Dialectic Thinking and the Study of Contradictory Abstractions

Hegelian Synthesis by Maria L. Berg 2023

Last week, while thinking about the first of my new calls to action “To find the truth in deceit and the deceit in truth; either deceive the truth, or unveil the deceit” (I now think reveal works better than unveil), the idea of deceiving truth, along with the blues songs I’ve been studying, got me thinking about cheaters and love triangles. I started thinking of imagery that represents a union of two wholes which made me think of the yin yang (itself a joining of opposites), and then an invisible triangle, the secret third party: the opposite of truth and the bringer of conflict.

Modernist Dialectic Thought

As I’ve mentioned I’m taking a course I found on coursera.org through Wesleyan University taught by Michael Roth called “The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 1)”. Last week, in the section called “From Enlightenment to Revolution,” we were assigned a bunch of Karl Marx to read, but for me the most interesting part of the week was the lectures on Karl Marx’s teacher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Though Wikipedia disagrees with itself whether Hegel actually used the terminology of Hegelian dialectic thought, I’m going to go ahead and talk about what excited me and how it inspired me this week.

Here’s how I understand Hegelian dialectics: every thought or idea (thesis) gives rise to its opposite (antithesis) and through conflict comes to synthesis. The whole process he called negation.

[Wikipedia says “For Hegel, the concrete, the synthesis, the absolute, must always pass through the phase of the negative, in the journey to completion, that is, mediation.” Seems similar enough to me.]

For Hegel this concept of an idea and its opposite coming to synthesis isn’t a fun thought experiment or art project (like me), it is his explanation of how the world works, and how the present reality interacts with history.

How does Hegelian philosophy change anything I’m doing? It brought up the idea that the image I’m searching for is the Synthesis, the end result of Negation. And when I find that, do I get to make up a new term: a word that means both truth and deceit for instance, and what would my process be for finding that term, making up that word, making a new term that means both and neither? That should be fun, and make for good image titles.

Does it really change how I think about my study of contradictory abstract nouns? A little. As I take my photographs, I may be seeing how the world works, actually documenting a more real reality than if I were taking photos of the mountain, lake, birds, and kitty. I’m getting close to photographing truth and reason, or at least seeing a path to documenting images of truth and reason.

How might this affect my process? If I am finding the truth in deceit and the deceit in truth, I come up with a shape or symbol that I think can embody both somehow. I can create it and it’s opposite (not exactly opposite, but the form upside down and backwards) at the same time. I can even make those two shapes or symbols interact, but is that an image of synthesis? Has my image gone through negation? How would I study that?

There is no simple symbol of truth and deceit, however, I was playing with the idea of two joined shapes=the yin yang and the secret triangle for the deceit. So if I take that symbol and its opposite (upside-down and backwards) will it make a synthesis of truth and deceit?

In the pictures I put in this post, I think the one with the shape upside down and backwards (the antithesis) creates the conflict Hegel talks about, and I think the one without the antithesis (top of post) creates a new form through synthesis. What do you think?

Talk About Synthesis:

The craziest thing happened last night. After free-writing about what I wanted to say about dialectic thinking. I went to bed and opened up Abstract Art: A Global History by Pepe Karmel, and right there in the introduction, right after saying “Critics argued that the abstract art made between 1915 and 1970 mattered deeply because its development unfolded according to laws of historical necessity. In contrast, even if individual painters and sculptors chose to go on making abstract art after 1970, their work did not—could not—belong to a meaningful historical narrative.” he says:

“The modernist theory of abstraction, with its reductive narrative explaining both the birth of abstraction and its ineluctable death, derived from Hegel, who tried to uncover an inner logic to history, replacing a chronicle of random events with a coherent narrative of significant actions. . . . modernists thought that, since abstraction had arrived at its essence, there was nothing meaningful left for modern artists to do. Painters might not have hung up their brushes, but ‘post-historical abstract painting’ was condemned to insignificance.”

So is Pepe saying that the process of Negation: thesis-antithesis-synthesis leads to the end of abstract painting? Or that “modernists” thought that? I don’t think that’s a reasonable conclusion. As I see it, the synthesis, that residual after the conflict lives on, or as the circles within circles of history, the process repeats and repeats.

What I’m finding inspirational for creating abstract art, Pepe Karmel sees as the end of abstract art. Though we obviously are in thesis and antithesis with no synthesis in sight, it’s still fun to see the connection.

Negation by Maria L. Berg 2023

Next Steps

I’m going to continue to dive into the philosophy of dialectic thought while I move to my second call to action “To find the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness; uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly.”

Another statement that came up in The Modern and the Postmodern class, “beauty hides the truth” is in stark contrast to Keat’s statement in Ode on a Grecian Urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . .” so there’s a lot to explore there.

How to Read Like a Writer (RLW): A Novel Can Take Many Forms

Reading Like a Writer IV by Maria L. Berg 2023

I did it! I put together all my 4theWords files from NaNoWriMo into one file, formatted it into one double-spaced draft and did a preliminary spell-check to make my novel draft readable. Then I saved it as a PDF so I’m ready for my first read through on my tablet. So, my focus this week is the big picture, the large developmental edits. As I read as a writer this week, I’ll be thinking about all the possibilities for the best way to tell my story, and The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill turned out to be a great book to study as an example.

Choosing the Novels

Now that I’ve read the three novels I had from the library, I had to decide what’s next. One part of learning to read like a writer, is to learn how I want to process different formats. This week for my coursera.org course, “The Modern and Postmodern,” we’re reading Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg for kindle, so this will be my first experiment taking notes with kindle. If that doesn’t work for me, I can download it as a PDF and try it with a PDF editing program.

Next week I’m going to read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I’ve had the paperback for a long time but never gotten past the first chapter or two. The paperback isn’t in any condition to pass along to another reader, so I’m going to see how highlighting and writing notes in the book itself compares to using the post-its.

While looking at my book lists I saw that The Hours by Michael Cunningham is about another book on my lists Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, so it’ll be fun to read them in tandem.

There are so many things to think about while considering a book list for RLW. (I’m trying to get used to using the abbreviation. It’s going to take a while).

Reading Like a Writer

The novel I read, and will be studying this week, is the The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. It is a meta-novel about writers discussing writing their novels within a novel. It is also partly an epistolary novel using the letters from a correspondence with another author reading and responding to the chapters as they are written.

It reminded me a bit of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood which has a novel within the novel as well as newspaper reports.

This got me thinking about different elements that can be used in a novel. Last week’s novel, The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, used lines from a poem written by one of the characters in different ways throughout the novel.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski tells a second story using footnotes and adds to the story with the graphic presentation of the text. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix is a novel made to look like an IKEA furniture catalogue.

I did a quick search for “unique novel formats” and found S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. S. It’s a book about two readers checking out a book called Ship of Theseus from the library. The description says it comes with 22 inserts. I just requested it from the library. I wonder how they deal with all the parts. Should be interesting.

Illuminae files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is is a teen sci-fi trilogy told through “hacked documents”: emails, maps, medical reports, interviews.

Can you think of any other novels in unique forms that really added to the telling of the story?

Reading Like a Writer V by Maria L. Berg 2023

The Questions for this week:

My main focus is structure, so I think I’ll focus on the questions inspired by How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey:

What is the novels premise?
Has the author proved the premise?
How is the premise made clear to the reader?
What is the main character’s premise?
Do I relate to the character? How?
Was the character likeable? Why?
How do the main characters grow from pole to pole?
Is there rising conflict? Is it ever static, or does it jump?
Does the story begin at the correct place?
Do the events of the story grow out of one another?
Is there poetic justice or irony?
What is the narrative voice?
Would it have been better if told from another viewpoint?
Does each scene have a rising conflict?
Were flashbacks used? Were they absolutely necessary?
Is there foreshadowing? How is it used?
Is the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?
Is the writing sensual? What are my favorite sensory descriptions? Is there a good balance of all the senses?

And some inspired by Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke:

What is the ordinary world? How is it presented?
What is the inciting incident? When, where in the book does it occur?
What is the MC’s knot (problem)?
What will force her to face it, finally take action to unravel it?
What is her old way? What is her new way?
What decision does the MC have to make at the moment of truth?
What is the cost? What is the gain?
What are the steps of the escalation: the ever larger bombs?
When is the villain introduced?
What is the first conflict/barrier the villain causes for the MC?
What is the main conflict? Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. tech, man vs. society, or man vs. the supernatural / fate?
What are the essential scenes for the genre?
What is the plot structure?
Map the main scenes

This is the first novel since I started this study that had any romance and sex in it, so I can look at those questions from the original list:

Is there romance, sex scenes?
How did the author approach emotional love?
How did the author approach physical love?
Did it develop the characters’ personalities?
Did it further the plot?

Time to Experiment

I’ve narrowed my questions to plot and structure. That doesn’t mean I won’t also learn about characterization, pacing, and emotion, but I want my reading to help me learn the things I need for my novel revision as I do the work.

Do you have a technique for reading like a writer? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

The Week in Review: Reading, Writing, and Abstraction

Spotlight by Maria L. Berg 2023

How was your week? Did you try reading like a writer? I really enjoyed applying the things I learned from The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny to my short story. This week I’ll be talking about The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill.

I’m enjoying my coursera.org course “The Modern and the Postmodern” through Wesleyan University. I really like how my study of contradictory abstractions overlaps with philosophy. This week’s section “From Enlightenment to Revolution” talked about Hegel’s dialectic thinking. I’ll talk more about that on Tuesday.

This week’s images were inspired by painters from the Northwest School, that emerged in the late 1930’s, especially the work of Mark Tobey. In Modernism in the Pacific Northwest by Patricia Junker, there’s a photograph of lights on US Navy ships in Elliott Bay during Fleet Week, July 1937, on the opposite page from Tobey’s painting “White Night, 1942. One can see how the overlapping spotlights could be the energy Tobey tries to capture in the painting. I played with creating the overlapping spotlights with light-forming photography and enjoyed the results.

Enlighten by Maria L. Berg 2023

Using drum beats to create poetic lines

This week’s rhythm I’ve been playing with is: one, two, three and, four. It made me think of the cha-cha, but when I looked up some cha-cha videos it turns out the cha-cha is actually next week’s beat: one, two, three, four and.

The first lines that came to mind for one, two, three and, four:

she is always late; she has fifty dates

sweet treat healthy fruit; brown round wrinkled suit

time to go-to bed; Mis-ter sleepy head

time to go-to work; he’s a soda jerk

Here’s some of a draft of a poem idea I wrote the other day:

a triangle from two connected points
the unknown third point
making invisible lines
of connection
to future hurt
to future revelations
the invisible lines
of secrets and lies
one of those fine lines
is the line between love and hate
a triangle of love
betrayed and hidden
where the deceit in truth
is found, where the
haunting blues find soul
where song after song
find life’s conflict
the wandering eye caught
attention grabbed by the new
and in motion
the yearning flesh aching
knowing there’s a good ache
that frees the mind
from form

Let’s see what happens when I try to put it into the rhythm:

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

*I really like how the rhythm helped me condense the ideas. I think this is an intriguing opening.

Radiating by Maria L. Berg 2023

And the Real Work Begins

Today’s the big day! I’m putting the first draft of my novel I wrote in November into a PDF and I’m going to read it through on my tablet as if it’s someone else’s e-book. From now on, as I’m reading like a writer, learning and writing rhythms, and studying contradictory abstractions it is all toward my novel revision.

Here’s to an Exciting Adventure!

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 2: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

A Madness of Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

This week I focused on marking while reading the first time. This focused my intention on reading like a writer, and I could tell I read differently. One quick and easy thing I can do is look at the page count divide that by two and mark the mid-point. Then divide that in half and mark the quarter point and the three-quarter point. I’ve now roughly marked where to look for the Act changes. I can divide in half again to find the “pinch points” or other expected points of rising action.

This quick exercise before I even start reading reminds me to pay attention to plot and structure, and to note what the author did at these key moments in the story.

Things I Learned

Sarah David from Words and Coffee Writing left a nice comment on this week’s RLW (Read Like a Writer) focus post, saying she’s especially interested in beginnings.

For me, the sections about beginnings in The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox, really opened up the importance of the firsts at the beginning: The first paragraph; the first time the reader meets the main character (how the main character is introduced), and the main character’s first line of dialogue. Other firsts to think about are the first setting description, and the first conflict.

While studying the opening pages of The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, I realized there’s as much to learn from what I don’t like as what I do like.

First, a little overview:

As I mentioned in the focus post, this novel is the seventeenth in a Canadian police procedural series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache who lives in a small town called Three Pines in Quebec. It was published in 2021. Amazon has recently put out a series called Three Pines starring Alfred Molina as Gamache. The series appears to cover one of Penny’s mysteries every two episodes. Watching the series gave me some perspective on this book.

Quick summary: In the aftermath of the pandemic, a woman who uses statistics to create evidence for a form of euthanasia gives a speech, and due to violence at previous speeches Gamache is asked to provide security for the event to keep the peace. Someone shoots at the speaker during her presentation, and tensions are mounting in Three Pines. (I don’t want to give away any more).

This is the first novel I’ve read that talks about the pandemic. It was interesting to see it from an Eastern Canadian point of view, since I’m here near the west coast and the Canadian border. It’s odd to think about how the whole world had similar experiences and yet every community reacted differently as well.

From watching the Amazon series, I could see that tackling difficult social themes and historical events are part of all of Penny’s books. This novel not only talked about the pandemic, it talked about statistical data manipulation, dangerous and brutal scientific human trials, the difficulties of dealing with a loved one’s things after they die, the horrors of human trafficking, and even the Nobel Peace prize, among other things. That’s one busy little Canadian village.

The Beginning:

This novel starts with a line of dialogue: “”This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

This opening line creates a question for the reader right away. “What doesn’t feel right, and why? It must be something bad if a police woman is “verging on urgent” to her boss.

Together with the title, this opening would make me think the book is about people getting trampled in a crowd at an event. It states the energy/tone as anxious, verging on urgent, and presents mystery: What doesn’t feel right? Why doesn’t it feel right? The characterization is that of a boss and a subordinate by using the word “patron.” It’s a professional relationship but also one in which feelings are shared. The emotional bedrock is trust and safety. Of control and chaos.

How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think I would switch the first two lines, so it starts with the main character instead of the secondary character to orient the reader more clearly: “Chief Inspector Gamache looked out over the roiling crowd, as the noise in the auditorium rose to a din.
“This doesn’t feel right, patron.”Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

Learning from What I Didn’t Like:

After those first two lines, the author leaves the present moment to talk about how this event couldn’t have happened during the pandemic. I feel like the first two lines were cut and pasted there for in medias res (to start in the middle of things) and then left there dangling. The author’s blatant pacing become more and more apparent even after the three chapters of not letting the reader know why people are so upset by a speech at the beginning. Flashback upon flashback upon flashback. Bad edits like a choppy movie happened more and more throughout the book. It’s a pacing technique meant to keep the reader enthralled, but in this book, I found annoying. The lesson I learned from not liking those scene chops, is don’t put one paragraph from my B story in the middle of a scene from my A story like snipping up film and taping it back together. It annoys the reader to be interrupted for no reason.

Another thing that I didn’t like was the head hopping. For most of the book it feels its written in close third POV from Gamache’s point of view, but then you’ll get different peoples thoughts, feelings, and observations in the same paragraph. “Armand felt the trickle as snow melted down his burning cheeks and the back of his neck. Beside him, Dr. Harris took in the crowd, noting the children, many in animal costumes, asleep on sofas, chairs, and the carpet in front of the fire. It looked like a tableau vivant. Until one woman moved.
Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Expecting one more person to walk through it. Hoping . . .”

If we weren’t head hopping all over the place, we wouldn’t know what Dr. Harris was “taking in” and we wouldn’t know what Abigail was expecting or hoping. These moments of head hopping took me out of the story, and could easily be remedied by sticking with Armand in the first paragraph, having him take in the scene instead of Dr. Harris. And having Abigail ask about Debbie, or walk outside and yell her name. Of course, that whole sentence doesn’t make sense unless it’s from Gamache’s POV, so it should be re-worded as “Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Gamache imagined she was expecting one more person to walk through it.” Or something like that. These moments of head-hopping in this novel remind me to be very careful when writing in close third person, to only share the inner thoughts, feeling, and observations from the perspective of the point of view character.

Main Character Introduction:

How is the main character introduced? He is introduced working, connected to his fellow officers through an earpiece communication device, and in the act of observation. But the job he is doing is unusual for him. He has been asked to work the security detail for a speech at a seldom used hall at the university.
How is the main character first described? He is introduced with his title “Chief Inspector” showing that his job is part of his identity. And he is described through action, “looked out over the roiling crowd.”
Is it just eyes and hair? No. This being the seventeenth book, it makes sense that the author has already physically described him plenty of times, so instead of repeating herself, she uses his unusual circumstances to introduce him, but then goes straight into backstory to explain how the event was unusual because in the past couple of years it couldn’t have happened due to the pandemic, and now it is also unusual because it’s almost Christmas and the University is on winter holiday.
What is a single word to describe the main character? Observant
How would I rewrite the description? Maybe his height has something to do with his view. Does he strategize his location based on his body-type? Comfort due to an injury? Or is something he’s wearing important to the job.

First Line of Dialogue:

What is the first line of dialogue? The very first sentence is dialogue of his subordinate heard in his earpiece: “This doesn’t feel right, patron.” But he doesn’t respond right away. His first line is on the next page.
What is the main character’s first line of dialogue? “Is everything under control?”
Did it reveal the main character’s main concern? Yes. It does double duty, talking to their job of keeping the event safe for everyone there. They are hoping to avoid violence that had happened at the last speech this woman gave that they saw online, but it also speaks to the main conflict of the book which is can we keep “everything” under control? Does anyone have the right to control population to “save people from suffering” by killing off the weak before they get sick—Make “necessary” sacrifices to save resources for the “greater good?”
Did it foreshadow what was to come? Yes. It speaks to the general chaos of life, and the problems that arise when people try to control it.
Does it showcase the character’s personality? In a way: he wants order and peace and knows it can change to disorder and chaos in an instance from so many angles, and not where one expects it.
How many words is it? four
Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one? Yes. The surface meaning is talking to his co-worker about the task at hand. But the deeper meaning is about whether there is ever control, if people are really ever in control.
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension? Yes. It makes the reader aware that the control can and most likely will be lost escalating the tension and supporting the plot, and bringing the meaning of the title into focus as well.
Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking? Not in this statement. A bit of a cliche actually. Because the book is set in Quebec the French phrases thrown in made for a unique way of speaking but all of the characters do it, so Gamache’s way of speaking is different than characters outside of East Canada, but I haven’t noticed his unique way of speaking that’s different than the other characters in the book.
Do I like this first line of dialogue? Yes, but I think it should have come before the author left the present situation to flashback and talk about the pandemic.

Gamache’s longevity:

So what is it about Armand Gamache that keeps people coming back for seventeen novels?

He is a family man: He has a loving relationship with his wife. He is a grandfather. He has a lively home life.
He forgives his son-in-law who also works for him when he leaves his post and brings a gun into the auditorium.
And he is wise: can see the problem from both sides. “But before Jean-Guy could speak, Armand said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. Everything in your life now is about Idola and Honoré. I should have known that. Forgive me. I should never have put you in that position. It was wrong of me.”
He listens to people’s concerns in the community.
He takes his responsibilities seriously, and works hard.
He puts himself in harms way to save others, even someone he dislikes.
He supports others in need.
He’s human: gets mad, makes mistakes, is vulnerable.”About to yell at him again, to scream at Gamache to let him go, Jean-Guy looked directly at the Chief. And saw tears in his father-in-law’s eyes.”

Not Three Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned


What did this novel teach me about beginnings? It starts in the action, and raises the dramatic questions right away, but then it holds the answer back for too long. I found it irritating that it goes into backstory right away.
How can I apply it to my own story? I want to start with action and a dramatic question. The story starts with the action of stopping her truck and listening to the end of a song while sitting in the cab. The dramatic question raised is why did she stop? And why does blatant sexism in old trucker songs make her laugh. By adding the objects that she has in her cab, I hope I’ve added enough intrigue into her character and her story to keep the reader going.

What did this novel teach me about character introductions and descriptions? Introduced by their job, something unusual about it, and introduce the character using their strength to do their job.
How can I apply it to my own story? What is Johnell’s strength when it comes to long-haul trucking? Stamina, aware of things in her periphery, spacial awareness, concentration. How can I show these traits in her introduction? In the next paragraph, Johnell gets out of the truck. I wrote “She enjoyed the stretch of it, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.” I can change that to something like: Because of her above average stamina and concentration, she really stuck to her seat. When she did stop—like now, because her stomach was growling and her mind was on a chocolate loop—she enjoyed the stretch of the extension to the step, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.

How can I apply what I like about the first line of dialogue to my own work? I can look for the first line of dialogue and see if  it’s short, concise, and has a surface and deeper meaning that speaks to the overall theme. In this story my main character doesn’t have any dialogue until the second page. The first thing she says is, “I was trying to get a candy bar out of the vending machine at Safety rest stop last night—” and her friend interrupts her. I like that she has one thing on her mind, no pleasantries, straight to the problem, but it’s not concise and doesn’t have a deeper meaning or get to the theme of the story. Maybe she comes in hot with “I found something.”Or “I found something hidden.” Ooo, I like that. That gets to the main point of the story, that things don’t stay hidden, and is much more inviting and exciting.

Character Longevity and Likability:

Though I am revising a short story in these examples, and not working on a long-lasting series, I might be able to make my characters more likable using Gamache as an example. I can mention a little more about how hard Johnelle works and how seriously she takes her job. I can emphasize the familial relationship she has with her friend Stookey, and that he’s the only family she has. I already mention that she used to have a problem with cleptomania, but she has gotten help and recovered with Stookey’s help, perhaps at a stressful moment she feels vulnerable and has to stop herself from back-sliding.

What could she do right at the beginning that shows she’s generous and caring? I could have the person in front of her at the vending machine need more money for their snack and she gives it to them. She could take time to help someone who is lost and needs directions. She could ask if she could pet someone’s dog being walked at the rest stop. She could re-unite a crying kid she finds in the bathroom with a mother yelling a girl’s name out by a car. She could stop a pet that has gotten away from an owner and return it. She could see someone leave a ring or a watch by the sink and get it back to them just in time before they drive off. She could just pick up someone’s ball or frisbie and throw it back to them. So many things can go wrong at a rest stop. I just need to choose one thing that shows she’s nice, thoughful, and does the right thing. For this story, I think the idea of giving someone back their watch or ring left at the sink will not only make my character likable, but add to the decision she has to make at the climax of the story.

I Hope You’ll Join Me

This week I’m reading The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill 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. Next week I will start revising the novel I wrote in November. I hope you’ll join me on the adventure.

How to Read Like a Writer: Narrowing Focus to the Specific Book

Reading Like a Writer II by Maria L. Berg 2023

How was your week? Did you try reading like a writer? I noticed I’m already reading differently.

Choosing the Novels

I thought of another way to choose novels to read and study. When my novel is finished, edited, and polished, I’ll be looking for an agent. Once I find some agents that are looking for manuscripts like mine, it’s a good idea to read the books by authors they represent. Why not start now? My first draft done, I know my genre, and what my book’s about, so I have all the information I need to begin imagining who my dream agent might be. So the next step is to look at their website and see what books they represent.

Not sure how to get started? There are lots of great resources online:

Poets & Writers has a searchable database
Agent Query has a quick search and also has a great online community for authors
Publishers Marketplace tells you which agents have recently made publishing deals
Manuscript Wish List on Twitter is a great place to read from agents what they are looking for.
Writer’s Digest does a series called New Agent Alert

So instead of feeling overwhelmed by a mountain of books to read when my novel is ready, I’ll find books represented by agents who interest me now, while I’m revising, and also make a habit of looking at these great resources for writers.

Reading Like a Writer

Last week, right after I published my post, I found a blog, Professor Nicolosi, teaching Mike Bunn’s essay “How to Read Like a Writer.” There’s a free download of the essay if you’re interested.In the essay, Bunn says “When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing.” Something to think about. For every word, or line, or scene in the novel, the author made a final choice from many, many choices. Would I have chosen something else? What might some of the other choices been?

The novel I read, and will be studying this week, is the Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny. It is the seventeenth book in the Inspector Gamache series. The books take place in a small town in Quebec, Canada called three pines. It’s the first book I’ve read that talks about the pandemic and how it effected daily life. Amazon has recently made a series of Louise Penny’s earlier books in the series. Every two episodes is one story. Each of the novels appears to weave tragic historical events into the fictional murder, showing how evils of the past seep into the present. Because the characters and setting have had such longevity as to keep people reading through seventeen novels and make it to the screen, I though I would focus on character and setting as character while studying the novel. My goal is to find how the author makes her characters so compelling that the reader wants to continue to read about them again and again. I’m going to take a look at last week’s questions and see which ones will help me focus my study.

Reading Like a Writer III by Maria L. Berg 2023

The Questions for this week:

What about the first paragraph drew me in?
What do I think the book is about from the first paragraph?
Does the first paragraph present characterization, energy/tone.
mystery, and emotional bedrock?
How would I rewrite it/improve it?
What did this novel teach me about beginnings?
How can I apply it to my own novel?

*I’m curious to see if the opening of the book makes me care about the characters right away.

How is the main character introduced?
How is the main character first described?
Is it just eyes and hair?
What’s the most interesting/memorable detail?
What is a single word to describe the main character?
How would I rewrite the description?
What did this novel teach me about character introductions and
How can I apply it to my own novel?

*This group of questions is interesting this week. How does the author introduce that main character for the seventeenth time? How does the author present a character already so well known to the reader.

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?
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?
Do I like this first line of dialogue?
How can I apply what I like to my own work?

*It looks like all of the questions that were inspired by The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox are just as relevant when focusing on characters in a series. But now I’m going to skip ahead a bit.

Do any characters die?
How did they die?
Was it foreshadowed?
Did I care?

What is the main character’s premise?
Do I relate to the character? How?
Was the character likeable? Why?
How do the main characters grow from pole to pole?
Is the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?

What is the main character’s core temperament?
How does the reader know that?
What is the main character’s character arc?
What is important in the character’s backstory? How does the reader know that?
How do others perceive the main character? How is that presented to the reader?
How does the main character speak and move that is unique?
What are the main character’s assets?
What are the main character’s faults/flaws?

Time to Experiment

I’ve narrowed my questions to character. That doesn’t mean I won’t also learn about plot, pacing, and emotion, but I want to see if having a specific focus helps me read like a writer.

Do you have a technique for reading like a writer? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Juxtaposing Last Year’s Lines

The Good in the Bad and the Bad in the Good by Maria L. Berg 2023

After We Said Goodnight

We have said goodnight but
buckle up and hold on as hearts buckle

The rope hangs from the reaching branch
Head held high, enjoying the sun on my shoulders,
I begin my journey

At my magical realism hotel where
the air is thick with it
agitation nags, it’s tickling

The fan whirs in the window
In the deep shadows under the metal erection
Funny how easy the monster comes out

A blinding fog over men’s senses, deceives about
you can’t be disappointed, if you have no expectations

Today’s Meeting the Bar prompt at dVerse Poets Pub is to create a poem from the first line of the first poem of each month that I posted in 2022.

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 1: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry reading two of his short stories of surreal detectives

Procedural Tips

After reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry to the end, I filled out the questions I could by memory.

The first exercise where I hunted for examples from the book was looking at how each chapter ended. I found this a useful exercise and a good way to start reviewing the novel. Then I started at the beginning and read the first chapter aloud. I found reading aloud really helped me get into the writing and see how Mr. Berry was setting up the character and the plot.

I jotted notes on small post-its as I read and after tearing strips from the small yellow squares, I decided I wanted to use different colors, and I didn’t want to waste time tearing anymore. I thought about buying new post-its, but instead I cut small stacks into four strips up to the sticky part. Now when I want to mark a place in the book, I can quickly tear off a strip of the size I want.

My color code at the moment is:
yellow – plot points and general comments
pink – emotion
orange – humor
green – sensory and setting description 
blue – character description and development

The process of deciding which color to use, and making a note, helped me see why I picked that example from the book.

Now that I have a system for noting the techniques that interest me, I will start marking with post-its as I read the first time, so when I review, I can start with the places I noted and hopefully save time. However, I think reading the first few chapters aloud during review will continue to be part of my process. Reading aloud made a huge difference. It slowed me down, and made me see/hear the sentences differently.

Learning As I Go

Things I Learned

Instead of taking you through all of my answers to the four pages of questions I wrote up on Monday, I chose four things I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry that I think I can use in my writing right away.

First, a little overview:

The book is a magical realism mystery that came out in 2009. I learned about it on Twitter when someone posted that it is the book they read for pleasure when they’re feeling down. The premise sounded like something I would enjoy as well, so I got it from the library.

Quick summary: A clerk for The Agency who enjoys typing correct reports, is suddenly promoted to detective but believes it is a mistake, when he tries to get his clerk job back, he finds his superior dead in his office, and the detective he clerks for missing. He then has to take on his new job as detective to find his detective to get his job back as clerk.

These are the writing techniques used in this novel that stood out to me:

1. Using objects as description – When I started looking for the linchpin moment of the first time the main character was introduced, I noticed that he was described not through his appearance but through the objects he interacted with: his bicycle, his umbrella, his briefcase, his wristwatch. Later, I noticed that rooms were also described through objects:

“Unwin saw a broad maroon rug, shelves of thick books with blue and brown spines, a pair of cushioned chairs angled toward a desk at the back. To one side was a great dark globe, and before the window loomed a bald massive globelike head. On the desk a telephone, a typewriter, and a lamp, unlit.”

Did you notice how there’s a character description in there in relation to the objects in the room?

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character – Another thing I noticed while looking for the main character’s description was that other characters said what they thought of him out loud. Here are some examples:

“Listen carefully, now,” said Detective Pith. He emphasized the words by tapping his hat brim against Unwin’s chest.”You’re an odd little fellow. You’ve got peculiar habits.Every morning this week, same time, there’s Charles Unwin, back at Central Terminal.”

Even Mr. Duden alluded to them, most often when scolding someone for sloppy work.”You like to think your files stand up to Unwin’s,” he would proclaim, “and you don’t even know the difference between a dagger and a stiletto?” Often he simply asked, “What if Unwin had handled The Oldest Murdered Man that way?”

These kinds of statements tell the reader much more about the character than the narrator just stating that Unwin is respected by other clerks and his director, but thought odd and peculiar by detectives. And it also shows that the two identities of Unwin’s internal struggle see the world very differently.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue – While attempting to pay attention to the author’s use of sensory detail, and show and induce emotion, I noticed an overlap.

“She was about to speak but was interrupted by a creaking sound that came out of the wall beside the bookshelf. She and Unwin both followed it with their eyes. He imagined a monstrous rat crawling up behind the wainscoting, led by its infallible nose toward the enormous cadaver that Unwin had hidden under the desk. The creaking sound rose nearly to the ceiling, then stopped, and a little bell on Lamech’s desk chimed twice. “

Mr. Berry uses an unexpected sound to create an image in the main character’s mind, an image of something that would induce fear in the character, and creates intrigue in the reader. What made that noise? He makes the reader wait because Unwin needs to be alone to figure it out. When he gets rid of his visitor, the author then uses another sense, touch.

“The bell rang again.
“He went to the wall and felt it with the palm of his hand. The surface was cool to the touch. He put an ear against it and held his breath.From the building’s unseen recesses came a low keening sound, as of wind trapped in a tunnel or air shaft. What could be hidden there?”

I enjoyed this use of sensing the unseen to intrigue the reader and bring the reader along while Unwin faces his fear.

4. Subtle foreshadowing – Re-reading the beginning of the book after reading to the end, made it clear that the author used a lot of subtle foreshadowing, giving the reader clues to what will happen later in the novel. These hints also help the reader suspend belief when things get further and further into the surreal. This subtle foreshadowing is found in descriptions and dialogue. For example:

“Droves of morning commuters sleepwalked to a murmur of station announcements and newspaper rustle.”

Upon first read, the word “sleepwalked” seems like a normal way to describe people going through the motions of commuting, but in this book, these people could literally be sleepwalking.

“The floor was covered with red and orange oak leaves, tracked in, probably, by a passenger who had arrived on one of the earlier trains from the country.”

This basic description of the floor of the train station also foreshadows an important location later in the book.

“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you. And there’s no way now to get yourself unnoticed.”

This bit of dialogue doesn’t mean much to Unwin when it’s said. Unwin believes his promotion is a mistake and that he will be able to point out the mistake and go back to his job, but that line of dialogue foreshadows Unwin’s fate.

 I always thought foreshadowing was that blatant statement of upcoming events: little did she know she would soon be a master of reading as a writer. But I liked noticing this much more subtle form of foreshadowing, and look forward to using it in my work.

So Much to Look At

Applying What I Learned

Since I’m still letting my new novel draft rest, I decided to practice on a short story I’m ready to revise.

1. Using objects as description –

For this exercise I read the beginning of my story, looking for where my main character is introduced. In the story I’m revising, my main character is a long-haul trucker. She is introduced in the very first sentence parking her truck. I looked through my story for any important objects that my main character uses or mentions that might be in the cab of her truck at the beginning of the story. The only thing I found was the money she uses to buy a candy bar from a vending machine. As I read, however, I found a couple moments later in the story that I could foreshadow through objects at the very beginning.

Coyotes taking people across the border is part of the story, so I thought of a postcard with a coyote howling at the moon that she keeps taped to her dash. It can be the last post card she ever got from her mom. Or it could be a post card from a sibling who she hasn’t seen or spoken to for a long time.

After that idea, I did a quick internet search for what truckers have in their cabs and found some items that could add some characterization. Her raincoat’s color and design can say a lot about her preferences. I see her in a bright yellow raincoat that reminds her of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Her reusable water bottle’s color and design can speak to her preferences and also that she cares about not putting more plastics into the world. Her coffee thermos speaks to her need for caffeine, probably a deeply rooted addiction. She might have a few coffee thermoses. Does one have special meaning? Is it the old style that can also keep soup warm? Did her friend Stookey give it to her? Other things I listed are: mini hand sanitizer bottles, paper towels, mints/gum, a multi-tool, and a box of tissues.

Here are the opening lines of the story draft: “Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’,  but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.”

Now let’s add some objects for description and subtle foreshadowing: Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She felt at home surrounded by everything she owned in the world. Her bright yellow raincoat sat in the passenger seat like an old friend. The thick plaid thermos that Stookey gave her for soup nested in the console with a box of tissues, mints, gum, and loose change. She put her fingers to her lips then touched the coyote howling at the moon on the last postcard her mother ever sent. She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’, but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.

It needs work, but wow what a difference. This is already working. How exciting.

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character

In this story there are only two main characters, and only one other character that could have a speaking role, the waitress at the Denny’s where my main character’s meet to talk. So I read through the story and looked for my waitress. Here’s what I found:

“The waitress arrived with a heaping plate of eggs and bacon and a huge cinnamon roll dripping icing. The smell of bacon overpowered.”

 I thought about what the waitress could say that would tell the reader something important about my main character. Here’s what I added:

“As she laid the plates on the table she said, “Watch out, Johnell honey, I think you’re startin’ to look like him. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were father and daughter.”

This little bit of added dialogue tells the reader how often they meet there, how friendly and familiar they are with the staff, and the close relationship they have which will make the revelation that’s coming even more painful for the main character.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue

I have a moment of this in the first draft using touch:

“The metal flap squeaked as she pushed her arm in, but no matter how she twisted and turned, she couldn’t get to her chocolate. With a frustrated grunt she gave up. While pulling her arm out, her hand brushed against something soft in the corner of the machine. At first she feared a rabid spotted ground squirrel, but nothing bit her, so she grabbed it, and pulled it out.”

It’s the same idea as the example, but doesn’t get the same effect. What can I do to create that intrigue? Johnell squatted down and lifted the rusting metal flap. It creaked its resistance. She only saw darkness, but imagined wads of chewed gum, and filthy, grime-covered, disease-ridden hands of all shapes and sizes. Her stomach growled, commanding her to take action. She lowered to her knees, closed her eyes and puckered her face, holding her breath as she plunged her arm in, stretching, twisting, turning and contorting her wrist and fingers, but she couldn’t get to her chocolate. She let her breath out with a grunt, and began to untangle herself from the machine when she felt something soft in the bottom corner. She recoiled, picturing a rabid ground squirrel, expecting it to leap out, it’s foaming rage biting her and biting her, pain and hospital and shots. Nothing happened. She leaned back, closing her eyes and turning her head away in case the crazed animal was biding its time, and slowly lifted the flap again. Nothing bit her, so she grabbed the soft thing and pulled it out.

4. Subtle foreshadowing

I thought it was fun as I started looking for descriptive objects how they intertwined with subtle foreshadowing. I found a place in the story where the main character says that a pouch of trinkets might be all someone has in the world. I foreshadowed  that while listing the objects in the truck cab in the opening by stating that the things in the truck are all she has in the world. Not only does that shape my main character, but it puts her in relation to the migrant character later in the story.

I know that there is so much more I can learn from this novel. It has an interesting plot and does some cool tricks with circling back to the beginning. But for this first venture into reading as a writer, I’m excited that I learned from what I read and was able to apply it to my writing. I’m going to start a master list of what I talk about in these posts, so I’ll be filling my writer’s toolbox as we go. I hope you’ll take what I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and apply it to your own writing.

Dream Imagery

The poetics prompt at dVerse Poets Pub is to “write a poem inspired by a vision, dream, or both.” I tried to do the spoon in the bowl trick to induce a dream state, but all I saw was a big orange square of color with a read shadow moving around, so I decided to sleep on it and I’m glad I did because I had very vivid dreams last night.

The Body of the Dream by Maria L. Berg 2023

I am a group of three women going to a writing retreat

but I was waffling, so I just followed
to enjoy the talk and be in the walk
but before we left, we needed relief
we arrived upstairs and entered the booths
but they crammed in mine, their laughter was bright
and throwing a card up in the thick air
it defied logic and surprise! froze there
she threw a whole pack of colored small cards
they tumbled then froze in patterned tableaux
I needed to go, I squeezed through the mess
to the booth next door glad for a rest, but
card woman followed, black straight hair shining
she revealed a new pack, and sent those cards fly-
ing into the air, creating structures
like bridges Venetian, cov’ring canals
eyes flashing from one amazing wonder
to land on the next joy to discover
but I could not stop my mind from worry
we needed to go and be in a hurry
because time moved so unlike the cards
and we would miss the bus to their ferry

Expanding the Study of Contradictory Abstractions

In Repose by Maria L. Berg 2023

Not Just Nouns Anymore

While reading The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox, I came across this interesting sentence:

“You should use your descriptions to do one of two things: to either defamiliarize the familiar, or to familiarize the unfamiliar. “

The form of that sentence, with its contradictions, reminded me of “find the despair in hope, and the hope in despair,” and got me wondering if perhaps I had found the next path in my abstractions study. 

Just plugging in my abstract nouns, however, did not inspire: Description should do one of two things: to either despair the hope, or to hope the despair. Nope. That doesn’t say much to me. Upon closer look, the new formula isn’t directly using abstract nouns. Yes, it’s talking about contradictory abstractions, but with verbs and adjectives. I thought, for today, it would be fun to play around with the idea of turning my Big Five contradictory abstract nouns into verbs and adjectives and fit them into my new formula to see how that might affect how I think of them visually, and poetically.

Truth / Deceit

What are my adjectives for truth and deceit? Honest, and deceitful are my adjectives, or truthful, and deceitful, or true and untrue.  To deceive is a verb but to truth? Maybe reveal as the verb, or profess, it’s hard to think of a verb for truth. I played around with the thesaurus and found verbs that have to do with truth tend to uncover lies like: confess, reveal, unveil, etc. For this exercise, I like unveil. Let’s see what we’ve got now.

Description should do one of two things: to either deceive the truth, or to unveil the deceit.  I think I like that. 

Beauty / Ugliness

The adjectives are pretty easy: beautiful and ugly, The verbs? Beautify, and what? Uglify? I don’t think so. Oh, but I’m wrong: uglify is a word. That was easy. What do we get?

Description should do one of two things: either uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly. 

I like that too. I think that works for more than description, but for story as well. It also describes art, don’t you think? Or maybe for art it’s the and, not or. Art should do both: uglify the beautiful, and beautify the ugly.

Happiness / Misery

The adjectives: happy and miserable. The verbs? A bit more challenging. After playing in the thesaurus I landed on “delight” and “dismay.”

Description should do one of two things:  either dismay the happy, or delight the miserable. 

I think that really gets at an interesting concept, I wonder about sometimes. Why do people go to sad movies. When I’m happy, I don’t want to be dismayed, especially by my entertainment. Why do people like Shakespeare, or the opera, dramas of any sort. I think it’s to evoke emotion, strong emotion is a catharsis for people when they feeling flat, in a rut, unemotional. They need to feel these emotions to feel alive.

Love / Apathy

The adjectives: lovely, apathetic? Lovely is more like beauty, no. I think love calls for a different adjective, but what? Passionate, compassionate? Love is definitely the verb, but what about for apathy? That’s a little tricky. I think to bore is the closest I found.

Description should do one of two things: to either bore the passionate, or to love the apathetic. 

I like the first part a lot. Why would something have the purpose of boring the passionate?  The second part isn’t as intriguing. Maybe to love the uncaring . . .

But to love the apathetic sounds like defeat without any reason, but maybe that’s facing a truth.

Wisdom / Naivete

The adjectives are wise and naive. What the verbs? To know, to learn, to contemplate, to weigh, to judge. And naive? To fool, to forget, to blank, to clear, 

Description should do one of two things: either clear the wise, or know the naive. 

Description should do one of two things: either fool the wise, or judge the foolish. 

Description should do one of two things: either fool the wise, or wisen the foolish. 

I think that last one works.

Good / Bad

This week, inspired by the song “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” I’m looking at the bad in the good, and the good in the bad. How would this new idea expand on that? The adjectives? To get from good to better, one must improve. And from bad to worse, one worsens. So we’ve got: Description should do one of two things: either worsen the good, or improve the bad.That’s a strange statement. Is that what my photographs should do? Is that what today’s poem should do? Lots to think about.

That was a fun exercise. However, I try to avoid “should” so I think I’ll change the phrase to only the ending and make it declarative: Worsen the good, or improve the bad. If I combine that with my original contradictory noun phrase I get: Find the good in the bad, and the bad in the good, then worsen the good, or improve the bad. Or it could be: To find the good in the bad, and the bad in the good, worsen the good, or improve the bad.

Though it sounds like nonsensical gobbledygook, but after some thought, it makes sense. It’s got me thinking, so I like it.

Slowly Rolling by Maria L. Berg 2023

Next Steps

Lets see what the combined sentences would look like for my Big Five:

  1. To find the truth in deceit and the deceit in truth; either deceive the truth, or unveil the deceit.
  2. To find the ugliness in beauty and the beauty in ugliness; uglify the beautiful, or beautify the ugly.
  3. To find the happiness in misery and the misery in happiness; dismay the happy, or delight the miserable.
  4. To find the love in apathy and the apathy in love; bore the passionate, or love the uncaring.
  5. To find the naivete in wisdom and the wisdom in naivete; fool the wise, or wisen the foolish.

Looks like I’ve created my call to action for the next five weeks.

Quadrille Monday: A Bold New Poem

Feeling Bold by Maria L. Berg 2023

Today at dVerse Poets Pub it’s quadrille Monday which means we are writing poems of exactly 44 words and today, De Jackson has offered the word “bold” to inspire and be included in the poem. “Bold” is also a great word to inspire today’s images.

Life of the Party

I want to be bold
a grand story told
if only it were so easy
along the fold
I rolled in gold
shimmering and breezy
never cold and never old
the whirl lost hold
fruit lost to mold
and I fell dizzy and queasy