As you may already know, I’m revising the first draft of a memoir. Since my return home from a three-week writer’s residency, because of the intensity and largesse of time afforded by that residency, I’ve come up with a new technique to help me through the revision process.
Thanks to Elizabeth
I remember taking a five-day workshop in the latter 1990s with the marvelous author and teacher Elizabeth Strout. She said two things I’ve always remembered. One was to read a poem each night so that fine language—and the art of compression—was the last thing we put into our heads before sleep. That’s a marvelous idea and some day I’ll manage to follow what can only be excellent advice.
The second thing she said, in the context of editing and revising a short story or longer piece, was to leave it lying casually around because looking at it from a different angle, say on a coffee table in the living room, would give us a different perspective. Our eyes would become that much sharper when it came to wielding the literary shears needed for optimal pruning.
I haven’t done that either.
What I have done is a variation on that theme, however, though I came to it purely by accident and in search of something else, the way we humans discover so many things.
When I had my freshly revised Chapter 2, a hybrid of new writing and some paragraphs leveraged from various places in my first draft, I copied the whole of it and pasted it into the fat column of a two-column table where the left column was skinny and the right one wide.
My intention was to put in the blank skinny column opposite every paragraph of text a summary, using only a few words, of what the point of the paragraph was, its raison d’etre. If it didn’t have one that moved the story forward or inward or backward, as memoir must, then out the paragraph should come.
This is a very handy technique if I do say so myself. At least, it works for me. I cut out some very pretty paragraphs that had blinded me to their lack of purpose, just as I’d hoped I’d be able to.
But I also discovered a much better way to organize several sections. By moving things around, voila! Suddenly I had a much stronger ending and a chapter that had the shape of a chapter. I had not expected the two-column technique to be so helpful structurally and that was a marvelous second benefit.
Another surprise came when I noticed that this process took much longer than expected. I kept getting distracted by line-editing the text on the right, the text I’d already edited before pasting it into the column. Because it looked different, I saw it differently. Just as Elizabeth Strout, more than ten years ago, suggested I would .
The fourth by-product of the two-column review took me two chapters’ worth of using it to notice. When I had to summarize each chapter in a pithy phrase like narrator’s sister was brave at one time, sometimes I had a reaction to the summary which I hadn’t had before. In this case, I’d never thought of my sister as brave, but there was the evidence in black-and-white right in front of me. Fascinating! And where might I go with this?
In other words, the summary paragraph statements clarified not only the paragraph but the story for me, the writer of the story. Here’s another example: narrator uses myths to survive. At one level, of course, I knew that. But I never would have said it that way, with such broad implications that I could then apply backward and forward in the book.
Try my Four-By-Two Review yourself. Let me know if it works for you, either to help you prune sections that don’t enhance the story; improve the structure of your chapter; line-edit your text; and/or create fresh insight into your own material .
If you have a technique that works well for you that I could try, please share it.
Meantime, happy revising.
Do you ever dream about your teeth falling out? It’s such a common dream you can look up various interpretations on the Internet. Tooth dreams may signify general anxiety, fear of aging or worry about your attractiveness. By far the meaning that seems most apropos to me is powerlessness.
I certainly felt powerless when a double crown broke last weekend and I had to leave my writer’s residency at Vermont Studios Center five days early. Since then, I’ve spent hours in the chair at the dentist’s and at the orthodontist’s dreaming about my book. Dreaming about the chapters I might have written those precious last days.
The transition back home after three weeks away makes me wonder if this is how my daughter felt coming home from her sojourns at summer camp. I’m more independent, a little dazed, and not sure how to fit into this world that used to be so familiar.
Don’t get me wrong. After sharing a hall bathroom for three weeks, I’m delighted to walk into my own bathroom and find my toothbrush and towel already there. I’m flattered that my dog lies down on the big sack of my dirty clothes and follows me with her eyes. I’m not quite sure what to do with my husband, though I’m glad to see him. It’s not the purely joyous homecoming I’d imagined, tinged as it is with disappointment.
All I really want to do is sleep. And get rid of all these things that clutter my house. Why do I have so many things? I don’t need all this stuff, I just need my studio and my bedroom, like I had in Vermont. I’m going on a major campaign to muck-out the whole house. As soon as I stop sleeping.
Everything would have been so much worse leaving Vermont Studios Center, I’d have felt so unfinished, had not a group of other writers and a few painters come to my rescue. Roberta and Teri and Harriet and Susan saved a table for my farewell dinner Sunday evening so that lots of writers could sit with me and start saying goodbye. We took pictures, always the first sign of separation.
People started talking about how few days were left; what might be happening at home for them; maybe they, too, should leave early. There are always compelling reasons to attend to life instead of write. It was as if my broken teeth had started a movement, panicked the herd.
But the absolute best gift came when they gathered, at 8:30pm, in the living room of Mason House where we met when we had our informal workshops, for the sole purpose of hearing me read my brand new prologue and first chapter.
What a gift! They applauded when I finished and then, in very specific writerly terms told me what they liked about the new work. Nothing beats that, for a writer to hear other writers she admires appreciate her writing. I realized how much it helped me during the residency to hear them read their own work, how I felt buoyed up by their talent and their energy. How that sent me back to the studio to make my stuff better.
I wonder how their re-entries home are going? I miss their writing, writing, writing throughout the building as I tried to do the same in my studio.
I’ve chopped off the Prologue from my first draft and chucked the beginning of the book. I’ve begun the first chapter in a new place in the narrative, rewriting it almost entirely. I’ve allowed a few paragraphs here or there to remain, but mostly, I’ve chipped them away. I think it’s starting to be a better book. I hope so.
I’m a little too mired to be sure. I’ve spent the last few days in a writing trance, trying to remember where bits of sentences or images were that I might already have carved and be able to use, trying to hear if when I read over the words I’ve written they sound pungent and tasty or merely banal.
It takes time to tell, but I don’t have time. I have only one full week left here in the luxury of this mania called a writer’s residency. I must forge on, plying my chisel to my old manuscript with, if not abandon, at least boldness.
Taking Time and Getting Into It Again
Don’t tell anyone, but I took the weekend off. Yes, all of Saturday and Sunday. My husband drove four hours to see me and we holed up in a B&B, walked all over Stowe, VT, through woods and shops and the Trapp Family Lodge. We ate dinner out and he brought me champagne and flowers and wheat-free cupcakes for Valentine’s Day. It was wonderfully romantic and I didn’t miss working on my book for a minute.
It was hard to leave him and come back. I allowed myself Sunday night off, though I was back on campus, as it were. Went to bed early and slept later than usual Monday morning. I drifted to my studio and wondered how to pick up the trail to the vision of the book I had so clearly in mind on Friday afternoon.
I finished noting on my wall what Parts II and III of the book should accomplish. I thought I was remembering it all, but who knew? I dutifully started to outline the chapters for Part I of the book, staring at my wall of scribbled pages, but I couldn’t get past Chapter 1.
I decided to just start writing Chapter 1 and see what happened, hoping that, with the themes held in my hand and my eyes fixed on the principal symbols, something would emerge.
I thought back to Mt Tripyramid, the hike that launched me on my quest for all 48 of the 4000 Footers. I downloaded Google Earth and studied the mountain’s contours, turning it east and west. I zoomed in and helicopter-ed out. I wasn’t sure if I was wasting time or finding my way to something.
Then I started to write what I felt and saw and remembered about that amazing mountain. I thought it was good. It was only a page and half, but I was proud. I took the pages to our informal writer’s workshop after dinner Monday night. Their response was encouraging. And they had good suggestions, too.
Tuesday floated by in a dream as I immersed myself.
At home, if I put in two solid hours writing, it’s a good day. If I manage to find four hours in which to work, it’s a damned fine day. When I first came here to the Vermont Studios Center, working 4-5 hours several days in a row exhausted me as much as if I’d been working in a quarry. I couldn’t do anything by 9:00 p.m. except read a book. Somebody else’s book.
But after my weekend off, or maybe because I’ve put in two weeks straight of 4-5 hour days, my writing muscles have grown stronger. I’ve done two 7-hour days in a row. I expected to do the same today, the third day, but I confess I wrote in my journal for awhile first to warm up—which I hadn’t bothered to do the prior two days—and I wasn’t sure where to dig in.
I was reluctant to read my new Chapter 1, the chapter I thought might be finished. Okay, I was afraid to read Chapter 1. If it wasn’t as good as I hoped, I didn’t want to know because I wasn’t sure what I could do instead.
I tried to go back to the outline. At least now I could fill in what should happen in the first chapter since I’d just written it, a kind of backwards approach, but, hey, any port in a storm. I tried to think my way forward into Chapter 2 but I couldn’t get past the fact that I needed to introduce a main character.
So I did something totally different. I did a free-write about this character, reminding myself what she was like, seeing what popped up out my unconscious when there wasn’t any pressure. I found myself writing parts of what will probably go in Chapter 2. Very sneaky.
Because time feels even more precious now, I’m not going to do laundry again. I’ve started turning the shirts and turtlenecks I’ve already worn once inside out and putting them back in the drawer. That way I can wear all the tops I brought before going back to the used ones. I’m sticking dirty socks in the laundry bag to air out in hopes I can get by with putting them on again next week.
It’s the underwear that may be my downfall. If you’ve got any tips, besides hand-washing in the sink, which takes too much time, please advise.
Right now I’m going to try forcing my rebellious self to tackle the chapter outline again.
I’m afraid I’m in that scene in the movie “Julia” where Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) asks Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards)to read her first play. He reads it and when she asks him what he thinks, he says, “Do you want really want to know what I think?” She says, “Yes, I really do.”
He tells her to throw it away and start all over again.
If I knew that was what I was going to have to do, I’d quit right now. Probably. I don’t know. I seem to be hooked. I’m still telling myself that some o f those 1100 pages I’ve already got can, please Goddess, find their way into the new, improved book.
When last heard from, I was cross-country skiing and trying to spy within the marble of my 1100-page manuscript, a book, the book that wanted to emerge from the block of white carrera pages.
I found it! My relief is enormous. I’ll need to change my current title to fit the new slant of the figure that’s almost ready to leap out of the manuscript and I’m certainly going to have to rewrite the beginning of the book to reflect the new focus.
Drafting on the energy of the great readings some of my colleagues here gave the night before, Friday morning I woke up early and wrote a bunch of pages, pounding away at the computer, thrilled to be creating, to be writing instead of reading, sifting, thinking.
Saturday I went snowshoeing with some artists and writer colleagues here.
We had a great time, seeing snow sculptures and some human-made sculptures, too.
Of course, I worked over the weekend, too. Alas, Monday morning when I read the pages, the dewy new beginning to my pristine new book that I so looked forward to crowing over, I realized they sucked. They just didn’t have enough soul or body and I had to chuck them.
But then yesterday morning—O fabulous day! —I dug out of myself two dense, compressed paragraphs that felt like they were right, so right I danced around my studio.
Then I got antsy. I couldn’t waste two days waiting to see if the pages stayed right, so I emailed my writers’ group pals and asked the poet laureate of New Hampshire in the studio next door for their critiques, feeling horribly vulnerable the while. As my friend Lyn says, “First chisel is the scariest.”
What if I had missed the vein? What about all that good marble I’d lay to waste? Had I gouged out too much or cut across the grain or was I liberating the soul that lay within?
Bless their hearts, everyone responded promptly. And bless my soul, they, too, thought I was on the track of art. I printed out their responses to guide and encourage me and pinned them to my bulletin board.
After celebrating my first cut, those two small paragraphs, it occurred to me I had to go on. But in which direction of the several I could see? Toward the head or toward the toe?
Blocking Out the Design
First I let myself just start writing, wherever the last word of those two precious paragraphs took me. Wrote a few pages. They were interesting, but I didn’t get the feeling the hipbone was connected to the thighbone, if you know what I mean. It was a little too random.
I needed an outline, a plan, a sketch of where I should go. Somehow when I set the high bar for my goals for this writer’s residency—to figure out what my book was about and write the first three chapters—it hadn’t occurred to me that before I could write those chapters I needed, now that I was on a second draft, an outline to show me where to keep carving into the material.
I started out with themes. What themes, what veins could I follow that showed up in these two paragraphs? I listed them. Okay, what was missing? I thought about that. Jotted down some ideas that might need to be hammered in. Or should they be cut?
I found myself asking questions and decided to write out what questions the material raised and what answers the sculptured book would give. That was interesting, but not enough.
What was the structure of the book to be? Should the first part ask the questions and the second part answer them? Should the book ask then answer in a kind of call/response pattern? Was that the structure?
Perhaps I should simply order things chronologically. Combine chronological order with call and response?
Or I could organize the book by the hikes within it. As I thought about that, I started doodling. Because there are six major hikes, I wrote them down, chronologically but grouped, and the figurative light bulb over my head started to sizzle.
I realized that the hikes organized themselves into three parts. I named the three. I dated them. I wrote down underneath each title the highlights of what happened in that section. I was very, very excited. Sweet marble chips lay all about the floor. It was time for dinner, then visiting the visual artists’ open studios, so I turned off the computer and closed my studio door.
The Book on the Wall
This morning I arrived fresh, showered and with a monster mug of green tea. Inspired by my visual artist colleagues from last night, I thought I’d let myself get a little looser, even on a subject like organization.
I did a free-write, just letting myself type on and on, for about half an hour, on the subject of What Is the Book About? Now that I thought I saw the figure within the marble yearning to breathe free, who was the figure? What was it saying? What did it want to do?
I wrote. At one point I found myself writing, “This is getting to be dreck. Maybe all of it is dreck.” Ouch! That certainly shut down the creative flow. I got going again by writing “There’s a cold harsh voice in here, the cold water of the critic. Who invited you? Nobody! Shut up. Go away. Nobody needs you yet.” And I kept on writing.
That was helpful. But suddenly, I needed to stand up, move around, pace. I wanted to write on the wall. I wanted a big canvas to put down things where I could see them, move them around if need be, encompass everything, the whole design at once.
The result is what you see in the picture. The top yellow page says, What Is the Book About? I conferred with my free write stuff and pulled out some words or phrases that felt meaningful, that the book needed to include. I wrote them down on the white page stapled below the yellow one. I attached the first two paragraphs of the book to the side of them.
Beneath those central, overarching pages is a row of three yellow sheets, one for each part of the book, with the names of the hikes which define them and, writ large, What Does This Part Do?
On the white page stapled to Part I, I listed the themes and developments that had to take place to form the base on which stood the rest of the book.
And that’s what I’ll do for Parts II and III. Tomorrow.
Hammer, hammer, hammer. Chisel, chisel, chisel.
I’m at Vermont Studios Center an artists’ residence, in Johnston, VT, for the month of February. This is the first writer’s residency I’ve done so I wasn’t sure what to expect, of the place or of myself.
It’s seriously wonderful.
Twice I’ve woken up early and done yoga postures in my room until it was time to put on the fuzzy orange gloves Patricia gave me (not to worry, my friend, apparently nothing, even me, can be hunted this season) and walk over to the Red Mill where kitchen genies make the 55 of us big bowls of steaming oatmeal or eggs with crispy maple flavored bacon.
Afterward I walk to my studio, my very own studio. I’m in the Maverick Building (you’ve got to love the name) that houses the 16 writers. The rest of the residents scatter to various buildings and sheds to paint, sculpt or otherwise make visual art.
Each morning I hang up my coat, plug in my computer, slide my hands into the soft fingerless gloves Ginger gave me and write in my journal to clear away the mental and emotional flotsam and jetsam. When I’m done, it’s time to step over to the small wing chair facing the window that overlooks the river blanketed in snow. I wrap myself in the shawl Jean gave me and heave the first volume of my manuscript onto my lap and begin the heavy lifting of the day: I read.
What I’m Doing Here
The first draft of my book is on the long side. It takes a trio of three-inch binders to hold it.
But that’s why I’m here. This manuscript is like a block of precious carrera marble filled with patterns, highlights, weak spots. Opportunities. How can I make use of the strengths of this material and cut away the chaff?
Like a sculptor, I must first study the marble. Know the marble. Read it. Love it. Get right up close to it, close enough to see what book lies within yearning to be carved out of the thousand pages and set free.
Since I’ve been working on this manuscript for several years, some of the material I read I don’t remember writing. I like the sense of discovery. I finally have enough distance, most of the time, to read the words almost as if I hadn’t written them.
I know it sounds like easy work. It’s exhausting. I keep track of recurring themes. Some of them I expected; some surprise me. I write comments in the margins of sections I like, circle awkward stuff; mark areas that might get cut no matter what book I wind up writing. I list questions the material poses and ideas that surface from it.
Sometimes I wander over to the bookshelf and take down the book on the Northeastern Forest, Changes in The Land, from Meg. Sometimes I jot down a concept in a notebook from Madeleine or Vivian. Sometimes I skim suggestions for revision gifted me by Lyn and Jean.
So far I can digest no more than one hundred pages of my manuscript a day so by the fourth day I’m still just studying the marble, the raw material from which I hope to craft a piece of art, a book.
Two Books So Far
Yesterday I saw a book, a book I didn’t know existed, a book with everything needed to make, I think, a moving, readable story. It rolled out before me like a highway, a complete, whole book. But there was a problem: it isn’t a book I want to write. I’m not ready to write that book, not yet, maybe not ever.
It distressed me to think that this might be the only book within the marble or, even worse, the best book. Years of work just to come down to a book I don’t want to write.
But today, like everyday this week, is a different day. This morning I slept late, ate breakfast fast and didn’t speak to anybody. I rushed off to my studio and dug in. Two hours later, I was jubilant. I saw another book, its outline sweet and whole, a book more like the book I wanted to write when I first sat down to write a book.
I was so happy I celebrated by going out after lunch to cross country ski in the woods. Another writer, Bill from Brooklyn, joined me.
After two days of constant snow, the stuff was so deep I often couldn’t see my ski tip when I broke trail.
The firs were iced in white. Sun, a rare event in the sky so far, broke through and lit up a small meadow we skied into.
Sometimes we had to ski through, or around, woodsy obstacles.
Though I know no one here, gifts from friends from home keep me company. As I iced my knee after skiing, I read Poets Thinking that Mary Lou gifted me to keep my mind sharp. Cards of encouragement are pinned to the bulletin board in my studio, including a picture of Georgia O’Keefe that came in the mail (real mail!) from Larry, the guy who’s at home walking the dog and shoveling the snow and doing everything else to keep our lives running while I’m not there doing my part.
As you see, I am not alone. My family and friends support me here, along with the good people of Vermont Studio Center, all giving something so that I may have the great luxury of focusing (most of the time) on my art. It humbles me.
Big Blue is packed, gassed up, tires pumped and ready to go. Me, too.
We leave Massachusetts and head north, way north, to the North East Kingdom, a.k.a., Vermont. I’m about to start a grand adventure: my first writer’s residency. The Vermont Studios Center offered me a grant to come stay for the month of February and write.
You’ve heard of dreams coming true. This is one of mine. I’ll have a studio of my own, a bedroom and shared bath. Kindly people will shop and cook and clean for me so all I have to do is concentrate on my art. It’s still hard to believe it’s for real.
Driving through New Hampshire, ice falls cling to cliffs where hills have been cut to make way for the highway. They burn icy blue in the grey light. The radio station I’m best able to receive changes as I drive from classical to jazz to country.
Once in Vermont, the mountains do look different. They seem smaller, more rounded. And something else. It takes me a while to realize that most of the trees on these mountains are deciduous, not evergreens like I’m used to in the Whites of New Hampshire.
Their thin naked trunks poke up from the snow-covered mounds like thinning hair on an elderly lady’s scalp. And the music has changed to folk.
I stop to photograph the hills and happen into a picture postcard view of a quintessential New England country town. It’s all marvelous.
In Montpelier, I break for lunch at a homey restaurant that a woman at the gas station recommended. I’d pulled in there to find out where the restaurant I’d chosen from the Internet was. Turns out her sister and brother-in-law owned it. But they closed up shop nearly two years ago, so she sent me on to the Wayside Restaurant, where I eat a quick lunch at the counter to avoid the line of waiting diners.
Less than an hour away now. What will it be like? Stay tuned.
Upcoming Writer’s Retreat
Last spring when Vermont Studios Center wrote to say they were awarding me a Writer’s Grant to come to Johnson, VT for a month-long writer’s retreat, I hopped around my kitchen yelling for joy like a rabbit who’d won the Carrot Sweepstakes. February, 2011, the month I would go, was far enough away to feel like a trip to Never-Never Land.
Now it’s only three weeks until I load up Big Blue (an aging but faithful mini-van left over from carpool days) for the trek North. Very far north, practically in Canada.
I hope Big Blue’s tires can handle the snow and ice. But I also hope there’s lots of snow so I can cross-country ski. After I’ve done my writing for the day, of course. Or at night, when the moon is full and I’d only be sleeping anyway.
Two days ago I created a packing list and ever since have been frantic. You might think this has something to do with the anxiety created by contemplating a whole month of doing nothing but writing, facing off, just me and my first draft. Heavens, no. Don’t be silly.
I intend to have my whole manuscript—all 1,057 pages—pasted into large artist’s sketch books, an idea offered by Allan Hunter, author and memoir professor extraordinaire, before I go. This creates a lot of white space around each page so one can write notes, additions, suggestions without feeling constrained. I think of the resulting pile of black-covered books as my block of Carrera marble, the raw material from which I shall carve out my first book.
It’s a great idea. I just have to make sure that I’ve got the most recent version of a chapter printed out to paste in and that, since I’ve gotten great feedback on sections of or whole chapters over the years from my writers’ groups, that those are collated and incorporated as well.
I admit I get a little hyper when I think of this seemingly endless and painstaking task. But if I don’t paste the pages into the black books, what’s my ordering system? A wheel barrel?
What I Hope to Accomplish
My goal for the retreat is to figure out what this first book is really about. You might have guessed, from the length of the first draft, that I’ve had conflicting ideas about this rather basic concept. In fact, I think there are three different books I could write from this truck-load of pages.
I’ve taken a break from writing since November 10 when I wrote the final sentence and gleefully typed at the bottom of the page, “THE END.” I’ve been hoping that I’d gain much-needed distance from the book so that my editing eyes, come February 1, will be fresh and laser-precise.
Picture all my fingers crossed.
If any of you out there have words of advice to offer, please comment below. Meantime, I’ll go back to dashing from task to task as if I were actually packing.
Light is the word here. I enjoy light reading. Not as a steady diet, but it’s refreshing in between heavier stuff. So here are some of my hitherto-secret vices. Enjoy, and let us all know what you think of any you read. Also add your own suggestions to the list!
I confess that poorly drawn or insignificant female characters infuriate me. You may guess from this that I like strong female leads and you may also have discovered, as have I, that it’s not so easy to find them. It’s a lot easier than 20 years ago, but still. Here are some authors and characters I’ve taken to.
Denise Mina. I really like this Scottish author who writes about Paddy Meehan, a smart, wise-mouthed reporter from a large Catholic family in Glasgow who struggles with her weight and with making it in a male-dominated field. The style is realistic, gritty and the books are filled with believable characters. I’ve read Garnet Hill, Field of Blood and Slip of the Knife and am forcing myself to slow down so the few remaining I can savor.
Janet Evanovich. There should be a separate category of “ultra-light” for these books in the numbered series that starts with One for the Money. A new one comes out each summer and, yes, my daughter and I have read them all. The first half-dozen or so are laugh-aloud funny, featuring Stephanie Plum, bail bondswoman from Jersey who has a former prostitute for a side kick, a gun-toting granny and a hilarious assortment of characters including cross-dressers, stoners and gangsters who mess up her life.
Batya Gur. Unfortunately, this wonderful Israeli author died too young so there won’t be any more of her thick books that always teach you a lot about something: the world of star cellists, life on a kibbutz, a psychiatric institute in Israel. The protagonist here is male, an intellectual head cop, with sexist other male cops, but even so the writing is so good I’ve read all her six books.
Laurie King. This author writes two series, one set in San Francisco, which I’ve read one or two of and don’t find strong or captivating, but I’m a big fan of the series about Mary Russell, the brilliant young religious scholar who eventually becomes Sherlock Holmes’ partner in all senses of the word. If you can, read them in order; the series starts with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all but one of these, The Game, which “jumped the shark.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s a film expression that means a film/show has leapt from the bounds of the credible and gone over the top.)
Jacqueline Winspear. Her series about Maisie Dobbs, a working class young woman who receives the gifts of education and apprenticeship that help her set up her own investigative agency to apply psychological insight to the task of solving insolvable cases. It takes place just after World War I in England, a tough time indeed. It’s hard to put my finger on why I like these books. They don’t have much action and the pace is always slow. The atmosphere is very British and there’s something ultimately calming about them and also rewarding because Maisie works hard, never forgets her roots or her obligations, fights her own internal demons and wins. It’s good to read these in order, too. The first is Maisie Dobbs.
I’ve been reading science fiction on and off for decades. I like all kinds and varieties but particularly futuristic ones where someone has imagined a different world and different ways for women, or female beings not necessarily human, to be in that world.
Having read hundreds of authors in the field, allow me to share with you my favorite science fiction author of all time: C. J. Cherryh. She’s written over 60 novels (yes, 60!) and won three Hugo awards. By all rights, she should have won at least a dozen more Hugos and numerous other awards, but she began writing in the 1970s when publishers (mostly male) believed sci-fi readers (mostly male) wouldn’t read a woman author (hence her use of initials) and didn’t give enough credit to her genius. Even now she doesn’t get her just due.
The woman is brilliant. She’s written in every genre of science fiction there is and creates entire universes with different series in different sectors of them. I mean, really. No other author has been so bold, so imaginative with so large a vision.
If you like advanced technological worlds, read her Cyteen series that deals with cloning and regeneration and all the complications of economics and government and morals. If you like space-faring wild cat-type people where all the ship captains and crew are female and the men stay home with the children, read the Chanur novels.
Should you prefer long ago worlds where people rode horses and there were brave, lonely mercenaries try The Morgaine Cycle books where such a mercenary (male) follows the mysterious and tormented Morgaine through gates to different worlds on a quest to save everyone.
For different species, check out The Faded Sun novels for a desert planet and people who have become homeless. They must figure out how to deal with a human male who shows up in their midst and he must learn their ways.
Carolyn Cherryh can write anything, and indeed has done fantasy as well, with the saga of Jones, a smart, tough river-boating woman who saves an upper class guy from drowning and creates an uneasy alliance with him, filled with intrigue. This series is called Merovingen Nights. I want to adopt Jones. Or have her adopt me.
Anyway, this list doesn’t cover all the worlds and species and economies and governing structures C.J. Cherryh has created, but there are more on her website.
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When you leave a post here, I’ll email you back with my very favorite science fiction novel, one of the few books of any kind I’ve ever read more than twice, because this book has it all. If you’re only going to read one piece of science fiction in your life, this is the one!
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I recently started a book—I won’t tell you yet which one—chosen by a book group. The work was non-fiction, a history/biography kind of book and it was fat with small print. Generally, I prefer fiction, so I came to this tome with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But as I read the introduction, the author made me believe I was in such capable hands that I continued on to Chapter 1, no longer dutiful but eager.
What I want to discuss is: how did she do that? As a writer, I want to do it, too. I want my readers to settle back, kick off their suspicions and wariness like old shoes, let go their outer world and travel off with me into the written world.
To put it briefly, I liked the writing. After a dozen pages, of it, I’d been delighted by its clarity—despite its complexity—and surprised, too, by nice turn of phrases. Here’s a sentence in the Preface that pleased me:
We must, and will, pay attention to them,
but they were only part of a much larger family story.
It was the “and will” that made me smile, especially after such a strong verb as “must.” Not only did the sentence sound strong, it sounded like a promise: we will do what is needful in this book; we will do what is right. I felt as if I could hear the author’s voice in my ear, a voice I began to trust with that one felicitous sentence.
Another sentence appealed to me, this one in the Introduction:
The numbers told a story, but in the detached
and steely way that numbers tend to do.
The phrase “detached and steely” caught my fancy. I stopped for a fraction of a moment to run the word “steely” over my tongue and to picture steely blue-silver numbers.
Frankly, this is the kind of word-tasting I hope readers of my own book will one day do.
Voice and Style
I’m not sure I can separate the choice of words and the sentence structure from the “voice,” nor am I sure that the former aren’t part of the latter. What I can say is that the writing, via the sentence about numbers, spoke directly to me the reader and I listened.
Despite the fact that my two samples are relatively short and straightforward, the sentences throughout the Preface and Introduction varied in length and structural complexity, forming a rhythm that was neither too staccato (too many short sentences together) nor too legato (too many lengthy sentences with clauses and sub-clauses.)
Furthermore, she mixed ideas that were relatively obvious with some that required thought on my part. I stopped to consider several times as I read along: did I agree with her? Had she omitted a piece of the analytical puzzle? None of the thinking was terribly heavy lifting, but my mind was engaged. And where the mind goes, so goes the reader.
Okay, I (subconsciously) said to myself. This author knows what she’s doing; she knows how to write. Good. I’ll keep reading.
Some historical treatises sound academic, even preachy or, worse yet, full of themselves and how brilliant they are for knowing all the facts they know.
Not so this book. Right away, in the Preface, the author tells us that as she finally holds in her hands the original 18th century source document whose passages she already knows by heart, she is, nonetheless, “completely overwhelmed. For a time I simply could not continue.”
Her words made me imagine her in a library chair, little old book in hand, maybe crying, utterly still. I related to her on a human level. This was an author with emotions. Showing her emotion to me made me trust her more, since I, along with every other reader, know that authors who pretend to have no feelings about what they write are frauds.
On the same page she talks about reading this source material that documents which slaves got food or clothing and how much of each and how she thought of the man writing and making these decisions: “Just who do you think you are?”
That was another place I stopped to ponder, this time about the author herself. As an African-American woman, how much more deeply might she feel this sense of outrage than I, a white woman, on reading the same passage. I thought about how hard it might have been for her, emotionally, to do the research this book required and how she must have labored to bring all her work to light. And how important she had to think it was to do so.
By this point in the book, still subconsciously, I’m fully on the author’s side. She has become a sympathetic figure to me. She’s working hard at something that can’t be easy for her because she thinks it’s important work to do. She’s got a personal stake in this book, it means something to her, all of which brings me to invest myself in the book, too.
The book explores the lives of a family of African slaves brought to America and, as I’ve said, it’s written by a black woman. Without even realizing it, I’m a little hesitant. I expect to hear a lot about white supremacy in a righteously angry voice and I expect to feel both an outsider, one of them, and guilty as charged.
The author disarms me in the Introduction by acknowledging that more is known about one family of slaves than “the vast majority of freeborn white Virginians of the time,” simply because this family was related to a famous white man. Huh.
Later on, she discusses how white folks of the time tended to believe that slaves with some white blood (as if blood came in different colors) were more worthy of help because they were “naturally” smarter and looked more like white people. “That is one way prejudice works,” the author writes and another part of my inner tension lets go. This author doesn’t take the opportunity to grind an axe. No matter what she may feel upon occasion, when she sets her final words on the page, they are balanced, educational in tone and fair-minded.
On the first page of Chapter 1, she demonstrates again that she takes a wide view of history by including the effects of sexism upon her female characters:
Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them.
I am, by now, completely at ease. She has avoided a trap that I see so many fall into these days—setting racism and sexism in opposition to each other, as if they do not spring from the same source, patriarchal attitudes in which white men reside at the top of the cultural pyramid.
This is an author, I decide, who is knowledgeable, diligent, and fair. This is an author I can learn from, whom I trust to tell me the truth as she’s discovered it. And that, dear readers, is how she caught me in her capable hands and took me away on her private flight of writing.
Can you and I do the same? With some of Annette Gordon Reed’s tools in mind as they appear in her National Book Award winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello , I surely hope we will.