Tolkien & Allegory

Last week, I started re-reading Lord of the Rings for probably the fifth or sixth time. It has been about three years since I’ve read it, so I am definitely due for a read. That the series is my favorite work ever is reconfirmed every time I give it a read. Although I know what will happen, the writing draws me in every time. It feels like a sort of coming home, a tradition of familiarity in the comfort of immense talent–a perfect nostalgic sense to evoke during the holiday season!

This go-around, I actually read something new in the book–the author’s note in the forward. I claim to love Tolkien, but for some reason my anxious mind always wanted to get to the story and skipped over this part. Now, being an author myself, I found this segment fascinating to hear another author’s perspective. One quote really stood out to me. Tolkien was speaking about readers’ questions about whether or not the story was an allegory to the current events during the time of writing (WWII). Tolkien had this to say:

“I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J.R.R Tolkien

This quote really spoke to me as a former English major. I couldn’t begin to guess hour many hours of explication and class discussions we spent trying to figure out the “author’s true meaning” in everything from works of poetry to novels. Admittedly, historical evidence does show that some works are meant to be allegorical (Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” comes directly to mind), however, I like Tolkien’s view to consider applicability. Part of the beauty in a work of literature lies in the unique impression it gives to each individual reader. If a Lord of the Rings fan wanted to apply the context of WWII to the trilogy, and that gave the work more meaning to them, they are free to do so (although Tolkien might argue some of their points on the matter!).

Literature is not only the author’s freedom to write what words he will, but also the reader’s freedom to interpret or apply the words in the way that makes sense to him. It should not be the author’s task to move every single reader to the exact same conclusion or interpretation as that would take the magic of the human mind out of the equation.

Beauty & Simplicity–James Herriot

About this time last year, I was out of things to read–a mournful and derelict feeling for a book addict like me. I was moping around my office disconsolately and asked my Dad what he would recommend to read. He went over to the office shelf and pulled out All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. At first I was skeptical. A book about a vet? I won’t be interested in that, I thought to myself. But Dad insisted it was a good read, and I being desperate for a read, took it off the shelf.

Almost immediately I was taken in. Herriot’s simple prose in which he tells his story is compelling and entertaining. His insertion of humor is wonderful. It feels like you are sitting with someone listening to their stories. The organization of the story is anecdotal, so the story line is not continuous, but this adds to the overall effect of familiarity the story presents.

Overall, I would recommend Herriot’s work to anyone–even if they are as skeptical on the subject matter as I was. His work serves to remind us all that sometimes the extraordinary can be found in simplicity.

Colleen McCullough & Historical Fiction

Today I am actually in the office and on track with my blog to spotlight an inspirational/thought-provoking work of fiction or book I have read! Finally…first one in a long time! Usually, I glance over at my bookshelf for some inspiration and today my eyes fell on the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. It is fitting to write about her as she passed away earlier this year, and I could and definitely will have more to say on her other works, but for now I want to stick to my personal favorites–her historical fiction seven book series fictionalizing ancient Rome from the time of Gaius Marius to Caesar Augustus.

First of all, it is important to mention that McCullough was an incredibly brilliant woman–she was a neurophysiological researcher at Yale who just happened to write beautiful novels in her spare time. Thus, the research and brains behind the undertaking of the fictionalization of such a huge chunk of history were formidable.

It is clear that McCullough immersed herself in her subject. Not only are most of her facts historically accurate, but it was apparent she tried to interpret the character of the individuals through their actions left on the historical record. To great effect, in my opinion. It is surely difficult to convey a character that was a real living person and do that character justice despite the lack of written records, but McCullough does brilliantly. Through seven books following major historical characters, you find yourself as a reader coming to know these people well and caring about them intimately. This speaks for McCullough’s strength as a character creator in general.

While you are becoming immersed in the characters, you are learning history. This is the greatest achievement of historical fiction and why it can be so valuable to write it well and accessibly for the public. And why readers should give historical fiction a try. It’s a chance to broaden your knowledge and be entertained at the same time. McCullough puts forth a great effort to be accurate; each book is followed by a note explaining any deviations from the true path of history (she incorporates some historical rumors into fact for her stories), and why she chose to believe these rumors to be true. Usually her justifications make sense and show a lot of research behind them. She was an author who took her writing seriously.

After reading the series, I was so taken by the history of ancient Rome that I wanted to research it on my own and test McCullough’s factual reliability. I read biographies of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Caesar Augustus. I found myself getting bored while reading said biographies because I already knew all the material–McCullough had really stuck to the facts and portrayed them, while in an entertaining manner, in incredible detail!

In conclusion, historical fiction would be an interesting challenge as an author. Colleen McCullough has definitely inspired me in this regard because her books are both highly informative and very well written. I love history and research and it would be very rewarding to discover and bring back to life historical figures from the past as McCullough has done in her Masters of Rome series.

Writing for a “Dead” Market?

I’ll admit it, I’m writing dystopian. The first step is admitting you have a problem. While many people still thoroughly enjoy this genre, the market for it from a publisher’s perspective is (as far as I can tell) pretty dead. The number of denied queries I am amassing speaks to this fact. So what does a frustrated writer do in this situation?

First of all, it’s even more frustrating because I understand the situation completely. Knowing the principles of basic supply and demand as well as the way trends go, it makes total sense that savvy literary professionals such as agents and editors are not jumping at the chance to grab more titles that boast corollaries to the wildly popular (currently) Hunger Games and Divergent. Instead agents and editors want to snatch up the next big craze, which will certainly be in a totally different and unexpected genre.

So I get it. But I don’t want to stop writing the story I am trying to tell. I didn’t decide to write about Mara and Runey because I wanted to write the next Hunger Games. Despite what the genre may suggest, I am not writing for a trend. The story came to me and clamored to be told, so I am telling it, despite its marketability with literary professionals. I have read many articles and blog posts that say “shelve your dystopian/paranormal projects,” but I disagree. Personally, I don’t like to leave work unfinished. Especially something as near to my heart and soul as my writing. It would feel like more of a failure to shove Mara and Runey in a drawer than even if they never make it to the bookshelves.

Thus, the writing goes on. So does the querying. I have nowhere near exhausted my list of possibilities for getting published. Somewhere out there is surely an agent who will be as enthusiastic about my project as I am. I just have to be persistent until I find that person. Writing novels and querying is also good practice. Should this project end up shelved once it’s finished, at least I got the great experience of writing a trilogy and getting to know the professional side of the business. It will be great experience for my next book. 🙂

There is hope when writing in a “dead” genre. One of my friends that I met at the Las Vegas conference wrote a paranormal romance novel (the same genre as the supposedly played out Twilight sensation), and she just landed a book deal with publication coming in 2016. Read about her story here: http://linkis.com/www.cmmccoy.com/blog/p4Ia8 . And if you’re writing in one of these hard to sell genres, I would love to hear your story/strategy! Above all, never give up on your self as a writer or your story.

“Remember Me Like This” by Bret Anthony Johnston

Wednesdays are always reserved for books that I have found inspirational to or have made an impact on me as a writer, and usually these books come from the vault of stellar past-read selections forever saved in my mind. However, today’s selection is a book I just finished last week. The novel is “Remember Me Like This,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, and I received my copy of it as a gift at the Writer’s League of Texas conference where Mr. Johnston was a speaker. First of all, Mr. Johnston was an extraordinary person–extremely friendly, charismatic and an excellent speaker. Thus, it came as no surprise that “Remember Me Like This” was just as special.

When I was on my vacation in California, I brought this along for beach reading. I actually ended up starting it while sitting in my car in a parking garage. I was meeting my friend, and she was running late stuck in traffic–normally this kind of situation would make me antsy and not in the right frame of mind to pick up a book. But there it was in the backseat, and, knowing LA traffic, I thought “Why not?” Suffice it to say, the book grabbed me from page 1 with its beautiful language encapsulating a compelling subject (isn’t that what the world of novels is all about??). I fell into this book and quickly became addicted. So much so that, once my friend arrived, I was a little disappointed it was time to put the book down and go shop–which, if any of you know me, that is quite a statement!

The story follows the aftermath of what happens to a family when their teenaged son returns home after being missing for four years. A kidnapping, the horrors of being held captive, the family’s search for their son and struggles to deal with the loss–most of this action is not even included in the book itself. It happens outside the realm of the pages, and there we have the very heart of this introspective novel. It is a book about what happens because of these events, not a book relaying the events themselves. This encourages readers to place themselves in the situation, to imagine the stress and sadness and instability that would result. The complicated aftermath of the son’s return is extremely compelling to me as I love exploring the imperfect aspects of humanity (see last post!). Each of the family member’s responds differently, and their actions are messy, complicated, and raw–in other words, completely human.

The treatment of the language is extremely literary despite the fact that Johnston writes about a solidly middle class family in the Texas community of Corpus Christi, so employing another of my favorite themes–elevating the ordinary. His sentences are tight and short but packed full of meaning. The long semi coloned, dashed or excessively comma-ed sentence is scarcely found in the work. I personally found that very refreshing and inspiring as many of my sentences in my MS tend to receive all of the lengthening treatments described above. “Remember Me Like This” taught me writing lessons as it entertained me.

Finally, Johnston’s marriage of the literary and commercial aspects of the novel was very, very well done. This is a book about a boy child who was kidnapped, held hostage, and subject to repeated rapes over four years–it’s a premise for the sensational airport paperbacks. Johnston uses this premise as a draw for readers, but it quickly becomes less of their focus as they are drawn into the incredible set of characters who play out the literary aspect of introspection beautifully. The horror is always there, lurking behind the characters, but it is their individual thoughts which take center stage. All the secondary, causal emotions and behaviors are Johnston’s focus. Curiously enough, we never hear the abducted son’s point of view. In my opinion, this was a good move as it draws the focus even more away from the sordid side of the story that human nature is bound to be morbidly curious about and instead draws focus more towards the literary beauty of this family’s will to survive.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

It’s Wednesday again, and time to highlight another title that I have found inspiration from. This book was one I read quite recently (last month), and it was phenomenal. I was browsing around the airport during a long delay and picked this slender volume up on the off chance I finished the fat tome from the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (a topic for another blog post!) which I was carrying around. While I didn’t read the book at the airport, I did read it–nearly all in one sitting–curled up under a blanket in my living room with a glass of wine. This is a book I can recommend reading in just such a situation under the unique musings solidarity and a good glass of sauvignon blanc can produce.

Of course, I knew this book would be phenomenal–it’s Ian McEwan, author of the magnificently beautiful Atonement and acclaimed literary author. Naturally, it would take an author with critical acclaim to get the approval of publishers to create such a tiny book! However, the brevity of the work is one of its great strengths, in my opinion. Since the reader does not know the entire story of the main characters, they are left to fill in the pieces on their own, thus prompting personal introspection. In this way The Children Act took on something of the short story–it was short and perfect and left readers wanting more.

The language was very literary and beautiful, which was something I enjoyed after reading mainly commercial fiction this year. As the main character, Fiona, enjoyed a glass of scotch each night, so the book went down, short and neat and leaving a glowing feeling in the heart of the reader at enjoying such gorgeous words. However, what I enjoyed more than the words were the questions and thought the book provoked.

The story centers around a woman’s professional and personal life–the professional life is one of renown, but her personal life is falling apart. Her husband wants to leave her and this brings up questions of aging, of priorities, about marriage. All of these questions hit home for me very poignantly as I have always questioned today’s cultural trend of putting career before family and the sad trend of marital unhappiness in general. The professional storyline brings up questions of ethics and maturity as Fiona deals with having to make the decisions for a child in her legal capacity. Religion even comes into the fray. It is incredible how, in so few pages, McEwan can provoke so many emotions and thoughts in his readers.

Essentially, this book inspired me because even though it was a purely literary work, it was still a page turner. I could not put it down. As writers–literary, commercial, etc–the common goal is for our work to be compelling. We want readers to keep turning the pages. If you can manage to do that, and incorporate beautiful language and present a spectrum of thought provoking topics–bravo, you truly are a master. McEwan does all this in The Children Act thus, I take inspiration from him as an author and this book as a work of art.

Inspiration from the Master: How J.K. Rowling Has Influenced Me as an Author

I always joke about “my unpopular opinions,” but today I am going to talk about one of my very popular opinions. It is virtually a universal fact that those of my generation love Harry Potter and admire the woman behind the series, J.K. Rowling. I nearly titled this blog post how Rowling AND the Harry Potter series have influenced me as a writer, but, wanting to keep this blog post to a readable length for those of you perusing over your lunch break, I decided to stick with Rowling herself as there are several admirable traits of her talent that I admire and have taken inspiration from.

First and foremost–accessibility. Rowling’s HP series starts off with Harry as a young boy; I was the same age as Harry when I first read The Sorcerer’s Stone, and as such I could relate to him innately. However, my Mom read the books after I finished them, and she felt drawn into the story just as strongly as I did. This kind of broad readership was achieved through a masterful use of characterization and a wonderful assortment of word choice. It was the outstanding craft of the writing, I believe, which allowed these books to be enjoyed by grade school children and their parents alike. The word choice challenged children and allowed adults to appreciate the elevated nature of the works themselves. I remember reading The Order of the Phoenix and seeing the word “detritus” for the first time–context clues made it obvious that the word referred to the garbage littering Harry’s room, but Rowling’s choice to incorporate such a high level word speaks to her skill to create a breadth of audience.

Versatility is also a very important quality Rowling’s work possessed. As I read the books, I literally grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione through Rowling’s masterful development of these characters from children into young adults–almost verging new adult territory by The Deathly Hallows. To this day, I am still impressed with how she carried this out. A subtle change, book-by-book, a darkening of tone, a deepening of connections. Order of the Phoenix was where this really stood out to me; the world around Harry and his friends had changed so much, but so  had Harry himself–he was starting to grow up. To me, opening up a Harry Potter book was somewhat like coming back to the first day of school after summer break and seeing the subtle changes and maturation in your fellow classmates. Her versatility as an author is not only displayed in HP; I read The Casual Vacancy earlier this year and my awe of Rowling as an author was sealed in its veracity for good. The book was incredible–totally adult, full of engrossing characters, and completely different from HP. This, for me, was what made me love The Casual Vacancy for what it was; Rowling had proved herself capable of going beyond HP as an author, and creating a work with just as much merit. No one else but a true master of words could construct a story surrounding so many main characters and have the reader be deeply invested in them all. The themes of The Casual Vacancy are dark, they are modern, and they are real, thus proving Rowling can pull her own in the realm of contemporary adult fiction as well as YA fantasy.

Finally, one of my favorite ways that J.K. Rowling inspires me–her humor. Throughout the Harry Potter series, I adored Rowling’s interspersion of humorous elements to the text. Particularly her tendency to insert a particular adjective to a sentence to make it hilarious. One of my favorite lines is “Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid…” from the scene in the bathroom with Hermione and the troll. The insertion of the word stupid injects the text with dry humor, which is incredible. This adds to the lighthearted tone the HP series can take on at times; it’s an element that makes the books enjoyable and lovable, and adding touches of humor (especially, dry ironic little adjectives) is something I incorporate into my writing style.

I could keep writing for quite sometime about Rowling as an inspirational author, but I need to get back to the query gauntlet. I will continue to post about authors/books that inspire me on Wednesday as I saw such a great reaction last week. I hope everyone enjoyed this week’s post!

Finding Inspiration From Some of My Favorite Books

I am going to do something a little different than the usual writing or talking about writing post. Books have always been my inspiration and instruction for being a writer. I never enrolled in a college class strictly focused on creative writing–it was all learned (aside from, admittedly, the presence of some innate talent) through the books I’ve had my nose in since I was very young. Today, I am going to talk about some books which have inspired me. If you guys like this kind of post, let me know as I am thinking about making every Wednesday a post about books.

First, my favorite book of all time: The Lord of the Rings (counting the trilogy as one book). I became obsessed with this book in junior high, and have read it several times. In college, I even took a course over Tolkien. While I know I am not alone in my fandom, this book has always reserved a very special place in my soul as a writer. It challenged me, it intimidated me, and it deeply moved me. The challenge came from the craft of the words themselves. Tolkien was a master storyteller with an extensive vocabulary. I attempted to read the trilogy in sixth grade and was taken aback by the reading level being over my head–something that I had virtually never encountered at that point! The intimidation was present in the sheer immensity of the world Tolkien had created–histories of whole peoples, languages, traditions–as someone who knew she wanted to write someday, I was overawed by how much attention Tolkien had given to the task of world-building. Finally, the emotional ties I felt to the story were very strong. Some might question this attachment in such an epic fantasy. Surely so many worlds are being built, so many battles fought, so many adventurers stepping out their doors onto the road that the reader would sacrifice connection with the characters for this depth of action? However, this is simply not true and this factor is what names Tolkien as a master. I had never cried over a book before, but by the end of LOTR tears were in my eyes–Frodo’s sacrifice to rid the world of evil had moved me, despite the fact that there was never a narrator detailing Frodo’s innermost thoughts, and the story certainly didn’t stick with him throughout the entire book. Thus, LOTR has definitely inspired me to create rich worlds, to hone my craft, and that sometimes a sad ending can be very powerful in terms of resonating a theme.

I suppose since I have discussed one favorite book in this post, I should do homage to one of my other very favorites, The Great Gatsby. This was a book I hadn’t read (embarrassingly enough) until recently when the film version was about to come out, so I panicked and immediately read the book before seeing the movie. After that situation was rectified, it was obvious that Gatsby would be one of my favorite books of all time. A very small book, much of the action is given over to the white space, while the text is dominated by lavish and beautiful description–mirroring the theme of the roaring 20s superficiality. The descriptions and the aching melancholia this book brings to the reader are the reasons this is one of my favorites. As a writer, I can learn from it the valuable use of white space and just how powerful it can be to let readers fill in the gaps on their own. Word choice is another thing I love about this book–I will never forget the subtly masterful use of the description “bleeding fluently” to describe the condition of a talkative woman who had just been slapped in the face–her words were flowing as freely as the blood. Brilliant.

There is always something for everyone–not just writers–to learn from classic novels like these. Next Wednesday I will post about a couple of my more modern favorites.