Review: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey PC cover 1Context

I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen. I have read all her novels and even part of her early works. However, I purposely delayed reading Northanger Abbey until I’d read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I’m glad I did, but I don’t necessarily recommend it.

Review

Northanger Abbey is Austen’s funniest novel. In addition to her typical satire is a critic on the writing trends of the time, some of which are still pretty relevant today. Behold:

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.

Or how less backstory is more story; a sound advice even today. Or even how to skip the boring parts. I found this especially funny since in The Mysteries of Udolpho, right before Emily makes a new friend, the reader is introduced to the new friend’s complete background story.

As a language professional who believes in plain language, I also especially enjoyed this gem:

“I do not understand you.” [said Catherine]
“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.” [said Mr Tilney]
“Me?—yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”
“Bravo!—an excellent satire on modern language.”

Mr Henry Tilney is one of Austen’s wittiest character and is now my favourite among the male leads. Catherine Morland is not my favourite female lead, but she plays her part well and is likeable enough.

I ADORED the dialogues in this book; I admire how Jane Austen can make a character say something, and the reader understand something completely different. I need to practice that skill…

While Northanger Abbey lacks the refinement of Austen’s later work (I’m thinking about Persuasion and Mansfield Park), this book has all the energy and wit of her early works.

My current ranking of Austen’s novels would be the following:

  1. Pride and Prejudice (10/10)
  2. Emma (10/10)
  3. Persuasion (10/10)
  4. Northanger Abbey (9/10)
  5. Mansfield Park (9/10)
  6. Sense and Sensibility (8/10)
  7. Lady Susan (6.5/10)

I’ll have to reread Sense and Sensibility though; I was a teenager when I read it and I didn’t yet fully appreciate Jane Austen’s skills. Also, Northanger Abbey is above Mansfield Park purely because the former is funny while the latter is pretty dark.

By the way, the 2007 Masterpiece adaptation starring Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild (♥) is good enough, but it doesn’t do justice to the novel. Read the book.

Northanger Abbey movie
Henry Tilney (J.J. Feild) and Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones)

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Austen’s fans, obviously; lovers of satires and parodies; fans of Brooding YA Hero on Twitter with a penchant for historical romance; and everyone who loves a sweet romance between a Miss Naive and a Mr Niceguy.

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Short Story: Truth Be Told

Foreword: This is Hard to Be an Artist‘s twin story. I wrote those in a week for my second creative writing class. The instructions were to create two very different characters and to insert them in the same given scenario, which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the fun.

~*~

Truth Be Told

 The sky had cleared when the church gates opened and Nadège didn’t feel like going back home right away. She went to her favourite bistro for lunch, then decided a long walk in the neighbourhood was in order. There were yard sales everywhere and she liked to use this opportunity to find little treats for her grandchildren.

She came upon a booth manned by a scrawny, brown boy who appeared to be drawing in a sketchbook. On the table were various toys and comic books, as well as housewares.

“Good afternoon, young man,” she said.

The boy gave her a long, hard look, then flashed a big smile and stood up. He left his sketch pad on the chair.

“Good afternoon, ma’am.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jacob.”

“It’s very sensible of you to sell your old toys and comic books, Jacob.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Nadège picked up a sealed bag of building brick toys and examined it carefully.

“There are two sets in there,” said Jacob, taking the instruction booklets to show the images to his prospective client.

“How much?”

“Seven dollars.”

Nadège smiled and pulled her wallet from her purse.

“My daughter loves those,” she said pulling a twenty-dollar bill and handing it to the boy.

“Your… daughter?”

Nadège laughed at his surprise. He blushed and ruffled through a tin box for change.

“Yes, my daughter. She even exhibits her creations, you know? Wait I have pictures.”

Nadège pulled her smart phone and showed him a photograph of a brick-built castle attacked by an army of fantastic creatures, including a flying dragon.

“Woah! That’s a lot of bricks.”

When he turned his attention back to the tin box, Nadège slipped her phone back into her purse.

“Are you having trouble finding change, sweetheart?”

“A bit.”

“Wait, I’ll give you a two-dollar coin so you can give me a five.”

He took it, and gave her a five-dollar bill.

“Oh, there’s ten dollars missing.”

“Hm? No, that’s the ten you just gave me.”

Nadège was quiet for a moment, wondering whether the kid might not be right.

“No no, it’s impossible. I gave you a twenty and I know that for a fact because I gave my last ten-dollar bill at Mass this morning.”

“Maybe you stopped elsewhere before coming here. Mass was hours ago.”

She clearly remembered using her credit card at the bistro to make sure she had enough cash for the yard sales without having to go all the way to the bank.

“No no no,” she said. “This is the first place I’ve stopped by after lunch. I gave you a twenty, I’m sure of it. You must have gotten distracted, I’m always talking so much. It’s fine to make mistakes you know? But you need to be able to acknowledge them.”

“I know, but I don’t think I’m the one making the mistake here.”

Nadège clenched her jaw and sighed. She knew she was right, but she was not going to pick a fight with a teenager to prove it.

“Very well. I hope you are speaking the truth, because ten dollars really isn’t worth a guilty conscience.”

She left Jacob to reflect on his actions and he did reflect on them. Her words had the impact of a curse.

“She looked upset,” said his mother, back from the bathroom. “Why?”

“She says she gave me a twenty, but I think she gave me a ten,” he said.

“Well, there’s an easy way to find out.”

She took the lined sheet on which they’d written all the day’s sales and started counting the total. Jacob bit his lip.

“You know what, she was probably right and I just got distracted,” said Jacob before she could finish. “I’ll give her back her ten dollars.”

He took the money from the tin box and hurried after the lady.

“Ma’am… in the end… I think it was my mistake.”

She smiled gently and took the bill from him.

“It’s alright dear.”

“Noooo, it’s a lie. I’m sorry. I knew from the start you were right, but I thought… I thought you wouldn’t miss ten bucks, what with the Gucci purse and all. I’m so sorry.”

His eyes watered and he lowered his head in an attempt to hide under his longish blond hair. Nadège smiled brightly and put her bony hand on his shoulder.

“Thank you for being honest. As a reward, I’ll be equally honest with you: seven dollars for this is too little—it barely covers the price of the smaller set. Discontinued sets in good condition are sought-after by collectors like my daughter and can sell for their original retail price and up. This bag right here is worth at least 27 dollars.

Jacob’s shoulders dropped, disgusted that he’d lost twenty bucks in the bargain.

“Oh, don’t be sad, dear. I admire honesty even more than I hate lies.”

She put the ten-dollar bill back in her purse and took out a twenty instead.

“Here.”

Jacob blinked and a tear fell on his cheek.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You deserve it and you need it more than I do.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Go on now, don’t make your mother wait.”

Jacob went back with a light heart, happy to be 20 dollars closer to his dream, but even happier to have resisted the temptation of the dark side of the force.

~*~

If you haven’t already, read this story’s twin, Hard to Be an Artist. Though the scenario is the same, it deals with different themes. It’s my favourite of the two.

Afterword: The assignment was to create two characters with near-opposite background and personalities: a female in her fifties and a male in his twenties. Then, we had to insert them in the following scenario: “A person has found something they wish to buy at a yard sale. They pay with a twenty, but the vendor only gives them change for a ten.” In both scenarios, the vendor had to be a clever and obstinate 13-year-old boy whose mother has gone inside to use the bathroom.

This exercise was really interesting, do try this at home!

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Short Story: Hard to Be an Artist

Foreword: I wrote this text and another one like it in a week for my second creative writing class. The instructions were to create two very different characters and to insert them in the same given script, which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the fun.

~*~

Hard to Be an Artist

It was that time of the year again: the entire neighbourhood was having yard sales. Aiden loved browsing through loads of unusual items for sale, cheap. About half of the stuff in his apartment came from either yard sales or thrift stores. But this summer, he was broke. He tried to focus on the sidewalk, but attractive colours in his peripheral vision made him turn his head to look at a table. Maiwen’s comic Be-Twin. She only sold the paper edition for a limited time, and Aiden had missed it. Yet there it was. He took the first volume in his hand and thumbed through the pages.

“Four dollars each,” said a boy’s voice.

Eight bucks. Aiden had only $23.65 left until his next paycheck the following week and he had intended to use it all for groceries. But he couldn’t let this chance pass, he’d never get another one.

“Six for both?” he tried, looking up at the kid for the first time.
“What is it? Buy one, get one 50% off?” The kid looked at him intently. “Seven is fine.”
“Deal.”

Aiden took out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to the boy.

“Oh wait, I’ll give you a $2 coin so you can give me a five.”

The boy took it, and gave Aiden a five dollar bill.

“Uh… there’s ten bucks missing,” he said. “I gave you 22, so you should give me back 15.”
“No, you gave me 12.”
“Dude, don’t give me that. I know I gave you 22.”
“You didn’t.”

Aiden’s shoulders fell. He thought this awesome find was the end of his three-month bad luck streak, but it appeared only to add to it… There was really no way to win in fighting with a kid over 10 bucks.

He looked at the other items on the table: other comics, a few toys and various household items.

“Alright, what’s it for?”
“What?”
“You’re selling your comic books and toys. You treated them well, too. They’re like new. And you’re lying about me having given you a $10 bill so you must be pretty desperate for money.”
“I’m not! And these things look new because I barely played with them, that’s why I’m selling them.”
“Uh-uh. Alright. Then let me tell you something. The reason I need this $10 bill is to buy my week’s groceries. See, my computer died on me the other day and I had to buy a new one right away, because I need it for work. If you keep my 10 bucks, I’m left with only six dollars and sixty-five cents for a whole week.”
“Use your credit card.”

Aiden smiled.

“Credit cards aren’t magic, you know? It’s already loaded from buying the computer and I might not be able to pay it back before I get charged a ridiculous amount of interest. Come on. Give me back my ten bucks and it’s all forgotten, ‘kay?”

Pouting, the boy reached inside the tin box for a ten dollars bill and gave it to Aiden.

“I’m sorry. You have nice clothes, I didn’t think you were so poor.”
“Thrift stores are cool. So, what was the money for?”
“A graphic tablet.”
“A tablet? You’re an artist, uh?”
“Jacob’s very talented,” said a woman’s voice. “Look.”

The woman picked up a sketchbook on a chair and handed it to him.

“Mom, don’t show those! They’re just rough sketches,” said Jacob, yet he let Aiden take it.

There were several sketches of the same character’s head in different angles. On other pages, there were character designs, buildings in perspective, various landscape elements like trees and flowers and rocks, a bicycle, a dog.

“Impressive.”
“Right? But art supplies are so expensive.”

She shrugged, powerless. The entire neighbourhood was rather poor. Aiden nodded.

“Well, keep it up, Jacob. Practice makes perfect. It was nice doin’ business with you.”

The boy showed a weak smile and Aiden left.

***

He appeared again an hour later, carrying two bags.

“I thought you were broke,” said the boy, frowning.
“I am. This,” he said raising the fullest bag, “is my groceries for the whole week.”

He took care not to look at Jacob’s mother and be reminded of how he failed at this whole adulting thing.

“What’s in the other bag?”

Aiden smiled and held out the bag towards Jacob.

“Why don’t you take a look?”

The boy reached for the box inside and pulled it out. His jaw dropped.

“A Wacom?!”
“It’s a bit old, but it’s still working fine. That’s what I used all through my art major, so… you won’t really need anything bigger unless you go pro.”
“You’re giving it to me? Thank you thank you thank you!”

The boy went and hugged an unsuspecting Aiden, almost knocking him down. Then it was his mother’s turn. Aiden was not mentally prepared for a hug attack.

“I can’t thank you enough,” said the mother. “It means a lot.”
“Twajsling…” he cleared his throat and tried again. It was just l-lying around in my closet in case my new tablet broke, but… these things don’t break. Like, ever.”

The boy promptly rescued a manga box set and two action figures from the table.

“Mom, can I set it up now?”
“Sure.”
“Can you help me… what’s your name?”
“Aiden. If your mom doesn’t mind… sure.”

Jacob’s mother nodded, and they went inside to plug it and install the driver. Then Aiden proceeded to give the boy several useful tips to get used to working with it. By the time Aiden went back out to go home, Jacob’s mother had carried most of the unsold items back inside for the night. He helped her carry the table.

“If you’re not too busy, will you stay for supper? We’re having spaghetti. It’s nothing fancy, but… it’s healthier than instant ramen.”
“You saw that, uh?”
“I sort of tripped on your bag, spreading its contents all over the floor. Dozens of instant ramen packets staring at me,” she said as if speaking of creepy critters.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have left it in front of the door. I live alone,” he explained.
“It’s fine, I’m teasing you. I have a 13-year-old son, I’ve seen worse. So, are you staying? I’m sure Jacob would be ecstatic to get to talk about drawing with someone who gets it for once.”

Aiden smiled, remembering his own mother’s exasperation when all he could talk about was colour theory and human proportions.

“I’d love to, thanks.”

~*~

Afterword: If you haven’t already, read this story’s twin, Truth Be Told. Though the scenario is the same, it deals with different themes. You’ll also find more explanations on the assignment at the end of the post.

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Review: Outlining Your Novel

outlining-your-novel-km-weilandContext

I’ve already written about K.M. Weiland, saying how impressed I was with the free learning material she offered. Among the books she has for sale, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success is the first I bought. It’s one of my best investments ever. This 187-page book is my new bible.

I’ve struggled a lot with outlining in the past. My attempts at pantsing all ended with two or three elegant chapters, abandoned when structural issues or plot holes craters came in the way. My first attempts at outlining were not very successful either. I didn’t know how to do it properly. I half-pantsed, half-outlined my first complete novel, and as a result, I had to re-outline it and rewrite half of it from scratch. I don’t mind; I enjoyed the learning process and I’m confident that, once I’m done, the result will be as great as I could expect for a first novel. But Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success made me confident I can do it right next time and not waste so many hours fixing the mess.

Review

As usual, I’ve enjoyed Weiland’s voice: the writing it tight and to the point, with a pinch of humour. It’s pleasant to read. It’s also well structured, with handy checklists at the end of each chapter. There are a few typos, like words broken off by hyphens in the middle of a line, but nothing awful.

The book covers everything, from brainstorming to character development to setting, with examples from famous books or movies. It brushes lightly on story structure, but if you struggle with it, you can always get Structuring Your Novel from the same author. There are also interviews with other writers on their outlining processes, which I thought was a nice touch; some resonated with me a lot, other… not so much. That’s okay; it means the approaches to outlining are varied and there’s something for everyone.

I loved that the author takes you by the hand and tells you exactly how to outline the way she does. You couldn’t wish for a more comprehensive approach. Some writers might prefer a less lengthy process, but my control-freak self will have a lot of fun with it.

outlining-you-novel-after
What my copy of the book looks like now

I didn’t just read the book from cover to cover; I worked my way through it over three months to re-outline my novel for the rewrite. I added self-stick tabs at all the important places and even savagely highlighted important passages. For a “new” book, one that’s still at the stage of idea in my mind, it would take longer. If you get the book, I encourage you to do the same. Take your time with it. Enjoy it.

There is an accompanying workbook, which I haven’t bought yet – I prefer working on loose leaves in binders over anything else. However, I got the free sample from Amazon and it does add a bit to the content of the main book, with infographics, so I might get it later.

Rating: 9.5/10

Who would I recommend this to? Every fiction writer should read this, whether they’re just starting out or a bit more experienced. Even pantsers could enjoy it and learn from it. I have no doubt it will make me able to write strong stories faster, and that it can do the same for you.

 

Hiatus…

Hello, my favourite people on the Internet!
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I’m taking a short break from blogging to focus on my creative writing course and on rewriting my novel. Last fall, the addition of a course to my already packed schedule got me burnt out and I’d like to avoid it this time. Seeing how I’m two weeks late to post this, I think it was the right decision to make.

Have a great summer and see you again in July!

Declutter your text: Don’t dump details

There is such a thing as too much information.

I know how tempting it is for beginning writers to tell the complete history of their world in chapter one, or to describe characters so thoroughly that no place is left for the imagination, backstory included. “Been there, done that,” like they say.

When you have a very detailed image of a character or place, or when you’ve spent hours over hours working on world building, it’s normal to want to share all of it. But what keeps people reading is the plot, and an excess of information can get in the way, in much the same manner that an excess of pretty words can create a heavy and somewhat dull sentence (see Use modifiers in moderation). Anyway, there is only so much information that the reader can remember at once.

bird3a

Details are to be sparkled, like spices. I like to compare words with images. Look at the picture on the left. You see the shape of a bird’s body, hints of feathers, a closed eye and an open beak, from which a heart is coming. You don’t have to think to see that 1) it’s a bird and 2) it’s singing a love song. Simple, yet effective. Stripping your text to its bare essentials is a great way to understand what the bare essentials are. Once you understand that, it’s easier to manage huge amounts of details, should you decide that simplicity doesn’t suit your style.

I like to pretend that I am writing a mystery, and what needs to be discovered is what characters look like, especially inside. If my lead female is an undiagnosed autistic, for example, I don’t just go and say it. There are loads of undiagnosed high-functioning autistic people out there, and they don’t go wearing a label on their forehead. But they go interpreting people’s words too literally, and they go anxious that they will miss social cues and embarrass themselves, etc. Instead, I show my lead female paranoid of being accidentally rude, realizing too late what people’s intentions are, internally debating whether something was said in a sarcastic way or not. And I show her pissed off when she feels like others think she’d dumb because she has trouble figuring out social interactions. I don’t even have to say that’s she’s been picked on because of it in the past. It’s backstory sans backstory.

Same if my lead male is pushy: I show him pushing and pushing until the other characters feel he’s overstepping the boundaries, and then I show him trying to restrain himself from pushing too hard, because of course that’s been reproached to him in the past. It might even have cost him a girlfriend or ten. Again, backstory sans backstory. Both examples also illustrate the right interpretation of “show, don’t tell,” which I used to find tricky since stories are inherently “told”.

Every time I write something that is not immediately linked to the plot, I ask myself:
blue flower3

  1. Does it reinforce the characters, the themes, the scene or the voice/tone?
  2. Does it provide the story with an important element, like a hook, a comic relief, a change of pace?
  3. Could I write it in a more concise way, integrated into a plot-oriented scene?

Sometimes I’ll ask myself those questions during the first draft stage, but most of the time, it’s during the second draft… and all the ones that follow.

Of course, sometimes bits of historical information dumps are necessary, or a character’s backstory is an integral part of the plot, and such like. When that happens, there are a number of ways to make those more immediately interesting: you can insert a bit of history to slow the pace between two scenes heavy in action, for example. Or a sweet memory can add some relief to an otherwise angsty main plotline.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! You can check out the following articles for more writing advice on how to declutter your texts or subscribe to be notified when I post a new article. Take care and happy writing!

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation, Beware of repetitions.

Review: The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1)

Context
In high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy, the few exceptions being either in the Freaky Stories collection or written by Jane Austen. Yet, I managed to ignore the existence of Canada’s own Guy Gavriel Kay until cégep, by which time my to-read list had already blown out of proportions. Even when my mother found the whole Fionavar Tapestry trilogy for something like a buck a piece, I didn’t start reading right away. It was a fantasy short story contest, which I ended up not even doing, that got me started… and addicted.

The Summer Tree

Review
It’s been a long time since a book captivated me this much. Every time I wasn’t reading, I’d wish I was. I stayed up late because I was unable to stop reading. It made me remember why I used to love reading fantasy so much, although it also reminded me of some of the things that ended up boring me out of fantasy novels…

I read the French translation, so I couldn’t talk about the language. However, there is one writing device that ended up getting on my nerves because I felt it was over-used: that technique where you make something surprising happen and then explain how the situation came to this. I don’t hate the technique per say; it can be super interesting and effective. But everything is better in moderation. I don’t know if a non-writer would notice it though.

The world of Fionavar is strongly inspired by The Lord of the Rings (with maybe some Narnia?), which in many other books made me roll my eyes, but The Summer Tree brings enough new elements (paganism-inspired gods, for example) and is of sufficient general quality that I didn’t mind too much. What I did mind a bit was the weird names in seemingly another language while everybody in Fionavar was speaking English. It’s one of those things that Tolkien did well, but that his “copycats” should drop. That’s a minor thing, though.

The characters are interesting enough, the guys especially. One of them, my favourite, the one I identified the most with, felt more “alive” than most fantasy characters. The girls… meh. Maybe other girls could relate to them; I couldn’t. But that’s often the case, especially with girls-written-by-male-author. In the second volume (yes, I couldn’t wait to start the next book in the trilogy), one of the female characters becomes much more interesting though.

The book was written in the 80s and… it smells of the 80s, too. The mindset, the preoccupations, that kind of things. It was also the rise of feminism and sexual liberation… consequently, in Fionavar, guys seem unable to spend a single night alone in their beds: girls won’t leave them alone. Such girls typically don’t even have names and none of them ever gets the guy to think they might want to start a relationship with them (in a few instances, the guy even thinks about starting a relationship with another girl the very next day!). It sounds like a second-rate porn trope. The redeeming points here are that said scenes are non-explicit and typically span on over a paragraph each. Not so bad as to make me hate the book or author, but annoying enough for me to lower my rating by 0.5 points.

Just like The Lord of the Rings, the book can’t stand alone. There is “some sort of ending”, but of the type that feels like “here ends the first act” more than “here could have ended the story if the writer hadn’t felt like writing a sequel”. Its structure is, again, similar to that of The Lord of the Rings: when the characters get separated, you first follow one party, and then the next. And boy do you want to follow and see where it leads!

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Adult or young adult fans of fantasy, especially non-writing men or boys. Although, outside from the great classics by Tolkien and CS Lewis and the like, I’d sooner recommend Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy. I might need to reread that one so I can properly critic it.