Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bookish gifts for writerly types:

Christmas is on its way, which for most of us means gift-giving, which for some means shopping anxiety. For me, the only anxiety about Christmas shopping is keeping to a minimal budget. But I love the activity itself, and I love hearing what ideas others have come up with to bless and cherish the people they treasure. Here are my favourite picks for the writerly people in your life. I promise I've test-driven each selection.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser This one is a classic for a reason. Originally based on a college nonfiction writing course, the book is divided into chapters that are themselves sorted into useful sections: principles, methods, and forms. Zinsser's crisp but warm teaching style discusses the nuts and bolts of nonfiction writing in depth and then provides specific advice related to different nonfiction disciplines, whether it be sports writing, memoir, or travel journalism. The final segment of the book, however, delves into writerly attitudes, and it's as much about being a writer as it is about doing writing. This is the kind of book you dip back into to refresh your memory (and your motivation).

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark My mother found this one for me and it's like a complete little writing workshop in a book. The fifty chapters provide fifty writing guidelines which range from the intensely practical ("Begin sentences with subjects and words") to the motivational ("Limit self-criticism in early drafts") to just really good craft ("Know when to back off and when to show off"). Each chapter also offers accompanying activities so you can try out the stuff you're learning. This book would appeal to newbie writers but there's lots of meat for old hands, too.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, ill. by Maira Kalman People seem to get a shock when they realise that the White half of the Strunk & White writing team is actually E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. But it's true, and that just makes this little book all the cooler. Another writing classic, this book is pure craft and yet it proves its own rules over and over again. If you think a book about punctuation, grammar, and word usage will be dull and dry, this book will make you... unthink that. It's subtly funny and just solidly good advice. Plus, this edition has gorgeous full-colour illustrations by Maira Kalman (vivid and amazing and occasionally just vaguely unsettling) which makes it basically a picture book about writing. What more could anybody ask for? I mean, seriously.

Now Write!: Fiction Writing Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers edited by Sherry Ellis I've been dipping into this one a bit over the last few weeks as I try to edge my way back into some writing that's not dictated by professors and university deadlines. The irony of this is that the book is composed of fiction-writing assignments created by great professors at universities. (Yes. I didn't put that together until right now.) This book is a lot of fun because a bunch of seriously good writers sat down and write a little about craft and then provided us with prompts to get us going. But it's not simply the "You find a mysterious object. What is it?" kind of prompt. These are prompts that push the writer deeper into the core elements of writing craft -- aspects like pacing, characterisation, dialogue, and revision. It's educational but it's also fun. (And I just noticed that there's a nonfiction counterpart covering memoir, journalism, and creative nonfic. Family members, feel free to take note of the fact that I don't own this book and jot this down for possible future birthdayness).

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King This one was recommended to me a trillion times before I finally got myself a copy. And of course it was perfect and I should have read it five years earlier. Revision is something that has always overwhelmed me. Short pieces are fine, but looking at a first or second draft novel and contemplating how to wade into the mountain of muck and cull the good from the bad is frankly terrifying. Self-editing for Fiction Writers wades through that muck with the writer, taking you through the editing process from big picture to the finer details. This is an excellent read especially for anyone who thinks editing is synonymous with correcting typos and punctuation (in case you're wondering: it's so much more than that).

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose This is a book I know I've discussed before, but it's just so good. The title sums it up sufficiently, but essentially Reading Like A Writer encourages the writer to read deeply and read not just for the story or the information, but for the craft, to look beneath the words and recognise the structure of the story, the criss-crossing architecture that made the work solid (or shaky). The text itself however is a beautiful read on its own, and the author's rapturous dips into various great stories makes the act of reading it something akin to trawling a library for hours and dipping into all the best passages of beloved books.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss Sometimes snarky and always funny, this book, supposedly "the zero tolerance approach to punctuation" is really just a celebration of good punctuation, well-employed. Those who struggle with punctuation will learn a thing or two, but those who turn into an enormous green rage monster at the sight of such literary beauties as "MANGOE'S: TWO FOR $5 DOLLARS" will get a smug sort of satisfaction from seeing themselves as the upper echelon of textual intelligence. Either way, it's just a really great book. Oh, and there's a hardback children's version which is hilarious.

There's my list of bookish recommendations for the writer you love. What would be on your list?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Complicated Katniss Feelings:

Having just seen Catching Fire (twice) last week and chatted through the books with my sister Lauren as she reads them for the first time, my Hunger Games feelings -- never very far below the surface -- are currently a force to be reckoned with. And you know how it is with me and feelings: if they are there, I will investigate them, for better or for worse.

I've mentioned numerous times here that I highly value Suzanne Collins's trilogy. From a writing standpoint, I'm sure I've discussed the pacing, the characterisation, and the honesty. From a philosophical point of view, I respect and admire the questions Suzanne Collins brings up, as well as the way in which she addresses them. Collins asks hard questions while managing to steer away from soft answers. I have no doubt that these qualities -- along with an authentic-feeling dose of family loyalty and romantic confusion -- are why I feel such a connection to these books as well as to the movies which do such a laudable job of pulling the stories from page to screen. But my experience isn't unique; half the world is in love with this series and its beautifully rich cast of characters.

In amongst all the Team Peeta and Team Gale fanfare, though (and of course I have thoughts about this, too, I mean -- how could I not?), honestly I think I'm cheering for Team Katniss.

I relish young adult fiction; it makes up a fair percentage of what I read and what I write. But I don't always relate to its heroes. The most lasting young adult heroine I've really felt a kinship to was Jo March, of Little Women. There was something about her blunt and manly exterior coupled with her desperately optimistic and maybe even a little fantastical thought life that made sense to me. She didn't have to beat the boys off with a stick. She was too busy inventing worlds and dreams and wrestling with her own identity. Besides which, she didn't really have the face or figure that garnered that kind of attention. She left that stuff to Meg, and Amy.

But then Katniss came along and though Katniss Everdeen is nothing like Jo March, there is still something inherently relatable about her. Perhaps it's that, amongst all the sword-wielding, purpose-filled young men and women who move from weakness into strength to fulfill their destiny, Katniss remains firmly within sight of her weakness -- at least in her own eyes.

Katniss is a heroine who does what needs to be done. She stays alive. She fights for the safety of her loved ones. She becomes the symbol, the figurehead, for an entire cause. Yet the rightness of the cause can never truly outbalance the wrongness of what Katniss is forced to do. Throughout her journey, Katniss doesn't attain some mystical higher plane of realisation; she does not embody the single-minded and pure heroine ideal because she can never truly be certain that wrong things become right things when they are done for the right reasons. Katniss is always going to wrestle with this part of herself, and it's what makes her story so compelling -- and, particularly in the trilogy's final episode, so wrenching.

Some teen characters, even those in bestselling series, are paper doll figures who have one quirk (usually endearing, never grotesque) to remind us they're human. Often, though, what makes them the hero is their ability to pursue the cause (whether it's a romance or a rebellion) at all cost. This is what makes them "good." Katniss, and in fact, most of the other chararacters in the Hunger Games, is neither all good nor all bad. Sometimes, she is a conflicted mess.

Heroines must leap forward into action in a split second. They must think on their feet. They must throw aside their own comfort and their own desires. All these things and more Katniss does and is, but unlike the mythic hero, the two-dimensional one, Katniss cannot merely charge forward leaving rubble in her wake. Katniss constantly looks backwards, never entirely rested or resting in what she has done. She is selfless when it comes to her sister Prim -- the only person Katniss knows without a doubt that she loves unequivocally -- but she is no angel. What Katniss is, is fiercer and stronger and kinder than she herself knows. She is not always good, but she recognises good and grasps desperately after it.

I think this is why I love Katniss, and why she's such a relatable character. Easy fiction, cheap fiction, wants to give us characters without loose ends, with polished sides so that they fit neatly into recognisable boxes. Katniss Everdeen is nothing like that.

Monday, November 25, 2013

10/100 (a letter to childhood dreams of grandeur)

Dear little starry-eyed former self,

It hurts, a little, to break this to you, but I'm going to serve it to you straight: you grow up to be quite ordinary. Certainly you care about things a lot. You feel things a lot. You think things a lot. But you are not particularly original, particularly smart, particularly brave, particularly endearing, or particularly funny. The realisation of this hurts, sometimes. I mean, it hurts the eleven-year-old you still stuck inside the thirty-something me. Because, while gravity has taken its toll on the outside, gravitas hasn't entirely consumed the interior. The fraction of me that is you keeps hoping that when I grow up, I'll be amazing.

To be honest, dreamy younger Danielle, there will be a lot of people smarter and more gifted than you. Very rarely, in a little spark of something halfway between Sehnsucht and illumination, you'll feel as though you are able to look at things for what they really are, and the realisation will cause your heart to beat quicker and your whole world will have an instant of greater, richer clarity. But mostly those moments will ride on the words and wisdom of other smarter people who have similiar experiences on a more regular basis.

There are people in this world who don't just see things for what they are; they see things for what they were, once, and what they could be in the future. Occasionally, you will feel as though you have a good idea. But there are people in this world who not only have good ideas but are able to articulate them so fiercely and so beautifully that they empower others to take hold of these good ideas and run with them until they are no longer ideas at all but clear, living actualities. There are people who will look at what goes on in the world and be able to tie it into the vast narrative of human history, recognising patterns and deviations, the ebb and flow of humanity's mark on the world.

There are people who are good at what they do, and people who are truly brilliant at what they do, and then there are people who are brilliant at what they do yet somehow also possess the voice, and the charisma, and the rare configuration of beautiful facial symmetry that makes people sit up and take notice. These people are able to talk about what's important to them without their features scrunching up into an ugly cry, who look endearing and purposeful even when squinting into the sun.

But this letter isn't to those people. It's to you. You'll grow up, little you, and you won't be especially amazing. If I could slip back through time and let you know that, I don't think I would. Because if you can't have dreams of grandeur as a child, then when can you? It's important that you think big thoughts, hopeful thoughts, foolish thoughts, before the cynicism of the world slaps them out of you.

If I did end up face to face to with you, though, and you asked me whether you'd be brilliant like all those other people? I'd tell you to stop looking at them if all it means is comparison.

But if you are looking so that you can cheer for them, honour them, learn from them, and imitate their goodness, then by all means, go. Know this, however: you won't be a genius, but you can have a go at doing ordinary well. You won't. Not always. But you can try. And if time and again you come up against limitations (even if the primary one is simply that you're too darn scared), then that's okay. Start again tomorrow. If it's possible to do something so earthbound as eating or drinking and yet make it for the glory of God, then it's possible to work extraordinarily hard at your ordinary life.

Chin up, little heart. Normal people still dream.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Weekend journal:

Meaghan-weekends at the end of Spring have turned into a sort of unofficial tradition (proof by the numbers: 2010, 2011, 2012), and I couldn't be happier. Meaghan is one of my dearest friends and normally we're separated by the stupidness of our big, sprawling country. The sheer volume of our text messages to one another definitely cancels out some of the distance, but it's nice just to get to hang out in person -- even if we do tend to stay up till 2am (finding everything deliriously funny after 11) on the first night and exhaust ourselves.

Although we are great at simply sprawling on couches and watching a selection of unintentionally bad movies (for the record, we are generally hoping to find good ones), this weekend was a really packed one. We zoomed from brunch out by the bay, to a catch-up with my sister Lauren and her little ones, to a barbecue party with my little bible study gang, to bed, to breakfast, to Supanova (Australia's baby ComiCon) in the city with my pals Ben and Hayley (and Batman and Gollum and Spidey and the like), to a girls' night of movies and party food, to bed, to breakfast, to the airport, to tears. In between all that, we also caught up with my lovely aunt and uncle who were staying with my mum for the weekend -- and of course we chatted a lot, too. I have a feeling I sent Meaghan home to New South Wales sleep-deprived, but I mostly felt Meaghan-deprived. I'm not usually a teary goodbye person, but I confess that I was glad I was wearing sunnies as I waved Meaghan off at the airport.

Meaghan is the calmly quiet to my loud, the brave to my wimpy. She is wise and gracious and organised and thoughtful. She speaks truthfully and with conviction. I'm so glad I've known her for these sixteen excellent years. They've been better because she is part of them.

PS. If you follow me on instagram, you've already seen all of these pictures. No regrets!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drowning in feelings:

I've read a handful of books over the last couple of years that left me wrung out and flapping, faded, in the breeze. The Chaos Walking trilogy makes the list of such books, as does Mockingjay. And now I must add The Drowned Cities to the roll-call of Books That Ruined Me For a While.

It works as a stand-alone story, but The Drowned Cities is actually the sequel to Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship-Breaker, the story which introduces a dystopian America wallowing under swamplands and forests, reeling in the wake of Chinese occupation (the brave new world's superpower) and torn apart by civil war. The imagery of America in ruins is vivid and weirdly compelling. I got a picture of all bayou. The land is disappearing and the swamps are overtaking. Jungle pushes up through abandoned cities, criss-crossed overhead by the shadows of abandoned overpasses and highways.

The inhabitants of this weary America are people from all races. Civilians live in terror of the warlords and soldier packs which run rampant through towns and villages, and civvies and soldiers alike fear the terrifying half-men created through genetic experimentation to be super-weapons in the hands of the military. Neither entirely human nor entirely animal, the giant half-men are a race of their own, possessing the ferocious power of each element that makes up their genetic cocktail, yet entirely devoid of compassion.

This is the world of The Drowned Cities, and it is bleak and near-hopeless. Kids are bred tough, and Mahlia, a castoff child with Chinese and African-American heritage, considers herself one of the toughest. The safest ties to make in this kind of world are no ties, yet she has somehow found a life assisting the kind Dr Mahfouz and ribbing the scrawny tagalong Mouse, who she owes her life to. Loyalty is a battered trait in Mahlia's world, but when Mouse is in danger, Mahlia realises she actually possesses some of that rare stuff, and she is launched into the jungle in search of life and peace -- for herself, and for Mouse.

The Drowned Cities is forget-to-breathe, gut-wrenching stuff. It is intense, violent, and brutal. The child soldiers -- whose stories are startingly reminiscent of the lives of child soldiers today -- are hardened and soul-dead. Their lives are ones of tangled superstitions, drugs, fragile allegiances, and violence. Bacigalupi does a good job of portraying the intensity of these kids' existences without being too explicit. It's edgy, but only the violence is truly graphic.

The Drowned Cities completely avoids the dreaded Book Two Syndrome; in my opinion, it is far better than Ship-Breaker. Bacigalupi (and isn't that just the coolest author name?) does an amazing job and the prose is flawless, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether you're up to enjoying this book's intensity.
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