Good Notes

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: April 1, 2015
Categories: Critique Process
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Creativity Inc.On this blog about critique (as well as very much about the writing process), I offer a plug for Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull. A graphic artist friend recommended the book, and indeed people of all stripes will find plenty to mine within. Animators, writers, managers, artists, moviemakers, CEOs… and members of critique groups!

 

There’s plenty about effective critiquing interspersed throughout. (The book has a good index: I recommend tracking “Braintrust” if you can’t take on reading the whole book.) But here’s a lovely summary by Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation, about the “good notes” that Pixar leaders offered each other from the beginning:

 

“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. “I’m writhing with boredom,” is not a good note.” (p. 103).

 

May we all give, and receive, the best of good notes.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

Let Me Count the Ways

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: November 25, 2014
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I’ve been part of Viva Scriva for seven years, and I’ve learned and received so much from them, individually and collectively.

Inspiration, and a demonstration of the value of Perspiration.

One time we were talking frankly about envy. I had to say that, interestingly, I wasn’t jealous of different members’ success, because, “If I’d worked as hard, I’d be further along too.”

Writing. Submitting. Revising. Revising. Repeating. Sending off to agents or publishers. Writing again, writing something different. Letting a project rest for a while. Picking it up again. No agent, wrong agent, new agent, right agent.

Perseverance. Stick-to-it-ivenss. Keeping on going.

Fun

-Crysanthemums, gum drops, and other delights served up Saturday evenings at retreats

-Viva Scriva salutes (forming a VS with our hands when all agreed on a comment at a critique meeting)

-Presents, most of them components of the “Viva Scriva outfit.” Ruth actually knit each one of us personalized socks (can you believe it?); colorful wraps from Brazil from Addie; wear-them-ten-ways hoodies from Amber; Czech bracelets from Nicole, customized VS pendants commissioned by Liz, logo Ts from Mary; wool scarves from Ecuador… (My contribution was culinary rather than sartorial: hand-carved wooden spoons from Romania.)

Thought-provoking Reflection

-Addie’s incredibly valuable, pretty-much annual, reflective exercises.

-Liz’s coaching about pursuing “low hanging fruit,” query letters, market overviews, etc.

-Amber’s review of careers of favorite authors as inspirational guides.

-Liz’s gratitude beads.

Support as we in turn went through professional or personal or family cares. Commiserating during setbacks. Celebrating accomplishments.

Retreats. Business meetings. Writing days. Art as process meetings.

Oh, yeah—and the monthly Critique Meetings that started and undergird everything. I received invaluable feedback on my manuscripts, and learned so much from others’ comments and writing even the months when I hadn’t submitted a manuscript.

-Respect and kindness (the praise sandwich).

-Truth (things said graciously, but everything that needed to be said, said).

-Sometime inadvertent tutelage about story arcs, motivations, trying it different ways, tight writing…

-Brainstorming manuscript problems, or process/approach, during one’s 20 Minutes.

-Encouragement: “This is so great.” “I know you can do it.” “I can’t wait to read more.”

-So much received from each Scriva and her particular “eye,” approach, and writerly-personality; from Addie, Amber, Liz, Mary, Michelle, Nicole, Ruth.

 

Reflecting on these and other gifts from these seven years, I have to paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse. How do I appreciate you, Scrivas? Let me count the ways.

Thank you, Scrivas.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

The Order of Things

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: October 27, 2014
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2014-10, Things Organized Neatly, Marianne Viero(AT LEFT: “Things Organized Neatly” or “Out of Order #1” by Marianne Viero)

Nicole and I started writing together a year or two before Viva Scriva came to be. She was working on a historical novel—and writing all the scenes in order. I was working on a fantasy novel— and finding out the story line by skipping and hopping, as the spirit led, from scene to merry scene.

Some time later, I set aside this and other works-in-progress to write the historical middle-grade novel I’m working on now. In this new book, I thought it was important to write the scenes in order, and I did so. I finished the earliest draft (that the Scrivas as a whole never saw) in this manner, as well as the almost-to-the-end re-write that followed.

In the meantime, Nicole attended a workshop with author Emily Whitman. One of the tips she came away with was to write the scenes she saw most clearly, or felt most strongly, first, then write the connecting bits later. That’s what she began to do, halfway through her novel.

You see what had happened, don’t you? We’d switched positions. She was now hopping around in her novel, while I was writing linearly.

More recently, I shook up my not-quite-finished novel and began to submit in a big way to the Scrivas. I gave them a fresh beginning, earlier in time than the version they’d seen before. But then… See, I need to have a finished draft to submit somewhere soon. And I realized that what I most needed, for my peace of mind, was to write the ending next. I finally knew how I wanted the book to end, and needed to know that I’d set that down.

So what did I do? I took a page from Nicole’s book. From my earlier story exploration. I wrote out of turn. Instead of revising my way through the middle of my story, and giving that to the Scrivas next, I skipped on to the end.

Then I backtracked and gave the middle to the Scrivas—well, the middle of the middle. Then they saw that section’s end.

Going forward, I’ll revise and fill in bits in the beginning, do the same with the first part of the middle, and then carry on all the way to the end.

Confused? So are the Scrivas. Still, they’ve been able to give me awesome comments, even though they (and I!) are looking forward to seeing the whole story in proper order.

The point of this post is that—learning from Nicole and me—at different times, for different reasons, you may need to write or revise your story linearly. At other times, you may need to skip around. Don’t worry about it. Just do what best serves the story and your current writing needs.

**

In case you’re wondering, what the Scrivas saw of my draft was:

-Beginning, 1
-End, 1
-End, 2
-Middle, 3
-Middle, 4

What they’ll see going forward:

-Beginning, 1—revised from above
-Beginning, 2
-Middle, 1—revised from a couple of years ago
-Middle, 2
-and so on, to a proper end.

 

Best wishes for your writing, in or out of turn.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

Let There Be Light!

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: September 27, 2014
Categories: Challenges
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By nature, I’m a night owl. Still, in May I started waking around 5 a.m. to write before anything else. The new wake-up time was hard starting out, but not terrible. And once I woke, I helped myself stay alert with exercise and coffee. (I hadn’t been a regular coffee drinker before.)

 

Over the months, my wake up time crept up. The snooze button saw more action. I adjusted the alarm to 6 a.m.… to 6:30… And so it went. I got to writing later in the day than I liked. Recently I evaluated matters and decided to go back to a 5 a.m. wake up and writing time.

 

This time around, it was extremely difficult. I realized quickly why. Whereas in May it’s light outside around 5 a.m., now it’s dark.

 

Just about then, browsing through writing books at the library, I came across the following on page 6 of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice W. Flaherty.

 

“[…] many writers who hate themselves every winter for their sluggishness and lack of productivity could be aided not by “more motivation,” but by bright full-spectrum light for a half an hour every morning to treat their brain’s seasonal response to the shortened days.”

 

Wasn’t this serendipitous? I don’t know about you, but I’m off to get some full-spectrum light in my life. I learned they make full-spectrum light-bulbs now that fit in a regular lamp. For myself, I may also get a timer, to have the light go on before the alarm. That way, I’ll think it’s dawn outside, and be ready to wake.

 

This fall and winter, let there be light!

-Sabina I. Rascol

2014-09, light spectrums

Switch It Up

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: September 2, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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2014-08, changing switchesSwitch It Up – ONE

 

I read somewhere of a writer who writes at her desk but revises in an armchair.  Something like that.

 

And I’ve often read the advice to print out a manuscript when revising it, because we see it differently on the tactile page.

 

I stumbled across a similar switch-up that works for me: switching computer programs.

 

I used to write my drafts in Microsoft Word. A couple of months ago I decided to put my draft into Scrivener. This allowed me to take advantage of Scrivener’s ability to separate a manuscript into parts, sections, beats, and chapters. There’s lots I still don’t know about Scrivener, but overall the program worked well for me.

 

Now, though I’ve been writing in Scrivener, I send my manuscript to the Scrivas in Microsoft Word. Before sending them the chunk, I give the whole section one more gander. It’s amazing what I further find to correct and change, seeing my words lined up in a different way. After this further revision in Microsoft Word, the document goes to the Scrivas. (Then, yes, I paste the revised chapters back in Scrivener, to have the most updated version of my manuscript together in my main writing place.)

 

 

Switch It Up – TWO

 

Another way to switch things up is choosing another location to write in.

 

If writing in your usual place feels stale or tiresome, try taking your computer or notebook with you somewhere else. For several weeks straight, I’ve been writing regularly in a coffee shop. Recently, I pulled out my work while at the park. I felt refreshed, and approached my writing a different way, in a different environment. This also worked when writing in bed immediately after waking, instead of getting myself to my usual location.

 

So how do you switch things up for yourself to keep things fresh?

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

Writing: Pregnancy and Other Metaphors

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: July 29, 2014
Categories: Creativity, Inspiration
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2014-07, lithography - 2 childrenThere we were. Seventh-grade Health class, the section on sex education. I could finally ask the question I had puzzled over since I was ten.

 

COULD a woman be pregnant and get pregnant again? Meaning, could she, WHILE carrying a baby, get pregnant with a second one? So that she would give birth in nine months to the first baby, and, say four months later, birth the second one? COULD such a thing happen?

 

No, is the short answer. But our teacher clarified that simultaneous-serial pregnancies [my term] CAN actually happen. In very, VERY rare cases.

 

Ha! She knew squat about writers. We as a race carry multiple simultaneous-serial pregnancies all the time. For years, I thought of my books as babies, all lined up in the birth canal, waiting to be born. The second and third and seventh books, crowding behind the first, keep pestering it: “Psst! Hurry! Get out already, so we can be born too.”

 

So, though I have no physical children, that’s my first and longest-enduring writing metaphor: writing as PREGNANCY and GIVING BIRTH.

 

*

More recently I thought of my writing as that magic trick (Danny, Scriva Nicole’s husband, told me how it’s done!) where the illusionist is PULLING OUT KILOMETERS OF RIBBON FROM HIS MOUTH, HIS BEING. That’s how I feel when I’m writing: that I pull out of myself mysteries that I never would have imagined all existed and fit in me.

 

*

 

Or a similar, but more profound image, is that I am LIKE GOD, WHO SPOKE THE WORLD INTO BEING. By no means do I think I or any of us are gods. But I believe that humans were created in God’s image (check out Genesis 1:26-27), so we share some of the Creator’s qualities: a desire for relationship, a sense of infinity, of right and wrong, and the ability to create, for a start.

 

God spoke a universe that didn’t exist into being. I, on my end (though with much more travail) write into being a story and world that didn’t exist beforehand.

 

*

The next metaphor I got from a new writing buddy, Carl. He spoke of writing as BUILDING A HOUSE. Everything that goes in a book must serve the building we’re trying to raise. The house can have interesting add-ons, but it must have the basics, and balance. We can keep an open mind and explore interesting paths, but must continue to refer to the blueprint to end up with the intended house.

 

The written house though is malleable, like something out of a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy. I can set down the rooms as they first come to mind. Then I give them a shove, bump them with my elbow, nudge them this way and that, and the rooms change position. Or  size, or shape or function, whatever is needed… All through the wonderful power of revision.

 

*

 

The current image I hold in my mind? Writing as LITHOGRAPHY. In chromolithography, separate stones (or plates) are prepared for each color. Each color is applied to the paper separately, one on top of the other, lightest to darkest. You need all the colors (plates, layers) for the full color image.

 

That’s how I see my writing right now, though in writing one starts with the strongest color. In this first go-through, I’m setting down the main story line. Of course I’m trying to do it perfectly, to put in everything needed from the beginning. Of course I fail, which is why I need a critique group. In future passes, I will add the additional colors to create perfect shape and shading: more sensory details (per Scriva Mary), more geography (per Scriva Amber), more motivations (per me), more likeability (per Scriva Ruth), and so on. The other week the Scrivas offered wonderful suggestions for my current novel. “Thanks!” I said about one of the changes I need to implement. “Though it will take a few passes before I get there.”

 

*

So what are your metaphors about writing?

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

The First Act: Thirds, Fifths, or Sevenths?

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: June 30, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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red-orange-yellow pieAristotle divided stories into three acts, Elizabethan dramatists preferred five. But exactly how long should the beginning be? Maybe you’ve never worried about how long the first act of your story should be, relative to the rest of your novel. But if you have, read along about my journey and how I settled this question.

 

Some time ago I dipped into How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, edited by Carol Hoover. I went away with notes on the chapter “Proportion in Plot, contributed by F. M. Maupin. Maupin divides a theoretical 200 page novel into five acts, then discusses around what page number significant plot points tend to fall.

 

I liked this model and looked at a favorite published novel through its prism. First I had to do some mathematical contortions because, in Maupin’s model, the five acts get divided into four sections of varying lengths. So for now I set aside the five acts in favor of four sections. Below are their functions. (Note: The page numbers go with that 200 page novel; if the novel you are looking at, or writing, is a different length, divide it into five equal acts, then adjust the section pages accordingly.)

 

-Section 1 (Act I) = pages 1-40, setting up the background of the story

-Section 2 (Act II + first half of Act III) = pages 41-100, showing the developing crisis

-Section 3 (second half of Act III + all of Act IV + first half of Act V) = pages 101-180, leading up to the climax

-Section 4 (second half of Act V) = pages 181-200, wrapping everything up

 

The novel I studied proved this model. Important events fell exactly where Maupin said they should. But when I sought to apply the model to my own partial draft/outline, I got stuck. However you cut it, into acts or sections, the first part still ends up being ONE-FIFTH of the book. I didn’t think that would work for my story. Sure, I can write forty pages of introductory narrative. But given the amount of material I have for my middle, can I really spare a whole fifth of my limited pages for just introduction? I chewed and chewed on this: What to do?

 

I continued to write and dip into other books on writing. Eureka! It turns out that, while Maupin’s is an excellent model, it’s not the only one. Other authors vary in their opinions about what makes for the ideal proportion of a first act. Below, the caps are my emphasis.

 

Here’s the wonderful James Scott Bell about where to position the doorway that leads the reader from the first to the second act: “My rule of thumb is the one-fifth mark, THOUGH IT CAN HAPPEN SOONER.” (Plot and Structure, p. 33) Yippee! Hooray!

 

Wait, it gets better. David Morrell, in The Successful Novelist, “allows” a first act that’s only ONE SEVENTH long! (On pages 60-61, he proposes three acts or sections. The first and third acts are each one-seventh long, while the second/middle act is five-sevenths.)

 

And on page 61, Morrell documents Henry James’s The Ambassadors. Morrell sees the structure of this novel as two groups of six acts—which supplies a precedent for first acts that are ONE SIXTH long!

 

Robert Kernen is also a proponent of shorter first acts. “While the length of act one is, of course, flexible, I recommend keeping it to NO MORE THAN ONE-SIXTH of the entire length of your story. This may seem very brief and out of proportion to the following two acts, but you should compress your story’s opening act so that the audience has all the information it needs but can get quickly into the major thrust of the drama.” (Building Better Plots, p. 19)

 

My conclusion? We can choose the proportion that best suits our story. To paraphrase the famous phrase, “Don’t worry, keep writing.” 🙂

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

Conversations with Oneself

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: May 31, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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conversations with oneself-talk bubbleWhat do you know? I was using a writerly tool beloved by some top writers without knowing I was part of a tradition. You yourself may be using this tool too. Or you can consider adopting it, if it suits your style.

When discussing outlining in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell notes an alternative to the traditional outline. He got the idea from David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.  Morrell, in his turn, got the idea from an interview with Harold Robbins, who got it from… OK, that I don’t know.

What is the tool? Conversations with oneself.  Written conversations.

Per Bell in Plot & Structure (p. 154; see also pp. 165-66), this is what David Morrell does.

“He likes to start a free-form letter to himself as the subject takes shape in his mind. He’ll add to it daily, letting the thing grow in whatever direction his mind takes him. What this method does is mine rich ore in the subconscious and imagination, yielding deeper story structure.”

In The Successful Novelist’s “Lesson 2, Getting Focused,” Morrell describes how most writers get started on their story. They talk with friends, their subconscious working as the story gains focus. Then they put these ideas in a dull outline. Then maybe they lose interest—or forget what got them excited about the story in the first place.

“What’s to be done?” Morrell asks on page 17. “For starters, let’s identify the inadequacies of the process I just described. One limitation would be that a plot outline puts too much emphasis on the surface of events and not enough on their thematic and emotional significance. As a consequence, the book that results from the outline sometimes feels thin and mechanical. Another limitation would be that an outline doesn’t provide a step-by-step record of the psychological process that you went through to work out the story. It only documents the final result. As a consequence, if you become too familiar with the story and lose interest in it, you have difficulty re-creating the initial enthusiasm. Still a further problem relates to those conversations you had with your friends or your significant other. Hemingway insisted that a writer shouldn’t talk about a story before it was written. He felt that too many good ideas ended in the air rather than on the page and, worse, that the emotional release of talking about a story took away the pressure of needing to write it. — Writing. That’s the point. While all this thinking and talking has been going on, not a lot of writing has been accomplished. But a writer, like a concert pianist, has to keep in daily practice.”

Though I, in the last couple of years, have started having occasional, judicious conversations about my novels with the Scrivas, all along, my main place to consider story ideas is a document I titled “Thoughts While Writing.” Every time I sit down to write, besides the appropriate story chapter, I open too “Thoughts While Writing.” I use this multi-part document (I start a new file when one gets too long) in many ways.

I prime myself by jotting down what I did before sitting down to write, or what I’ll do when I finish. I record plot developments to remember for later parts of the story line. I try bits of dialogue. I pray—for wisdom, inspiration, persistence. I debate the merits of new ideas, finding holes I need to plug in and stumbling across wonderful connections. I color-code the main threads I’m weaving through my novel. Everything that goes on in my mind related to my story gets written down as it comes. It’s not lost. It’s stored, ready, available. With apologies to J. K. Rowling, it’s like my own personal Pensieve.

Of course, these written conversations don’t require a computer. They can take place just as well in a notebook. Some writers have a general writing notebook storing all idea nuggets that work their way up from their subconscious, ideas for all current and possible stories. It seems to me, though, that for full benefits of Morrell’s idea, one notebook should  be dedicated to the conversations a writer is having with himself about one particular book.

So try it. Take it from me—or from James Scott Bell, David Morrell, Harold Robbins… Hold some conversations with yourself. Write them down. They’ll be useful in many ways later.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

The Body Speaks

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: May 1, 2014
Categories: Other Topics
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benches Seal BeachSo there’s this pier at Seal Beach, the beach closest to where my Southern California-brother lives. My brother loves the pier, any pier, and he’s got a nice, strong personality. So pretty much every time we go to the beach there, or anywhere there’s a pier, we all walk on the pier, together, talking. Maybe we talk intensely, maybe we talk desultorily, but usually, all of us who come stick with my brother and walk with him on the pier.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy spending time with my brother, and I love walking on piers myself. But not every time, I realized a while ago when I happened to go to Seal Beach with my nephew instead. This surfing-mad nephew parked himself on the pier above the breaking surf. “I’m going to stay here and watch the waves,” he said. My younger sister had already peeled off, eventually finding the ice cream shop. And I? I began to walk on the pier, as we usually do. Then, ‘No, I’d rather sit right now!’ So I did.

Ah, how my body savored just sitting on that bench, the sea in front of me, nipping wind safely at my back, my thoughts freely wondering!

I noticed my body’s physiology, affected by my emotions and thoughts, and remembered a goal setting/visioning seminar I attended at the beginning of the year. One of the speakers said our bodies talk to us, if we’d only listen to them. They can even help us make decisions, if we think of options and look at how our body reacts. We observed ourselves by thinking of a difficult situation in our lives, and noticing our body’s reaction. Then we thought about a happy time…

I haven’t nailed it down yet, but I’ve been ruminating lately about this connection between thoughts, feelings, and body/physiology. There are ways to harness this connection for my writing that I haven’t gotten yet, but it feels important to continue to ponder. I think how differently I would have felt—and how different my physiology would have been—if, on that bench, rather than savoring a lovely choice, I would instead have been waiting for someone who was terribly late, and I in a terrible, terrible hurry…

Capiche?

I observed my thoughts-feelings-physiology connection another time, on a perfect beach outing that I didn’t want to end. As I kept expecting the announcement that it was time to leave, my stomach and mind tensed, siphoning off enjoyment. When the call to leave didn’t come as soon as I feared, my mind and body finally relaxed. I could again enjoy the sweep of seaside colors, of clean, warm air…

The fab instructors of Mt. Hood Meadows ski instructors host movement analysis sessions, where we get to think through how we teach. The point is not to just tell a student to do something. If he knew how to do it right, he’d already be doing it. Instead, we need to specify exactly what muscles he needs to use and in what ways to achieve a desired outcome.

So, too, we can listen to our body speak, and include specific muscle reactions when painting the mood or action in a particular scene we’re writing. Before falling asleep the other night, for example, I felt myself tense my upper arms because I remembered something I should have done that day that I hadn’t gotten done. I may one day use that physical reaction for a character. Maybe it will be something defining, that s/he does all the time, or it may signal a situation outside the norm.

Alright, my tensing stomach and arms are telling me that I’ve spent too much time on this blog post and it’s time to turn in. What is your current physiology alerting you to? Or what conclusions might you have come to, on the topic of physiology and writing, that you’d like to share?

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

Reading Up: Studying Writing

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: March 31, 2014
Categories: Craft, Inspiration
Tags:No Tags
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blue studyingSome years ago I heard Kirby Larson speak about the genesis of her Newberry-Honor winning novel, Hattie Big Sky.

As I remember (though know that I do not have my mother’s phenomenal memory!)—as I remember from that talk, at one point Kirby had a long-lasting case of writer’s block. She was officially Not Writing. However, after her grandmother provided the “wild horses” kernel for the novel (read more about it here), Kirby did all sorts of things that moved her toward writing this story, all while continuing to tell herself that she wasn’t writing. She conducted research of one sort and another. She traveled to Montana more than once. And she typed out a copy of a novel she admired, intimately learning its timing, pacing, phrasing…  I guess it’s somewhat like art students copying master paintings to learn from the giants who had come before.

While I never yet took the time to learn by typing out a favorite book, I remain intrigued by the idea.

Here are a couple of novels I’ve read lately that I’d think of typing out–or, at any rate, studying more—and what it is I want to study further:

 

1)      A Girl Named Disaster, by Nancy Farmer

-I like the sweep of a longer novel for young readers, with an intricate plot and many places and stages in the heroine’s life.

-I like how so much cultural information about a world far removed from the North American reader’s is pocketed interestingly here and there, without the feeling of an information dump.

-And I like the satisfying ending that ties up questions from the beginning of the novel about the heroine’s parentage. Many novels, even for young readers, leave things open, which can be OK, but I’ve noticed that I like a good sense of rounding off, of closure in a novel.

 

2)      Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, by Katherine Paterson AND The Great Gilly Hopkins, AND

-I like how in all her books Ms. Paterson subtly paints people and the dynamics of the relationships between them, how she uses words to create in us, her readers, the emotions she wants us to have, the feelings her heroes and heroines have.

 

3)      Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

-I like how Ann Patchett moves us along to being wholly enmeshed in the lives and fates of her characters, coming to care deeply about both the hostages and their captors.

 

What about you? What novels have you read recently that you would like to study more closely and apply their lessons to your own work?

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

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