Posted in audiobook, books, classic literature, dystopian, lessons learned, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Lessons Learned: Brave New World

I just finished listening to Brave New World by Aldus Huxley and there were three main lessons I took away from the book.

Those who aren’t familiar with the novel should know a few things. It was published in 1932 and is a dystopian fiction novel set in largely London and, for a brief period, in a Native American reservation in New Mexico. The story explores themes of society vs. the individual, passion vs. stability, and the price of happiness.

Lesson 1: Use unique structure purposefully

In the early chapters, Huxley has a section where the Controller is explaining the dystopian world to the reader through a tour he’s giving to research students visiting a fertilization factory.

During this explanation, there are insertions of other character’s points of view, sometimes breaking in after only a few lines or mid-sentence. At first, the style was very distracting, especially since I was listening to the book and didn’t have visual cues of the shifts. The patched together structure was interesting, though, because as the Controller is explaining the process of creating humans ideal for their society, the reader is given examples of how these methods control the behavior of individuals.

If you choose to use a unique structure in your writing, make sure there is a good reason for it, or it may only serve to confuse or distract readers.

Lesson 2: Don’t preach to readers to get a point across

I have a personal dislike for preachy books, probably because I grew up in a very religious household and had more than enough of that growing up.

If you have a particular point or philosophy you want to share with readers, do so through the characters and story and NOT by directly telling them what the right way or answer is. Let them discover the idea or answer by experiencing the story.

Huxley does this very well in this book. The Controllers and other characters do, at times, directly state the theories and philosophies of the society, however there is always a skeptical character to give the reader another point of view or at least make them question the legitimacy of the concept.

Each of the four main characters have viewpoints that differ from the main society in different ways as well, so the reader isn’t inundated with only one character’s arguments or ideas. Each character is also given a strong reason for seeing things differently, so their struggle with society feels genuine and unforced.

As the reader, there were times it was hard to decide which idea or concept was “right” or “better” because Huxley did such a good job of showing both sides of an argument. Instead of telling the reader how to think, the story asks reader to thoughtfully consider the philosophies presented and decide for themselves.

Lesson 3: An unsatisfying ending can work when the story calls for it

Just as there were times while reading that I couldn’t fully commit to one side or another of an argument or philosophy, I couldn’t really think of a way the story could end in a satisfying way because the issues were too big to be wrapped up simply and easily.

Maybe Huxley felt the same, or maybe his purpose wasn’t to provide answers (which I think is very likely), because the book doesn’t have a satisfying end in the sense that any of the issues are solved. A few of the characters find relatively acceptable ends but, for the most part, story aspects are left either unhappy or up to the reader to puzzle out.

It didn’t bother me to have the book end like this, though, because a neatly wrapped up ending where everything was solved would have felt manufactured and trite. The purpose of the novel seemed to be to get readers to think more deeply about how individuals and society have to reach a balance, what it means to be happy, whether passion and stability can coexist, and who or what should set moral and ethical boundaries.

A story doesn’t need a satisfying ending if the purpose is to leave readers unsatisfied enough to keep thinking about the problem and the possible solutions.

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New Release: What Had to be Done

I read “Persaded” by Jane Austen several years ago as part of my ongoing quest to read more classic literature. I’ll be honest and say a lot of the classics I’ve tried have been a challenge to get through. This wasn’t one of them. I really enjoyed reading “Persuaded” by was intrigued by the idea of making it a little more current for younger readers. It took only a couple of months to write, but it’s taken several years to get back to it for editing, cover design, and actually getting it published.

Now, it finally available in ebook and paperback!

What Had To Be Done

WHTBD frontEveryone has bad days. Anna Elizondo is going on three years of bad days.

It started with her mother’s illness and eventual death, continued with a decision that ruined a friendship, and culminated in her father announcing they were broke and moving away right before her senior year of high school.

Maybe a fresh start will turn things around.

Or maybe it will put her face to face with her former best friend Felix and the hatred in he still carries for her.

The only bright spot in Anna’s move to Santa Fe is meeting her new swim coach, a long-time hero who has big plans for her athletic career. The pool is her refuge, but she can’t hide there forever. Living in a small town makes it impossible to stay out of Felix’s way, and unlikely their history will remain just between them for long. If Anna can’t find a way to make things at least tolerable with Felix, it’s going to be a very long summer.

Available now!

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Posted in audiobook, books, classic literature, lessons learned, reading, writing

#LessonsLearned: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 In my continuing quest to read more of the classics, we  listened to Fahrenheit 451 on a summer road trip. My kids are 12 and 15, and they really got into the story. It turned out that my son had to read this in school this year, but for some reason I never had to read this in high school. Instead I was slogging through Great Expectations and The Iliad

We listened to this on Audible, and I have to say, Tim Robbins was the perfect narrator for this book. His quirky style and expressive voice fit very well with Guy Montag’s character and the whole feel of the story. Well done.

Now, on to the lessons learned, because part of the reason I embarked on this quest to read more classics was to understand what made them classics and what these writers did to have their stories stick in the minds of so many people for so long.

Lesson #1 – Side Characters Can Make All The Difference

Fahenheit movieLet me start by saying that after we listened to Fahrenheit 451 we watched the HBO movie version, and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. No, it was not the original story. That’s okay. BUT…one of the changes we were all most disappointed by was that Guy’s wife Mildred was completely written out of the story.

Mildred was a bizarre character, but that’s why we loved her. The first time you meet Mildred, she’s overdosed on sleeping pills and Guy has to call some version of 911 to get her help. She’s okay by the next day, and when Guy mentions what had happened, she says that she wouldn’t have done something like that and forgets about it. She initially tries to understand Guy’s anguish over the books he’s stolen, but ultimately can’t handle the threat to her worldview and basically loses it and turns on Montag.

While Montag is the character rebelling against society, Mildred is a prefect example of what this society has done to the people within it. She wraps up multiple ideas and messages and concepts in one nutty package and tells the reader so much more than endless pages of explanation ever could. Bradbury “showed” you his cautionary world through an expertly developed side character.

Lesson #2 – You Don’t Have To Shove Your Message Down Readers’ Throats

Fahrenheit 451 has several important themes: the importance of free speech without censorship, the dangers of mindless conformity, how detrimental pleasure seeking and instant gratification can be, and the importance of not being willingly blind and ignorant. It’s a fascinating piece of social commentary, but readers are shown all these themes through characters’ thoughts and actions rather than Bradbury launching into long discussions about philosophy and social theory.

The fast cars that kill so many young people are casually mentioned in a conversation with Clarisse, highlighting how a fanaticism for entertaining and instant gratification has drastically reduce the value of human life. Mildred’s attempted suicide and the general feeling of malaise and depression of the characters shows how willing ignorance and conformity slowly destroys the spirit. Montag is affected by the woman who is burned with her books, but then we learn he’s been stealing and hiding books for a while, showing deep seated internal problems in an outwardly average and law-obeying citizen. Clarisse is an outcast simply because she likes to take walks and observe the world. She’s a threat to society because she makes others think about their own lives and choices.

It’s a classic example of “show don’t tell”, but I point it out because when writing with a clear purpose and message, “telling” often overpowers the “showing” and pushes readers away. Weaving your message into your characters, setting, and storyline will have more impact and stick in readers minds much longer than shouting at them to agree with you.

Fahrenheit 451 Lessons Learned

Posted in books, classic literature, lessons learned, reading, writing, writing advice

Lessons Learned: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I’ve been on a quest to read some of the classics I should have read by now. Actually, I listen to them on audiobook while I run, but same difference. I wanted to read classics not just so I know what people are talking about when these books come up, but because reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing, so why not learn from the masters?

As Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I’ve got the writing a lot part down, but I’ve neglected reading lately, particularly classic literature.

stephen-king-read-a-lot-quoteIn 2017 I’ll continue my quest, and share you all what I’m learning along the way.

So, on to Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

2017-01-03-03-58-11This was a different type of book than I’d normally pick up, but my friend Denise recommended it so I thought I’d give it a try. This is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t really have a focused plot. The reader simply follows the characters’ lives for a certain period of time. I have to admit, it wasn’t one of my favorite books for that reason. I like a clear-cut storyline I can follow.

However, I found the book absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective. If you want to know what early 20th century life in Brooklyn was like, read this book! I don’t write historical fiction because it is way too much work. I’m not willing to put in the research, time, and effort to do it justice, so I leave it to those more capable. If I were ever going to write historical fiction, though, I’d use this book as a guide.

Aside from the careful attention to detail in this book that made it so fascinating, one of the most poignant lessons I learned from this book was the importance of writing realistic characters, and I mean realistic to the point of almost being painful. Because this is a historical fiction novel meant to capture the great difficulty most poor Brooklynites faced in the first few decades of the 1900s, it truly delves into the awful situations of the time.

***Spoilers head***

There were times the family has so little food, they would play a game pretending they were explores at the North Pole waiting for supplies to arrive-slowly starving in the mean time. Sometimes the rescue didn’t come quickly.

The mother, Katie, admits not only that she loves her son more than her daughter because he is an easier child and different enough from her that she can understand him, but also that her marriage choice has left her facing a bleak future of staying with her drunkard husband and carrying the family largely on her own.

Francie, the main character, is often told by others that she’s barely pretty enough to be considered passable. It breaks your heart when she falls for the first guy willing to dote on her and ends up bitterly heartbroken when she realizes how cruel people can be.

The handsome, charming Johnny, a young man teen girls dream of being swept off their feet by doesn’t turn out to be Prince Charming at all. He’s a drunk who folds under pressure, never wanted the children he has, and despite loving his family is incapable of being the father or husband his family needs and deserves, and dies young and penniless.

The early 1900s in Brooklyn were a harsh time period. Betty Smith doesn’t sugarcoat it to give readers a nice, feel-good story. She highlights the unfair struggles real people face, the crushing mistakes they make, the regret they face over unrealistic or selfish choices, and the often bleak hope they hold onto that things will get better.

Lesson learned: If you’re goal is to tell a realistic story, develop characters who are deeply flawed, make choices they regret, face unfair situations, and are sometimes unlikable. In other words, write real realistic characters.