivory of Dieppe, and almond-shaped. Yet her hand was not beautiful, perhaps not white enough, and a little hard at the knuckles; besides, it was too long, with no soft inflections in the outlines. Her real beauty was in her eyes. Although brown, they seemed black because of the lashes, and her look came at you frankly, with a candid boldness.”
She is introduced in a domestic activity that she’s not good at. The first physical descriptions are of her hands, and it is said they are not beautiful, but then are used in contrast with her eyes. These contrasts and comparisons are what make Flaubert’s descriptions so interesting. They are saying much more than what is physically on the page.
Romance and Sex:
I can’t talk about Madame Bovary without talking about romance and sex. Unlike last week’s very cliched romance that as part of the meta-novel was only reiterating the stated fact that all novels are a romance, Madame Bovary is an anti-romance. The premise of the novel is that romantic notions lead to disillusionment and ruin.
Emma is a despicable character from start to finish because nothing is never good enough, and she feels so put upon by everyone and everything because she can never be satisfied. The novel expresses again and again how love wanes and romance is foolish. So lets take a look at the questions about romance and sex in Madame Bovary:
How did the author approach emotional love? Flaubert mocked emotional love throughout the book. Charles loved and trusted Emma. He adored her, thought they had the perfect marriage. He never imagined the truth. None of the relationships show actual love. There is doting, there are families, and marriages, but everyone is selfish and conniving.
How did the author approach physical love? Desperate, stolen moments. One of the best scenes, the carriage ride, doesn’t mention it at all:
“And the lumbering machine set out. It went down the Rue Grand-Pont, crossed the Place des Arts, the Quai Napoleon, the Pont Neuf, and stopped short before the statue of Pierre Corneille. “Go on,” cried a voice that came from within. The cab went on again, and as soon as it reached the Carrefour Lafayette, set off down-hill, and entered the station at a gallop. “No, straight on!” cried the same voice. . . .From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses. He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. . . .And on the harbour, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonder-stricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel. . . .a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom. At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.”
And there you have it, the scandalous sex act as described by Flaubert. Talk about letting the reader imagine what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out and only hinted at. He was definitely a master of leading the reader to conclusions.
Did it develop the characters’ personalities? Yes. Emma couldn’t be satisfied with anyone, but her romantic notions continued, always believing there was something more out there. This made even the men who cared for her lose interest over time.
Did it further the plot? Absolutely. Emma’s appetites made her spend way beyond her means which eventually led to her complete ruin and that of her husband and child. Her inability to think of anything but her own excitement made everyone unhappy, especially herself.
Applying What I Learned
Using Kindle for Developmental Edits: I must admit I’m excited about the nuts and bolts aspects of what I learned this week more than anything else. I mean Flaubert did some amazing writing and is still influential for a reason, but I just put my novel draft into Kindle, and wow what a great tool for draft review.
When you open Kindle and click on File you’ll find the option “Import a local PDF.” So you don’t have to upload your manuscript to amazon or anything, you can just save it as a PDF. Once it’s imported into Kindle, you can use all of the different tools I talked about for reading novels like a novelist for your own draft.
The first thing I did was bookmark my midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points, then the half-way points between each of those. I can already see that my major plot points aren’t where they need to be, and I need to work on intensifying my conflict and action. I mean, just like that, using the go to page functions and bookmarks, I’ve already clued into issues with my draft.
I can use the highlight function for highlighting errors still in the draft that I can quickly change. And best of all I can use the search function to look at each of my characters in turn by typing their names into search one at a time. This really is exciting for this early stage of developmental editing.
POV: Though I won’t be using omniscient POV, my novel is in close third-person, I can still try to find a place in the story where the reader is aware of something the main character isn’t. How can I do that? Perhaps she observes something but interprets it incorrectly giving the reader the possibility to see the truth before she does. How else can I get information to the reader that my main character isn’t aware of? Sometimes chapters start with a more omniscient narration and then zoom back into close-third, my narrator could tell the reader something that my main-character doesn’t know during one of these more zoomed out moments. Or I could use blatant foreshadowing, though I liked the subtle foreshadowing used in The Manual of Detection. Maybe I can use that technique to direct the reader toward information my main character is unaware of.
Fantasy vs. Reality: I can use this technique to show what my main character hopes for and then make her face reality. This could work well to show how she keeps going when everything is going wrong. It could also show how obsessed she is with the unsolved case, that she harbors some fantasy of vindication that will happen when she solves it. Or maybe there’s a different more warped fantasy of her dead friend finally being at peace or something. I’ll use the technique as a writing exercise and see what comes up.
Description: One of my favorite bits of description in the whole novel was the “mania for prawns.” It’s just so good as the contradiction to “pretty.” How can I describe people in comparison to others in such a fun and graphic way? It says so much about the character making the comparison as well. Of course, since I’m not writing in omniscient POV or even multiple POVs, it would be my main character making the comparisons, so what does she find ugly? What to her is the equivalent of “a mania for prawns?” I’m excited to play with that idea for all of my characters. A couple of my characters would say those kinds of things out loud. Knowing what disgusts them about other people can make for good dialogue as well as character development.
Romance: The thing I learned from Flaubert that I can apply to my novel is to let the reader read between the lines. The carriage ride is a great example of describing one part of the action while letting the reader imagine what else is going on that they aren’t seeing. What is going on behind closed doors? A character could overhear something and jump to the wrong conclusions; or overhear something and jump to the right conclusions; a character could see something like the hand coming out from behind the curtains and think the person is someone other than it is. There are so many things that can be happening behind a curtain.
I’m excited to say this is working. I never expected that reading an e-book as a novelist, Madame Bovary of all things, would open up such a world of discovery for both my physical process and writing techniques. I’m excited to see what my new Kindle note-taking skills will uncover in a contemporary thriller. The next novel I’ll be discussing is Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey. I’m excited to study it because its description says it was inspired by true events from the author’s hometown. And though my novel is very loosely inspired by actual events, I’m hoping that Lourey’s novel might be a good comparison (comp) for my own.
Today’s Poetics prompt at dVerse Poets Pub is about resolutions. Every year about this time is when New Year’s resolutions fizzle and dissolve, then are forgotten. Last year, I was completely determined to change my behaviors: I read everything about habits, goals, and motivation; I attended an online conference on having my best year; I followed through and did the work; and it worked for a while. But, as usual, life happened, and it all went out the window.
This year, I did not make any resolutions, but I have made a couple significant changes, so is there a difference between making resolutions and actual resolve? Only time will tell.
The prompt for writing the poem is to weave one of five given pieces of advice into a resolution poem.
The Resolve of Despiness
This year there was no reason for a resolution. I poured my mini-bottle of champagne into a long-stemmed glass took it out on the dock into the strangely warm night and truly enjoyed the fireworks reflecting on the water
Something had changed in my constitution as I raised my glass to everyone and no one and said aloud, “I am happy now!” The neighbors came out with sparklers and I yelled Happy New Year, and they yelled it back I didn’t want anything to change, just stay the same
What a frightening thing to think; this dissolution is the state I’ve waited for but it took so long, so many failed attempts so many previous examples that happiness cannot last, the acknowledgment itself dares the universe to take it away.
It’s the last day of the first month of the new year, and I woke up early, tore apart my mirrorworld, and started fresh. Though conceptually I feel like my ideas are coming together, the images aren’t yet what I’ve been hoping for. How about you? How did your month go?
This week I’m exploring my second call to action: “To find the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness; uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly.” Last week I was excited by Hegel’s dialectic thinking. This morning I found another correlation in neuroscience in Eric R. Kandel’s The Age of Insight.
Coming to Synthesis
Nobel prize winning neuroscientist, Kandel, writes, “Beauty does not occupy a different area of the brain than ugliness. Both are part of a continuum representing the values the brain attributes to them, and both are encoded by relative changes in activity in the same areas of the brain. This is consistent with the idea that positive and negative emotions lie on a continuum and call on the same neural circuitry. Thus, the amygdala, commonly associated with fear, is also a regulator of happiness.”
I love how my goal of creating images that show how contradictory abstract nouns converge works with the physiology of the brain.
While thinking about today’s photo-shoot and my call to action, I contemplated if capturing synthesis would actually make great art. Isn’t it the extremes that people find exciting? Not the negation, the accomplished stasis?
Kandel says, “Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to re-create in our own brains the creative process—cognitive, emotional, and empathic—through which the artist produced the work. This creative urge of the artist and the beholder presumably explains why essentially every group of human beings in every age and in every place throughout the world has created images, despite the fact that art is not a physical necessity for survival. Art is an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain—a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind, and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist.”
Thus, each of these images I share with you whether beautiful, or ugly, or somewhere along the continuum, is a peek into my mind. Welcome. It’s busy, and often cluttered, but there’s a lot of fun creating going on.
To make today’s images, using only white string-lights, I used printed transparencies of sections of my images that showed the shape both right-side-up and upside-down. I then created new images showing the filter both right-side-up and upside-down. Is it the synthesis? The negation? I’m not sure, but I had fun with my new terminology in my titles.
I’m going to continue to explore beauty and ugliness for a while. Kant keeps coming up as I study abstract art, so I want to read through his works that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.
Using my new kindle skills I searched for beauty and ugly in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and beauty had 500 matches, ugly had 4. I find that fascinating. Why the crazy imbalance? Is it because people seek out beauty and not ugliness?
In the section called “Dialectic of the Aesthetical Judgement,” Kant says, “. . . the conflict between judgements of Taste, so far as each man depends merely on his own taste, forms no Dialectic of taste; because no one proposes to make his own judgement a universal rule. There remains therefore no other concept of a Dialectic which has to do with taste than that of a Dialectic of the Critique of taste (not of taste itself) in respect of its principles; for here concepts that contradict one another (as to the ground of the possibility of judgements of taste in general) naturally and unavoidably present themselves.”
As I read it, there is no conflict between beauty and ugliness when it has to do with one’s own ideas and feelings, the conflict arises when people’s aesthetics are different. Something to think about.
Last week I “won” my first physical book (other than a coloring book) from Library Thing. Won is in quotes because it is actually an exchange for my volunteer labor of reviewing the book, but they call it winning. The coming book that will arrive in my mailbox is a poetry collection which I’ll need to read carefully for review, so I thought it would be the perfect specimen for a new segment of this experiment: Reading Poetry Like a Poet. Then I thought what I’ve been doing is more specific than Reading Like a Writer. In Bunn’s essay “How to Read Like a Writer”, he was talking about reading non-fiction more than fiction. No, what I’m doing is Reading Novels like a Novelist. So for the sake of specificity, I’ve decided to change the names of these posts going forward, and thus the new acronym will be RNLN which I found out stands for the Dutch Royal Navy, but I don’t think that will cause confusion.
Choosing the Novels
After playing with all the great note-taking features in Kindle, I thought of all the Thrillers I’ve collected through the Amazon Prime First Readers program that I haven’t read because I have trouble staying engaged with e-books. I thought that reading like a novelist might change that, so instead of moving on to taking notes in an old paperback, I’m going to stick with Kindle for another week.
To pick which one to read, I decided to take my own advice and choose one that may help me in the future by looking at each one for hints that it could be a possible comp (comparison to my novel) and for possible agents that I might want to query.
I chose Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey because it’s description says it was inspired by a true story from the author’s home town, and takes place in a small community. So it could be a comp. Her agent is Jill Marsal who is the founding partner of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and represents many bestselling authors. Her webpage says she is actively looking for new projects.
Reading Novels Like a Novelist with Kindle
For some reason I couldn’t get the Project Gutenberg .mobi file to load onto my tablet, so I used Kindle on my laptop to read it. It turned out to be a good thing because using the horizontal format, I could have the notebook feature open at the same time as the text, and search, and also see the function of the flashcards. All fun, simple, and useful tools.
You may already know all of this, but it is new to me, and part of my new processes of reading novels like a novelist, so I thought I would share. Skip ahead, or skim if you already take notes with Kindle.
Above the Library button, if you click on “View,” there are some options. The first thing I tried, near the bottom of the list, was Color Mode. There you have the option changing the regular reading mode from a white page to a Sepia, or more aged, pinkish hue, or to a black page with white lettering. I stuck with black type on the white page.
Let’s go through the note-taking options I found reading in kindle:
Go: location ctrl+g
bookmarks: the bookmark is the small ribbon with a plus-sign in the right corner. To bookmark a page, click on it. I always thought this was just to hold my place when I closed the application, but reading as a novelist it proves to have other useful functions. Under “View” above Color Mode you’ll see “Bookmarks.” When you click on it, it opens the notebook and shows you all of the pages you’ve bookmarked with their location. This gave me an idea: use the bookmarks to mark the expected locations of main plot-points. Madame Bovary has 6161 locations (it’s one of those files that doesn’t show page numbers, but I checked with a different book, and this works for pages as well), so I cut that in half and book-marked it, then cut it in half again to get my quarter, and three-quarter points, and book-marked those. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but they lined up with major plot points of the novel: The big party, the clubbed-foot surgery, and leaving the church for the carriage ride.
Go: location ctrl+g: Next to “View” at the top left of the page is “Go.” And the last thing in that menu is Location. You can quickly open the location window by pressing control and the letter g at the same time. Once there, you can quickly get to any location in the book which comes in handy when you want to review your notes, or go to the different locations that you find when using search.
search: This wonderful function that is accessed by clicking the magnifying glass on the left of the page. You can type in any word or phrase and every instance in the text is listed with its location. Since the abstractions I’m looking at are beauty and ugliness, I searched for them. Searching for beauty in the novel Madame Bovary got me thirty-eight matches to beauty and beautiful. Typing in ugly came back with four matches to ugly and ugliness.
highlighting: highlighting in Kindle is simple, hold the button on the mouse and scroll over the text. Once you have selected the text, a menu appears, giving you four colors to choose from, an option to Add a Note, Copy, look it up in the Dictionary, or Search. If you decide you don’t want to highlight the text after all, click on the white part of the page. If you have highlighted text and want to remove the highlight, click anywhere in the highlighted text and click on the colored circle with the X in it.
color coding: as I mentioned, there are only four colors to choose from: pink, orange, yellow, and blue. Before starting, it’s a good idea to have a plan, because an organized color-code can help with other features. Remember, you can use bookmarks for plot points, so that offers a fifth option.
notes: It’s a good idea to leave yourself a quick note as you go. Click anywhere in your highlighted text and click Add Note. Then type in the box and click save. If the notebook is open, you can type a note under the text in the notebook.
notebook: In the right top corner of the page next to the bookmark symbol is a rectangle that says “Show Notebook.” On the right hand side will now be a list of everything you’ve highlighted organized by chapter and location. At the top of the notebook under the words “Notes and Highlights” it says “Filter by,” if you click on the arrow after All Items, there are options to look at your Bookmarks, your notes, and sort your highlights by color. There are little stars on each highlight, so you can choose certain ones and then sort by Starred. And if you’re connected to the internet, you can look at what most people have highlighted and compare that with your own. You can add notes to each of your highlighted texts if you haven’t already.
flashcards: Next to the words “Notes and Highlights” in the Notebook there’s a rectangle that says “+Flashcards.” This is a fun feature that will take anything you have filtered in your notebook into flashcards: a really great tool for studying for an exam. There’s a symbol of overlapping rectangles under the magnifying glass on the left hand side of the page that brings up your flashcards and will show them to you so you can quiz yourself and mark what you got right and wrong. I’m not quite sure how I want to use this function for reading novels like a novelist, but it’s something to think about. Do you have any ideas for how to use the flashcard function to be a better novelist?
I think you can probably see why I want to read and study another novel on my kindle next week to explore all of the interesting tools and how best to use them.
It’s All Coming Together
The draft for my novel that I wrote during NaNoWriMo last November came from the idea of incorporating my study of contradictory abstract nouns into my characters. I really like the idea that the big conflicts in life come from the fact that abstractions that all of us think we understand like love, beauty, happiness, wisdom, and truth, are actually undefinable, and defined differently by everyone, and always changing.
My study into contradictory abstractions is helping me see the big picture in a new way. I can see how my interests in music, art, science, history, and philosophy overlap.
By reading Madame Bovary for my modernist class, and as a novelist, I can see that overlap plainly. Like meeting someone you’ve never seen before, then seeing them all over town, the moment I finished the class lectures on Madame Bovary, the novel started coming up all over my other reading.
In ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound he says, “An attempt to set down things as they are, to find the word that corresponds to the thing, the statement that portrays, and presents, instead of making a comment, however brilliant, or an epigram. Flaubert is the archetype.”
Later he says, “If you want to study the novel, go, READ the best you can find. All that I know about it, I have learned by reading:” and in his short list he includes Madame Bovary, though I believe he intends for us to read it in French.
I was excited to find a book called Painterly Abstraction In Modernist American Poetry by Charles Altieri in my library system, but was having trouble getting into it. But after reading Madame Bovary I found it referenced in the fourth chapter called “Modernist Irony and the Kantian Heritage. The second section of the chapter is all about Flaubert and Madame Bovary. He states,”No work surpasses Madame Bovary at defining the demands that eventually led European art to Modernism. Dramatically, Flaubert’s novel affords a keen critical analysis of the conditions that trap desire in the law of heteronomy.” (heteronomy: noun 1. the condition of being under the domination of an outside authority, either human or divine.) Altieri later writes, “An adequate account of the text must indicate the lines of force established by at least three fundamental factors of the writing: its complex rendering of persons, of scenes, and of the emotions they elicit in the audience; its foregrounding of the authorial act as itself a mode of eliciting and playing out desires; and its constant reminders of the artificiality or constructedness of what nonetheless capable of shaping emotions that carry over into the world beyond the specific text.
It’s this idea of art for art’s sake that was discussed in class, and also connects Modernism to Abstract Art. So I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
How was your week? Did you try reading like a writer? Though I didn’t find a lot to apply to my novel from The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill, I did have fun brainstorming unique formats for my novel, and it inspired me to get a copy of S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst from my local library system. I was curious to see how all the inserts worked. They are neatly tucked within the pages of the book and the book comes in a box sleeve that is velcroed shut. Imagine my happy surprise when the first insert is two copies of a letter. The first in Swedish and the second its translation. It was fun to be able to read the letter in Swedish and also see their translation.
The Ship of Theseus, which is the fictitious book in which the characters write in the margins, is also the name of an interesting philosophical puzzle which asks, if every piece of a ship is replaced over time, is it still the same ship when it doesn’t have a single original piece left?
As for the reading experience I haven’t figured it out yet. There are so many different things to read: The translator’s preface and footnotes is one story, the novel, the layers and layers of notes between the students, and the inserted materials. I thought I would read through the novel first, but the notes were too distracting, so I think I’ll have to spend the time on each page to read the novel, the translator’s notes and the students written notes all at once.
I finished reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert for my coursera.org course “The Modern and the Postmodern” through Wesleyan University. In class, it was an example of the Disillusionment. I know I read Madame Bovary as an undergrad, but I really didn’t remember anything about it as I read. It was long and boring and the characters were abhorrent people, but that’s why it’s going to be interesting to discuss for reading as a writer. I found a lot to learn from it and apply to my work.
I liked the note-taking capabilities in Kindle and will talk about that tomorrow. I also found some interesting surprise connections in my other reading that I’ll talk about tomorrow.
This week I found a new-used mirror large enough to create a mirrorworld that has eternal depth, as in mirrors reflecting mirrors all the way to infinity. I’m excited to explore all my new techniques within this space while thinking dialectically. My idea for this week is: if I take an image that includes my shape both right side up, and upside down and backwards, and I use that shape as a filter to take a photo of the shapes right side up, and upside down and backwards, will that get me closer to synthesis? I’ll try it out and talk more about these new ideas of capturing synthesis on Tuesday.
Using drum beats to create poetic lines
This week’s rhythm I’ve been playing with is: one, two, three, four and. This is the cha-cha rhythm. I looked through my old records and the only cha-cha I found was by Henri Mancini called “Something for Sellers.”(Fun fact: Henri Mancini also wrote the theme song for Remington Steele which I enjoyed as a kid, and is a fun distraction available on Amazon Prime Video.)
The last word of each phrase should be a trochee, having the stress on the first syllable. Until this week I was only looking at the rhythm as syllables not the stress of the words, but with this four & beat, it feels like the trochee vs. iamb(ic) foot is important.
Where is this going? Who’s out there knowing? Can I make something, from all this nothing? two rights come center, once new thoughts enter is the mean better, once her match met her?
After four week of looking at this idea of drum beats becoming lines of poetry, I thought it would be fun to see how the lines work and sound together. Let’s see what happens. First I’ll take four lines from each of the patterns I’ve played with so far in order:
I say I’m good when we meet, but you’re not buying I talk of truth, honestly, I know I’m lying If truth is fine, why do I find yours is ugly? If flaws make rich, why do I wish to be smudge free?
but I was waffling, so I just followed to enjoy the talk and be in the walk but I could not stop my mind from worry we needed to go and be in a hurry
the third unknown point joins in unseen lines to a future hurt that your secrets hide where the haunting blues find life’s conflict caught ache in yearning flesh moves the wand’ring eye
Where is this going? Who’s out there knowing? Can I make something, from all this nothing? two rights come center, once new thoughts enter is the mean better, once her match met her?
Now let’s try one line from each in a row to make the quatrains:
I say I’m good when we meet, but you’re not buying but I was waffling, so I just followed the third unknown point joins in unseen lines Where is this going? Who’s out there knowing?
I talk of truth, honestly, I know I’m lying to enjoy the talk and be in the walk to a future hurt that your secrets hide Can I make something, from all this nothing?
If truth is fine, why do I find yours is ugly? but I could not stop my mind from worry where the haunting blues find life’s conflict caught two rights come center, once new thoughts enter
If flaws make rich, why do I wish to be smudge free? we needed to go and be in a hurry ache in yearning flesh moves the wand’ring eye is the mean better, once her match met her?
*I think I like that. This second one has some interesting connections happening.
I guess I’ll be moving on to a slightly more complicated drum beat this week. I’ll have to figure out how that works with this idea of drum beats and poetry. Maybe I’ll see how a simple drum fill works with this idea.
I chose “(I’m Afraid The) Masquerade is Over” by Herb Magidson and Allie Wrubel as the song to work on this week as I continue working on my second call to action, “To find the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness; uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly.”
The Meeting the Bar prompt at dVerse Poets Pub is a new to me poetry form called “Memento.” The Memento form “created by Emily Romano is a poem about a holiday or an anniversary, consisting of two stanzas as follows: the syllable count should be 8 beats for line one; 6 beats for line two; and two beats for line three. This is repeated twice for each stanza. The rhyme scheme is: a/b/c/a/b/c for each of the two stanzas.” Here’s my attempt at my first Memento:
we gather, heads tilted, eyes wide as pyros, born of flame alight each explosion elicits cries of fright then quickly came delight
brilliant color blossoms fall wide Boom! rockets rise again free flight when lights sparkle in hopeful eyes we bathe in warm ash rain tonight
Since The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill was so different than the others I’ve looked at so far, I had to come up with another color code for my post-its and notes. I marked the beginning of each of the letters with orange, thinking that on second read it would be useful to read through all the letters together.
I used yellow for plot points, and based on page count, I marked the midpoint, quarter, and three-quarters, and the midpoints of those, to mark the possible places for important plot points.
This meta-novel had authors talking shop, so I chose neon-pink for craft talk. I used blue for character, and green for setting. And I marked the romance scenes in light pink.
Things I Learned
With this book, what started out as a fun and unique format for a mystery novel turned out to take away from what was a fine mystery with fun characters and good twists. I learned that a clever idea with great potential can end up taking away from the story instead of adding.
First, a little overview:
The novel starts with a letter from an author named Leo who lives in Boston to an author named Hannah who lives in Australia. The reader only sees the letters Leo writes to Hannah, but it appears that it is a correspondence relationship that has been going on for years. After the letter, is the first chapter of Hannah’s novel. The novel is about a writer from Australia who gets a writing fellowship to Boston and is just starting a crime thriller / mystery when she, and the people sitting near her in the library hear a scream. Curiosity over the scream binds them together and inspires her novel. The format of the book continues with a letter at the end of each chapter commenting on the one just read.
I really liked the concept and was really enjoying it until the letters started talking about the pandemic. I wasn’t expecting to read a second pandemic novel in a row. I though it was handled well in The Madness of Crowds, but I did not think it was approached well in this novel. The choices made after the pandemic came up in the letters were more and more disappointing, and I ended up feeling like an idea with great potential was squandered.
Shop Talk: Because this was a novel about a novelist writing a novel, among other writers, there was a lot of interesting shop talk and some of it felt like a writer’s workshop. Here are five moments I found interesting:
1. “True. The scream might have been what the crime writers call”—he paused for effect—”a red herring.” I smile. “Still a heck of a coincidence.” “They do happen in reality, even if they are a bad plot device.” Cain rises and excuses himself . . .
The first two times I read that, and even as I wrote it down, I thought the author was having a character say that red herrings were a bad plot device. That rubbed me the wrong way. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, red herrings are necessary. However, I now think the comment is meant to say that coincidence is a bad plot device. Clarity of meaning is the lesson here, as much as a discussion of red herrings vs. coincidence.
2. Words are put down in solitude; there is a strange privacy to those disclosures. Time to get used to the revelation before readers are necessarily taken into your confidence. . . . “It’s part him, part me, part stuff I just made up.” “The magic formula,” I say.
If there is a magic formula for writing, is that it? Using some truth about another person, some truth about oneself, and making the rest up? Something to think about.
3. ” . . . allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”
There’s a lot packed in that partial sentence. What does it mean to allow the unsaid to carry the narrative? Is the real story read between the lines? It’s been drummed into me to show the character’s emotions, to never name the emotion and let the reader define how the character is feeling, and yet does it turn the scene into a melodrama if my character is always emoting?
4. “Have you . . . have you always written romance?” “Yes, and what’s more, so have you . . .everybody but the people who write instruction manuals is writing romance. We dress our stories up with murders, and discussions about morality and society, but really we just care about relationships.”
I love this point. And the romance in this book is so cliché and formulaic, and yet works so well with the plot that it’s inseparable. The attempt at a love triangle or at least a second love interest is poorly timed and doesn’t work (in my opinion) and turns the nice other option into a bit of a stalker figure, I guess, but a nice stalker? Anyway, The shop talk about every story being a romance is one of the highlights of this novel.
5. “Would my book, my words be different if I was a murderer, for example?” Cain asks carefully. I think about it for a moment, “Words have meaning. I suppose who he author is, what he’s done might change that meaning.” “Isn’t meaning more to do with the reader?” “No . . . a story is about leading a reader to meaning. The revelation is theirs but we show them the way. I suppose the morality of the writer influences whether you can trust what they are showing you.”
Leading a reader to meaning to me is more about the premise of the story than the author’s connection, but it makes sense that if a novel has led the reader to a realization through the proof of its premise and then the reader finds out something horrible about that author, the premise and journey could lose merit, and the reader could feel betrayed, especially if the author’s actions in real life are hypocritical/antithetical to the premise. In other words, the premise of the novel should be something I can live up to. Not some idealistic impossibility that my own actions prove false.
That’s really helpful at this stage in my writing. I need to pinpoint the novel’s premise and make sure I prove it by the end. I’ll brainstorm every premise I can imagine until I find the one this novel is truly about. Then I’ll do the same for each of my five contradictory abstraction characters. And while I do that, I’ll make sure that I’m not telling people to be something I’m not, or change in some way that I wouldn’t, or do something hypocritical to how I am. And yet, isn’t that what readers buy? Complete hypocrisy? Scandal, lies, extreme behaviors? Wasn’t Poetry selling magazines? Like magazines do? Also something to think about.
Romance and Sex:
How did the author approach emotional love? A connection through a shocking or memorable (traumatic: though in this case only curious at first) event. In relation to herself: he is also a published author. Then through play: a game of looking at places and imagining what happened there. Talking shop, then confession which leads to trust, belief in an undeniable truth. How did the author approach physical love? First, visual and cliché: She sees him and tags him as “Handsome Man.” Holding hands, dates, kissing, the act of “making love.” Did it develop the characters’ personalities? The main character is annoyingly three characters: the author, the author in the novel, and the main character of the novel, so whose to say? She appears very manipulated into believing everyone’s the good guy even when they are confessed murderers. Did it further the plot? Absolutely. The main character was already all mushy-gushy by the time she had to make the hard choices. And when some major truth-bombs explode in her lap, she’s helpless because she’s hooked.
I like how the questions made me look at the emotional and physical aspects separately. That was a good exercise.
Applying What I Learned
This week I did what I said I would, and formatted my novel draft and started reading it and . . . found a bunch of pages missing, and freaked out. Then I convinced myself that was okay, that I could keep reading and fill in the blanks better than before. Then I found the missing pages (whew), and I’m enjoying my draft. I mean, I actually enjoyed reading the opening scene, and can see how to improve it. So this week the things I’ve learned from RLW will be about brainstorming for my big picture edits and not specific examples of changes to the writing.
My MC is a jogger: I could use her running route, her fit-bit-type tracker, her running soundtrack, or zombie-run-type motivator She was a detective: I could use her old cases and how she solved each one uniquely and have each unique connection have something to do with each chapter She is obsessed with random killings: I could use examples from historic apparently random killings She’s obsessed with an unsolved murder: I could use old local unsolved cases
The original unsolved case has to do with Magic the Gathering, so I made up my own card game. I could have each chapter start with one of the cards. I could tell the story on cards like the author of The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry, did with The Family Arcana, I could have each chapter start with the rules of gameplay. I could have each chapter start with emails between the game company and Celia about her Master Deck art, or it could be fans sending email to Celia about her cards.
red herring vs. coincidence: One thing I thought the author did well was surprise the reader by having a person who was asked about one character dish out some dirt on another character. My novel takes place in a small town, so this might be a useful tool for disseminating information without relying on coincidences.
The magic formula: While writing my draft, I was inspired by an old unsolved double homicide, but I didn’t look very closely at the actual facts of the case and after the initial spark of inspiration, made up all the details. I don’t think I want to use any of the real details from that case, but during my format brainstorm, I thought doing some local historical research might add to my story. Research into old-west bank robberies might turn up some interesting characters for the “part him” part of the formula.
leading readers to meaning, showing them the way: As I read through my draft, I need to make sure I’ve defined my premise and proved it by the end of the book. At the moment, I think it’s We only See What We Want to See, or We Can Never Really Know Another Person, but before I start my re-write, I want to know exactly what my premise is and have a clear map to prove it step by step through the story.
romance: If Leo (in The Woman in the Library) is right, and every novel is a romance, then my MC might need a love interest. At the moment, she doesn’t seem open to the possibility, but that’s how love is, isn’t it? Shows up when you least expect it.
I Hope You’ll Join Me
This week I’m reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and will be sharing what I learn next week. What are you reading? How do you approach reading like a writer? What are you trying to learn as you read? I look forward to hearing about it in the comments.