Book Review — Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic, by K.M. Weiland

When I first read Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, I took it as a Victorian romance, later realizing it was also a vaguely autobiographical account of a girl’s complex and difficult life, and a critique of the social issues of the period. I never imagined I would encounter the story again decades later and reread it as a highly effective teaching tool for writing fiction.

19336035In Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic, K.M. Weiland examines Brontë’s story from the unique perspective of an author and writing instructor, and reveals the many techniques that helped make it one of the most successful novels of its era and an enduring classic. Weiland not only identifies the techniques as the story unfolds, she thoroughly explains them.

Let me offer two examples:

In discussing characterization, following a section of dialogue a sidebar notation says, “Successfully using dialogue for characterization requires several ingredients,” and Weiland goes on to identify four – “(1.) Character voice, (2.) Choice of subject, (3.) Treatment of others, and (4.) Speaker tags and action beats.” She doesn’t just label these, but also expounds on each with specific references to how Bronte has used them in the text.

After another section of dialogue, Weiland points to Brontë’s inclusion of backstory and explains how and why it works so well. “To begin with, this conversation serves to keep the backstory front and center in the readers’ minds. Even as the main part of the story progresses, Brontë will continue to make references to the mysterious backstory. She never lets readers forget about it. She is also careful to introduce at least one new fact into each reference. She doesn’t rehash the same old information over and over. … Finally, she keeps the backstory fresh by weaving it into the body of the main story. Here she uses it to cement the foundation of the relationship that will grow between Jane and Rochester.

“Info dumps or lengthy flashbacks would only serve to slow down the story and sap the tension. But carefully placed clues offer just enough new information to keep readers panting after the truth.”

km-weiland-avatarKatie Weiland’s own writing is well crafted and easy to read in a conversational style that still manages to be concise and instructive. Her intimate familiarity with Charlotte Brontë’s classic story along with her extensive knowledge of the writing craft, have combined to produce a book that other writers will find extremely useful. It is not just another companion to the story of Jane Eyre, but a comprehensive guide to good writing that I believe should be on every writer’s bookshelf.

Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic by K.M. Weiland will be available at all major outlets upon release August 1st. Check it out on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and visit Katie’s website, Helping Writers Become Authors, for lots more information.

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Writing Frustrations and Bird Poop

Bird poop is not pleasant. It’s messy, and one of the worst offenders around here right now are the robins.

Robin

Once winter is on the wane, I’m always delighted to welcome the earliest robins. They’re harbingers of spring, after all, and that makes me smile. By summertime, however, I’ve begun to tire of the white accumulations that adorn our deck railings and outdoor furniture, and I’m no longer smiling.

Robins are pretty, and they sing a sweet song, I’ll give them that. But they don’t eat birdseed. The lawn and garden are their kitchen source for earthworms and berries. The only appeal our deck apparently has for them is as a bathroom… a place to perch and deposit their doo-doo, which I don’t-don’t like! Someone had a warped sense of humour when they named the species ‘Turdus migratorius’.

We had 45 people coming here last night for a church barbecue. In preparation, we had pulled weeds and tidied the gardens. Hubby power-washed the deck, and I wiped down the lawn furniture. You get the picture. We wanted things to be neat and clean for our guests, and it was… until late-afternoon, just before the first guests arrived, when Mr. Robin Redbreast dropped in and dropped. Ackkk!!! It was too late to get out the hose, but there was no point in stressing over little blobby things, as maddening as they were. I found a rag, cleaned them away as best I could and carried on, soon forgetting all about the annoyance and enjoying a wonderful evening with friends.

The writing application that occurred to me later had to do with not overstressing about little things. No point in grinding to a halt  when the wrong words deposit themselves on the page during a first draft. Better to look at the overall picture, get on with the job and worry about cleaning up the messy bits during revision. There are bound to be more messy bits before it’s done and we’re ready to put the manuscript out on display anyway.

In future, when I’m getting really frustrated, maybe I’ll try and remember to mutter, “Oh, poop!!!” then have a laugh and get back to work.

What’s your method of banishing first draft frustrations?

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The Appeal of a Writer’s Garden

Did you ever read The Secret Garden — the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read it at a time when I was too young to care about its themes and symbols. The author’s interest in Christian Science and New Thought were beyond me, and by the time I later acquired the movie on DVD (the 1993 version), the childish appeal of the story and its magic was well embedded and I didn’t care what obscure meaning it might have. 


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I sometimes wonder if it contributed to my interest in gardening. I’m not a great gardener, but my homes from childhood until the present have always included patches of soil in which plants put forth blossoms and seeds year after year. Every spring I await the bursting of swollen buds, and often plant something new “just to see if it will grow”. Unfortunately I don’t nurture things very well, and sometimes they don’t grow!

It’s not the growing that fascinates me as much as the potential. Bare branches and seed pods that lie dormant and suddenly decide to produce green sprouts, leaves and flowers. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of the mystery invisible behind a locked garden gate, and secrets within.

Secret Garden

If you didn’t know my back yard, the cedar arch in the back corner covered by climbing hydrangea might seem like the gateway to a secret garden. It’s not. It simply marks the transition between our rather mossy back lawn and an unkempt bit of forest that leads to our marsh. Any mystery or magic exists only in one’s mind.

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I used to like sitting down there on the little bench my hubby made for me. It was a private sanctuary, perfect for thinking, plotting or just listening to the birds. Now that I know there’s a bear and her cub wandering nearby this spring, I’m less inclined to venture down there by myself, but I miss sitting quietly in those shadows.

Sunday afternoon I enjoyed wandering through a friend’s garden, seeing her lush plantings of flowers and shrubs. I came home thinking about what gardens mean to us as writers. The fact that my friend is also a writer reinforces my belief that whether we’re growing vegetables and fruits to nourish our bodies, or designing colourful flowerbeds to nourish our spirits, in some way the process parallels our desire to create via storytelling.

Planning the beds, preparing the ground, nestling each plant or seed in its appropriate spot, watering and fertilizing, watching it develop, and digging it out when it ends up not fitting that location — it strikes me there’s a writing analogy coming. It might take a stretch of imagination, but I’m sure there’s a semblance of one. Don’t dash my hope. I told you I’m not a great gardener! :)

If you’re a writer, do you like to garden… design special places or plant practical beds? Oh, and don’t forget my initial question: have you read (or watched) “The Secret Garden”? What did you think of it?

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Story lessons from an iceberg

Taking a break from blogging has pros and cons. I’ve returned feeling rested and refreshed, but my mind is still focused on the many sights and sounds that filled my week away. So I’ll apologize in advance. We’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.

Cruise 1

This past week provided opportunities for me to experience water in several of its forms. We didn’t get rain in any measurable amount, but there were a few sprinkles, and a morning of fog.

Cruise 6

Most days the ocean was remarkably calm, but there were occasional times of choppy waves and rolling swells.

Cruise 3

 

Cruise 2

The Pacific Ocean can be mighty chilly at times, but in the Gulf of Alaska there are places where it’s downright frigid.

Cruise 4

Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier is located in the northeastern section of Yakutak Bay, extending five miles across the end of Disenchantment Bay. Unlike most other glaciers that are receding, for the past century the face of the Hubbard Glacier has continued to advance. Chunks of ice regularly ‘calve’ from it, filling the water with mid-sized icebergs, along with smaller ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’.

Cruise 7

Apparently the density of ice is less than that of sea water, so only about one-tenth of the volume of an iceberg is visible above the water.

Cruise 8

The seen and the unseen… how could they not bring a writing application to mind??? ;)

So much of the research, background and subtext that go into novel writing will never actually be seen by readers — or shouldn’t be – but will provide the foundation for a good story and give it stability. Whenever we’re tempted to reveal too much ‘fascinating’ information, we need to remember what happens when an iceberg drifts away from its source and warmer waters begin undermining the ice below the surface. When too much of the iceberg’s volume is above the water line, it eventually gets top heavy and flips over!

All those mottled and melted bits from the underside don’t have a lot of interest or substance. Imagine similar ramifications for a story. If you need more of a visual, drop an ice cube into a glass of water and then consider the importance of a good solid base.

I know, I know… I sometimes give my imagination too much free rein, but it bugs me when a writer top-dresses a story with too many details that were obviously gleaned during the research stage. How would you suggest utilizing interesting tidbits you’ve discovered, if they’re not going to add significantly to your plot?

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Thoughts, Words and Written Chaos

There’s nothing a writer likes better than to play with words. Sometimes — okay, maybe most times — we like the words to make some kind of sense… to resonate either with us as their creator or with potential readers. The choice of words and the order in which they are strung together determine how they affect us.

Blossom thoughts2

We don’t require poetry to follow stringent rules of grammar, but we still expect the words to be meaningful. Whether they are contained in prose or poetry, however, our understanding of them, and whether or not they are meaningful, will depend upon our personal perspective… our previous exposure and response to them.

In the initial stages of writing,
thoughts emerge
like gurgling waters from a geyser,
bubbling up and
bursting forth
to splatter on a page.

We don’t have a lot of control over them,
certainly not at first.
It’s during revisions
that we stare at the mess we’ve made.
We dab at it
in an attempt
to contain the chaos…
to reorder the words
into  a semblance of organized storytelling.

An entire novel
originates with a single thought,
but it’s one that must expand
and be reworked
many times
before it becomes recognizable.
Writing it is a combination of
creativity and craft,
both
exhilarating and exhausting.

I’m at that stage where the story is no longer a suspended idea, but it’s still  chaotic, with the wrong words cluttering up page after new page. Where are you at with your current project?
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More from James Douglas…

“It is a good idea to be alone in a garden
at dawn or dark
so that all its shy presences
may haunt you and possess you
in a reverie of suspended thought.”

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Will it be survival of the fittest or of the most diligent seeker?

Nobody’s very happy about it. When a bear and her cub found their way into our back yard last week, I knew it was past time to put away the bird feeders for the summer. But you should see the looks I’ve been getting…

1-Junco

 

Jay

 

Flicker

 

Grosbeak

 

Thrush

Sorry guys, but this lunch counter is closed for the season. There’s lots of nibblies out there, but you’re going to have to find them for yourselves.

 

Squirrel
Ah, c’mon now, it’s not that bad. After all, the one who’s responsible for the sudden closure managed to find an acceptable alternative.

9-BearGrass

If there’s to be any kind of writing application in this, I’d say it has something to do with accepting that there’s no free lunch along the road to publication. We simply have to knuckle down and put in the work ourselves.

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Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so.

Genesis 1:29-30

 

He has given food and provision to those who reverently and worshipfully fear Him; He will remember His covenant forever and imprint it [on His mind].

Psalm 111: 5

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Do It Anyway!

Wow, did it ever rain yesterday! It pounded down, flooding over the eavestroughs, creating instant puddles, pelting the house with so much force it sounded like hail.

Rainy Day

Even the small, seasonal creek that runs through the trees along one side of our property became an honest-to-goodness stream for a time.

Rainy Creek

It was a good day to hunker down… avoid the nasty weather and wait it out, protected by home and hearth. I didn’t expect anyone to venture out. Certainly not the birds. Wouldn’t the fat and furious raindrops pummel them… give them a headache or something… knock those tiny Hummingbirds off course?

But no, right on schedule they all arrived to fill their tummies and empty the feeders. Nothing was going to deter them from meeting their daily caloric requirements. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”* No, wait… that’s the U.S. Postal Service’s motto! 

Rainy Birds

As writers, we can find all sorts of excuses to explain why the words aren’t accumulating on our pages. Maybe the heavy mood of a miserable day isn’t conducive to being creative. The Muse isn’t cooperating. There isn’t enough time left after the day job or family commitments. We’re just plain tired.

I’ve heard it said that those who want to write, will. Those who wish they could, won’t. All excuses aside, accumulating enough words to write a book requires a commitment to get the job done. As I plod along in my new story, I’m frequently frustrated that the words aren’t streaming out as they sometimes have in the past. I could let my lack of speed discourage me — mutter my way down to a standstill and go find something else to do — but, like these birds, I have a need to fulfill and that can only happen if I keep at it.

When there’s a job to do, we need to do it, no matter how we feel about it on any given day. “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” Oops… that’s not the analogy I was looking for! I think “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is more appropriate.**

Then again, if you’re hungry like the birds but need some creative nourishment, maybe thinking of elephants isn’t a bad idea. After all, elephants wouldn’t let snow, or rain, or heat, or gloom of night (or a nasty downpour), stay them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds any more than the birds have. They’d keep plodding along, just as I am.

So, what’s keeping you from achieving your goals today?

* Herodotus, 503 B.C.
** Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC)

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Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

In past years I’ve written a few posts on the topic of critiquing which generated several comments. Now that I’m back in another critique group, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to the critiquing styles of a new group of writers. It takes time to get to know and trust each other… time to understand what kind of feedback each one needs and desires… time to determine how best to provide individualized and constructive criticism that’s truly helpful.

In an April post five years ago I said, “Good critiquing is as much an art as good writing. Anyone with a modicum of editorial ability should be able to go through a manuscript and highlight problems with its plot, characterization, structure and grammar. I believe it takes someone who has also experienced a writer’s journey — who has survived through the creation of her own fictitious world and thus understands the exhilaration and desperation that is a part of the process – to be able to offer advice in a way that is both helpful and welcome.”

During this next week I’m going to dig into the archives and re-issue two posts on the topic of critiquing, Here’s the first…

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How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Does he/she sincerely care about me and want to help me improve my writing, or is he/she using the opportunity to dish out personal opinions and humiliate? Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear not only about my manuscript strengths, but also its weaknesses. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to be told that large chunks of the story should be deleted or rewritten because “it will sound much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

In mid-September (2010) Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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National Poetry Month, a Novel, and Now

Throughout the month of March many of us took part in a literary version of March Madness, daily working our way toward an assortment of writing-related goals. Now April has arrived, bringing with it National Poetry Month, and a new daily challenge — reading a poem a day.

Sunny Tree

The challenge was dished out to me by Sandra Heska King and her allies at TweekspeakPoetry.com. Who can deny having time to read just one poem each day? I already read a portion of scripture and the poetry of the Psalms. How hard could it be to fit in a few more verses? Of course, one could jump in with more of a commitment and write a poem a day, but that would stretch my poetry moments into poetry hours, and end up overshadowing the other writing I want to do. I know my limits.

Each day I spend a chunk of time working on the new novel I began last month, but my tortoise-like progress reminds me of how easy it is to let other activities obscure that priority. I have writer friends who hold down full-time jobs, homeschool their children, and still cope with the deadlines of multiple book contracts. I’m always in awe of Ruth Logan Herne who daycares a houseful of children, prepares material for and monitors two daily group blogs (in addition to her own website), has chickens, and dogs, and goodness knows what else, but is consistently up and writing by 5:00 a.m. every morning, getting her couple hours in before the rest of her household awakens and her ‘other’ workday begins. My days are mostly empty, but I get much less done. It’s all about priorities, having goals, and not letting them become lost behind other attention-grabbing pursuits. Oh, and knowing how to juggle a bit doesn’t hurt.

I watched a video yesterday and one statement in it really hit me: “It is always now.” Yesterday is an unchangeable memory. We may wait for tomorrow, hoping for our situation to get better, easier, or improve in some other way, but each moment we live is our NOW. We will never get this moment back to do over. What we want to accomplish tomorrow will only happen if we work towards it today… beginning right now.

Do you have any desires or goals that are being eclipsed by other things? What are you doing to try and achieve them?

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March Madness 3: Fragile Reflections

Bubbles 1A couple weeks ago a granddaughter was here for the afternoon. One of her activities of choice was bubble blowing with Grampa. There are various soapy solutions and different shaped tools that all seem to work, although some produce better bubbles than others.

This particular afternoon the bubbles were very fragile. After blowing them she would try to recapture one, hoping it would balance on the wand. Each time a bubble was touched, however, it popped with a splat and splatter into the air.

Left alone, the bubbles were light enough to catch the breeze and soar away.

Bubbles 2

Thinking back on this I was struck with the similarities between those bubbles and my new WIP. One of the reasons I lean towards the ‘seat-of-my-pants’ kind of writing is because I like the unexpected pleasure of watching a basic idea develop into a beautiful story. I don’t generally talk much about it during the first draft because the concept seems fragile, and too much poking around can easily destroy whatever beauty my spontaneity may be creating. If I try to wrestle it into position, something that at first seemed exciting, begins to lose its appeal. The bubble finally pops and a rainbow idea disappears.

I’ve been moving gingerly into this new story, and now that we’re half-way through our March month of Madness it’s clear my original goal of a complete first draft isn’t realistic. As other MM hosts have suggested, it’s not a bad thing to step back periodically to evaluate what we’re doing, to redistribute our efforts over the remaining available time, and possibly even tweak our goals.

There is no shame in adjusting our goals, only in abandoning them. March 31st is only an arbitrary deadline. Do whatever it takes to stay focused on your destination but also retain joy in your writing. Don’t let anything burst that bubble!

Just sixteen days of this madness left. How are you faring? I hope you’re soaring!

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