Kathrine Stockett’s The Help

Thank you so much Sharla of Winter Write for giving me this book! I absolutely loved it!

Stockett weaves this story through the voices of three very different women:

Minny-a pillar-of-strength, no-nonsense woman who’s mastery of the kitchen regularly prevents her from loosing jobs due to her constant need to speak her mind.

Aibileen-surrogate mother to 17+ white children. After decades of waiting on white families she looses her only family, her son, when his white employers fail to see that he receives proper medical care following a farm accident. After this “a bitter seed is planted deep in her heart,” and she struggles to come to terms with the rules of her world.

Miss Skeeter-a young, freethinker who–at 22-years-old–holds a bachelors degree in one hand, but will fail to impress her mother until she has a ring on the other.

Upon returning home from college to find that her own, beloved maid has suddenly disappeared and those who know why are too afraid to answer her questions, Skeeter starts to see some of the injustices of her world and way of life. So after assembling a great deal of courage, Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen set out to do their part to end the injustice by publishing a book filled with the stories of southern black maids.

It was good to hear, from an inside perspective, about life in the South during the 1960’s. For some time I’ve held on to all kinds of questions about that culture and time. This book answered many of them.

It blows my mind that after 20 or 30 years of work, a black maid can only dream of earning minimum wage. I wonder at the complexity of the love/hate relationship between a black maid and the white woman who is helpless without her, but feels superior to her nonetheless.

I marveled at the Catch22 of a black maid raising up white children—sometimes with more love and care than their own parents—knowing that eventually these white children would become white adults and learn to debase her for her race and profession. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this situation is that the black maid must give so much to the care of a white family that her own family must go neglected. Her own children must forfeit the attention of their mother, because she is bound to someone else’s children.

My favorite part of this book must be contrasted against the prevailing facades, hypocrisy, and dishonesty of the white folk in this book. Aibileen tends a young girl who longs for her mother’s approval but goes largely ignored and brokenhearted, because her mother is too caught up in the foolishness of her society to provide attention for her daughter.

In a most loving and unselfish way, Aibileen finds the quiet moments to whisper in her ear that she is a special girl, a smart girl; a girl who can be confident and do great things. I just love Aibileen (and the real woman who inspired her character) for giving such a valuable gift to someone who could easily make her life miserable later. My hope is that instilling that little girl with confidence will help her make her own choices about race someday and not just parrot her parents’ views.

It’s clear that Stockett knew her characters well. She does a brilliant job of giving each woman her own distinct voice, heart, and feelings. I appreciate the clear view she provided of everyone in this book. I sympathized with all different perspectives: black maid, white southern belle, white trash, and redneck.

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End of Summer

A bit of nostalgia pulled this poem out of me:

Now the grass may recover;
Now the swings may rest.
Dormant rooms will reawaken,
And the buses will resume.

The world is turning us,
And leaving our merry frolic-time
To catch it’s breath.
But, Oh! It was fun while we were blithe.

Writing for Charity Event

If you are an aspiring writer and will be anywhere near Salt Lake City, Ut on Saturday (the 21st), you must check out an amazing opportunity hosted by one of my favs–author Shannon Hale (the Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days).

The day event is $70. You may bring a manuscript to hash over with the likes of James Dashner (the Maze Runner, 13th Reality), Bree Dispain (the Dark Divine), Anne Bowen (What Do Teachers Do After You Leave School, I Loved You Before You Were Born), and several others. Or you can just listen in if you’re shy about your work. The evening event is $10 and features live music, the comedians of Divine Comedy, and an all-star author’s panel including Brandond Mull (Fablehaven Series) and Shannon Hale herself!

I am dying that I did not hear about this before today! Alas, I am now locked into unchangeable plans and cannot attend. But I am already looking forward to next year and will be the first in line for tickets!!

Please click here to read more about this event, or click here for the event website and ticket info.

Now the Work Begins: Editing a Novel

Today’s guest post is from lovely and talented Nora Weston, the woman who knows a little bit about everything. Please visit the Noracast for insightful tips and tricks about everything from simplifying your world, to hosting the perfect party, to emergency preparedness on the road.

Ignore your finished novel for at least a month to distance yourself from the manuscript. I know it’s your baby, your masterpiece, but after some time elapses, your emotions will subside a little allowing the eyes and mind of an editor to take over. Passion is required to get the story down and the editing phase, if performed with a critical eye, will result in an exciting novel you’ll be able to submit.

* Run spell-check and grammar check. These editing buddies will not catch everything, but start with them and go from there.

* Hit “Find” and run a search for words ending in ly. I’ve seen numerous submission guidelines asking authors to check their use of words ending in ly.

Example/No: The extremely extravagantly lit ballroom was too bright.

Improved: The extravagantly lit ballroom was too bright.

Better: An overabundance of dazzling chandeliers sparkled with intensity almost blinding me.

* Hit “Find” and run a search for that, because this word can be overused.

Example/No: “Isn’t it enough that I show up every Sunday to help you?”

Better: “Isn’t it enough I show up every Sunday to help you?”

Example/No: This is the dollhouse that Steve made.

Better: This is the dollhouse Steve made.

* Hit “Find” and run a search for just and really since these words make appearances in manuscripts too often.

Example/No: This is just a really terrible salad.

Improved: This is a terrible salad.

Better: This limp salad is too warm and reeks like it came from a garbage dump.

* Read with a critical eye making sure you’ve used they’re, their, and there correctly.

Example/No: They’re is a black dog guarding the warehouse and he is scary. (they’re = they are)

Yes: There is a black dog guarding the warehouse and he is scary.

Example/No: The policemen told me there motorcycles are parked out back, but their missing.

Yes: The policemen told me their motorcycles are parked out back, but they’re missing.

Do you want more of an explanation? Check out they’re, their, and there.

* Comma Usage: Oh! Where do I begin? I think I’ll leave this one to Professor Pamela Braden of West Virginia University, Parkersburg, WV. This is a tough topic, so I’ll visit Professor Braden’s page when in doubt.

* Sentence structure and length needs to vary so readers do not get bored. Visit Purdue Online Writing Lab for examples. Also visit Dr. Grammar for helpful tips with word usage.

* Character Development: Is your protagonist likeable? Will your readers turn every page hoping this character sees the light, beats the odds, and/or has accomplished the task set before him, or her? This does not mean your protagonist must be perfect. Flawed characters are more believable and it’s thrilling to see a character evolve throughout a novel. Take time to create main characters that are three-dimensional. Give them a unique appearance, habits, expose their likes and dislikes, let their dreams and nightmares help shape their personality; use any means possible to let your readers into their minds. Do your readers know what motivates your protagonist? By the same token…do your readers know why the antagonist is so hateful? Has this character suffered? Check out what Susan Williams Beckhorn has to say about three-dimensional characters. Make sure to read #6, Show, Don’t Tell!

* Check your manuscript to find any sequential mishaps with times, dates, and events. If you’re writing a science fiction novel that hops back and forth between time periods, then this is vital to the story. It’s easy to get times, dates, and events confused when passion for the story has complete control over your brain.

* Dialogue: “How hard could this be?” Guy Hogan answers this question. Always remember, great dialogue moves the story forward. It’s especially fun to write dialogue for characters who speak with a certain amount of “attitude.” Too many dialogue tags can slow down the flow of a story, so be careful. If you take time to listen how people speak to one another, you’ll be surprised. Make notes, observe, and realize people do not constantly say the other person’s name during a conversation.

* Unnecessary Words: Take out words, paragraphs, and pages if they do not add to the story and move it forward. This is difficult to do, but it will tighten up the plot making the action and dialogue move along faster.

* Head-hopping/Point-of-View Violations: I prefer to keep one point-of-view per scene, meaning I only allow one character’s point-of-view to be realized per scene. I’ve read various opinions about this topic and editors disagree, but since so many submission guidelines ask authors not to have point-of-view violations, I stay on the safe side.

* Is there enough tension, or curiosity, at the end of every chapter to entice your readers to the next chapter? If not, add conflict, increase danger, introduce another problem, but keep your readers interested.

These tips will get you started. If you know of a helpful tip for editing a novel, share it by leaving a comment. Thanks for visiting!

Movie Vs. Book

Blame it on a recent disappointing experience, but I wish to weigh in on the common debate between a great book and it’s movie counterpart.

After reading a number of comparisons between books and movies, one idea stands out. The phrase oft repeated is something like, “I didn’t think the movie was true to the book.” or, “They did a great job. They really stayed true to the book.” The concept of ‘staying true’ seams to not be about exact duplication. The key is to recreate the heart of the story contained in the book. It’s not enough for a movie to imitate events. A movie must maintain the same intensity and quality in relationships, character development, tension, suspense, and all other facets of the story. But the how seams to be less important.

For proof, check out Jane Auten’s Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson–who wrote the screenplay– said that the dialogue in the book would not give depth to the characters in live action. The character development in the book is found mostly in the narrative sections. In order to ‘stay true’ to the characters of the book, Emma Thompson invented most of the dialogue of the movie. But she did it so well that even avid Jane Austen fans bought it.

Eric Van Lustbader’s trilogy about Jason Bourne offers a more dramatic example of this point. Both the book and the movie appeal to the same audience, and many comparisons claim that the movies remained true to the ideas in the books, but the story lines and events are not at all the same. I believe this is as it should be. Because the books were written several decades ago, simply recreating them–with their outdated technology and politics–would have been futile. The heart of the Jason Bourne story lies in his ability to use modern technology and his cutting edge knowledge to fight corrupt politics. So even though the events are very different, most reviewers are happy with both.

So if a movie is so different from the book, why keep same name? Why not acknowledge it as an entirely different story? The answer is to draw the crowd. The largest initial movie audience will be readers of book. That’s also why it’s so important to appeal to that group!

In my view, Ella Enchanted conversion to the screen was a colossal failure on this point. Gail Carson Levine’s novel is a charming YA fantasy novel about a adolescent girl who must dig deep for the inner strength she didn’t know she possessed. Tommy O’Haver’s movie is also charming, but it’s a spoof on fairy tales centered around a sassy but lovable teenager. Two cute stories, but as a fan of the book, the movie was a total let down. This movie might have done well if it had been marketed as its own product. But as the movie version of the book I loved so well, it didn’t stay ‘true.’

Where do you weigh in? Should a movie stick with the storyline of the book, or is it okay to go another direction? What books-turned-movies do you like/hate?

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova has earned her stripes and proven her skill with the well-researched masterpiece that is Still Alice.

However, this book confirmed for me that I am far more afraid of loosing my ability to think than I am of pain or infirmity. I will try to bare well any challenge that is thrown my way, but I crave the luxury of retaining my memories and ability to think and reason throughout. I place much value on the minds of older people. I would like to serve future generations the same way my predecessors have served me.

After watching my own sweet grandmother fight a loosing battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s I found myself nodding my head a lot throughout this book. I drew many parallels and have gained a greater appreciation for my grandmother’s experience.

Watching Alice go through this and realize her own uselessness was horrifying to me, because I thought of how helpless my grandma must have felt while her disease was progressing. I’ve honestly never considered what Alzheimer’s must have been like for her. I’ve calculated what it meant to my parents, their relationships with siblings, and other relatives and situations. But what must it be like to watch your independence fade and realize what a burden you are becoming and will be to your loved ones? I pray I’ll never know.

Another common experience I shared with Alice’s family is how much communicating can take place without thinking, through feelings alone. In the later stages of my grandma’s experience I remember that even though my grandma couldn’t remember anything or anyone from the present, it wasn’t hard to figure out if she was being treated with respect or condescension because of the way these incidents affected her mood and self-confidence.

My grandma didn’t need to remember any part of a bad or good experience for it to affect her. These experiences drove home to me exactly how important it is to not allow these people to slip through the cracks in our attention.

One important positive feature of Alzheimer’s that the book brought out is the unreserved love these people can offer the world. They love like few others can.

Likewise, I remember well, that as my grandmother’s expectations and ability to evaluate my decisions dwindled, the love she showed for me increased and multiplied over and over. That love was sincere and fully accepting. It never felt false or inappropriate to me. It was beautiful and so meaningful during my teenage years.

I’m so glad that the end of the story brought Alice’s family together and peace to her life. Her family worked hard to help her maintain her quality of life and demonstrated several ways she could add value to their lives.

There are some valuable lessons to be found in this book. Anyone who’s life was/is touched by this cruel disease should pick this one up.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: How I Craft a Book Review

If you’d like some advice about how to write a very formal and scholarly critique of a book, you won’t find it here. Please visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for a great article about that kind of book-reviewing. This is about the informal world of book-review blogging, and what I look for and aim to provide in a book-review.

So, to start: do you or don’t you take notes while you read? I don’t. I prefer to be absorbed into the story, and I can’t do that if I am constantly assessing whether the text or character or what-have-you is ‘jot-worthy’ or not.

I read the book, at whatever pace it demands, and then put it all–my thoughts included– on the shelf for a few days. After that I make a note of anything that still stands out to me: writing style, character development, a certain moment, a plot twist, anything. I figure if I’m still thinking about something after a few days, then it’s probably worth discussing in my review.

If nothing stands out, but I must write a review then my best bet is to go through a list of questions like this one from the Los Angeles Valley College Library and hope it gets the wheels turning in my brain.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t use a template for book-reviews. I shape each article individually. But while I’m shaping, I keep a few do’s and don’t’s in mind:

Don’t:

  • Stress about a comprehensive synopsis. Readers will go to Goodreads or Amazon for that. Most books already have dozens of synopses out there. Your personal opinions and perspective is the unique thing you can offer readers.
  • Be afraid to talk about plot twists, ending, or other surprise points. But be considerate, and warn those who haven’t read the book yet to stop reading your review if you are about to give away something important.
  • Think that a negative review will damage a book’s sales. Often times a negative review breeds more curiosity. If you want to deter readers from buying than don’t mention the book at all.

Do:

  • Read the entire book before you review it! This should be obvious, but for reasons unknown, some people don’t. You cannot pass fair judgment if you haven’t considered all the evidence. And as The Bloggers’ Bulletin suggests, you could end up with a foot planted squarely in your mouth if you make a factual error.
  • Mention the book title and author’s name in the first paragraph of your review. As Scholastic points out, no one likes to dig for that.
  • Express your opinions. As your reader that’s what I want from you. But if you’re reviewing a book about Mexican food, and if–due to a traumatic childhood incident involving avocados–you have an atypical aversion to Guacamole, it would be cool if you disclose that and acknowledge that your opinion may be colored accordingly.
  • Draw your conclusions and then explain why. The ‘why’ part lends credibility to your opinions and persuades your readers. Without the ‘why’ your review is just another rant.
  • Consider the author’s purpose in writing the book. University of Northern Carolina’s online writing center offers a great example of how skewed a review can end up, if the reviewer judges solely from their expectations and ignores the author’s intentions.

I usually sum-up by recommending the book to those that might find value in it, whether it’s a very wide audience made up of anyone who’s ever ridden in a car or a smaller crowd of moto-cross-loving grandmothers of Siamese twins.

So what about you? Do you take notes when you read? Do prefer the scholarly book-critique, or the casual, opinion-laden book-review?