Jane Austen

A Ramble: The Elements of Writerly Talent and Improvement

"A writer needs three things:  experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently:  How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. 

First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:

Imagination:  The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth:  a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful:  Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. 

Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.

Dramatic Skill:  The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people:  Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. 

Writing Craft:  The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. 

All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:

Unconscious Reading:  Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. 

Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:

Practice:  So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it:  "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins:  You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.

Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:

Conscious Reading:  Separate from the Unconscious Reading above:  This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.

Cultivating a Process:  Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.

Choosing the Right Material:  In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge:  She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. 

So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) 

Cultivating a Purpose:  Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) 

Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.

If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:

Perseverance:  Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. 

Writers, readers, reviewers:  Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer? 

Narrative Breakdowns, Muggles Editing, Getting a Job, Overseas Travel, and Lovely Links

About a year and a half ago ago, my fiance, James Monohan, who is a video editor and director, decided that he wanted to start a podcast to talk about story questions, and thus The Narrative Breakdown was born. (I cannot even type those words without hearing "Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh The Narrative Breakdown" in James's voice, as that is a rough approximation of our theme song, which both cracks me up and makes me do a little groove. It is well worth the listen.) We only recorded three trial episodes last year before our schedules got in the way, but we are back this week with a discussion of Beginnings & Inciting Incidents, pivoting off my blog post on the subject last Saturday. James goes on to chat in Part II with our friend Jack Tomas, screenwriter and proud ubernerd, who discusses the concept of Inciting Incidents as it applies to many of pop culture's biggest properties and this summer's hit movies. We hope to be doing these much more regularly going forward. Do please check the podcast out, subscribe on iTunes, give us a rating if you like it, and enjoy!

And that is not the only podcast I'm on this week! Keith Hawk and John Granger of Mugglecast Academia kindly had me on their show to talk about being an editor, particularly my role as the continuity editor on Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. It was a fun conversation that includes some reflections on the HP series and some advice on getting a job in publishing (which I also know I still need to write about here).

Did I ever mention this blog post on the CBC Diversity website about how I got into publishing? It's probably the best account of my own story I've ever written up -- though I just noticed I did exclude the detail that Arthur thought I was a pothead during our interview, thanks to my red eyes (I was wearing my contacts). He was very kind to have faith in me and let me write reader's reports anyway.

For those of you who wonder why editors don't take unsolicited submissions:  As of 8 a.m. this morning, four days after my query-open period began, I have 238 new queries in my inbox. Clearly this is a more concentrated dose than usual or than would happen if I were open all the time. But goodness. If you did not receive a confirmation e-mail (and ONLY if you did not receive a confirmation e-mail, as apparently most people did within 24 hours), you may resend your submission, using the exact same subject line as on your original submission, to CBKedit at gmail dot com, and then e-mail me separately at chavela_que at yahoo dot com with just your name and title. I will reply next week via Yahoo and confirm that those manuscripts got through.

(I have to admit, I am getting VERY testy with people who are not obeying the query instructions -- sending manuscripts to my other addresses, putting elements out of order. They are the world's most straightforward submissions directions, and they are not hard, so it does not make a great first impression if you're not paying attention and obeying them. And if you HAVE messed them up, don't send the ms. again to make up for it. Just go forth and sin no more.)

If you would like a guaranteed way to be able to submit to me in future, I am very happy to announce I'll be at SCBWI Hawaii on February 22 and 23, 2013! I'll be offering both my Plot Master Class to a small group on the Friday and participating in the general conference on the Saturday (with Lin Oliver, who's always fabulous). While a full schedule/registration will be online in November, anyone who's interested now can e-mail the RA, Lynne Wikoff, at lwikoff at lava dot net to get instructions for the Master Class and get on a mailing list for future info.

In other travel news, I'm going to be in Singapore for five days and Thailand for eight later this fall -- my first-ever trip across the Pacific, and I am very excited. If you have recommendations for things to do or see or ways to avoid jet lag, they'd be much appreciated.

Loose links:

A Quick Ramble: The Power of Young Adult Reading

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. -- John Rogers
I saw this quote in the comments on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog this morning (in a post on Ron Paul, for context), and wanted to throw it up here to save because it ties to one of my pet theories:  that the book you fall in love with between the ages of twelve and fourteen has a defining effect on the entire rest of your life. For me it was Pride and Prejudice, and I've written before about where that's gotten me now. (The quote above is very male, I have to observe. And I bet a lot of people in their twenties now would say simply "Harry Potter.") Did you all have a book like this when you were a young teenager? What was it, and how has it played out in your life since?

I also went through an Ayn Rand phase, actually, where I loved Anthem and The Fountainhead, though I never quite got around to Atlas Shrugged. I never believed in the books' economic or cultural theories, partly because I spent nearly every Sunday morning of the prior sixteen years in church, and Jesus's words about loving your neighbor were planted far deeper in my consciousness than Ms. Rand's screeds against it. (I read The Fountainhead on a youth-group mission trip, which is probably the single most ironic place possible to read an Ayn Rand novel.) But her ideas about identity and self-knowledge and self-reliance had a major effect on me -- for instance, that "To say 'I love you,' one must first be able to say the 'I'":  that concept that it was important to have your own strong, whole sense of self before you could truly commit that self to another person. And also the idea of work as a basis for and expression of identity . . . Both of these things spoke powerfully to my burgeoning feminist intellectual self. I have no use for most of the rest of what she's written, and I'd doubtless sniff at the prose style today (and I remember thinking, "Goodness, these speeches go on for a while" and skimming when I was sixteen), but I'm grateful to her still for in part making me who I am.

And we do teenagers too little credit sometimes, I think, in worrying that they can't filter ideology from real life as I did. But probably this depends on the teenager. And I can't explore that idea in more depth now because I am, in fact, running late for my lovely, liberal, love-your-neighbor church . . . Which shows you truly which idea won out.

If You Like It, Then There's Only One Thing You Should Do.

So last Saturday morning, James and I decided to go for a run around Prospect Park, as we often do on weekends. We got dressed in our running clothes, and I noticed he was wearing a jacket over his long-sleeved shirt and exercise pants. "Aren't you going to be hot in that?" I asked, since it was sunny and the temperature was in the fifties.

"I can just tie it around my waist," he said.

I shrugged, and we locked up the apartment and set out for the park. We stretched on the plaza just behind the farmers' market, then ran along the north side of the park with our respective iPods. (That day I was listening to the greatest hits of Bruce Springsteen: "Badlands," "Thunder Road," "Hungry Heart.") I was still transitioning back to running outside after the winter's treadmills, so I was determined to complete a whole loop without stopping to walk.

One of my very favorite places on Earth

As we ran down the west side hill, James said, "You know, I think we should take this cross-country route my brother showed me." I said sure, and we turned left on the road that cut east through the park above the lake. As we approached the first bend, he said, "Let's go up this hill."

I said, "No, I want to do the whole loop."

He said, "You really should see the view from the top."

I said, "No, I've seen it before, come on."

He said, "It's a shortcut, just trust me on this." (Which I didn't, because I've been running around the park for at least as long as he has, and I knew that running up Lookout Hill was no shortcut.)

But we went up the hill, with me grumbling at climbing the stairs. ("It's good for our glutes!" James said.) The path switchbacked to the west, and I said, "You do realize that we're going backwards now, right? Not the direction we want to be going?" He just nodded and encouraged me to keep running. We went over a terrace and ended up at the circle on top of Lookout Hill, the highest point in the park. I figured we'd go round the circle and run back down to continue the loop.

But as we started around to the left, a man in Victorian dress and spectacles hailed me: "Hello, fair lady!" Cheerful greetings from people in eccentric costumes are not that unusual in New York, so I figured he was some kind of actor doing street theatre in the park, and stopped to hear what he had to say. James slowed down alongside me. The man in costume pulled out a scroll and read from it: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of . . . more fortune!" And he went on to deliver a speech liberally laced with Jane Austen quotes, all demonstrating his avarice. He ended by suggesting that we speak to his friend a little farther on, "Though I warn you--the stupidity with which he was favored by nature guards his courtship from any charms."

I felt both delighted and deeply confused by this turn of events, so I looked at James and said, "Do you know anything about this?" It was his turn to shrug. The next man, in similar costume and with a similar scroll, offered a similar speech, including "In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love -- myself."

About midway through this fine peroration on his own charms, my brain started thinking, This has to be what I think it is. Is it? Oh my, is it really? This gentleman concluded by looking around for an additional list of his good qualities. James held up a scroll of his own and said, "Is this it?" The man examined it and said, "No, I think you should read this one."

And James did, quite nervously and sweetly. I won't share everything he said, but he got down on one knee (as mandated by my favorite movie), and he also invoked one of my favorite descriptions of marriage of all time, from John Stuart Mill's On the Subjection of Women, in saying that he hoped it's what we might have as well:
On the contrary, when each of the two persons, instead of being a nothing, is a something; when they are attached to one another, and are not too much unlike to begin with; the constant partaking in the same things, assisted by their sympathy, draws out the latent capacities of each for being interested in the things which were at first interesting only to the other; and works a gradual assimilation of the tastes and characters to one another, partly by the insensible modification of each, but more by a real enriching of the two natures, each acquiring the tastes and capacities of the other in addition to its own . . . When the two persons both care for great objects, and are a help and encouragement to each other in whatever regards these, the minor matters on which their tastes may differ are not all-important to them; and there is a foundation for solid friendship, of an enduring character, more likely than anything else to make it, through the whole of life, a greater pleasure to each to give pleasure to the other, than to receive it. . . . What marriage may be in the case of two persons of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and purposes, between whom there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities with reciprocal superiority in them -- so that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and being led in the path of development -- I will not attempt to describe.
And with such a prospect before me, dear reader, I said yes!

James gave me his late mother's engagement/wedding ring, which was just my size; and the last week has been a flurry of informing friends and family, accepting congratulations, and starting conversations about dates and locations for the grand party we hope to throw for those same friends and family. (I'm from the Midwest, he's from the Bay Area, and we live in New York, so we have the entire United States open to us.) The two gentlemen in costume were friends of James's, unknown to me; James wrote the scripts with all the Jane Austen references to please me, featuring characters with defects (greed and vanity) that would highlight his own suit in turn--"classic literary foils," he says. He rented the costumes for them from a shop in Midtown.

Mr. Avarice and Mr. Vanity

And James had to wear the jacket because it carried both his proposal and the ring! (I've forgiven him for making me run up the hill.)

My Weasley and me

Thank you for your good wishes, all!


(Should you be one of those poor souls who has not read Austen's major novels, beware spoilers below.)

When I first heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was immensely excited, not least because of passages like these:
"Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor." -- Frederic and Elfrida

"With a heart elated by the expected happiness of beholding him, I entered [the forest], & had proceeded thus far in my progress thro' it, when I found myself suddenly seized by the leg & on examining the cause of it, found that I was caught in one of the steel traps so common in gentlemen's grounds. . . . I screamed, as you may easily imagine, till the woods resounded again & till one of the inhuman Wretch's servants came to my assistance & released me from my dreadfull prison, but not before one of my legs was entirely broken."
At this melancholy recital . . . Alice could not help exclaiming, "Oh! cruel Charles, to wound the hearts & legs of all the fair." -- Jack and Alice

"MADAM: An humble Admirer now addresses you -- I saw you, lovely Fair one, as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, & was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food." -- Amelia Webster
As you may have guessed, these are excerpts not of P&P&Z itself, but of Jane Austen's own juvenilia, drawn from the splendid e-texts here. And they perfectly demonstrate why I think Ms. Austen might have enjoyed the concept of P&P&Z: She knew that frightful beings plus random, goofy violence plus absurdist humor plus well-chosen details (e.g. the "human" in "human food") usually equals a good time. (For instance, she would have loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) So when I finally got my copy of P&P&Z at the beginning of May, I settled down to read it with great expectation of pleasure.

Alas, dear reader! I found that Mr. Seth Grahame-Smith, who undertook the addition of the undead to Ms. Austen's work, also decided to edit the original text in ways that had nothing to do with zombies or their defeat. True, he made Elizabeth and her sisters trained Shaolin warriors, which was hilarious (especially in Lizzy's closing duel with Lady Catherine), and Charlotte Lucas explains her marriage to Mr. Collins by admitting that she has been infected with the "strange plague" and wishes to keep her family safe -- in some ways a better justification than the original. And the line "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" is just delightful.

But Mr. Grahame-Smith's editorial work often goes awry. He flattens out subtle emotional and character behavior, describing Elizabeth as rolling her eyes at Mary at one point, and turning Mr. Collins explicitly fat (apparently to make him funnier). He introduces totally unnecessary sexual references and crudity: Mrs. Gardiner has a Polish lover in Lambton, and I counted three jokes about "balls," at least two made by characters who were supposed to be models of propriety. There is a lot of vomit and "soiling" and pus and blood and guts even in scenes that had nothing to do with undead rampages (Mrs. Bennet projectile vomits often, and Elizabeth at one point refers to emptying "piss-pots," which the real Elizabeth would never have said loud). I understand I'm approaching this book from an Austenian rather than a zombie-lover's point of view, and that Mr. Grahame-Smith may have regarded the changes as necessary to make the comedy comprehensible and amusing to the zombie lovers. (Is there a lot of soiling in zombie stories? Ew.) But to my eye, rather than heightening the humor of both the genteel social comedy and the violent zombie mayhem through straightforward contrast of the two, Mr. Grahame-Smith simply undercut the characters and social comedy with changes that demonstrated little understanding or appreciation of Ms. Austen and her world.

The book also was sloppily edited and barely copyedited. . . . I normally extend other editors charity when I find typos, because none of us are perfect, but the editor of this one should have noticed that "Kilkenny" on one page became "Kilkerry" on another, never mind standardizing "Bennet" with one T. The illustrations show the ladies in Edwardian rather than Regency dress. And the switch of Colonel Fitzwilliam for Mr. Collins in one particular scene of the novel was frankly stupid and out-of-character for the Colonel, and could have been easily avoided by any editor (or adapter) who had half a brain. (Perhaps theirs were eaten by zombies.) Given all these unfortunate changes, I'm afraid I soon came to find the project tedious; and while I greatly looked forward to beginning this book, I also greatly looked forward to the end of it. Or as Samuel Johnson is said to have said, "The manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Finally, if you're an Austen fan interested in horror, check out this cover of a 1950s reissue of Northanger Abbey -- both excellent deceptive packaging, and a classic case of not getting the joke. And if someone would like to hire me to turn Sense and Sensibility into a vampire novel (with Willoughby and Lucy Steele as the undead who bleed the sisters Dashwood dry), or Emma into a werewolf book (with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as a secretly mated pair) -- like Mr. Bennet after his daughters are engaged, "I am quite at leisure."

HP, Jane Austen, Twilight, Recipes, LOST, Movie Pitches, Baseball, Cassons, Words, and Old Ladies/Politics.

In other words, everything ever in the history of the world! AND the results of the great Socks vs. Underwear debate.
  • I had the great pleasure of being a guest on PotterCast this week for a live discussion of The Tales of Beedle the Bard at Books of Wonder. You can listen to the audio here. Thanks as always to the PotterCasters for having me on the show!
  • During the discussion, I start to articulate a theory of what I think might be a personality test based upon which tale you like the best. "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot": You are cheerful and enjoy seeing justice done. "The Fountain of Fair Fortune": You're something of a romantic and probably supported Barack Obama (since we are the change we've been waiting for). "The Warlock's Hairy Heart": You have an unexpected Gothic streak. "Babbitty Rabbitty": You also enjoy seeing justice done, but by rabbits. "The Three Brothers": You like contemplating the big questions of life. (This is only the start of a theory, mind you . . .)
  • A must-read if you're an Austen lover and/or Facebook member: AustenBook. (Thanks to Christina and Suzi for posting this on FB in the first place.)
  • A very smart review of Twilight from the British newspaper The Guardian. I'm trying to read the novel this month (after not being captured by it back when it first came out), and so far this review seems spot-on. Do people who genuinely love the book and think it's good (as opposed to the legions who know it's bad but read it anyway) actually find Bella and Edward interesting as people? Hmm. (via child_lit)
  • If you're having a holiday party, I highly recommend both this Hot Spiked Cider and the Caroling Wine.
  • LOST fans, the videos posted beneath the comic here are hilarious, and for you.
  • A list of Endangered Words (via Judith Ridge on child_lit). The voting on this is now closed, but the words are excellent: embrangle, nitid, skirr, fubsy . . .
  • A seven-year-old plots Jurassic Park IV -- this time with Nazis!
  • A fascinating essay about George Steinbrenner by my favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski.
  • If you love the Casson books by Hilary McKay -- Rose has a blog! (via GraceAnne DeCandido on child_lit, which is where I evidently get everything)
  • But this one is via Andrew Sullivan: Two old ladies, best friends for sixty years, blog about politics, Sarah Palin, family Christmas letters, and breastfeeding. Meet Margaret and Helen.
  • Finally, I am very pleased to see that Underwear trumped Socks for both women and men in our highly scientific poll. Thank you for confirming my faith in humanity.

Perpetual Plot Problems?

(The subhead here should be: Perceive! A Non-Political Post!)

In a little less than a month, I'm going to be appearing at the Illinois SCBWI's Prairie Writer's Day, with the esteemed Martha Mihalick of Greenwillow, Caroline Meckler of Wendy Lamb/Random, and the agent Michelle Andelman. Each one of us will be speaking on a different aspect of the writers' craft, and I drew the Plot straw.

Well. On the one hand, I am thrilled by this, because if there's one aspect of craft I've thought and written a lot about, it's Plot, and so I don't have to go through the agonies (or enjoy the discoveries) that I would with Voice (the one major aspect of writing I've never done a talk on). In other words: Yay for getting to be lazy! On the other hand, there's a good chance that some of the people at the conference will have read that link or my other musings on plot, and I don't want to bore them. (Hello, people I will meet in future!)

So I ask you people who have read my plot talks: What questions do you still have about plot? What do you struggle with in your own plots? What are those talks lacking? Where should I go from here on this subject? Your advice would be very much appreciated.

One thing I am already thinking about: the narrative weight of individual events in a plot, which often comes down to two terms my authors will be familiar with: narration vs. dramatization. Narration is "Lisa and Alexandra had a fight." Dramatization is "Lisa punched Alexandra, who staggered backwards into a tall stack of boxes, which dominoed to the ground behind her. Alexandra got her feet back underneath her and barreled toward Lisa . . ." etc., etc. All of the major events of a plot -- the Inciting Incident, the events that heighten a Conflict, the discovery of the clues to the Mystery, the introduction of people/things and the incidents with those people/things that slowly fulfill a Lack*, the Climax -- should be dramatized, not narrated; and those events must involve your protagonist acting, not other people. (That is, your protagonist should be the one discovering the Clues and so forth.) But I do not know that I have a great deal more to say on it than that.**

* I invented the Lack plot category because I was testing my plot theories against each of Jane Austen's novels, and Persuasion didn't fit into either the Conflict or Mystery mold. And Persuasion is a perfect example of dramatization vs. narration: Anne's first re-encounter with Captain Wentworth is fully dramatized, and each major incident that shows him slowly reconsidering her or warming toward her likewise, interspersed with narration like "From this time Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were repeatedly in the same circle. . . . [And] this was but the beginning of other dinings and other meetings." And it's because we see all those important events so fully (dramatization), still with a sense of the life continuing around them (narration), that Persuasion is so satisfying. Glory, I want to reread it now . . .

** Clearly, I am a liar.

Blogiversary Grab Bag (with Lots of Announcements, Invitations, and WOO-HOOs!)

  • The New York Giants! WOO-HOO!
  • The Light of the World just picked up its third starred review, this one from Publishers Weekly. Also WOO-HOO!
  • And A Curse Dark as Gold got a marvelous review from Bookshelves of Doom recently, following another lovely review from Teensreadtoo. There will be lots more on this book coming in the next month or so.
  • (And anyone who wants to buy me the "Wimsey & Vane 4eva" shirt from BoD is more than welcome to be so generous.)
  • The very funny Men of Jane Austen personal ads. I feel insulted on behalf of my dear Mr. Knightley -- he's behind Edmund Bertram, ugh. (Thanks to Jimmy for the link.)
  • A cool little thing for teachers and parents: The Scholastic Teacher Book Wizard, to help you find the right books at the right reading level for your students and kids.
  • I'm obsessed with politics right now, and loving Andrew Sullivan's blog on the Atlantic thanks to that. (He offers really cool non-political links too.)
  • And Barack! WOO-HOO! I went to an Obama march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, and it was energizing and inspiring and so exciting to be out with other people who were equally fired up about the possibilities this candidate offers. I have never been involved in a political campaign this early before; I have never cared as much about one specific candidate as I do right now. And a great deal of that comes from the movement gathering around Barack, the sense that I personally can help make a difference today. At church recently, our excellent pastor pointed out that for all the candidates' talk about change, change only happens when there is a true people's movement behind it, as Martin Luther King Jr. and all his supporters created, as women did for decades leading up to the 19th Amendment and then again in the 1960s and 1970s. Our issues are more complicated today, the injustices less clear-cut, but Barack makes me want to take to the streets and help in whatever way I can, and that's why (or rather yet another reason why) I'm going to vote for him.
  • If you're undecided as to the Democratic candidates, I encourage you to read this fair-minded New Yorker article from a couple weeks ago, laying forth the two very different ideas of the presidency put forth by the two candidates. They're both good people, and I'll vote for either one in November; but Hillary, as a Clinton, carries so much partisan baggage both within and without -- the "vast right-wing conspiracy" both real and imagined -- that she cannot help but to perpetuate this partisan conflict as president. (And that's if she can defeat McCain, which I doubt, because he's more likely to attract the independent vote and anyone who worries about all the Bill complications.) Barack offers a different and, to my eye, more empowering and attractive vision of a presidency for everyone, and working with everyone -- the United and not the Democratic States of America.
  • Again, end of lecture.
  • Besides my political obsession, I'm also drowning in work right now, with the typeset pages of Fall 2008 books circulating, line-editing to do on Spring 2009 books, and concept editing on Summer 2009 and beyond -- not to mention acquisitions pending, Sales Conference coming up, and Spring and Summer 2008 publicity to help coordinate. Thus I'm a little behind on my SQUIDs, but I hope to get them all out by Presidents' Day.
  • An eBay question: How does one set a high bid and not have it show up in the bidding? I'm trying to purchase some lots of Georgette Heyer Regency romances -- my favorite dessert reading of the moment -- but often I'll put in a bid (say, $10.54) above the current stated high bid (say, $9.27), only to be told I've been outbid on that item, with no record of what this high bid actually is. Could someone explain to me how this happens?
  • Mark your calendars: The Park Slope United Methodist Church book sale will be Saturday, February 23, and the afternoon of Sunday, February 24. If you'd like to donate books, you can do that on Monday the 18th or the evenings of the 21st and 22nd. This is an awesome event for either donating books or picking up new ones -- I hope you all will come!
  • And if you're a Carleton College alum living in New York, don't forget the Nationwide Trivia event this coming Saturday, 3 p.m. at Mad River Bar & Grill on the Upper East Side. New York has a title to defend!
  • If you're coming to New York for the national SCBWI conference, you may be interested in this list of my favorite NYC things to do from last year (plus lots of great suggestions from other people). I'll be at the cocktail party Friday night and Betsy's drink night after.
  • And if you feel a desire to attend religious services Sunday morning, you're also welcome to come to my wonderful, unusual church, Park Slope United Methodist in Brooklyn. You take the F train to 7th Ave. in Brooklyn, then walk downhill to 6th Ave., turn right, and the church is at the corner of 6th Ave. & 8th St. Sunday services are at 11 a.m. (This invitation is also always open to any interested New Yorkers.)
  • Upcoming on the blog: A joint review of The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer and Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson (hint: one has a much higher body count); a response to Jon's request for thoughts on the editor/author relationship; writing notes from Kindling Words; some great recipes; my mindfulness resolutions; more behind-the-book stuff; a whole new set of poems in April; and doubtless much goofiness.
  • Today, February 4, is the third anniversary of the reconstitution of this blog, and what a fun three years it's been. Thanks to you all for reading!

A Jane Austen Reading Calendar

Yesterday my mom called me to ask which Jane Austen novel her book club should read for October. This juxtaposition of author and month inspired me to try to match each of the six Jane Austen novels with the best time of year to read them, so I'm taking a brief break from working on my sermon (latest theme: "I Have No Idea What I'm Talking About, But God Loves Me Anyway") to post this here.

N.B.: If you're interested in Austen as a writer rather than as an author -- how she developed her style, her skills, her subject matter and themes -- the best way to read her is chronologically: the juvenilia, NA, S&S, P&P, MP, Emma, and Persuasion. (This is how I read her complete works for my Austen class in college, and it was amazingly instructive.) But if you're rereading, or just reading for pleasure, you might try the calendar below.

January-February: Northanger Abbey. The first of Austen's novels chronologically, NA is all about the pleasures of fiction -- reading it, imagining yourself into it, escaping to and from it -- so it's perfect for winter, when you want to insulate yourself against the dark and cold with hot chocolate and a hilarious book.

March-April: Mansfield Park. This most divisive and least read of Austen's novels is about purity and rebirth: holding fast to your principles in the face of temptation, and the moral rights and regeneration earned through that principled stand. If worst comes to worst and you loathe Fanny Price, you will have the pleasures of spring to help you through it.

May-June: Emma, so you can eat fresh strawberries while you read the Box Hill scene. (Mom's book group eventually settled on this one.)

July-August: Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen chick lit, the novel most likely to have hot pink type and a brooding hottie on the cover . . . because it is great fun, "light and bright and sparkling," as the author herself said. Read it by the pool with a fruity drink.

September-October: Sense and Sensibility. There is a sharp and at times almost bitter tang to S&S: For long stretches of the book, nearly everything that can go wrong for these girls does, and every person who can be cruel to one or the other (intentionally or not) is, and they are so alone and so poor against the forces of their society . . . You can feel the autumn wind blow through its pages. But S&S is also about maturation: coming to flower, learning and accepting your limits, and letting go towards peace.

November-December: Persuasion. The last of Austen's novels chronologically is also the most suffused with feeling -- with tiny moments that make all the difference -- as gentle Anne Elliot, locked in emotional winter, receives a second chance to bloom. A book to warm you in the cold.

Saturday Work Liveblog

I am here at work on an overcast Saturday, trying to clean off my desk, and to keep things interesting, I'm going to liveblog every couple of hours (trying very hard not to have the blogging eat up my work time). Rachel's here too, and she just brought in cupcakes from Dean & Deluca as a reward to both of us for our virtue.

Some men are installing carpet down the hall and listening to -- Eminem, I think. There's an R&B song on the Top 40 charts with the chorus, "You've got an icebox where your heart used to be, an icebox where your heart used to be," and then a man with a bass voice growls, "So cold, so cold, so cold. . . . So cold, so cold, so cold." It never fails to crack me up. I especially love the use of the old-fashioned word "icebox" -- "refrigerator" just had too many syllables, I guess.

Also on a musical note: On the way home from work last night, I saw a man in the subway station singing a song called "Suicide Is Painless" on a ukelele.

I have been thinking about children's literature this week, even if I haven't posted here. . . . I said this on child_lit in relation to a discussion about whether Tamora Pierce was great or good:

"I draw the distinction between great and good based on a work's depth -- the emotional and thematic/philosophical levels it strives for and succeeds in reaching. Tamora Pierce and Eoin Colfer are entertaining and good; Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) -- and therefore great.

"Or to cite another genre: I am on a mad Georgette Heyer romance binge at the moment, and loving every minute of it, but while Heyer has Jane Austen's gift for character and humor, she doesn't have Austen's control of plot or clarity and fineness of morality/theme. And that morality lifts Austen to a great writer, while Heyer is simply a very good one.

"For more thoughts inspired by an earlier round of this discussion, see /chavelaque/2005/12/manifesto.html."

End of self-quoting. Would you all agree? I finished two Heyer novels in bed this morning, btw, Frederica and These Old Shades (both begun earlier this week or last), and they were just marvelous. I'm on to Arabella next, and thinking I'm going to order Regency Buck and Faro's Daughter to feed the addiction.


How long has this week been? So long I can't even come up with a clever title for a blog post.
  • I had some friends over for chili earlier this week and made two of the recipes from the comments here -- both ones that involve chocolate, which I couldn't resist: Mrs. Pilkington's vegetarian variety, and the meaty "Laura's Chili" from facelesswords. They were both terrific, so thanks very much to those commenters and to all of you who left recipes.
  • I also made my mother's signature Ramen Noodle Salad, which we Kleins break out for pretty much every potluck and picnic we attend, thanks to its ease and deliciousness:

Becky Klein's Ramen Noodle Salad

  • 1 package precut cole-slaw mix
  • 2 packages ramen-noodle soup mix, beef or Oriental flavor
  • 2 bunches green onion, chopped
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1/3 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Slivered almonds as desired (optional)

Mix the slaw mix, ramen noodles (crushed), onions, and almonds. Separately combine the liquid ingredients, sugar, and seasoning from the ramen-noodle packets. Toss salad with dressing and serve immediately. Yum!

  • I finally saw "Casino Royale" last night -- also yum. I went in thinking I wasn't going to like Daniel Craig as Bond -- too lined, too thuggish -- but his smile and the intensity of both his performance and the movie won me over.
  • And last week I saw "Pan's Labyrinth." It's definitely not for children, even though it's partly about children's stories, and I recommend it if you can stand bloody, sometimes gratuitous violence. More commentary, but also spoilers, if you highlight what follows: What most impressed and depressed me was the ending, because it isn't often that writers/filmmakers/fantasists of whatever sort are willing to admit that sometimes stories are only stories, no matter how beautiful they are, and they can't heal and comfort and fix everything -- that sometimes they're just escape, not rescue, and escape isn't enough. It's a gutsy move on Guillermo del Toro's part, considering his audience would be primarily aesthetes like him and me, and it left me feeling, "Well, my job is pointless . . ."
  • Also thinking about my job: I don't often watch "American Idol," but I like the audition shows for the sheer range of characters they display, and my heart hurt this week for poor Nicholas of Salt Lake City. After he gave a truly awful rendition of "Unchained Melody," Simon barked, "What the bloody hell was that?" and Nick answered, in a tiny voice, "That was me." It wasn't a put-on line -- Nick was speaking from his heart, just as he sang from his heart -- and I wish Simon had tempered his criticism a little more after that, as he seemed to do for the overweight man toward the end of the show (sorry, but I can't remember his name). . . . Actually, Simon's critiques reminded a lot of Jane Austen, in that the fools and villains in Austen's novels are people with either no self-awareness or no humility or both; and while Simon, like Austen, always called things exactly as he saw them, the degree of vitriol in both creators' judgements felt generally in proportion to their subject's arrogance or lack of talent. Though also sometimes neither one of them can resist getting in a good line. . . .
  • Finally, for any of you who think editors are slackers: I am now going to work, and I'm planning to work tomorrow too. From home, granted, but.

Brooklyn Arden Reviews: "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky" and "Northanger Abbey"

I went to see two enjoyable shows this weekend. The first, "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky," at Playwrights Horizons, featured a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter named (surprise) Floyd, living out of his snow-covered Studebaker in Nowheresville, Montana. After the demise of his career, Floyd is pretty much just planning to drink himself to death, but then a teenage girl named Clea who wants to be a singer-songwriter herself discovers him and adopts him as a mentor. She keeps coming back and keeps coming back, despite his general curmudgeonliness, and eventually she breaks through his shell and helps him get up on his feet. In Act II, she leaves to go to Los Angeles, a.k.a. the Pit of Sin and Mouth of Hell for any aspiring ingenue, and while she succeeds in film and music (breaking into the charts with a song Floyd wrote for her), she indeed turns away from the enthusiastic young Clea that Floyd knew to become a cynical drug-using wreck. After they connect through a chance phone call, Floyd convinces her to come out and visit him in his new digs in Austin, Texas, and that fresh Midwestern air and clean Midwestern living restore her to her former bloom. The show ends with the two of them onstage together singing a good knee-thumpin' country song about how they'll never get divorced. George W. Bush would be mighty proud.

I am being sardonic here simply because I was slightly astonished how much the plot smacked of middle-aged-male wish-fulfillment to me: the teenage girl who is devoted to saving you, but then you get to save her in the end, from big bad L.A. and those young men who don't treat her right and, you know, a successful career as a singer and actress . . . And then you get married, despite the thirty-year-difference in your ages, and live happily ever after singing Carter Family country songs. The fact that David Cale not only wrote and directed but stars in the show, opposite a comely twentysomething, rather reinforces my suspicions of male egotism.

But I am not being entirely fair either. It isn't 100% clear that Floyd and Clea have gotten married in the end -- the song lyrics may speak only for their personae in the song -- and the double salvation gave the show a pleasing balance. ("If he can't save her, what do you propose instead?" I can hear Mr. Cale asking me. "They grow away from each other and never talk? Where's the dramatic satisfaction in that, you feminist harpy?" "He can save her, but they could have stayed just friends," I reply firmly, "and he could go to California and support her career.") I would also be remiss not to say that both actors were very strong, especially Mary Faber, who sang her heart out as Clea; the writing was filled with real human moments; and the backing band was a joy, with special shout-outs to the two lead guys on guitar. Altogether I commend the show as an enjoyable evening of theater, particularly if you like quality country-rock music . . . but if you are Gloria Steinem (or the princess of Liechtenstein), it's not for you.

If the first show demonstrated the male ego at its most well-meaning, the second showed feminine wit at its most subtle -- being an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, "Northanger Abbey." Northanger Abbey was Austen's first novel, which she later rewrote, and functions as a parody of the Gothic romances popular at the time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book which thrills the heroine (Catherine Morland, the very definition of an ingenue) no end. The playwright Lynn Marie Macy cleverly stages scenes from Udolpho as dream sequences within the action of "Northanger," which not only acquaints modern theatrical audiences with the conventions of Regency Gothics, it points up the multiple parallels between the two works, both structural and comedic. (The show signalled the shifts between Northanger and Udolpho by having the characters turn the pages of a giant onstage book.) Everything about this show was sprightly, swift, and filled with good cheer and Austenesque humor, and I had a great time. I also enjoyed a post-show coffee with Maggie of AustenBlog and Julie, who pretty much convinced me I need to join JASNA at last.

"Northanger Abbey" runs for one more weekend at Theatre Ten Ten on the Upper East Side, and it gets the Brooklyn Arden Squid of Approval:

(Squid graphic courtesy the Squid Page here.)

Five Pictures from a Fabulous Vacation

Katy in a punt. Katy and I were celebrating multiple happy occasions this trip: her engagement; my 28th birthday; the completion of her dissertation; and our ten-year anniversary of being best friends. On Saturday, Katy took me out for a picnic in a punt: a baguette, sharp cheddar, tart apples, Cornish pasties, McVitie's, dark chocolate pastilles, water and lemonade (which I insisted on having in honor of Lord Peter and Harriet, though ours was non-synthetic). Katy did all the punting, while I sat and watched the ducks and the undergraduates float by, and we talked and talked and talked. We went up the Cherwell to a pub called the Victoria Arms, where we each had a glass of Pimm's, then came back down for dinner with her fiance Josh and a wonderful bonfire with McVitie's s'mores. (Directions: 1. Toast one marshmallow to the bursting point. 2. Quickly remove the marshmallow from the stick and place it on a chocolate-side-up McVitie. 3. Place another McVitie on top, chocolate side down, and squash to make the chocolate melt. 4. Eat quickly, and don't be ashamed to lick your fingers.)

Me on a stile. On Sunday, Katy and I journeyed by train and bus up to the Peak District in Derbyshire. We held my official birthday dinner at the Rutland Arms Hotel in Bakewell (an inn where Jane Austen herself stayed during a visit to the county in 1811) and slept that night in a B&B. The next day, we set off on a five-mile trek over the Dales, which occasioned considerable good-natured sisterly bickering over the map (Katy held it), our route (I didn't trust her), if it would rain (it didn't), and whether we would reach our destination in time for afternoon tea (of paramount concern to both of us). As it turned out, I was right that our route was not the one marked on the map, but we agreed that the map was stupid and our way was better, as we saw a great deal of beautiful Derbyshire countryside (and sheep) and still reached Chatsworth by 1 p.m. -- plenty of time for tea.

Chatsworth. Why were we so wild to see Chatsworth, you ask? Because Jane Austen likewise visited it on that 1811 trip, right when she was revising Pride and Prejudice, and it is very likely the model for Pemberley:

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. . . . Elizabeth was delighted.

And it is lovely. Begun in 1552 by Bess Hardwick and her second husband William Cavendish, it housed Mary Queen of Scots at various times during her imprisonment, and it is still the home of the Cavendish family -- better known as the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The interiors were gorgeous and luxurious without gratuitous ostentation, and the grounds (originally designed by Capability Brown) included a cascade, a rose garden, a delightful hedge maze (which pleased me very much, as I long ago wrote a P&P fanfic set in a hedge maze at Pemberley), and a Squirting Willow (no doubt cousin to the Whomping variety up north). And the stables have been converted into a restaurant, where we had our delicious, much-anticipated tea.

Mr. Darcy, the statue. In fact, Chatsworth is so lovely and so what Jane Austen had in mind that its exterior, entrance hall, and sculpture gallery served as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation of P&P. While I have considerable differences with that adaptation, I was very fond of Matthew MacFadyen, and they've kept the plaster bust of him as Mr. Darcy in the sculpture gallery where Keira Knightley-as-Elizabeth sees it in the film. It's displayed next to the dress Keira wore in that scene and real first editions of P&P, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey/Persuasion, which I did not steal, despite my extreme case of book lust. Future visitors to Chatsworth may thank me for my forebearance.

Decadence. Finally, of course, after we came back to Oxford on Tuesday, we had to rent the execrable new P&P and watch it all over again -- which was actually a pleasure, as we'd never seen and snarked at it together. So here we have from right to left: the movie; a glass of Cava sparkling wine; Nutella; strawberries; McVitie's; more wine; and Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. Bliss.

More pictures of our trip, with commentary, are now up on my Flickr page here.

Why I Love Jane Austen

A drizzly, languorous Sunday here, with all the usual restful ritual of the day for me: church in the morning, shopping afterward at CVS for dry goods and Steve's C-Town for groceries, back to my apartment for lunch (blue cheese, crackers, and a green apple today), check e-mail, a little work, talk to Katy in the UK and Ted for our ongoing joint read of The Odyssey, run, shower, fix dinner, relax, talk to my family in Missouri, go to bed.

This is very solitary, you will note. It is not exciting. It is like two hundred other Sundays I've had in my nearly six years of New York life, and for most twentysomethings, it would be stolid beyond belief. But I love it and am happy in it; and as odd as this sounds, that is partly due to Jane Austen.

I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen years old, finishing the entire book from the First Proposal on in one breathless, besotted night. I loved Elizabeth, I loved Mr. Darcy, I loved "In vain I have struggled," I fangirled all over it. Two years later, the famed A&E/BBC production aired on TV, and I watched it in a state of mild disbelief: Was Mrs. Bennet really that awful? Did Mr. Collins actually say that in the novel? Surely Mr. Darcy didn't swim? I went back to the book and discovered what my romance-clouded reading had missed the first time through: Jane Austen was funny, often screamingly so, if you paid close enough attention to hear what she was saying. I reread the novel with new eyes, and the fact that I had missed such a major component of the book taught me to try to listen, really listen, to the books I was reading and the people around me.

This experience made me an editor, more or less, because editing is nothing but close attention to every word, every comma. And with further reading of Jane Austen's novels, I learned what I think of as the Zen of Jane Austen: Observe everything you can. If it is good, celebrate it; if it is funny, relish it; if it is wrong, condemn it; and if you can, record it, as clearly and accurately and intelligently as you know how, and it will speak for itself for ages to come. Austenblog quoted this passage from Emma in a recent post, and it made my jaw drop all over again with its brilliance:

Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking–strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.–”The best fruit in England–every body’s favourite–always wholesome.–These the finest beds and finest sorts.–Delightful to gather for one’s self–the only way of really enjoying them.–Morning decidedly the best time–never tired–every sort good–hautboy infinitely superior–no comparison–the others hardly eatable–hautboys very scarce–Chili preferred–white wood finest flavour of all–price of strawberries in London–abundance about Bristol–Maple Grove–cultivation–beds when to be renewed–gardeners thinking exactly different–no general rule–gardeners never to be put out of their way- delicious fruit–only too rich to be eaten much of–inferior to cherries–currants more refreshing–only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping–glaring sun–tired to death–could bear it no longer–must go and sit in the shade.”

In one paragraph, Jane Austen gives you an hour in Mrs. Elton's company, beginning with her "apparatus of happiness" (such a lovely phrase), her desire to lead the way, her perky never-tiredness, and her cheerleading for strawberries; then the ease with which she changes her favorite kind of strawberry, Maple Grove (her rich sister's estate, which she mentions at every opportunity), the gardeners not knowing as well as she does how to grow the fruit; and then her developing tiredness, which leads to trashing strawberries and her desire to sit down. All of Mrs. Elton is there in this paragraph, her small mind; her flexibility of principle in the face of circumstance or social advantage; her infinite undeserved sense of superiority; and most especially the fact that she doesn't listen to what she's saying, that she speaks without any real meaning to her words -- always the hallmark of villains and fools in Jane Austen. It's a little miracle of dialogue and characterization, and it advances the scene by moving us through an hour of the garden party!

So Jane Austen taught me first to notice these features in a text, then she taught me to appreciate them for their truth and the beauty in that truth. But the Zen of Jane Austen works outside literature as well. The taste of a sweet wine or sharp cheese; a friend's characteristic turn of phrase; the finery of a sparkling summer night: Appreciating these things begins with paying attention to them, being in them, almost, and outside yourself. And from appreciation grows love, and love, happiness -- a small kind, but an important one: the pleasure of having such wonderful things in your world.

Thus I love Austen for the romance, humor, wisdom, the snapshot of a world seemingly more beautiful and orderly than ours; I love her for the endless pleasure of her texts -- the perfect plots, gloriously balanced sentences, truthful characters, the fact I always find something new. But most especially I love her because she taught me to observe and appreciate the little things, beginning with one paragraph in one marvelous book, and expanding out into kind people, funny menus, great music -- and quiet Sundays.

Muddling Through

I'm working on my talk for the Asilomar conference, which is -- urgh -- next week. (Urgh to the fast-approaching deadline, not to the conference, which I'm really looking forward to.) My talk is titled "Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure: What a Dead Greek Philosopher and a Classic English Novelist Can Teach Us about Writing for Children"; I'm at the point where I'm moving ideas around, looking for connections and patterns, so the right structure will emerge. My problem right now is that there are so many things I can talk about here -- Freitag's triangle, building character, morality in fiction and how that's different from messages (because morality = good, messages = bad), how I fell in love with Austen, what parts of Aristotle's concept of tragedy apply to children's fiction and what's appropriate only for Greek drama -- that I'm really having to discipline myself to keep my focus on what's useful for children's writers: points on plot structure, yes, a paean to Austen, no.

(In rereading the Poetics, I was delighted to see that Aristotle lists not two but three important elements in plot structure: Recognitions, Reversals, and Suffering. I remembered the first two but had forgot suffering, and I loved seeing it here because it so justifies my own tastes: I'm a total emotional junkie when it comes to fiction and music, and I love it when an author twists me up in knots with his/her characters. This is why I loved Order of the Phoenix so deeply, in fact, all Harry's ever-so-realistic anger and confusion -- that scene in Dumbledore's office at the end makes my heart physically hurt for him, and I adore that. People have to hurt, people have to be in pain, for there to be a happy ending -- or rather, for the happy ending to be worth anything. I'm glad Aristotle says that too.)

I'm also thinking a lot about this wonderful, wonderful lecture by Zadie Smith on ethical strategies in fiction. This sounds pretentious and frightening, but it comes down to the fact that every author puts forth a morality in his or her work in the way s/he treats her characters, from the fate they receive according to the plot down to the very mechanics of how much "screen time" (page time?) they get and the author's attitude toward them while they're there. In particular she compares Austen and E.M. Forster: Austen loves her heroines and heroes, and dismisses the other characters as Not Good Enough or Interesting Enough or Conscious Enough, I think often, not well enough aware of the effect their words and actions have in the world: deeply selfish, really, in their focus on no one but themselves and their immediate concerns. Whereas Forster has sympathy toward everyone, even those who have no imagination or sympathy for others; "Only connect" is the great motto of Howards End, and he seems to strive to do that even with the people he wouldn't like in real life. Austen likewise has a epigrammatically neat plot structure -- the Perfect Plot, according to Aristotle and Owen Jenkins -- while Forster muddles all over the place, jumping about in time, tying his books off very quickly . . . something always feeling missing. Smith sees these two authorial predilections as connected, and derives the authors' ethics from that, and a moral education from that; go read the article (and Pride and Prejudice and A Room with A View) for more.

What comes out of Smith's talk that's useful for me with my talk is two reminders: how much of art's effectiveness comes back to emotional catharsis, and that the Perfect Plot isn't the only plot. But you need a damn good reason to deviate from the Perfect Plot, because your plot still has to accomplish that emotional catharsis even if you're not following the usual means of achieving it. All this will make much more sense and be much more practical in the talk, I swear.

Smith's speech speaks also to the vague dissatisfaction I felt with two novels I read recently: Sarah Dessen's Just Listen, which I praised below, and Jennifer Crusie's book with Bob Mayer, Don't Look Down, which I finished on the plane home from Ireland -- both of which I otherwise enjoyed mightily, I should say. Both of these books are technically perfect, the Dessen especially, with motifs introduced early, unfolding throughout, playing their one perfect moment in the plot structure, then receding gracefully into the background to be incorporated into the final image. And it is lovely, but for all my Austen-lover's soul, and for everything I'm going to say about perfect plots in this talk, I felt the slightest bit disappointed by the neatness of this technique: Life is messier than this. The motifs don't resolve, the boy disappears, the Russian mobster gets his pre-Columbian porn and doesn't show up for the rendezvous with the CIA (this last would be the Crusie). Of course this is the great satisfaction of fiction, of art, that we can make all the threads tie up right for once -- and there's morality there, too, that readers have the happiness and pleasure of believing that can happen. As it does sometimes happen, maybe even often. But the complexity of real life means that usually at least one thread blows in the wind, and right now I'm in a mood to value complexity more than perfection.

Good lord, I write long posts. This is why I love giving talks at SCBWI conferences, the chance to think about all these issues theoretically as well as practically; and why I love writing this blog, because -- to quote Forster -- "I know what I think when I see what I say." I go forth to write usefully now; thanks to all of you who saw this through.

Of Buses and Birthdays

I'm hanging out on the Internet till midnight to see if the MTA is going to strand me in Brooklyn tomorrow. I love my job, but the prospect of having a whole day at home to read manuscripts, write letters, and in general work in my pajamas -- on a Friday when we're supposed to have freezing rain all day -- is so enticing that I feel like a kid watching it snow the night before a big test: Oh please, oh please . . . So until the clock strikes twelve:
  • Live in New York? Come join the world's largest snowball fight! This is a serious thing -- the next time it snows, a guy named Jonathan Rosen wants to break the Guinness World Record for the World's Largest Snowball Fight by gathering more than 2,473 people in Prospect Park for an all-out war. You can read the New York Daily News article about it here; see the guy's craigslist posting on it here; and sign up to participate by e-mailing brooklynsnowballfight at gmail dot com. (Thanks to my friend Liz Mills for sending this on.)
  • The Carleton Alumni National Trivia Contest will be February 26. Mark your calendars.
  • I am going to Edinburgh for New Year's (Hogmanay) with my dear friend Katy, there to drink whiskey, dance in the streets, and maybe even eat haggis! Alas, I'm going to miss the Viking ship burning in the Shetland Isles (a Celtic New Year's tradition Katy and I reenacted at Carleton during our senior year, except our ship was six inches long, made of paper, and floating in a cake pan), as that doesn't take place till January 30; but I daresay I shall shout "Up-Helly-A!" nonetheless.
  • Along similar lines, I bought a bottle of honey mead the other day called "Ragnar's Reserve*", and below, after the asterisk: "As if Ragnar had any reservations." Hee.

Also, tomorrow -- soon to be today -- December 16, is Jane Austen's 230th birthday. Here are some ways to mark the occasion:

  • If you love someone, look deeply into his or her eyes and say, "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings can no longer be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
  • Along the same lines, if you disapprove of someone, say, "I send no compliments to your mother" or "Badly done!"
  • If you write something, honor the eighteenth-century style by ensuring every sentence includes (a) a semicolon, (b) an adverb, (c) more than two clauses, or (d) all of the above.
  • Refer to all specific locations as "-------," as in "-----ville," "-----burg," or "------ City."
  • Go country dancing.
  • Wear an Empire-waist dress, or a pair of breeches and a topcoat. (If you choose the latter option, practice flipping your tails aside before you sit down -- done right, it's incredibly sexy (cf. Guy what's-his-name in "The Count of Monte Cristo").)
  • Hold a Jane Austen film festival. You can watch the films in chronological order of the novels (S&S, P&P, MP, E, & P) or in ascending quality (MP, E, P&P, P, and S&S, if you're asking me, though the last two are pretty much a tie); or you could watch all existing adaptations of one particular novel; or you could just watch the proposal/letter/kiss/"Brother and sister? No indeed"/wet shirt/Look scenes repeatedly.
  • Recognize a grave error, prejudice, foolishness, blindness, or rudeness on your part; vow to reform; and do so.
  • Read her precursors: Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe.
  • Read her descendants: E. M. Forster, Georgette Heyer, Patrick O'Brian (whose own birthday was Monday the 12th), Helen Fielding, J. K. Rowling.
  • Or the most obvious, and always a great pleasure: Read her.

12:13 a.m. No news. Ah well, I'll go to bed, and we'll go from there. Happy Jane Austen's birthday, everyone!

"Pride and Prejudice": The Brooklyn Arden Review

First, I quote: “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can't be without.”

Hello, clichés? Ending a sentence with a preposition? Only a passing resemblance to the novel? This tagline on the movie poster taught me exactly how much to expect from this version of "Pride and Prejudice," and for that I thank the marketing people at Focus Features, as otherwise I would be writing a much more keyed-up, pissed-off, and disappointed review.

As it is, I went in not expecting very much at all, and this is good, as I now call this "P&P: the 'What the Hell???' version." This name derives from the filmmakers’ incredibly puzzling interpretation of the novel, which results in pigs in the Bennets’ hallway, the First Proposal in the rain, shots of running deer, and sundry other “What the hell???” choices that don’t make sense historically, fictionally, or especially as an adaptation.

I can kind of guess at what they were thinking. P&P is one of the world’s Great Romances, and Lizzy and Darcy rank up there with Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind and Orlando, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff and Cathy, Lord Peter and Harriet, Rick and Ilsa, Harry and Sally, and Jesse and Celine (and I mean all of these entirely seriously) as classic romantic protagonists. Another Focus tagline for the movie was, “This holiday season, experience the greatest love story of all time,” and while that’s a title with a lot of competition, P&P would definitely be in the running.

But the filmmakers’ crucial mistake (which resulted in the WTHness) was in not distinguishing between a great Romantic romance, a la Romeo and Juliet and the Bronte examples given above, and a great Rationalist romance, a la Rosalind and Orlando, Lord Peter and Harriet, and all the cinematic examples cited. Romantic romances concentrate on feeling foremost: love at first sight, passion even unto death, “You are my everything,” blah blah blah. They are intense, sexual, dangerous, and the intensity and drama and danger of the relationship is of course as much of an attraction for the lovers as the individuals themselves are.

Rationalist romances do not lack feeling (or sex), but their protagonists are aware of principles and claims outside each other—they have a sense of proportion. As Rosalind puts it: “Men have died before, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” And they fall in love for reasons besides its forbidden nature, namely, that they like each other, they have things in common, they are kind to each other, they can talk to each other (a crucial element, as their conversations usually make up at least a third of the book/play/movie -- and you want to listen to them). As Austen describes it after Elizabeth comes to appreciate Darcy: “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.”

(Ah, an interlude of Austen prose. Didn’t that just bring a little delight and clarity to your day?)

Where was I? Yes. So. The filmmakers had a Great Romance on their hands, and knew it; but they chose to adapt, design, and especially shoot it as if it were a Romantic romance rather than a Rationalist one, probably because our benighted mass culture worships the commercialized signs of love much more than the actual thing they signify. The result is a case study in Form not following Function. As the lines quoted above show, the narrative voice in P&P is affectionate, precise, gently mocking. Cinematography’s role in a film adaptation is to reproduce that narrative voice (I am sure many film theorists would disagree with me), and the cinematography here was more suited to a Anne Rice adaptation than Jane Austen: overdramatic close-ups, unnecessary dramatic angles, lots of hand-held camera movements, occasional effects like Elizabeth staring at herself in the mirror as hours pass . . . These heavy-handed techniques perhaps carried the romance (particularly as the script does so little to establish it), but they drowned the humor, and they made Austen’s thoroughly linear, “light, bright, and sparkling” story and dialogue feel entirely beside the point. The movie wants P&P to be more passionate and romantic than it is, in the conventional Romantic windswept way, so it forces it into that mold, with ridiculous, unsatisfying results.

And while many of the script adaptations were a bit strange (Lizzy not telling Jane about the First Proposal? Mr. and Mrs. Bennet sincerely in love?) and the interpolations eyeroll-worthy (Mr. Collins making intercourse jokes? Eeeegh), the only unforgivable alteration was to the text of the First Proposal scene. What on earth is wrong with “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”? The answer is “absolutely nothing,” and I would send no compliments to this movie solely on the basis of that change.

That said, compliments. Most of the casting was strong, especially Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy; I even preferred him to Colin Firth of the great P&P2, as he was more expressive, more vulnerable, and less stiff. (Or, as the astute Editrix of AustenBlog said, “What a very fine, strapping, juicy hunk of British woof on the hoof. Bring that gaping frilly shirtage over here, sir, and you can leave your boots on.”) Keira Knightley did not get Elizabeth’s depths or sweetness (tending toward the pert, as most Elizabeths do), but she reminded me of how young Lizzy is supposed to be, and she looked pretty, at the least. Brenda Blethyn and Dame Judi Dench each excelled at what little they were given to do. The dresses were gorgeous, of course, and the country dancing made me quite long for a ball.

To close: When the DVD is released, I invite all my female readership over to play the "P&P:WTH" Drinking Game. The rules are these:

1) Whenever there is an overdramatic closeup, you drink.
2) Whenever there is livestock or a wild animal on screen, you drink.
3) Whenever there is a ridiculous line like “Your hands are cold,” you heckle, and then you drink.

A good time will be had by all. In the meantime: Feh.