Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Breaking Unwritten Rules

I don't tend to read books that are popular. In fact, when a book becomes a sensation or hits a best-seller list, I am less likely to read it. It took me several years before I agreed to read Harry Potter because I knew how popular it had become. Once I read it, I was hooked and ended up reading all seven books in the series. I prefer classics most of the time - books that were considered sensational decades ago - or a book that someone I know is reading. For this reason, I was hesitant to pick up anything written by Jodi Picoult. I had heard too many good things about her work, read too many rave reviews about her intriguing style, heard too many people say they wait on tenterhoods for Picoult's newest book to come out. I did not want to read her work because I was certain that the high expectations I would have could not be met.

A week ago I walked into my public library and asked for a recommendation. I am waiting for the third book in The Hunger Games series and wanted something to pass the time. She asked me what kind of books I enjoy.

"Anything," I replied.

"Read this for me," she said slowly, "because I have a child with Asperger's and I am interested in this book, but it is long and I don't want to read it if it isn't as good as people tell me it is."

She handed me a copy of House Rules by Jodi Picoult. I grimaced and then agreed to read it.

The book began slowly, and I was sure I wouldn't enjoy it. Each section is written from a different character's perspective, and I found it a tad confusing at the beginning. By the end, however, I was sold. This novel is really good. It is over 530 pages, but I was not certain until 5 pages from the end how the mystery would turn out. To me, that is good writing, good plotting, and great suspense. The subject matter - an eighteen year old male with Asperger's and the way his "quirkiness" keeps him from feeling empathy, and reacting "normally" in given situations - is timely and a subject about which many people should take the time to learn. I recommend this book, but will give the disclaimer that it begins slowly. Plod on, and you will be glad you did.

*Writing tip: Don't be afraid to tackle tough subject matter, but if you do, do your homework. Picoult took the time to get to know young adults with Asperger's, and she spent time learning about crime scene investigation. Her material is accurate, and you can tell she knows it well. When you have a character with something like autism, you will have readers who know whether you have done your research or not. In fact, there may be people who pick up your book because they want someone who can identify with their own life stories. People will pick up House Rules because they have a child with autism or know someone who does, and they want to find comfort in a character who resembles them in some way. I applaud Picoult's willingness to broach a subject that is uncomfortable for many people, and I agree with what many say about her writing in this book. The suspensful story she weaves is masterful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Catching Fire

Just a word about the second book in The Hunger Games series: AMAZING. I've not been that engrossed in a book in a very long time. I read 380 pages in a day. I had other things going on that day and still managed to do them even while reading!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Coffee, GERD and Writing

Apologies for taking more than a week before blogging again!

I asked my wonderful husband what I should blog about today, and he requested that I share with you some thoughts on coffee. Coffee is on his mind right now after the second coffee pot in three years bit the dust yesterday. He's back to using his old stand-by, but he seems to be grieving the loss of his trusty Mr. Coffee. I'll be honest that coffee is on my mind too, but definitely not for the same reason. I over did it on coffee last week and effectively worked my acid reflux (GERD) into a tizzy. I am reminded anew that what I put in my body actually matters. Next time you see me jittering around my house because of a third cup of coffee, please remind me of this blog post. Perhaps I will return to it, read of my misery, and be reminded that I cannot be a coffee drinker.

We consume coffee for a variety of reasons: for the warmth of something in our mugs, for the invigoration we feel when the caffeine stimulates our senses (and our vascular system), for the social outlet of having a sip of coffee with friends, and simply because we enjoy it. When we drink coffee, we are doing it because it meets some kind of deeper need, even if that need is merely a desire for more energy after a poor night of sleep. But, coffee also does something more. It transports the drinker into an altered state, a heightened state of awareness, almost like every sense has been awakened from sleep to experience a new reality. This is why coffee is sometimes likened to a drug. Once a person has experienced the new awareness, it is hard to go back to regular life. This is why many people become chronic coffee drinkers.

There is something similar in writing. When I sit down to write something new, I suddenly become aware of the enormity of the task. When I want to describe something, it is as though a thousand different adjectives come rushing at me, each with a meaning that could alter the reality I am painting with my words. Writing is like having one's senses heightened, or like having an emerging awareness that the world of description is at one's fingertips. It is exciting, transformative, and very real. The downside to writing is that editing must follow in order for the writing to be worth reading. And the downside to coffee is, for me, a painful fire in the pit of my stomach.

Well, I've done it. I finally found an analogy that works for me. Writing is like enjoying the awareness and warmth of a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. Editing is like the heartburn that follows. Only, with writing the editing is worth the pain. So, loving husband of mine, I will forego that cup of coffee. It isn't that I don't love you. I have just decided to stick with writing instead. :)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Don't give it all away

I was feeling lousy on Sunday and decided to treat myself to a day of reading. With my feet propped up, I opened The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I devoured the entire thing. First, a big thanks to everyone who recommended this novel to me. I am hooked on the series. Second, I wanted to give a review of this novel and tell you what makes it a work of art (in my very humble opinion at least).

1. Suzanne Collins takes on difficult subject matter with ease. She dares to imagine what life would be like in North America under different leadership and different circumstances. She explores the worlds of hunger and starvation. She gives voice to the brutality many children face in countries around the world, but because she sets it on what used to be American soil, we cannot ignore what is taking place. How could this happen? What could we have done to keep it from coming to this? Are we doing anything now that could lead us to become like those in the country of Panem?

2. Katniss Everdeen. The main character of The Hunger Games is someone who I found myself both identifying with and marveling at. She is a strong female character, something literature desperately needs, but she also remain stoic in the face of many atrocities. The reader cannot help but realize young Katniss has seen more and knows more about class disparity and violence than what a young girl her age should have ever seen or known. Life has not been kind to Katniss, and she has erected a wall to protect herself that will not be removed easily.

3. Collins is not afraid to let her readers imagine the events. The events that take place within The Hunger Games are eye-opening and stomach-turning, but not because of the words written on the pages. Suzanne Collins adopts an art that was perfected in old Alfred Hitchcock movies - the art of suggestion. She suggests what is happening and lets her reader's imagination do the rest. This allows the reader to disengage during uncomfortable parts, or to imagine the events without too many descriptors given to guide the imagination. The power of suggestion and trusting the reader to imagine the events actually makes the novel more powerful. Suddenly the reader has to make a choice either to become involved in the narrative or disengage. If you become involved, The Hunger Games will force you to face demons you never knew you had.

Writers, are there elements of your novel, short story or poem that would make more impact if left unsaid? Resist the urge to describe everything, to give everything away. Give your reader's imagination the opportunity to engage the narrative. When you reduce the unnecessary description, you can focus on making characters memorable and relatable. You will be giving your reader the gift of imagination, something that distinguishes reading from watching a sitcom. So, don't give it all away. You will be giving your readers more than if you just handed them a roadmap of your writing.