Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.
In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.
Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.
Fiction and “Fitting In”
Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?
Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.
Career: Celebrity and Erasure
Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.
Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.
Shadows and Belonging
In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.
Insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual.
Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.
Villainous Pathos and Madness
When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.
With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.
Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists
Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.
In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.
What motivates your favorite fictional characters? Share in the comment section below! Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts.
Among the many pleasures of reading is the journeys we take to distant places, some which we may only see in our imagination.[*] For the locales that we do get an opportunity to see, there’s excitement associated with traveling to places we’ve read about. And then, there’s a third category: visiting a place whose literature we haven’t much (or any) acquaintance with. Although many places on my “To Visit” list earned their spot because of books I’ve read, I’ve been inspired to travel for many reasons, ranging from a friend’s invitation to browsing the Internet and finding an amazing destination. In the spirit of an upcoming adventure to a place with which I have little real or literary familiarity, though, I decided to explore reading for travel and perhaps choose a few books to prepare me for that trip.
For many, travel reading often involves trip research. Spontaneity has its charm, but obtaining information about travel arrangements (transport and accommodations), climate, attire, special equipment needed,[†] visas and so forth is critical when traveling to distant locales. As far as travel and reading go, this category leans more toward organization than adventure but nonetheless should be on the research radar if a trip necessitates it. Internet sites (tourism, travel blogs, government sites, etc.) and travel guides seem to be the go-to resources for planning travel.
But thinking about research made me wonder about what people read to begin the process of learning more about a place and its culture. Finding books for a prospective trip (theoretically) isn’t difficult. I was curious, however, about how people decided to approach reading for upcoming travel. Did they read before they visited? As they traveled? How did they choose books? After being reminded to select my Internet terms with greater care,[‡] I discovered countless lists of books about [insert destination]—as easy as expected. But while they suggested books, they didn’t provide much guidance for how or what to choose.
Reading Before You Go and on the Go: Advice
So, I resumed my research. Intriguingly, the first thing I found was a contrarian article advising against reading before travel. Most sites I’d investigated assumed that readers would read before their travels (or bring books along) and slapped down a list of titles. Rachel Mann, a reader who’d been inclined but unable to delve into a few novels prior to a seven-city trip, argues that literary works provide artistic impressions of cities, portraying them “both better and worse than reality”. She likened the experience to the disappointment produced by viewing a movie having first read the book on which it was based. Mann further observed that such novels often ignore or gloss over the everyday experiences that travelers treasure.[§] Surely perusing works of nonfiction, particularly travel guides and travel memoirs, might provide a more realistic snapshot of a locale than some fictional works would? I also don’t think I found the differences between my experiences of visiting, say, London (even famous literary haunts) or further afield dismaying as compared to my reading. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading numerous works, set in different periods and places, about a specific country that avoided this result. However, it is worth considering the validity Mann’s claim that “having someone else’s experience” in mind could direct a traveler away from finding their own adventures.
Nonetheless, I can’t say Mann persuaded me: sometimes, a reading experience makes taking a trip worthwhile. Matt Hershberger’s article asserts that he became a traveler because he was a reader first. However, he agreed that visiting literary sites can be disappointing (to an extent, echoing Mann’s claim) because they can be touristy.[**] For him, properly engaging with the literature of a place he visits involves discussing literature with locals, something that facilitates actual cultural engagement. His other suggestion, recreating fictional character’s adventures, I found less appealing as it might have some real limits. While he cautions against unwise activities (specifically illegal and/or dangerous ones), I still found it difficult to imagine myself wanting to replicate some literary scenarios. Both may prove difficult to impossible to try before traveling. Still, it might be fun to eat at a restaurant patronized by a favorite character, right?
Mary Ellen Dingley, however, suggests nine types of book for traveling, some which can be read before leaving.[††] Her ideas ranged from bringing books that comforted or encouraged (travel can be daunting) to checking out classics, recent best sellers, and poetry hailing from your destination, particularly when traveling abroad. One of her more intriguing ideas involves reading a favorite YA novel in translation, a tactic that lets you practice reading in the language of host country. While her article isn’t bogged down with selection criteria, there’s enough suggestions to give readers several directions to try before settling down with a reading list.
Ready to Read and Roam
For my own part, I read numerous book lists. Goodreads (of course) was helpful, as were lists provided by local authors. I selected several books, mostly fiction (my reading preference), that appeared on multiple lists. I made sure that I had books by women writers (something many lists neglect still!), as well as books embracing different periods for some historical perspective. At present, I’m rather excited because the books I ordered through my library system’s online catalogue arrived, [‡‡] and I’m set to pick up a stack of books set in place where I plan to visit this summer. For me, it’s thrilling to begin my travels through the words of people who know where I’m going best. And perhaps that why I like to read before I go: I can’t wait to see where I’m headed.
Do you read before you travel? If so, what are your favorite literary adventures? Also, sign up for the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!
[*] Or, when they’re actual places, on the Internet.
[†] My upcoming trips will alternate between city tours and outdoorsy adventures, meaning I need good walking shoes and hiking boots in my luggage.
[‡] “Travel reading” as a search term elicits articles suggesting books about traveling and/or traveling as self-discovery, travel memoirs, wanderlust, best travel guides, best books to take on vacation (with a heavy slant towards beach reading), etc. Reading (and writing) about travels of all kinds truly beguiles us.
[§] Like electric outlets. When I arrived in London, I knew I would encounter differences (spelling, pronunciation, crossing the street), but it was ordinary objects that worked similarly yet appeared so different that surprised and delighted me.
[**] The degree to which this may be acceptable varies from places and among individuals. In some places, crowds and/or a touch of cheesiness won’t turn meaningful sites awful, whereas other experiences suffer because they provide little value.
Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more.
Of late, I’ve been thinking about weather. Being informed about the weather is useful for selecting appropriate outerwear and activities. It even provides us with something to discuss about when we greet people. But when weather appears in fiction (either as exposition or dialogue), it exists to accomplish certain narrative goals. Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to influence plot, characterization and more. In the following, I discuss several selections that demonstrates weather’s versatility in fiction.
Weather’s pervasiveness and its effect on human lives, of course, is the primary reason it makes an excellent plot device. Stories featuring weather-related catastrophes (from seafaring disasters such as Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to cli-fi dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) are indebted to the weather for creating their central conflict: survival. These stories frequently rely upon but don’t require epic storms to create a crisis. In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, harsh winter conditions are normal in the Yukon. The protagonist hikes only with his dog despite warnings to travel in company when it’s dangerously cold. Several mistakes on this frigid day turn this walk into a struggle for life. However, snowfall plays a starring role in creating a very different survival situation in “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie.[†] As forecast by the wireless news, the inhabitants of Monkshood Manor are trapped indoors by a blizzard. Well prepared for the storm, their real difficulty is that one of them is a murderer. However, weather, severe or otherwise, needn’t be life threatening to be a plot point. Although alarming, a tornado’s brief appearance in All the Living by C. E. Morgan merely threatens protagonists Aloma and Orren, reminding them that they need some contact with the world beyond their farm.[‡]
Symbolic and Moody Weather
In her article about the role weather plays in literature, Kathryn Schultz discusses how weather went from “mythical to metaphorical”, “with atmospheric conditions…stand[ing] in for the human condition”.[§] Schultz observes that such representations may to refer to individuals, relationships, or societies. Mary Tyrone, a woman suffering from morphine addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, declares that she loves the fog because of its ability to conceal the world. Fog, of course, represents the addicted state into which Mary escapes from unpleasant realities such as her son’s illness. The presence of snow in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, however, works at the societal level. Through much of the novel, Bigger Thomas is surrounded snow, a subtle allusion to how his existence as a black man is circumscribed and controlled by white society.
Symbolic or not, weather in fictional works help authors set the mood. How a writer characterizes the weather in a fictional account will dictate the reader’s emotional response. In the opening lines of “The Story-Teller”, we’re told it’s a “hot afternoon” and that “the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry” (129).[**] Already, readers feel the wearying, perhaps irritable quality of this journey even before we learn that the “unsympathetic” bachelor will share an hour’s train ride with three boisterous children and their aunt, a woman who is ill adept at entertaining her charges (129). Similarly, the fog symbolizing Mary’s addiction in Long Day’s Journey also establishes an atmosphere of tension early in the play. Mary remarks that that the foghorn’s warnings kept her awake and unsettled her nerves. Yet, her family (particularly son Jamie) are all too aware that such restlessness is a symptom of her drug use and check for signs of addiction, something which makes her self-conscious and more nervous.
Scrying the skies for portents of poor weather to modern weather forecasts are among the numerous ways humanity has attempted to tell the future of weather. Yet weather, often working in conjunction with mood, can hint at events to come in fiction. In The Great Gatsby,[‡‡] the warm breeze fills Nick with “the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). Nick’s reflection suggests renewal is in the offing: Nick will reacquaint himself with Daisy and Tom just as Gatsby will restart his love affair with Daisy. In a different vein, Zora Neale Hurston presages a devastating hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God with several events, among them an animal exodus and the uncanny stillness of the wind. Many, Janie and Tea Cake among them, choose to remain because they think the storm will not be severe. Before he leaves, ‘Lias attempts to persuade the couple to accompany him by stating “dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust” (148).[§§] As predicted, the lake floods, forcing everyone remaining to flee to high ground.
Using meteorological metaphors, as discussed in Schultz’s article, provides information about characters, ranging from physical characteristics to personality traits (replying icily, for example, uses weather to indicate displeasure). Conversations about weather also can reveal information about characters. In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Home Burial”,[†††] clashing notions of appropriate grieving coupled with an offhand remark about weather precipitate a rupture. The husband’s clumsy attempts to speak of their dead child infuriates his wife, particularly when he suggests she overly grieves. Infuriated, Amy accuses him of lacking feeling, given how casually (to her mind) he dug the child’s grave (ln71–78) and discussed his “every day concerns” (ln 86):
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy morning
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care….(ln 92–7)
One can almost hear the door slam at the poem’s close.
Drawing from Weather
Weather’s profound effect on humanity is evident when we examine literary works. Beyond its humble role in the setting, it pervades mood, portrays us, and even “plots” against us, just as it does in real life. Utilized wisely, fictional weather helps underscore the thrust of a writer’s story, adding depth and complexity. And that makes weather a dynamic literary device.
What is your favorite example of literary weather? Share it in the comment section below.
[†] This short story was based on the radio broadcast of the same name. Ultimately, Christie transformed the radio play into the famous West End play, The Mousetrap. Familiarity with either play or story will work for this example.
[§] Pathetic fallacy, that is attributing human emotion to inanimate objects in nature, often wears the guise of weather in literature.
[**] Saki. The Best of Saki. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
[††] I could argue that the hardworking fog in Long Day’s Journey (or at least the foghorn) also foreshadows Mary’s relapse. But, I thought I’d reward this example with the rest of the day off, since it’d already done so much.
[‡‡] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991.
[§§] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
[†††] Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1984.
Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.
Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.
Reasons We Re-Read
Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.
Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.
When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough
My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?
Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.
Brevity is the soul of wit.[*] (Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, line 92)—William Shakespeare
Perhaps it’s winter’s elision into Spring, but I feel like it’s time for change, to experiment (a bit) with my writing here at the Sequence. Of late, several posts I’ve written here appear to run on the longer side. While I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve written, I feel the need for some variation.
Something of a palate cleanser, if you will.
I don’t suggest that terser writing is some sort of literary sorbet. Hemingway, a master of succinct writing, has a short story collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing that neatly summarizes his far from sweet oeuvre.[†] Rather, I’m looking to pare down my writing a bit, try new writing styles, and perhaps write more efficiently. Few writers think they have enough writing time, and I’m no different. It’s this latter goal, working on finding more writing time, that inspired this post. So, here’s my plan for…
…Writing Succinctly to Accomplish More
(1) Short Changing My Words
Recently, I expressed my interest in writing shorter pieces to a friend, and she suggested flash fiction. I haven’t tried flash fiction yet, but the imposed word count (under 1000 words) felt inspiring. Having studied formal poetry, one salient revelation was that restrictions can provoke creativity.[‡] While a word count might seem arbitrary, it requires writers to produce leaner prose while limiting scenes, characters, and action. And similar restrictions could be applied to nonfiction—especially when paired with short-format nonfiction such as the listicle.[§] Choosing a word count, then, could produce sharp, focused writing.
(2) Research Is Revealing
Like many people who blog, I schedule my topics, alternating among my different interests. What I don’t do, however, is plan topics by their development time. If I think a topic needs more research or isn’t “gelled” enough, I move it to a later point. However, I find that my posts often run longer than expected, seeping into time I allotted for other writing projects. And writing several long pieces in a row places more strain on my time to develop future posts. I plan to keep writing posts I enjoy, but I believe that alternating between longer and shorter post can afford both variety and extra writing time for longer works.
So, I checked my word counts and confirmed that my longer pieces (on average, 1300 words) matched my perception of taking longer to write and often longer than estimated. These topics (literary themes, book reviews, etc.) required extensive development in terms of notetaking or research. Yet, my shorter posts, which focused more on personal experiences (usually reading), also happened to be time consuming. My impression that word count and time spent writing were in a proportional relationship wasn’t the whole story. While I had some insight into better scheduling, I needed to investigate my process further.
(3) Structuring My Writing Process—Just a Bit!
I tend to discover my text instead of planning it (ie, I compose at the computer). Typically, my pre-writing is minimal, often involving relevant research and jotting my ideas down. For example, I devoted significant effort to discussing an author’s approach to the orphaned main character trope for a recent book review, something I found interesting but didn’t give readers the flavor of book. Of course, I cut this section, but using an outline might have prevented the need to do so. Outlining also visually demonstrates how lengthy a topic is by the number of points present, giving a rough estimate of writing time needed. Of course, revisions—extensive or not[**]—will occur. Likewise, I expect much of writing will be unplanned.[††] I hope, though, that having a blueprint for my writing in mind will keep from diverting into unnecessary asides.
Off to Write
My course from here is clear: to apply lessons learned. To my surprise, a little writerly navel gazing has proved to be inspiring. I’m looking forward to trying out these ideas (particularly flash fiction), and I’m pleased that I set my first word count (775 words; I finished near 830). Next up, scheduling and outlining the next Sequence. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pre-writing to do.
What approaches have you tried for improving your writing? Add your response to the comment box below. Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter and stay up-to-date with the latest posts.
[*] Polonius adds this quip after a longwinded discussion of wasting time.
[†] Or, as my friends and I joked more than once, his stories were about “Dying alone. In the rain.”
Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman
On a regular basis, somewhere in my social media streams, I find the flotsam of writing advice swirling amidst other writing topics, inspirational quotes, and the obligatory cat photos. For this post, I decided to wade in and see what I could learn from what was available. I trawled Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. Then, I performed internet searches just to make sure I’d gotten a good sense of what’s available.
Much of what we’re advised about writing seems familiar after a few quotes. We should submerge ourselves in reading—read often and widely, particularly the works of celebrated authors and works beyond our own genre preferences. We need to actually write, write regularly, finish writing that piece, and submit our work for publication. It’s solid advice[*] that many repeat in their own way, so much so that it seems like an ever-expanding ripple in a pond. Here are few great variations on a theme:
Contradictions Ahead: Apply with Caution
The more specific writing advice gets, the more disagreements emerge. Here are four exemplary writing rules many of us have encountered at one point:
Show, don’t tell
Avoid adverbs and adjectives
Write what you know
Vary word choice
To understand the source of this discord, it’s useful to examine one so-called rule more closely: show versus tell. Mary Robinette Kowal indicates that showing “mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensation,” when telling would prevent the reader from sharing in the character’s feelings and sensations. However, Susan Defreitas argues that “hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that…doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling… you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.”
Similarly, Defreitas observes that this advice causes writers to provide involved character backgrounds when simply stating a few choice details would have accomplished the same effect. To this list, Kowal adds uninteresting action, namely showing every move a character makes (regardless of its relevance) instead of summarizing and (again) achieving the same result. Still Defreitas’s framing this “rule” as bad advice stirs up dissent. Michael Neff states that “I’ve never seen SHOW DON’T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to ‘tell’ at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn’t sufficient.”
Feeling swamped with conflicting messages yet?
Having delved into this topic, two things became clear. First, such advice is most often proffered toward beginner writers, something which both Neff and Defreitas acknowledge. Less experienced writers, still learning how to make their writing flow, often tend to be verbose. Second, much like the other bulleted items on my (brief, not exhaustive) list, “show versus tell” suffers from either misapplication or strict over-adherence. Arguably, more novice writers need a more precise understanding of the advice provided, as well as permission to view such suggestions as a guideline to learning how to better self-edit.
For Your Consideration: Personal Preferences, Specific Information, and Context
Yet, some writing advice resists categorization, especially when presented outside its original context. For example, several quotes by Elmore Leonard surfaced in my research, some of which other writers found objectionable.[†] When I specifically searched for his writing advice, I found an article that he wrote for the New York Times. The rules he shares are his take on how he chooses to remain invisible as a writer, something he acknowledges won’t work for all writers. And most of those rules include successful exceptions (albeit from other authors). So, it’s really about his writing aesthetics, which he offers should they prove useful to other writers, even those more visible writers.
Then there are writers whose advice seem to lack mooring without context:
In Chandler’s case, this isn’t so much writing advice as it was a tactic he resorted to using because of the demand for more action in pulp fiction tales. I suppose it serves more as a literary life saver than an advisable course of action. And then there’s Vonnegut’s opinion on semicolons. While his outlandish metaphor may leave one reeling, his advice reduces to a dislike of semicolons.[‡] As Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) reveals, his advice (when examined in context) is more hyperbole than a strict injunction: after all, Vonnegut uses semicolons in his fiction writing. Avoiding semicolons, however, is a stylistic preference (not a rule) and, as such, can be ignored by those who love their usage. But in Vonnegut’s defense, his colorful advice for writing short stories ranges from his personal preferences, more general advice (eschewing suspense, which of course won’t work for everyone[§]) to specific and rather good information on characterization (such as ensuring that characters want something, “even if it is only a glass of water”). Again, once the context is understood, the writer can decide whether the advice offered is applicable.
And the Rest Depends on the Recipient
Much of the remaining advice that I read bridges numerous topics, such as dealing with criticism, the revision process, sources of inspiration, and lifestyle choices for writer—all of which I left unaddressed because I realized that most writing advice (even advice that doesn’t specifically address writing like lifestyle choices[**]) depends on its recipient. And it’s with that I find my conclusion. Unless it’s outright facetious non-advice or literal nonsense, most writing advice has potential to resonate with another writer. Our understanding and application of the advice in question may be imperfect but that doesn’t diminish its value. Writing is highly personal; we won’t all find Leonard’s advice on adverbs useful or Bellow’s revision remarks more than tongue in cheek without a specific context.[††] So where does that leave us? We must think carefully and choose wisely for ourselves. And most importantly:
What’s your favorite writing advice? Share it in the comment section below.
Updated on 4 June 2021: Feature image (cat wrting) is by naobim. Updates include adding a new image (question marks) as well as image attributions for all images. Hyperlink attributes to quotes from Goodread were added. Text (footnotes included) was edited for clarity, concision, and consistency. Finally, the original first two sentences (with their footnotes) were removed, because I never like them anyway.
[*]For example, none of us would be writing without first reading. And if you want to write, sooner or later you must put words on a page.
In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not.
I first read to a child while I still could be counted among their numbers. As is often the case in such cases,[*] I was babysitting a younger child who asked me to read a book I hadn’t seen in some time—a Doctor Seuss book, if I recall correctly. The teens are a bit early for nostalgia, but it reminded me of how much I loved reading Hop on Pop and other beginning reader books. It was fun to revisit an old friend and gleefully recite silly rhymes.
Becoming the Reader
In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not. From the bookworm parent’s perspective, it’s truly a highlight to share a treasured childhood book with your child and watch that book become one of their favorites. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new books as well as catch up on books you might have missed the first time ’round.[†]
The respondents[‡] I polled about reading to children also happened to be parents, who primarily read to their children around bedtime for about 15 minutes, though one respondent ran a bit longer. Usually, parent readers take turns or allow the children to select the books. I personally like to select books when it’s my turn to read, since it’s a good opportunity to introduce books I think he’ll like as well as broaden his horizons.[§] If he expresses a preference for another book, though, I typically go with it—unless we’re reading something short because bedtime is running late!
The Kids Are Alright…with Reading Aloud
Of course, this makes me curious about what it’s like being read to from a kid’s perspective. As I mentioned in another post, I loved the story hour at my local library when the children’s librarian would read various stories aimed at younger audiences: I still recollect her soft voice declaiming words slowly enough for her listeners to easily follow along, how she looked up from reading and smiled at the gathered children. There, too, were read-along-book sets and other recorded stories I enjoyed. And my mother introduced me to the pleasures of listening to an audiobook on a car ride.[**]
Since I don’t much remember bedtime reading, I conducted an informal Q&A session with my household’s resident child. My interview revealed that he likes being read to by me, the spouse, and a close family friend, although he’s generally happy to have anyone read to him. While he didn’t choose a favorite reader on the home front,[††] I’ve learned that I do the best voices and that my spouse adds a lot of funny bits. So far, he likes that I choose stories for him, even though my spouse and he takes turns selecting books. And neither of us can keep story time to 15 minutes. A certain someone is good at wheedling for a few extra pages. In fact, he enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland so much that he’s requested that we start reading it as soon as we’re home.
Share your favorite childhood stories and books in the section below—I might read them to my tot soon! Also, don’t forget to sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.
[*] Reading to younger siblings also counts as another common avenue. Since I’m a youngest child, that’s right out for me.
Recently, I chanced upon an Atlas Obscura article discussing lördagsgodis, the Swedish tradition of indulging in candy on Saturdays. What drew my attention, however, was that title mentioned “human experimentation”. As it happens, lördagsgodis’s roots can be traced to experiments performed on mentally ill patients during the mid- to late 1940s that established sugar’s role in cavity formation. The study, which neither benefited its patients (quite the opposite) nor obtained their consent, was not unique to Sweden.[*] In fact, its ethical issues suggested those raised in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the tale of an African-American woman whose cells, collected without her permission in 1951, led to profound scientific discoveries. Given how deeply this nonfictional account delves into medical ethics, politics, racism, and scientific discovery as they intertwine with the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I will focus on the more poignant moments that exemplify these issues.
History, Ethics, and Human Experimentation
As author Rebecca Skloot observes, patients of US public wards often were unaware that they served as research subjects, something some researchers considered to be an acceptable trade for receiving treatment (29–30). Such patients, particularly impoverished, poorly educated African-American patients living in the pre—Civil Rights era in the United States were unlikely to ask questions: the presumption that physicians “knew best” coupled with widespread racism alone prevented such a thing (Skloot 63). And before the advent of Institutional Review Boards in 1966 (Sparks 2017),[†] research involving human participants did not receive much formal oversight (Skloot 131, 136). What happened to Henrietta Lacks, specifically taking her cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, was both the norm however unpalatable we might find it.
For Henrietta, there were more personal consequences related to the treatment that permitted her cells to be collected. Johns Hopkins, the hospital where Henrietta was treated, standardly informed women of childbearing years that hysterectomy led to infertility—one of the rare instances where patients did receive adequate information from physicians in this book. And yet this did not happen in Henrietta’s case. Her records revealed that she would have refused treatment had she known (Skloot 47–8). And although she would not have lived long enough to bear another child (Skloot 86), the choice should have been hers. The tissue sample collected from this hysterectomy, however, continued to grow long past its expected life: the discovery of an immortal line of human cells had been found (Skloot 40–1).
Amazing Discoveries and Uncomfortable Juxtapositions
The importance of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) to scientific research is vast. For example, HeLa played a large role in proving that Salk’s polio vaccine worked—and it was African-American scientists and technicians who produced the massive quantities of HeLa cells needed to do so (Skloot 93–7). Yet this achievement also represents one of the most painful juxtapositions in The Immortal Life: the HeLa factory was located at The Tuskegee Institute, a place better known for its infamous syphilis study involving African-American men.[‡] The terrible disparity between HeLa’s role in saving the lives of so many people—regardless of their racial background—and the unnecessary deaths of African-American people is more shocking when you consider that twelve of the Tuskegee study participant’s children still receive benefits (CDC 2017).
Disclosure and Family Distress
Not long after Henrietta was identified as the HeLa “donor” in the early 1970s, the Lacks family discovered that her cells were still alive, a revelation they did not understand and found alarming (Skloot 173, 175–81). Further interactions with researchers did little to improve their understanding. When researchers obtained blood samples from Henrietta’s family to establish genetic markers for HeLa, the Lacks family thought they were being tested for cancer (Skloot 180–4). More alarmingly, the resulting study published Henrietta’s name with her genetic information (Skloot 197–8). And more medical information was revealed about Henrietta without consulting the Lacks family. In the 1980s, her medical records were published, something which caused immense grief for Henrietta’s daughter, as Deborah read intimate details about her mother’s diagnosis and the anguish she suffered before her death (Skloot 209–10). Other family members, however, were angered by the profits made by biomedical companies while their family remained impoverished and could not afford health insurance (Skloot 168, 193).
Thoughtfulness and Modern Ethics
And this is perhaps the most concerning theme that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals: thoughtlessness. Mary Kubicek was an assistant who was sent to collect tissue samples during Henrietta’s autopsy in 1951. Unaccustomed to dealing with dead bodies, she focused her gaze away from Henrietta’s eyes. Then, she noticed Henrietta’s painted toenails and realized that Henrietta was an actual person, not just a collection of cells. It was something she had not considered before. It’s astonishing how many researchers (most but not all of whom were white) echoed this refrain and never thought about whether patients and/or their families might have concerns, even after ethical standards were changed. And this best represents what was most needed here, for researchers to think of Henrietta Lacks as a human with rights instead of as HeLa’s source. To think of all patients involved in research as people first.
* * *
Originally, I intended to end where the book does, with the emphasis on the need to see patients as people instead of mere study subjects. Instead, I discovered something of an unpleasant (if unsurprising) postscript: the Lacks family again needed to protest the public distribution of information about Henrietta. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells to an online database that allowed public downloads of this data. Although no laws were broken (Callaway 2013), it seems the researchers did not consider the ethical implications of making genetic data publicly available that could be potentially reveal private information about Henrietta’s family (Skloot 2013). The database subsequently was removed and the National Institutes of Health, who also planned to publish a similar paper, established a review board (that includes two of Henrietta’s family members) to determine who will gain access to this genetic information in the future (Zimmer 2013). While this hopefully will provide Henrietta’s family with much needed closure on this topic, questions remain about how geneticists should handle such sensitive data for other patients.
What response did you have to Henrietta’s story? Share it below in the comment section. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.
[*] Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, resided at a facility for mentally ill patients where medical experiments were carried out on the African-American patients living there, again without consent. She likely was a study subject. She died in 1955 (Skloot 274–6).
[†] HeLa also played a role in the formation of these boards. The discovery that researcher Chester Southam had been injecting HeLa cells into patients (roughly half of whom were diagnosed with cancer) without disclosure and consent caused a scandal that prompted the National Institutes of Health to create these boards (Skloot 127–36).
[‡] This study’s notoriety primarily stems from (but is not limited to) the fact that researchers purposefully withheld treatment from patients afflicted with syphilis long after a cure was developed in 1947. Ultimately, most patients died terribly, with many having infected both wives and children (Skloot 50, “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” 2017, CDC 2017).
We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.
“I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South…I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” –Dr. Maya Angelou[*]
As a child, I inhabited my hometown’s library. I swept through the familiar stacks, seeking books I hadn’t yet read or favorites to re-read. In the background, I could overhear my mother discussing my reading level with the children’s librarian. The same librarian hosted the story hour. She’d sit nearly surrounded by a semi-circle of children, showing us the pages as she slowly read them aloud. Afterwards, I could check out as many books as I could carry—and I frequently needed to tuck the stack under my chin to avoid dropping them.[†] I finished roughly half of the books before my mother drove us home. We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.
Of course, I found echoes of myself in books featuring other bookworms and the libraries in which they lost themselves, the librarians which they befriended. My favorite part of Robin McKinley’s Beauty (her version of the Beauty and the Beast tale) involved reading. This YA novel features a bookish heroine who marvels at the books she finds in the Beast’s library, some of which have not yet been written. Considering how many times and how long I’ve waited for sequels to be published, I’m confident that this magical library is a bookworm’s dream. In the Discworld series, however, it’s not only possible to find books that have yet to be written but also to travel through time and to different places through L-space (that is, library space).[‡] In some way, I’ve always felt this to be true of reading. How often had I found myself lost in book only to surprised when I became aware again of my actual surroundings? And these novels also include the Librarian of the Unseen University, a formerly human wizard who found his transformation into an orangutan advantageous to his career.[§] His willingness to help researchers (albeit in his unique fashion) is entirely in keeping with what I know of librarians, all of whom work hard to serve the public.[**]
The Power of Real Libraries
If libraries mean the world to a someone whose childhood was reasonably comfortable, imagine the difference they make to children with different backgrounds. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke of her first library as a soothing balm, the kind that helped her find her words again and her vocation. For another young woman, libraries acted as an equalizer. Although she could not afford to buy books the way her friends did, her free public library card permitted to read nonetheless. Even coming from a family that collected books, I know there’s many books I would not have read without this free access. And libraries don’t just hold books. Poet/filmmaker Greta Bellamacina shared that libraries provided a quiet place to study that her home lacked. Libraries provide safe places.
For these reasons, I feel dismay whenever I read about efforts to defund public libraries. Since I’d personally prefer that Fahrenheit 451 remain a work of fiction, I urge readers to get out and support our community libraries and fund groups that protect libraries. I would like my child to continue reading all those books eagerly, after story hour, the way I did. I’d like all children to have that second home to visit.
Have a favorite librarian or library story? Share in the comments section. Better yet, support your local library with a donation.