Monday, December 26, 2016


After writing about Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion from isolated miser to compassionate friend in my last post, something occurred to me.  When it comes to Christmas stories, so much of them revolve around the importance of socialization.  Scrooge is isolated, friendless, and suspicious of his fellow man.  But by the end of the book he’s going around saying hello to random people on the street. 

Could it be that the extrovert ideal-parties and music and colors and noise and movement and tons of conversation and laughter and food and basically everything in excess--has infiltrated even Christmas?

Now I agree, the holidays should be spent with reconnecting with the people we take for granted the rest of the year, showing friends how much they mean to us, and enjoying quality time with loved ones.  It’s a sort of illustration of the Nativity Story: God became flesh, He came down to earth, just to be with his estranged creation and restore a loving relationship with us. 

But there seems to be an ideal of a full house, of crowded tables and noisy malls.  These ideals are vastly evident in movies.  And as an introvert coming to grips with her introvertedness,* I now realize why these crowded, noisy gatherings always unsettled me.  Introverts are usually stimulated easier than extroverts, which makes them more sensitive to over-stimulation.  It’s draining on my energy to be in a room with tons of people all talking and moving and music piping in from the radio and lights blinking on and off.  Come to think of it, I distinctly remember that during such cramped gatherings at my Grandma’s little house, I would hide in the back room under all the coats piled high on the bed. 

This gives me a new sympathy for one of my favorite Christmas characters: The Grinch.

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss immediately explains that the Grinch hated Christmas because “his heart was two sizes too small.” But is that really the only reason?  I mean, we know the Grinch is a horrible person during the Christmas season.  But maybe he was a perfectly happy Whoman being the rest of the year. We don’t know.  All we do know is he hated Christmas, and that he lived just north of Who-ville, alone but for his dog, Max.**

The Grinch doesn’t seem to be mad he’s isolated from them in his cave.  He’s not the evil fairy that holds a grudge for not being invited to the princess’ christening and therefore gifts her with a curse.  No, the reason he is intent on stopping Christmas is:

“…All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then!  Oh the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
That’s the one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”

And then,

“Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. 
They’d stand hand-in-hand.***  And the Whos would start singing!
            They’d sing! And they’d sing!
            AND they’d SING! SING! SING! SING!”

From the standpoint of a fellow introvert, it sounds to me that the Grinch had a major over-stimulation issue he needed to address.  And as pretty much everyone knows, he addresses it in completely the wrong way.  Other introverts take note: Burglary solves nothing. 

Taking a breather under the coats in a guest room, however, may just do the trick.

*I know this should probably by "introversion" but that seems almost like a condition, possibly due to its rhyming with "perversion." 

** For someone who hates the Whos, the Grinch having a dog is a huge tip-off that he could be an introvert.  I too often feel a deeper friendship with furry people than the members of my own species.

***My own reaction: Ack! Physical contact! No! Your hands are clammy!  Did you wash those greasy mitts after eating the Roast Beast?!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Story Genius" and the Art of Making the Reader Care

As 2016 A.D. nears its end, it’s probably only natural that one reflects upon the last 365 days and the events they held, and then begins to plan greater and better things for the next 365 days to come.  I am no exception to this proclivity.  Two Thousand Sixteen has been a roller-coaster of events and emotions in my life.  It was the year I finally crossed The Pond and traveled to Europe, which has always been an aspiration.  It was also a year of loss, of struggle, and of depression.  And most recently, 2016 is the year that I changed employment again. 

When I interview for a new job, the questions are probing, and (like the change of a year) make me think intently on what my goals are for the future.  And practical purposes for making a living aside, I came to the realization I cannot spend the majority of my life working at something for which I have no heartfelt interest.  The idealist in me said, “Surely God gave me a love for writing for something more than just one blog amongst a multitude.  Surely He meant me to do something more than simply write my life in a journal, and entertain myself with unpublished stories infrequently put onto paper.”

So, afraid as I am, I think that 2017 will be the year I actually try to get something published.  I’ve tried my hand at poetry for magazines before without much success.  But then, while I like to read poetry on occasion, it isn’t what I long to do with my writing abilities.  It’s terrifying, but I think that this coming year’s goal will be to publish a novel.  Whether through an agent, or independent, through a mainstream publisher or self-publishing, I don’t know yet. 

But with this in mind, I thought it would do me good to read up on the craft of writing.  There is no shortage of material on the topic, so I simply picked a book that had been on my library account’s holds queue for who-knows-how-long.  And so we come to the point of this blog entry: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

Whew.  That title in itself is longer than some Hemingway short stories!  What drew me to choosing this book was the idea of “brain science.”  I’ve read tons of writing manuals in my time, including several times of reading Struck and White’s classic Elements of Style.   But when I saw that Cron’s argument was possibly based more on the science of what hooks readers onto a story and keeps them enthralled until “The End,” I thought maybe this would teach me something new.

Basically this writing manual argues that in order to tell a good story, the readers have to be emotionally invested in the main character’s struggles.  But the struggles must be more than external hardships or adventures.  Throughout the course of the plot, the main characters must undergo changes internally. 

Since it’s Christmas, I’ll use a well-known character for illustration: Ebenezer Scrooge.  At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol he is a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”  Over the course of five chapters he transforms from this to “as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

This, Cron argues, is what makes for a good story.  Not only is stuff happening around Scrooge (because events happening to a character make them passive objects), but Scrooge himself is making changes to himself throughout the story, becoming an active participant in the story and therefore of much more interest to the reader. 

Another major aspect of storytelling that Cron touches upon is what is known as literary criticism as the Fatal Flaw.  Particularly hazardous in tragedies such as Shakespeare’s King Lear et al, this flaw is an aspect of the main character’s personality or psyche that causes them to make mistakes in judgement or action.  Cron argues that this “Fatal Flaw” should be re-named, because often the protagonist is aware of this characteristic, but due to a misconception of the reality around them they believe this characteristic is acceptable, even good. 

With King Lear, his ego is what causes his delusional behavior and eventual downfall.  But as a king, Lear thinks that having pride is part of his job of maintaining sovereignty over his subjects. 

To return to my previous example, I don’t think Dickens wrote in as psychological terms as Shakespeare.  But, from what we see of Scrooge’s childhood, my assessment of his misconception of reality is a sense of “grasping” onto material comforts.  A lonely childhood with only his little sister as a companion, and then losing her after she married for love and had a child, has made him focus on gathering material wealth rather than invest his heart into fragile, mortal relationships.  But in doing so, he’s lost sight of what really causes happiness and comfort in life.  He’s isolated or alienated himself from all humanity, including his one relative, his nephew Fred.  And as the story continues, the reader sees how Scrooge opens up (he begins to interact, albeit invisibly, with the people the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present show him), begins to care about what happens to other people (the best example being Tiny Tim), and ultimately to take the risk of engaging in friendships. 

To conclude: Did Story Genius live up to my expectations?  Frankly, no.  But that’s because I feel like my expectations were too different from what this book was really about.  I thought I was going to have to wade through various statistics, bestseller lists, and medical information about brain activity during the act of reading.  Instead, Story Genius is mostly about making sure a writer gives their character an internal struggle between their misconceptions and reality, and making sure this struggle is identifiable and sympathetic.  Cron’s challenge to writers is to ask themselves, “Why should the reader care?” and then give the reader an undeniable reason to do so.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"The Keeper of the Bees" by Gene Stratton Porter : A Review

Credits for photos: moi
I read The Keeper of the Bees before A Daughter of the Land.  My mom, who collects Gene Stratton Porter books along with several other authors, suggested it to me as a sort of peaceful, uplifting story.  In retrospect I wish I’d read A Daughter of the Land first, since that book wasn’t as satisfying, and then read The Keeper of the Bees to cheer me up. 

Although admittedly this novel is much more Hallmark-y in its moralizing and sentimentality than any of the other Porter novels I’ve read, I really enjoyed the premise and most of the characters of this story. 

James Lewis MacFarlane—Jamie to his friends and us readers—is wasting away in a military hospital in California from a shrapnel wound in his chest that simply won’t heal.  He overhears that, because of his continued illness, the doctors are going to send him to a ward for tuberculosis patients.  This will be a definite death sentence, for if he wasn’t already sick, he’d soon contract that sickness and die. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

"A Daughter of the Land" by Gene Stratton Porter : A Review

When I asked for my own copy of The Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas last year, my request was fulfilled fourfold.  I opened up a box and looked up quizzically at my mom.  Inside was not only a vintage copy of The Girl of the Limberlost, but also another copy of Freckles, and then two books by Gene Stratton Porter I hadn’t heard of before: A Daughter of the Land and The Keeper of the Bees

“It was the same price to get a set as it was to buy The Girl of the Limberlost separately,” my mom explained.  This was fine by me.   Though Gene Stratton Porter is not my favorite author, there is something comfortable and wholesome about her style of writing that I like to come back to after reading not-so-uplifting stories by Albert Camus or the like.  I’ve read a lot of reviews by modern readers who think she’s preachy or predicable, her characters too saccharine or good to be true. 

And this to an extent is justified.  Gene Stratton Porter’s books are kind of like the Hallmark movies of Edwardian fiction.  Which is why I was so shocked and uncomfortable when I read A Daughter of the Land.  
Kate Bates, the poor protagonist with a rhyming name, enters the story by passing under a church window and overhearing the minister proclaim “The Wings of the Morning.”  Not staying to hear the context of what the preacher was talking about, Kate continues on her mission to ask her older brother Adam for some money to go to school for a teaching degree.  Her goal? To gain independence from her overbearing father and unloving mother, and to earn her own wealth after slaving away for her brothers’ inheritances and her sisters’ educations.  As the youngest child, her mother expects Kate to live out her life as a dutiful daughter, taking care of her parents in their old age. 

But Kate is ambitious.  She longs for the land she’s worked for, and hungers for the education she’s sacrifices to afford.  She self-teaches herself until she’s more educated than Nancy Ellen, which causes her father to threaten to whip her. 

Since her parents are completely against her setting out on her own, Kate takes her own initiative and goes to her eldest brother.   All of the Bates children live under the iron will of their father, and Adam is no exception.  He refuses to give her the money, but his wife, the nonconformist Agatha, does it on a whim (after a little manipulation from her son).  So Kate takes the money and essentially runs away from home, taking some of her sister’s fancy clothes with her.  Even when she gets her own license to teach her father tries to control her, getting her a job near home (and nearer his influence) without her knowledge.  But Kate has already taken a job further away and with better pay, and so forces her father to break her contract—and his word. 

In the town of Walden Kate settles down as a boarder for the cross, sneaky, and greedy Mrs. Holt.  All of Mrs. Holt’s bitterness against her goes away when she finds out that Kate is the daughter of the rich landowner Mr. Bates, and suddenly her boarder seems like a prime candidate for marriage with her lazy son George.

After a bad start, George tries his best to charm Kate.  He even goes so far as to try to be a hard worker in order to impress her.  Kate sees George as a poor comparison with Nancy Ellen’s beau, the young doctor Robert Gray.  But she takes advantage of his willingness to please her and puts him to work, giving him land-investment advice and helping him turn a scrubby lot behind his house into a profit.

Just as I expected Porter to cause her protagonist to somehow overcome this would-be cad and his shrewish mother, the story instead spirits Kate into a completely different situation.  Nancy Ellen and Robert Gray get married, and Kate goes to their home in Hartley to help her less-efficient sister set up house.  Afterward, wary that the Holts had their sights set on her and believing she could do better than marry George, Kate goes to a teachers’ course in Lake Chautauqua.  For the first time in her life she splurges on a hat that is pure vanity…and immediately gets it ruined when she tries to wear it in the smog and wind of the train. 

Crying herself to sleep—she actually used credit on that silly hat, and now she is in debt over something she can’t even enjoy!—Kate suddenly realizes she’s hearing double, that some of the sobs are coming from the next room.  She peeps into the next sleeping compartment to find an older lady in pain from a heart condition.  Kate nurses her through the night and they become good friends. 

Mrs. Jardine is a sort of counterpoint to Mrs. Holt, being completely likeable, sweet and motherly.  And like Mrs. Holt, Mrs. Jardine also has a son.  John Jardine is rich and handsome and educated and devoted to his mother.  It seems par for the course for a Gene Stratton Porter novel that after a few minor misunderstandings and surmountable problems, Kate and John will fall in love and get married and live happily ever after….

Except that’s not what happens. No matter how hard John Jardine tries, Kate can’t bring herself to marry him.  To do so, she thinks, would put her under the same power of her rich husband as her Land King father had over her all her childhood.  And she’s not ready to give up her independence. 

So Kate goes back to Walden and…marries George.  I know.  I thought I misread it too. 

I won’t give away the ending to anyone who might be a complete Porter fan and want to enjoy it and draw their own conclusions.  But I will voice my own opinions in a vague, non-spoilerish sort of way:

-          Of the Porter novels I’ve read thus far, this is my least favorite.  There are a lot of things that seem nonsensical, poor decisions that just seem wrong from the get-go, and the sudden plot twists seem to come out of nowhere rather than be a culmination of rising expectations and hopes.
-          Although I didn’t really find her likeable, Kate is actually a rather complex character.  She’s filled with ambition and independence, and yet makes choices that tether her to places and people she doesn’t really care about.  Some choices seem a little against character for her, but then, in real life people make out-of-character decisions all the time.
-          There is a Porteresque romance in there, and I really liked it…except it wasn’t as satisfying as usual because it did seem shoehorned in.
-         This novel seems like a huge departure from Porter’s otherwise sweet characters and plots that revolve around characters and their love of nature.  If Porter was consciously trying to break out of her sentimental mold, I’d say she did succeed.  This story has a lot of realism in it, trials and problems that would seem brutally out of place in Freckles, and even the villains of the story (and they’re not all Kate’s father and the Holts!) are pretty three-dimensional and have some sympathetic qualities.