Brothers by Yu Hua

brothers-by-yu-huaWhat I loved about Brothers by Yu Hua is that within the pages of one book I found a story that made me laugh and cry over and over. The tale is both horrifyingly dark and twisted, but with seamless transition, Yu Hua writes some of the best comic scenes I’ve ever read. Life in America for the past eight years has made it possible to understand the absurdities about which Yu Hua writes, and for this reason, they are believable.

The story of Baldy Li, one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction, and his brother, Song Gang, opens right before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Scenes in which neighbors are unified in a common cause or belief and turned into enemies the very next day are chillingly similar to what is happening in the world today. When Yu Hua writes about Li Lan’s, Baldy Li’s, and Song Gang’s grief over the death of Song Fanping, I thought my heart would rip in two so great was their anguish.

The two definitions of stupidity (knowing the truth, seeing the truth, but still believing the lies, and doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result) often came to mind while I read Brothers. I’m watching the premise of the story take place right in front of my eyes as the youth of America believe they can make certain political systems work in their generation even though overwhelming evidence of failure exists in other countries. I have to wonder if they’ve forgotten the past or are purposely not being taught. In either case, we’ll all be doomed for it.

The story is engaging based on the time period and cultural differences. Yet the prose is so simple that I have to wonder if this is due to the translation from Chinese to English or if the author chose to keep his words plain. In either case, his writing style works. Another thing I noticed while reading this translation was the repetitive nature of the writing. I’ve only encountered this in one other translation, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and I wonder if this is a style particular to Asian writers. I find it lends emphasis to details and storylines.

Yu Hua broke the rules of writing brilliantly by not following plotting formulas. Two ways in which he did this was by the introduction of a new character and storylines in the last one third of the book. Not surprisingly, the pacing of the novel was not interrupted, and as a reader I wasn’t jarred out of the book. Obviously, Yu Hua writes for intelligent readers, and in this way, it reminded me of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo with its large cast of characters, interwoven storylines, and backstory. In both cases, readers willing to stay with the book to the end will absolutely not be disappointed.

I know the book was written as a criticism on political systems and to show all the evil and craziness that stems from them. I found my interest focused on the relationships of the characters enduring life under the various political systems and how their relationships were further affected by their personalities which dictated how they reacted to circumstances and each other.  I came to the conclusion that all one can probably do in such a situation is be kind, work hard, and do no harm.

Despite the depth of the tale Brothers presented, as I said there were some hilarious moments including a chicken search party, Yanker Brand underwear, and actual blind men drawing blind conclusions. But again, that’s part of Yu Hua’s ability to make a reader laugh while getting his point across. The best line though was probably Yanker Yu explaining politics to Popsicle Wang when he said, “…comfortable circumstances breed freethinking, which is why the rich love politics.” I laughed aloud as I shuddered thinking how stirred up the politicians are keeping the world.

Is It Ever Too Late?

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in 'Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory'

When I heard that Gene Wilder passed away a week ago Sunday, I was saddened to know that a small piece of my childhood had faded away like the edges of a watercolor painting. Goodbye, Willy Wonka. Laid to rest are the magical, mythical qualities that made Gene Wilder the wonderful actor he was. I also felt that I had missed an opportunity. It’s my own fault for not acting upon it, but I made the common error of believing I had all the time in the world. Allow me to explain.

Two years ago, I read Mr. Wilder’s novel, My French Whore. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet tale of love and loss set during World War I. I often wondered about the loss portion of the story. Did it mirror Mr. Wilder’s own loss in life, specifically that of his wife, Gilda Radner? In the story, it’s the male protagonist who is lost. Maybe Mr. Wilder would rather it had been him so that Gilda could have gone on living. He had a wonderful, twenty five year marriage to his wife, Karen, so perhaps I’m reading too much into the tale.

All this to say that I wanted to contact Mr. Wilder and ask him to write a sequel, one in which the two main characters find each other again. It would be possible based on the nature of the tale. Mr. Wilder was creative and imaginative: he could have rescued the protagonists from the fire and made it believable. But I missed my chance, and now it’s too late.

I’m familiar with many of the arguments writers offer for ending their stories on a sad note or sometimes with a gut punch to the reader. As long as the story is well-written, the event is believable and not just for shock value, and it fits with the rest of the story, character arcs, etc., then I can accept a sad ending. There are some, however, that have left me reeling.

For instance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read it once, and once was enough. The novel still haunts me to this day. I went so far as to pen a letter to Audrey Niffenegger begging her to write a sequel that pulls the lives of her protagonists back from the black and bitter ending she gave them. After the torturous lives they led, why did she have to end her novel the way she did? As an author creating people and situations, she could have opted for a better ending if not a Pollyanna one.

Then there is The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror by Elizabeth McGregor, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. These books live in a locked chest in my house because that is the only way I can contain my emotions regarding them so great are the effects they had on me. If you think I’m exaggerating, after my mother read The Piano Tuner at my suggestion, she called to chew me out for not warning her. To this day she describes her experience with the ending as having the air knocked out of her lungs.

These books are so well written and so heartrending. Why do we do this to ourselves as readers? The question made me re-examine my own novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Did I infuse painful accounts into the storyline that will make a reader sit stunned long after the last page has been read? Will I leave him/her with feeling as if he/she just buried a good friend for whom he/she will mourn all the while knowing it’s a fictional character? Personally, I question whether the loss of the character was counterbalanced by the fact that they led a good long life on the pages of the novel. If so, it’s easier to let them go.

In the world of Dr. John Welles, where I have complete control, some would argue that if I leave readers feeling as if they’ve had their heart torn out, then I’ve done a good job of writing. I’m not so sure I would agree. Others would say that’s just how life is: people live and die, get over it. I must admit that I don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve posed regarding the handling of characters’ lives and the endings of novels. I also know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and in this small fact, I take some comfort.

Without giving away the ending to my novel, I believe I have done a good job of dealing with characters and events. However, if one day I receive a letter from a reader who praises my writing while begging for a remedy to their grief and pain, I will seriously consider what I can do to ease the situation.

Who is in Your Details?

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

Today’s post counts as two entries in The Weight of Words and one for Research Road. It also stresses the importance of thoroughly editing and researching your work as well as finding a good editor. We’ve all made mistakes. I have received tactful comments from followers pointing out errors I’ve made. It’s easy to correct a blog post even after the fact, but what about my novel? I don’t live in fear of discovering an error post publication…oh, wait—I do.

I can’t tell you how many times my mother has said, “What difference does it make if you’re not 100% accurate? The common reader won’t know if you’re right or wrong.” To which I explained that I would know. Then there is the historian or well-read person who may read my novel and nail me for incorrectly portrayed facts. I’m not talking about the creative license we employ when placing our fictional characters in real periods of history or an entire reimagining of historical events such as the Germans winning World War II. I’m talking about modern words and phrases ending up in the mouths of characters from an earlier century and inaccurately portrayed artifacts, architecture, places, etc. due to lazy research.

A book I finished recently had two such errors. The first was the spelling of the word carcase/carcass. About thirty years ago, I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Have His Carcase. It was part of a trio of Sayers’s books gifted to people who made a donation to the local PBS station. The announcer kept mispronouncing carcase the way one would say car case. How embarrassing. Years went by before I stumbled across the spelling carcass, which, by the way, is the only spelling Word recognizes as correct. I assumed it was another instance of American English vs. British English. What I discovered after reading several definitions for both spelling variations, is that carcase is the older, often consider archaic, of the two spellings although both are acceptable. Why is this important? The author of the aforementioned book used the word in the diary of a Carthusian monk from 1535, but she spelled it carcass. As soon as my eyes fell across the word, I was jolted out of the story to ponder whether the mistake was mine or hers. True, most people would have let it go, but for historical accuracy, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Small sidebar: When I checked writing forums for the correct spelling of carcase/carcass, Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel, Have His Carcase, was referenced at least once on every site as the example for the spelling carcase.

I was much less forgiving toward the second mistake. Another character, also from 1535, mentioned seeing a nine-branched menorah used in the second temple of Israel. Did you catch that? Talk about being shocked right out of the story. All my research on the subject verified what I already knew to be true: menorahs used in the temple of Israel have seven branches. The most reliable source of this information is the Bible. I don’t doubt that the candelabra people see the most and the one with which they are familiar is the nine-branched version known as a chanukkiah used in celebration of Chanukkah. The terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly. However, the two items are absolutely not the same thing.

My thoughts on the subject ranged from disappointment toward the author to wondering if the editor was too young to care about such facts or not interested in verifying them. Several years ago a self-published author gave the advice that you should research your history to the nth degree because your readers will trust that what you have written is true. That advice is what prompted me to research my own novel in minute detail. At one point, I had a fellow author/history buff tracing World War II troop movements to ensure I had placed my protagonist with a unit that had actually ended up in a battle I needed to feature.

Perhaps I sound like a fanatic. Even Andy Weir, author of The Martian, admitted to minor mistakes pointed out by other brilliant scientists, the type of knowledge the common reader wouldn’t possess. There may even be mistakes in my own novel. I sincerely hope someone catches them before it goes to printing. Still, I cannot stress enough that the writing and research of your work in progress begins with you. Beta readers and editors are essential to the process, but there is no excuse for a lazy author.

In closing, I’ll point to the title of this post as my final comment on the importance of using the correct words/phrases and conducting research. You’ve probably heard the devil is in the details and the older, slightly more common phrase, God is in the details. The first means that mistakes are usually made in the small details of a project. Usually it is a caution to pay attention to avoid failure. The second means that attention paid to small things has big rewards, or that details are important. Who is guiding your writing efforts?

A Snapshot of Writing

A Snapshot of WritingThe creation of art can be a wonderful and dreadful process at the same time. Some of the struggles I’ve encountered with my chosen art form of writing include writer’s block, doubts and fears regarding my abilities, the evil query and rejection letters, comparison, envy, impatience, and the list goes on and on. But every now and then, there are lamps along the tunnel as I travel toward the light at the end. That’s when it’s wonderful.

As an outlet for my frustration, I began to tag along with my sister-in-law when she took photographs. She’s really quite good and a patient teacher as well when I asked her questions on how she approached her shot. One of the ways she explained the process was to hand the camera to me. I declined the opportunity to even hold her camera, which looked far too technical and expensive, but in addition to being a great teacher, my sister-in-law is mildly insistent. There was no way I was getting off the hook.

So, I snapped a few pictures as she taught me what the various dials and buttons on the camera do. She talked me through the procedure, and by allowing me to make mistakes, I learned quite a bit and became addicted to photography.

Here’s where the wonderful part happened. After setting up an account on ViewBug for my photos, joining challenges, and voting on other peoples’ pictures, I earned a free tutorial on landscape photography. Even though I don’t own a camera, I watched the video with the hopes of gaining more knowledge and possibly impressing my sister-in-law.

The lesson on photography will help me hone my skill, but what truly impressed me was how much of what the instructor said could be applied to writing. For starters, new experiences are good for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, keep in mind that every time you start a new piece, you’re taking yourself someplace you’ve never been with a different location, characters, style, descriptions, etc. And even if you’re working on a series, you have the power to make something new happen each time. Then there is your unique perspective. You are going to see things differently than anyone else in the world, so write them from the perspective that you alone possess.

As for equipment, writers have the luxury of keeping it simple, and I strongly suggest you do. A well-sharpened pencil and single-subject, college ruled notebook is all you need to create literary brilliance. Know the basics and fundamentals of your technique. Scouting a good location is important for a writer because distractions, even in the home, will keep you from your goal. Timing is important for the same reason: determine when in your day you are the most productive and stick to the schedule. And when it comes to composition, that’s where your personal style will shine through.

So now it’s time to address your process. The instructor on the tutorial called it a mind process and used words every writer knows. He started with subject. Identify what deserves to be written. Don’t forget POV. Take a small bit of advice from a photographer, and don’t be afraid to explore multiple POVs at the same time. What it does for photography will not be lost on writing. The formula for determining exposure translates into plotting, pantsing, or a combination thereof for a writer. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Next, decide what you’d like to focus on. Once all of this is determined, work that composition.

When you show your photographs to other people, they don’t know what else is going on around the scene you’ve captured or how you felt when you took it. Writers can combat this issue by providing essential backstory at the appropriate time. But just like a photographer, you don’t have to show it all. Leave a little mystery, a little something to the imagination, and your reader won’t feel led around by the nose. Write about the most interesting parts because that’s where the story is, and you’ll capture a good picture. A mental picture in this case. Remember that the objective is not to capture one big picture of everything all at once, but rather a frame that tells a clear story. You are the director, you choose the content.

Don’t fall in love with the first thing you write. Investigate your characters’ surroundings and discover what else you can do with it or them. Walk through their world. Return many times with breaks in between. Take another look at your subject, and decide what else you can do with it. Then apply your creative style in a way no one else has thought of.

Add vibrant but well-written details and structure, and a sense of order will emerge. You can do this on different levels of your writing whether writing on a grand scale, intimate stories, or the minute particulars. Keep in mind that your ideal and the reality won’t always match, but don’t let this discourage you. Work with what you’re given, seek inspiration, and the great story will come.

As for filters, they apply to the writer during the editing stage. You’ll be able to filter out the bad in your own writing after you’ve set it aside for a couple months and return to it fresh. Beta readers provide some of the best filtering toward your writing goal, seeing things you didn’t, and offering advice from their own perspective.

With a few modifications, the guidelines for taking a great photograph apply to writing with stunning clarity. I mentioned this at my writer’s group and was told by a poet that this is known as the rules of the creatives. They are a set of standards that transcend one artistic form to positively influence another. Hanging with the poets a couple of times a year has already lent valuable insight to my writing. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that my newfound hobby would as well.

There are so many artistic pursuits that crossover to supply inspiration and encouragement. Already I’m viewing the story ingredients in my mind and trying to figure a way to bake them all together so as to produce a perfect word painting. I suggest you do the same.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 16

Writers are an odd lot. We’d be the first to admit it. Writer’s post things like “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn’t just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.” And because we’re writers, we’re also readers. At least we should be.

We reading/writing types are deeply and emotionally attached to the characters we read about. They become real for us in a way that often defies description. The closest I can come is to say that when I finish a well-written book, I feel as if I’m leaving behind great friends. Non-readers may scoff at us, suggesting that we simply re-read the book. That is an option, but what we want as readers is to move forward with our favorite characters, possibly gathering them all together regardless of genre, entwining them in our lives. That may seem a titch odd, but what can I say? We’re artists; perhaps this is why we write.

The interesting thing I have discovered as a reader/writer is that just like our real friends, we each have different criteria for which fictional characters we will allow in our lives. What first brought this to my attention was when I learned that my friend was reading Gone With the Wind for her classical literature book club. We discussed the book over lunch during which I admitted that I pushed myself to read it and could barely make it halfway through. I hated every minute of that piece of vintage literary fluff which actually surprised me because it came so highly recommended. After Margaret Mitchell’s endless declarations about the quaint South and dreary passages of battle scenes, the book was incredibly mediocre. Yet it wasn’t the writing that ruined it for me.

Scarlett was. I hated her. Each self-centered deed and word I had to endure at the hands of Scarlett made me want to beat her with a stick. I rooted against her at every turn and rejoiced when she didn’t get her way. Throw in spineless Ashley and sickening Melanie, and there was no way I was going to finish this book. I simply cannot stand annoying people in my real life, so why would I waste my time enduring three fictional nuisances? My friend, on the other hand, found Scarlett to be funny in her total self-absorption. Maybe my friend is more patient that I am.

Writer's Soul 16Then Dale came to mind. She’s a character from Joanna Trollope’s book, Other People’s Children. Dale was every bit as self-serving and manipulative as Scarlett and more so because she possessed a psychological hold on two other characters. She was evil, she was brilliant. I hated her with a passion and seriously considered writing Mrs. Trollope to request a sequel in which Dale was killed off slowly and painfully.

So what was the difference? Well, I’d never willingly allow someone like Dale in my life, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take her head on either. Whereas pathetic, annoying Scarlett wouldn’t earn a second glance from me as I ignored her in the most obvious ways possible. However, we’re dealing with the fictional realm, and in this world, Scarlett would never be able to compete with Dale as a worthy opponent and one that would engage me as a reader. Where Margaret Mitchell failed with Scarlett, Joanna Trollope succeeded with Dale.

In addition to the writing behind amazing characters that have the ability to evoke great response from the reader, our desires and tolerances make them appealing to us whether they are the protagonist, antagonist, or peripheral character. These factors combined determine who we will welcome into our minds. The beauty of this is that your choices don’t have to be all pleasant ones. You can fall for the bad character without any harmful side effects unlike real life where allowing the wicked person into your life may destroy you. It’s quite brilliant, really, and I wonder why more people don’t read.

Write Happy!

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I first spied Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, while shelving at my former job. I sneaked a few moments to read the first few pages and Reading Like a Writerinstantly fell in love. The sentence that resonated with me, “Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books,” combined with, “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors,” confirmed for me that I had found a kindred spirit. Her passion for reading and writing and the process of learning by indulging in both was the best piece of advice I had ever heard. Mrs. Prose’s comments awakened in me what I always believed to be true: great writing is an organic process that comes from creating beyond outlines and plot-pointed structures with perfect character arcs.

Great writing begins with close reading and follows with careful consideration for every word that will become a sentence, which will become a paragraph. This isn’t to say that Mrs. Prose or I believe writing should be utter chaos without any structure, but I trust if one applied her approach to their own writing, he or she would see amazing growth in how they create characters, employ narration and dialogue, and present details and gestures.

Woven throughout the book are examples from great writers that will back up what Mrs. Prose is teaching. You don’t need to be familiar with these authors or their works to appreciate them. Another reviewer I read proclaimed his dislike for Mrs. Prose’s book because he didn’t know any of the referenced works. I suspect he thought Mrs. Prose was being pretentious; I encourage you not to be intimidated by her knowledge but rather delve into the suggested reading list as soon as possible.

Another aspect of the book that appealed to me is Mrs. Prose’s admission that while there are rules in writing for the express purpose of guiding us, rules are, essentially, meant to be broken. And if you’re brave enough to ride off the reservation of writing rules, make sure you’re breaking them brilliantly.

Regardless of your preferred writing style or approach thereof, I highly recommend reading Francine Prose’s book. I would be truly surprised if you didn’t take away something positive from the experience.

Jim the Boy – Book Review

I am concerned that many readers, and not a few writers, have lost the ability to enjoy a story that exists purely to entertain. That unless a novel is outlined with on cue plot twists, pinches, and character arcs, the reader will dismiss the story as worthless. The only reprieve some books receive is to be classified as literary fiction.  Yet even this term will drive some readers away with the expectation of highbrow prose not easily understood. I blame this last fact on the current confusion that exists when we are expected to force every book into a specific genre.

Prologues, we are told, are anathema. One-sided conversation between characters is labeled an info dump. On and on the criticism toward books who stray from the above-mentioned criteria flows from reviewers, and again, I worry that excellent literature is being ignored or cast aside in favor of the high-tension, action-packed, reads-like-a-movie novel.

untitled (5)Sit down and let me tell you a story. Be still, and without interruption allow yourself to be drawn into the world of ten year-old Jim Glass, his widowed mother, and his three unmarried uncles. Set aside your technology, your resistance to everything you believe this story isn’t, and your expectations for a dystopian universe where children kill each other to survive. Slip back to a simpler time that existed during a difficult era, the Depression, and get a feel for what true social interaction means.

Live for a year with Jim’s family in Aliceville, a town that has been wired for electricity for years but has yet to receive the blessing of lights after dark. Attend the brand new school on the hill with Jim and be afraid that the converging of kids from all the closed one room school houses presents the terrifying and thrilling opportunity to make new friends. Enjoy the push and pull relationship between Jim and his best friend, Penn Carson, as they vie for playground supremacy. Listen to the family history, tall tales, and ghost stories told by the adults in Jim’s life.

If you can do this, long before you reach the last page of Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy, you’ll have made lifelong friends, and you’ll feel as if you’re among kin. Or, sadly, you may dismiss the story as merely charming, quaint, and anticlimactic. That’s okay, too; no one will judge you for it because you probably won’t even realize you let a treasure slip through your fingers.

For readers who enjoyed Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and John Grisham’s A Painted House, I highly recommend Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy.

Favorite Author & Multi-Book Review

untitled (6)Joanna Trollope is my favorite writer when it comes to working through the family situation. Her well-written characters are as diverse as the personalities one encounters in his or her own family and just as frustrating. I’ll no sooner have my favorite characters chosen only to have him/her say or do something completely stupid, and my allegiance changes to the character I used to hate. In this way, Mrs. Trollope reels you in and casts you back throughout the story.

The way in which she presents real-life, everyday situations isn’t boring in the least. Her ‘fly on the wall’ perspective into the lives of her characters offers the same guilty pleasure as witnessing private conversations and/or arguments.

Further, her conclusions aren’t always neat and tidy happy endings. Much like real life and family, there is a definite end to the situation, but rarely does it go well for everyone. You’ll struggle, suffer, rejoice, and celebrate right along with Mrs. Trollope’s characters, often identifying with them or recognizing them in your own family members.

I haven’t read everything written by this author, and I haven’t experienced her writing under her pen name Caroline Harvey. What I have read has been enjoyable, the most recent being Daughters in Law. Her novel, Other People’s Children, received my strongest reaction. As expected, the book is replete with interesting characters in different walks of life. There is, however, one character in particular who I fantasized killing in the most heinous ways imaginable long after I had finished reading the book. That may sound horrible, but I believe it’s testimony to Joanna Trollope’s excellent writing skills.

Here is a list of Joanna Trollope’s novel in order of publication.

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