A Life Reinvented

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

A few weeks ago my husband sent me an article that he’d stumbled across in the New York Times and thought I might enjoy. The article is about William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, and how his career has grown and changed throughout the decades of his very long life. Zinsser has been many things: student, soldier, journalist, novelist, professor, editor, jazz pianist, and that’s naming only a few. And now, legally blind and 80 years young, Zinsser has embarked on yet another career: mentor and writing coach for novelists and journalists struggling to succeed in the difficult world of publishing.

I found this article incredibly inspiring. There are few people in this world who can truly call themselves masters of any one career or trade, let alone become leaders in many fields over the course of their lives. Zinsser has approached each new opportunity in his life with passion and determination, but also with the curious attitude that when one thing inevitably passes, another opportunity will, also inevitably, arise. I’ve heard people say “When one door closes, open a window;” I think Zinsser might say “When one door closes, open all the windows in the house, plus air out the basement and the attic and poke your head in some wardrobes to see if Narnia is hiding inside.”

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Review: Sanctus, by Simon Toyne

Sanctus, by Simon Toyne

Sanctus, by Simon Toyne

With the whole world watching, a green-robed monk throws himself from the top of an ancient citadel in the center of the mountainous Turkish town of Ruin. But his death raises more questions that it could ever answer. What was he doing atop the citadel? Why did he stand for hours with his arms outstretched, mimicking the pose of Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro? And above all, why did he choose to end his own life in such a macabre and public way? Was his death a terrible accident, or a symbolic gesture?

For charity worker Kathryn Mann and her family, the monk’s death is a long-awaited omen promising changes and revelations the world over. For the ancient order of fanatic monks who have lived in the citadel for thousands of years, is it a terrible betrayal that threatens to unmask their deepest, darkest secret: the identity of their holy Sacrament, long guarded against the outside world. And for New York journalist Liv Adamson, it begins a dangerous journey of body and soul, the result of which will change her life and the future of the planet.

It is impossible to discuss Simon Toyne’s debut novel Sanctus without making certain comparisons to a very famous conspiracy thriller that is seemingly loved and loathed in equal measures the world over. Superficially,  Sanctus seems to resemble The Da Vinci Code in both plot and structure. For instance, the novel begins with an inexplicable death shrouded in mystery but clearly portentous of things to come. Also like The Da Vinci Code, Sanctus involves a fanatical order of disturbed monks willing to torture and murder if it means protecting their secrets. But beyond the initial set-up, the resemblances to The Da Vinci Code quickly dwindle. In fact, I found Simon Toyne’s novel to be much more enjoyable than Dan Brown’s; better written and more imaginative, despite following a fairly hackneyed set of rules for conspiracy thrillers.

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Harry Potter and the Illiterate Wizards: Part III

*Warning: Spoilers for all seven Harry Potter books and movies follow. If you haven’t read the complete series, step away from the computer. Also, what rock have you been hiding underneath?

If you haven’t read Part I and Part II of this blog series, I highly recommend you toddle on over and catch up before continuing with this one. Also, lest any of you read too deeply into my criticism and get all steamed up, let me remind you that I love these books and this is meant to be a humorous take on the Harry Potter universe, not serious literary criticism.

So, now that’s over with, I present to you the third (and final) absurdity in the Harry Potter books that I only considered as an adult…

3. Deus Ex Machina

At least I'm good at Quidditch, right? Amirite? Anybody?

At least I’m good at Quidditch,
right? Amirite? Anybody?

Harry Potter is nominally the hero of all seven Harry Potter books. Obviously. But when you really take a long hard look at each and every triumphant moment in the books, it quickly becomes clear that Harry isn’t much of a hero at all. Not to say that he doesn’t have heroic intentions,  but from a purely literary perspective, Harry isn’t even much of a protagonist. He is a generally passive character whose fate frequently gathers him up and sweeps him along at a brisk and dangerous pace. And Harry is absolutely a survivor, but a hero? I’m not so sure. Because nearly all of Harry’s successes in the books come down to one of two things: “other people” or “by accident.”

In the first few books–which solidly fall into the children’s lit genre–Harry’s characterization works. He is lost, confused, and ineffectual, bobbing along in a swift current made up of the history and politics of a world he doesn’t fully understand. He’s also eleven. And these sorts of “everyman” characteristics made it easy for child readers to relate to Harry, to put themselves in his shoes. He wasn’t supposed to be a hero yet–just the Boy-Who-Lived, someone whose destiny has big plans for them. But then the third book came along, and the fourth, and still an adolescent Harry lurked in mediocrity, relying on his friends and elders to support him through the trials thrown at him again and again.

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Harry Potter and the Illiterate Wizards: Part II

*Warning: Spoilers for all seven Harry Potter books and movies follow. If you haven’t read the complete series, step away from the computer. Also, did you have a childhood?

On Monday I talked about some major failings in the wizarding educational system.  Today I’m going to discuss another huge absurdity in the Harry Potter universe that I only considered as an adult. Namely…

2. Cultural Xenophobia and Market Blindness

I mean, no one thought this turban was questionable headgear...

I mean, no one thought this turban
was questionable headgear…

First, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that witches and wizards are a global minority. Considering the fact that Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in all of Britain, and every magical child is obliged to attend, and all the wizarding families all know one another…yeah, definitely a global minority. Now let’s take a look at the wizarding community’s relationship with the Muggle world. That’s right–they don’t have one. Witches and wizards actively eschew any dealings with the Muggle world, and when a witch or wizard (like Arthur Weasley) shows any interest in the technology or culture of Muggles he is assumed to be a bit mental and generally shunned. And that’s the best case scenario.

And when forced to go out and interact with the Muggle world, witches and wizards seemingly take great pains to dress like idiots. The Minister of Magic himself, who is the only prominent magical personage to have any official dealings with the Muggle world, is described as wearing a pinstriped suit, scarlet tie, long black travelling cloak, pointed purple boots, and lime green bowler hat. Lime green bowler hat? Really? Where would one even acquire such a thing? It seems to be a badge of pride in the wizarding world to have absolutely no clue about Muggle customs or culture, and behave as though Muggles don’t exist, despite the fact that they outnumber the wizarding community a thousand to one. read more…

Harry Potter and the Illiterate Wizards: Part I

*Warning: Spoilers for all seven Harry Potter books and movies follow. If you haven’t read the complete series, step away from the computer. Also, shame on you.



Let me preface this post with this statement: I love Harry Potter. My granny gave me The Sorceror’s Stone as a Christmas present when I was eleven, and I was hooked. Harry and friends aged at almost the exact same rate as I did. When I turned twelve having never received a Hogwarts acceptance letter, I was secretly devastated. I was nearly fourteen when Harry, also aged fourteen, entered the Triwizard Tournament, and fifteen when Harry suffered the great loss of his godfather and battled Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic. I have reread most of the books countless times, attended midnight book releases, gone to midnight film screenings and read Harry Potter fan-fiction. I am, for better or for worse, a fangirl.

But while my love for Harry Potter has not lessened as I’ve matured, my ability to be more realistic about certain aspects of J. K. Rowling’s beloved series has grown. Now, when I look back on the series or rewatch the films I find myself bothered by certain facets of Harry’s world. So, with no further ado, I present to you: the first of three absurdities in Harry Potter’s world that I only considered when I was an adult.

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How (Not) To Begin a Story

Happy Monday, internetz! I think I’m coming down with something and my brain isn’t functioning properly, so it’s gonna be a short one today. Inspired by bad prologues, pilot episodes, and opening sequences the world over, I give you…

How To Begin a Story in 7 Easy Steps*

1. Flashbacks! Why limit yourself to only one flashback? Start off nice and easy with the first flashback, and then once you’re inside that flashback why not flashback another few years? Then, try a century or two! The more flashbacks, the better.

2. Stereotypes! Listen up folks, this one is important. This is the beginning of your novel. How will anyone be able to relate to your characters if they aren’t obvious stereotypes? Pick conventional archetypes that everyone will be able to recognize. You’ll need a bitchy cheerleader (remember, lipgloss makes you evil), a sensitive guitar-player (no one’s noticed he’s handsome because he’s quiet and writes poetry), an arrogant rich boy (only the right girl can redeem his damaged soul), and a manic pixie dream girl (she makes her own clothes). Voila! A perfect cast of conveniently pigeon-hole-able characters.

3. Disjointed Mythologies! There are so many world mythologies, and it can be tempting to just pick one. Don’t do it! Use them all. Norse, Greek, Japanese, Judeo-Christian–jam them all together! But don’t bother synthesizing them into one coherent hybrid mythology. Are you kidding? That would be way too much effort.

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Ode to Midnight Feasts

Reading, glorious reading. Illustration by Jon Whitcomb

Reading, glorious reading.
Illustration by Jon Whitcomb

My friend and fellow writer Emmie Mears recently started a Facebook thread about beloved childhood books that quickly spiralled out of control. As soon as I thought I’d remembered all of my favorite books from my youth I thought of another cherished novel or series that had made an impression on me. The Chronicles of Narnia; Into the Land of the Unicorns; the Dark is Rising Series; Redwall; Harry Potter. Each remembrance filled me with a warm nostalgia for days spent curled up in the sunshine, lost in the thrilling pages of some new saga.  But with each new remembrance came a recognition of a thread winding through all these childhood favorites: food.

Yes, food. Midnight feasts in cloistered dormitories. Exultant banquets celebrating the return of the unvanquished hero. Small sweets shared as a token of blossoming friendship. Children’s books celebrate food almost incessantly. Think of your favorite childhood novel and I can almost guarantee that at one point or another the characters will share in some ceremonial exchange of food.

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Pleasure in Fear: The Horror Genre

I should not have googled "under bed scary." *hides under covers*

I should not have googled “under bed scary.”
*hides under covers*

When I was about eight, a babysitter (who had apparently not been briefed on my parents’ ban on all things violent and scary) told me a scary story at bedtime. It was a variation on a classic theme: a young girl is left home alone with no one but her faithful dog. She is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a leaky tap in the bathroom, but is too frightened to get up and shut it off. She reaches down to her dog, who licks her hand in reassurance. She drifts off to sleep. When her parents arrive home the next day, they find their daughter murdered in her bed, and her faithful dog gutted and dripping in the shower. A cryptic message is scrawled across the wall in blood: Humans can lick too.

With the wisdom granted by adulthood, I can now see that there are some glaring inconsistencies in this story. For instance, why would the murderer slay the girl’s dog and then hide under her bed for an indeterminate amount of time? Was he hoping for the opportunity to lick her hand? Did the message hold some kind of significance for her parents, and if not, why bother writing it? Neither the cleverest nor the most original tale, I’m afraid. But despite all that, I can say with complete honesty that this story terrified me.

Scared. Me. Shitless.

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Childhood Inspirations: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about my penchant for fantastical aesthetics and surrealistic landscapes, and what, if any, part my upbringing may have had in inculcating those preferences.

Chris Van Allsburg was one of my favorites.

Chris Van Allsburg was one of my favorites.

I was always a creative child, and that creativity was fostered by my parents sending my to Waldorf School, where art, music and all things creative are inseparable from the instruction of less artistic skills like history and mathematics. I also loved reading, even before I could read on my own–my parents used to read to me before bed every night, lush picture books, C. S. Lewis, and later, the Prydain Chronicles and His Dark Materials. And once I could read on my own, I devoured books. Just to give you an idea of my voracious literary appetite, my sixth grade English teacher challenged my class to read and track 50 books over the course of the school year; imagine her surprise when I turned in my list after barely a month and asked for another sheet on which to keep track of my reading.

Intrigued yet?

Intrigued yet?

But among all the amazing art and fiction I consumed in my childhood, one particular thing stands out as having had a huge impact on my delight in all things phantasmagorical. That thing is a musical film, entitled ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.’ Released in 1953, the movie is created and written by Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known to the world as Dr. Seuss) and is the only live action feature film Dr. Seuss ever created. And did I mention it is a musical? Featuring a bizarre fantasy world right out of one of Seuss’ picture books, the film follows a young boy by the name of Bart Collins, who stumbles into a nightmare world where his strict piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, rules with an iron fist.

The Terwilliker Institute.

The Terwilliker Institute.

At the surreal Terwilliker Institute, Dr. Terwilliker is an autocratic madman bent on ruling the world through piano music. The grand hall of the institute features a massive 500 person piano, on which Dr. T intends to force Bart and 499 other boys (hence the 5,000 fingers) to play with no respite. Furthermore, Dr. T has imprisoned all non-piano-playing musicians in a vast subterranean dungeon, where he systematically tortures them for no better reason than they picked the wrong instrument. And worst of all, Dr. T has used his ominous powers to hypnotize Bart’s beautiful mother, Heloise, into being his assistant and bride-to-be!

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Sea Change: How to Revise Out the Bad and Keep the Good

"Is this wheat, or chaff?" "It's cotton, stupid." Image courtesy of Winslow Homer.

“Is this wheat, or chaff?”
“It’s cotton, stupid.”
Image courtesy of Winslow Homer.

I will readily admit that revisions are extremely difficult for me. One of the things I dread most about finishing a project is the prospect of then having to begin revising it. It’s difficult for me to precisely identify what it is about revisions that bothers me so much; some times I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of imperfect material that I have to slog through, while other times it’s a question of beating down my ego in order to recognize what is wheat and what is chaff, and how to separate the two.

Point is, revisions are not my favorite thing.

These pencils. In my eyes.

These pencils. In my eyes.

More often than not during the revisions process, I find myself staring at my manuscript until the black words marching across the page begin to swirl like ants being flushed down the toilet. I’ll force myself to tinker with a few sentences here and there, rearranging words without much confidence that any one phrase is better than another. And then I’ll give up, shuffling off to stab pencils into my eyes out of pure frustration.

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