Yes, Writers Should Be Critical and Have Standards: A Brief Meditation

This (rather overdue, I know) blog post is born out of some musings that have been gnawing at me for some time now, regarding how writers think and discuss the works of other writers, specifically, writers at or above their same experience level.

You see, I’m going to graduate college with a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing in less than three weeks. I’ve spent the last four years reading excessively, writing excessively, and talking about writing excessively. And as the years have passed and I’ve honed my skills, it’s become clearer and clearer to me how important it is to be honest and transparent when talking about writing, especially at this level. “This level” being the threshold of the professional writing world.

We have honed our craft and we have studied the craft of others. We know, or should be expected to know, what polished, good writing looks like. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to call out bad or lazy writing when we see it? Discerning the quality of writing and articulating valid criticism of that writing should not be something writers shy away from, even if we are afraid of hurting other writers’ feelings. My years of participating in creative writing workshops have taught me how important it is to tell other writers when they are not writing to the full extent of their skills, or if their works are simply not doing what they should be. We should not be afraid to hold writing to a certain standard.

It should be noted, though, that I do not exempt myself from this conversation. I am just as capable of bad or lazy writing as the next person. I have criticized my peers in workshops only to realize that I make the same mistakes I accuse them of. This is a reflective conversation. My desire is just that we writers stop tolerating bad or lazy writing just because the writer is our close friend, or very popular, or anything else. We have a responsibility as a community to hold each other accountable, to hold each other to a high standard.

I have often asked myself in workshops, or while reading certain books, if I am being unnecessarily critical of a writer’s work. I think to myself, “They’ve had a book published and I haven’t. Who am I to criticize them?” Well, the answer to that is this: I am also a writer. I have worked hard for my skills just like them. We both exist in the same literary world. Their work is as open to critique as mine.

I never want to look down at another writer’s work as if I am the authority on what makes good writing. Criticism should never come from a sense of superiority. I don’t criticize other writers because I think I write better than them. I criticize other writers at my level because there is a standard that writing at this level should be held to. We should have high standards–not impossible standards. There is a difference between offering valid, honest criticism and harsh, malicious criticism. We should always offer the former, with nothing but good intentions. But we should never let lazy writing slide because we are afraid that pointing it out will make us seem harsh.

As writers entering this world, our highest priority should be the cultivation of and pursuit of good writing. And we can’t do that properly unless we are willing to be honest about what needs improvement, both in our own writing and the writing of our peers.

Support other writers. Be honest with other writers. Learn from other writers, and work together to tell the best stories you possibly can.

A Tree in The Wind, I Bend

Today I’d like to take a moment to be honest with you all, and myself as well, and speak on a matter that has grown harder and harder for me to ignore in the last few weeks.

This summer has been without a doubt, the most difficult and discouraging season for me as a writer that I have experienced in my life. In May, when I returned home from my university, I was excited for all the time I would have to hone my craft. I looked forward to dedicating all these free hours to my stories. I set a goal for myself–to complete the first draft of my novel, The Birdcage Effect, before the end of the summer. I was convinced I could do it.

It’s now August, and I will be returning to my university before the month’s end. The summer is just about over, and I feel hardly an inch closer to my goal. In the last two months or so, I’ve written just over 7,000 words in The Birdcage Effect. In the document, this is 13 pages. In terms of the state of the plot, it feels as if scarcely anything has moved forward. I’ve been stuck in what I consider the “ending” of the book for some time now, and recently, any attempts I’ve made to continue writing have left me severely discouraged, and full of self-loathing.

The harsh truth about this summer that shakes my heart to the core is this: the more seriously I’ve tried to pursue my writing, the more depressed I have become.

I have never been officially diagnosed with depression. In all honesty, I don’t know how to name what’s happening to me. All I know is how sick I am of feeling this way, and that I don’t know what to do.

There are still stories inside of me yearning to be told. There is still a fire in my heart to tell them. But putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) has yielded me few words, and plentiful misery. This post is more of a confession than anything else. A cry for help, too, perhaps. I am grateful for the stories I’ve been able to tell, and their significance to me has not been diminished. But any writing I’ve managed to do on any of my many, many projects, has given me no joy. I fail to work up any motivation to so much as look at them, but even if I force myself to write something, I am consumed by overwhelming hopelessness.

Writing has become a house I am locked out of. I have lost the key, or it has been stolen from me, and I do not know how to get it back. I know there is beauty and meaning in this craft, but I have not been able to see it for some time. All I can see is my own incompetence. My own failures.

These last few days have been some of the darkest I’ve experienced in a long time. I haven’t slept well–my insecurities torment me at night when I feel most cut off from the people who love me and the things that I love. I don’t know how to put on a brave face anymore. So, here I am, being honest with you all, and myself, about this thing, whatever it is, that has stolen the light from my eyes that writing once kindled, and replaced it with melancholy.

I’m trying my best to keep trying. I know this won’t be the death of me, but I feel so very far from any sort of hope. I don’t know what else to say or do. Every part of me is tired. Every part of me is sick of this.

But I swear this isn’t the end.

Looking at Settings with Personality

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Illustration by Victoria Daru

In preparation for the start of #SettingSunday, the Twitter writing challenge that my friend Victoria Daru (@VictoriaDaru ) and I have created, I’ve gathered a couple short excerpts from various projects in order to break down just what we mean when we say that we want “settings with personality.”

A setting is not a character, but it can do just as much work as one. The settings in your stories have the power to reveal important matters relating to theme, tone, plot, character development, and more. There should be no superficial details; everything you say about your environments should have meaning, and contribute to the story as a whole. Your settings should be more than simple places to be.

What does this look like in practice?

The first line of my WIP, Like the Raven, reads:

The two moons hung like silver coins against an inky, starless night.

The notion that the moons resemble coins shows us that our point of view character, Ravenna, is preoccupied with money. This makes sense, because the is an ex-thief, and her outlook on the world around her is shaped by the years she spent as a cutpurse. This passage also tells us that she is travelling by nightfall, which hints at the notion that she is on a mission where time cannot be wasted, and also that her intentions are somewhat nefarious, and she needs the cover of nightfall to conceal her deeds. She is, in fact, on her way to raid a tomb. And lastly, words like “inky” and “starless” set the tone as fairly ominous. The night is without stars, just as Ravenna’s outlook on what she has set out to do is fairly grim–she is not confident that she can achieve the task she has been assigned, and it is the knowing of what will come from not completing her task that darkens Ravenna’s mood.

Some #SettingSunday prompts that this passage would be a match for: A World Without a Sun, Where a Story Starts, A Dark Place, Outdoors.

Another example, from my WIP novel, A Thousand Gifted Hearts, reads:

Embroidered curtains, pale as the face from his memory, billowed across the room.

In this scene, the point of view character, Carnelian, has shattered a window in his home after he believes he is being tormented by the spirit of a character he has killed. The embroidered curtains show Carnelian’s wealth, but the key detail is that he connects the curtains to the face, the face of the person he murdered. This shows that even in his home, a place meant to be safe, Carnelian cannot rid himself of the memory of his foul deeds. He sees her everywhere and in everything, whether or not her ghost is actually following him. The movement of the curtains also implies that the weather outside is tumultuous enough to cause the billowing, which can then be reflective of the inner turmoil Carnelian faces because of his past misdeeds. The external environment reflects the character’s internal environment.

Some #SettingSunday prompts this passage would be a match for: A Ruined Place, Haunted, Somewhere in Time, A Familiar Place Twisted into Something Different.

The quotes you post in response to our prompts can relate in a literal or figurative way, as long as they relate somehow. We want you to think deeply about the environments you craft, and why they matter to your stories. What do they reveal about your plot/characters/theme? Some of the strongest settings are shown through your characters’ interactions with their surroundings. Info-dumping details can kill your readers’ immersion in the world. Don’t let superficial settings slow down your stories.

The prompts for the month of June are already posted on Twitter (@willowylungs & @VictoriaDaru), so take a look! #SettingSunday kicks off on June 5th! We’re eager to join the conversation with you.

Happy writing!

Album Review: Arké by Natasha Jolene

 

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Let me preface this by saying I have never done an album review before–but also, I have never encountered an album  quite like Arké by Natasha Jolene. I downloaded this album when it was available on Noisetrade, and I fell in love upon the first listen.

Arké is a seven song concept album that explores the story of humanity’s beginnings, through the book of Genesis, chapters two and three. Its characters and themes show just how much the things that started it all impact humans in the present-day world. The songs are fairly mellow, not over-imposing or in your face. They are soft, even in the moments of suffering and anguish that they portray. Natasha Jolene’s voice is melodic and smooth, and a perfect accompaniment to her lyrics and the tales behind them.

This album portrays its source material as widely applicable to the world at large, yet stays true to its roots. Within the music and words there is peace, heartbreak, doubt, regret, forgiveness, devastation, and hope. Arké is a wonder, and the only way I can express my sincere adoration for it is to show you what it contains that means so much to me.

1) Delight

And every morning dew brought a promise
That we would never have to leave
We sang our songs of breathless wonder
Til the skies filled with harmonies

The album begins in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve. This song embodies the notion of new life, the joy that the first man and woman must have felt in God’s presence. If I had to describe this song in one word, it would be bright. It serves as a perfect introduction, just as the world we live in was perfect when God first made it. It was good. This song is not loud or beaming, but peaceful. I can perfectly picture the sunlight on the leaves, and the couple dancing in the dawn, knowing God and knowing the land and all it had to offer. But as we all know, this delight was not to last.

2) Will

Eternal soul
You’ve seen what isn’t good
Now, nail yourself to the tree
By whose fruit you choose to exist

One of my favorite things on this album is how seamlessly each song leads into the next. The shift from Delight into Will is so well-done, and as the first note rings out, the listener just knows what has happened. This song, as far as I have been able discern, is told from the point of view of God, as He watches His children choose the forbidden fruit. And we are reminded (very cleverly by Natasha Jolene) through the lyrics, that God sees what they are about to do, what they have done, and what will come of it. The shifting verb tenses in the song remind us that God is all-knowing and ever-present. He sees what Adam and Eve have chosen, and He sees where it will bring them, and where it will bring the rest of humanity.

Another one of my favorite choices on the part of Natasha Jolene is her references to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, throughout this album. I’ve heard it said many times that if you don’t see Jesus in the Old Testament, you’re missing the point. And this song is one of those reminders–the idea that through this sin, Adam and Eve have set the wheels in motion. They have let sin fall on humanity, and, one day, the perfect sacrifice will come and be nailed to a tree for their sin, my sin, and your sin. This is such a powerful moment, because it shows Jolene’s ability to mean more than she says on the surface. Though those lines reference a punishment, the listener cannot help but be reminded of the One who will ultimately take the punishment that Adam, Eve, and all of us, deserve. The death of Jesus Christ is foreshadowed, and because of that mention, the listener is powerfully reminded of the hope that we have in Him. I cannot praise Natasha Jolene enough for this genius lyrical device that appears continually throughout the album, where, even in the moments of deep regret and suffering, there is still the thought of hope.

3) Young Wood

Then we heard your voice again
From a distance you said,
Where are you?”

This song is quite simple, but it captures so much. The repetition of the line, “Where are you?” is so powerful. We know from the original chapters that it is God asking this question, but so often we as Christians will ask of God where He is. We need to be reminded that we were the ones who separated ourselves first. This song captures that separation, that shame, and that fear. Yet, this song is the calm before the storm.

4) The Dust

Who could love the dust?
Our naked souls are tainted now, and
Who could love the dust?
The mud we sling is us

This is, without a doubt, my favorite song on the album. The mark of a great concept album, to me, is when you can understand what has taken place in the story without any lyrics to tell you. When the shift from Young Wood to The Dust occurs, you can feel the transition–you can feel the Fall. You can feel that something has been gravely changed, that something will never be the same.

Natasha Jolene’s words are full of this knowledge, and in this song the curse is placed upon mankind. The realization of what has befallen Adam and Eve is poignant. Simply the way she sings the word “chaos” gives me chills, because it embodies the very real anguish of the moment. Ruin and death are the only fruit known to these characters now, and the reality of what has occurred finally crushes them. They cry out, “who could love the dust?” knowing deep inside that they are the dust and that nothing will ever be the same.

But, as Jolene is so clever, there is more to this question than ruin. Adam and Eve ask the question thinking that the answer is obvious–no one could love them anymore. They imagine the dust as the lowest of the low, unable to be saved or redeemed. But, as we know, this is not true. When I first listened to this song, that line hit me like a punch to the gut. Because there is just so much more behind those words than what Adam and Eve are saying in the moment. As Christians, we know the answer to that question. We know who could love the dust. The answer to that question is Jesus Christ.

This line calls back to the notion that first appeared in Will, the idea that even in a question pronounced with such hopelessness, in the answer and in the future, all is not lost. Jesus Christ did, does, and will love us, the dust. He loved the dust so much that He came and died for the dust. Jesus Christ, the perfect and spotless Lamb, died for the dust. If you take anything at all from this album please let it be that. The anguish expressed in these verses is not without a remedy. And so I praise Natasha Jolene again for telling this story as it should be told, because the most important thing she does in writing about this beginning is that she references its end. We know that though this tale began with pain, it all leads to Jesus Christ, the greatest of all endings.

5) Whose Voice

Who told you you were naked?
Who told you you were naked?
Who told you you were shameful?
Not I, child, not I

This next song contains questions with very different answers than the previous tracks. Again from the point of view of God speaking to His children, Adam and Eve are asked who they allowed to deceive them. Of course, we know the answer to these questions is Satan, the serpent and the first liar. But I want to point out something really profound I realized when I had showed this  to a friend. My friend remarked on the lines above, specifically the question, “who told you you were shameful?”

Our conversation led me to really dwell on the idea that Satan was the one who told us that we were not enough. When God created all of this, He called it good. We were deceived to think less of ourselves than what God saw in us. Looking at our world today, I am astounded by the amount of things we see and are told that make us feel inadequate. Humanity struggles so much with depression and feeling as if we are not valued–it makes perfect sense that the reason sin entered the world was because we were convinced we were not good enough. We were told that we had not achieved enough, and despite the fact that the God of the universe wove them together with His very hands, the idea took root in Adam and Eve that they were not enough.

If you are reading this, I want you to know that God was not the one who told you that you are not good enough. Those voices are not from Him, and that is precisely what this song is saying. It is a haunting reminder of where one of humanity’s deepest insecurities came from. It encourages us to return to the One who made us, to the One who saw us and said that we were good.

6) When Love Subdues

But you stripped my flower of its leaves to cover your own shame!
You’ve reduced me to an ointment to numb the place where your side gapes

I interpret this song as the voice of Eve, reflecting on what has happened up to this point. She acknowledges, ” I do admit to frailty, I do admit to my mistakes.” There is hope in this confession. This song boasts that yes, we have made mistakes, but all is not lost. The conversation of love again reminds us of Jesus, and the promise of Him to come. Hopelessness and hope battle in this song, feeling the weight of the situation but also knowing that the Creator is a Father, and He is love. The knowledge of the love of God leads to strength.  The softness of the melody here is calming and reassuring, because it reminds us of the declaration that when we are weak, He is strong.

7) Skins

This world is no longer glad to see me
And I’m no longer glad to see myself
The consequences of this choice are staggering
I need you; I need your help

The confession expressed in the previous song leads perfectly into the final track on the album–a cry for forgiveness. The acknowledgment that we have no control over this world, that we long for that original state of satisfaction and delight, and that that freedom is only attainable through God.

This song is a quiet meditation on our need for God, and the hope and peace we can have in His presence. It’s a perfect ending to the album, because it reminds us that no matter what we have done, no matter the poor choices we’ve made and their consequences, there is always room for us in God’s kingdom. All we have to do is make this same kind of realization–that we are broken and in need of help from the only One qualified to fix us–our Creator.


 

Arké is an album I will never forget. Every time I listen to these songs I am struck by their beauty and the message behind them. If you are looking for simple, lovely, and powerful Christian music, look no further. Natasha Jolene is brilliant, and I thank her sincerely for her hard work and for this wonderful album.

You can listen to Arké, and buy it here: https://natashajolene.bandcamp.com/album/ark

 

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

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I picked up The Book of Lost Things at a thrift store over spring break, and, admittedly, I was first drawn to it due to the beautiful cover art. But I am a known fairy-tale and fantasy lover, so when I read the synopsis, I knew I had to take this book home with me.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly follows the story of David, a young boy in England during World War Two. David’s mother has recently died, and he is thrown into a period of transition and unrest when his father begins a relationship with another woman named Rose, and David and his father move into her house–a huge old house with an attic full of books that becomes David’s new room, and a mysterious sunken garden. David struggles with adjusting to this new life, and when Rose gives birth to a baby boy, his relationships with the members of his family, new and old, becomes strained. Not only that, but David has frequent blackouts and hears the books in his room talking to him. He dreams of a fantasy world and a Crooked Man whose appearances become more and more frequent and disconcerting. Eventually David enters this fantasy world, where he seeks out the old king who rules there in order to find his way home. Along the way he encounters many friends and enemies, and those in-between, and finds himself faced with harrowing choices and nightmarish monsters, none so terrible as the Crooked Man himself. The Book of Lost Things is a tale of bonds, sacrifice, tricks, and what it means to move from childhood into adulthood, that all the while uses the images and themes from common fairy-tales, but twists them into a new, darker and more frightening world.

This book was indeed, very dark. I had not expected it to take the gruesome turns it did once David entered the fantasy world, and I found that my experience with this book was extremely fickle. I felt as if it took a while to pick up at the start, but once David passed into the fantasy world, things picked up almost too much. The twists put on some classic fairy-tales were too much at times. There were moments when I found myself just grimacing for entire chapters, because the events turned so graphic and unsettling. This is definitely not a book for children, despite the somewhat deceiving cover.

Along with that, I felt as if some of the events were not necessary to the plot, but were more thrown in as nods to certain fairy-tale tropes or themes. There were some scenes–at least one whole chapter–that I found completely unnecessary to the plot. If you’d ripped it out of the book, David would have ended up at the exact same place with no real change at all. There weren’t too many of these moments, but enough that I noticed them and they certainly stood out as stumbling blocks to the entirety of the story.

Moving on to the writing style, I found it for the most part very enjoyable. Connolly writes beautiful prose, full of imagery and vivid metaphors. At times, I did find the dialogue awkward. Some things David said periodically struck me as odd, or just not really believable for a twelve-year-old. Other moments in Connolly’s writing I found to be too informative, in the way of “telling” instead of “showing.” There were paragraphs or sections of chapters that, though valuable, were just dumped on the reader quite suddenly, and seemed to trip up the flow of the story. This happened mostly at the end of the book.

And lastly, I found this book predictable. I had guessed both major twists before I was even one-third finished with it, and those twists appeared at the end of the story. The ending felt a bit rushed as well, but it definitely still had its intended effect on me. Congratulations, John Connolly–this book did make me cry. I didn’t expect it to end the way it did, and I can almost forgive the ending for how powerful it was emotionally.

Overall, I rated The Book of Lost Things as 4 out of 5 stars. I am a sucker for fairy-tales, even the dark ones. I really enjoyed this book’s characters, and the plot at its core was well put together. I think all the events converged very  well, and even though I was able to predict a portion of the ending, I was still satisfied. Putting aside the graphic and somewhat irrelevant scenes, this book really grew on me. I can forgive it for those things, and the narrative and stylistic choices that I disliked.

I recommend The Book of Lost Things to anyone who likes dark fairy-tales, and stories and characters that tug at your emotions, even the unpleasant ones.