Happy Friday, everybody! We’re digging out of a snowstorm here in the Boston area, which means all I want to do this weekend is curl up with a lot of books and baked goods. (Gotta get a run in there, too.) In the meantime, let’s kick things off with a couple of book reviews in fifteen words or fewer.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
A beautiful story about family and kindness and the power of stories.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Epic and engaging look at the history of cancer. Literally cried at some parts.
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Whether it’s poetry or books for adults or YA, Woodson more than delivers.
Happy Friday, guys! My week has mostly been sneezing and hacking and staring out the window like a recluse in a Victorian novel. But I’ve also gotten a little reading in, so let’s kick the weekend off with my fifteen-word-max reviews.
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I already loved the show; now I love the book, which features more obstetrics.
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
I love the Penderwicks more and more with each book. Batty is a joy.
So. It’s been a week. I haven’t felt particularly writer-y this week, and a lot of other, smarter people have already said smart things about theelectionanditsresults.
This week I was also reading 26.2 Miles to Boston: A Journey into the Heart of the Boston Marathon by Michael Connelly. I loved reading the history of the marathon and going step by step in the route and remembering all the excitement of last year. I remembered the emotions of the 2013 marathon and the bombing and how the week after felt then, too. But I remembered how even in hard times, good people prevail. We need to stay strong together and fight for each other.
So instead of a regular Friday Fifteen, here’s a (fifteen words or fewer) quote I particularly liked from 26.2 Miles to Boston. It’s from five-time wheelchair division champion Jim Knaub:
“Just concern yourself with what’s ahead–anything behind you doesn’t matter.”
Happy Friday, all! I was feeling the good writing vibes this week, and I’m looking forward to a beautiful weekend here in the Boston area. Let’s get things started with a look at what I’ve been reading and writing in fifteen words or fewer.
Reading: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
This made me wish I’d been naturally better at science. High five, NASA ladies!
Writing: It always seemed like friendship at first but they always wanted something.
Girl, you gotta stop being so suspicious.
Gene Weingarten is one of my favorite feature writers ever. He knows how to craft a story and isn’t afraid to look at complicated characters. A couple of pieces he’s written are “The Peekaboo Paradox,” about children’s performer the Great Zucchini, and “Fatal Distraction,” about parents who accidentally leave their children behind in a car on a hot summer day. Both are heartbreaking and wonderfully written, and I highly recommend checking them out.
One of the things I admire about your work is that you consistently prove that great writing begins with great reporting. Talk about the importance of reporting.
Well, let’s start with the maxim that the best writing is understated, meaning it’s not full of flourishes and semaphores and tap dancing and vocabulary dumps that get in the way of the story you are telling. Once you accept that, what are you left with? You are left with the story you are telling.
The story you are telling is only as good as the information in it: things you elicit, or things you observe, that make a narrative come alive; things that support your point not just through assertion, but through example; quotes that don’t just convey information, but also personality. That’s all reporting.
What distinguishes a well-told story from a poorly told one?
All of the above. Good reporting, though, requires a lot of thinking; I always counsel writers working on features to keep in mind that they are going to have to deliver a cinematic feel to their anecdotes. When you are interviewing someone, don’t just write down what he says. Ask yourself: Does this guy remind you of someone? What does the room feel like? Notice smells, voice inflection, neighborhoods you pass through. Be a cinematographer.
Very much like Weingarten’s focus on the story itself, not extraneous flourishes, and creating a cinematic feel in a piece. Even though this is about nonfiction, I think both of these tips are extremely useful to fiction writers as well.
By now you’ve probably heard about This American Life retracting Mike Daisey’s story about the Apple factory in China. As with previous, similar cases of articles/memoirs being found less than accurate, it’s brought up a lot of questions about what it means to be honest as a journalist and as a storyteller. One argument I particularly liked comes from John Warner at Inside Higher Ed. Warner talks about how we all lie/fabricate details to some extent, but lying doesn’t always make for a more compelling story:
“The thing is, that these lies, these distortions, these fabrications, these untruths don’t make for a better story. They make for an easier one, a story with fewer thorns to swallow on the way down, a less complicated story….Maybe I’m just suspicious of these “better” stories because to me, the best stories are the most complicated ones, the ones that refuse to resolve in easy ways. Those are the stories that are most true because resolution is something that always remains just beyond our grasp.”
I love this focus on truthfulness as a necessary part of storytelling and life. If, as writers, we endeavor to connect with readers on a basic, human level, shouldn’t part of that connection be based on how complicated normal life can be? Sometimes there is no villain. Sometimes the hero has other motivations. Sometimes the resolution isn’t so satisfying. But that’s all part of the real human existence. I’d rather get the full, complicated picture than be condescended to as a reader.
Even though Warner’s article mostly talks about journalism and nonfiction books, it’s a good idea to keep in mind for fiction writers, too. While we get to make stuff up (flying ponies do exist!), we also need to remember that being alive is complicated. Existing in the world means that you may encounter people who don’t always conform to your ideas about who they should be, or you may struggle with your own feelings about a particular event. These complicated interactions need to be a part of fiction just as much as they need to be a part of nonfiction.
Make sure to read the rest of the article as well. Do you think truth plays an important role in fiction?