Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

udolpho-coverContext
I happened to catch the end of the movie adaptation of Northanger Abbey a year or two ago, in which The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe was mentioned. I am a big fan of Jane Austen’s, so Northanger Abbey had already been on my to-read list for a while, but if it was going to poke fun at Radcliffe’s book, I wanted to be in on the joke. Of course, reading a 672 pages novel only to better enjoy a 254 pages novel might seem a bit excessive to some but, I guess it testifies to how much I love Jane Austen’s wit.

Review
This novel was one of the first book written by a woman for women–it had a huge success in its time and was accordingly disdained by men who thought it was too sentimental. I would have loved to contradict them, but sadly… it really is excessively sentimental.

People keep shedding tears at the sight of gorgeous landscapes, of which there were too many descriptions. I do love a good landscape description, I loved Tolkien’s, but here they were too numerous, too much alike and too little important to the story to hold my interest.

The characters were not very believable. They made me think more of Molière’s caricatured characters than actual human beings, without being as funny or satirical. There were excessive backstories for characters who weren’t even very important, which contributed to the excessive sentimentality. Also… the main character is arguably a Mary Sue.

The writing style of the writer was a bit wordy and contained with too many useless commas. I do love commas, but one every five words or so is too much. Seriously, I’d love to know the actual comma per sentence ratio, it must be extraordinarily above average. Behold the following extract:

With some difficulty, Annette led her to the bed, which Emily examined with an eager, frenzied eye, before she lay down, and then, pointing, turned with shuddering emotion, to Annette, who, now more terrified, went towards the door, that she might bring one of the female servants to pass the night with them; but Emily, observing her going, called her by name, and then in the naturally soft and plaintive tone of her voice, begged, that she, too, would not forsake her.

This sentence is 82 words long and contains 19 commas and one semicolon. It could have been elegant, but as it is, I find it exhausting.

udolpho-illustrationHowever, the book is not all bad: the plot is quite interesting. It is a hybrid between a mystery novel and a romance novel, all very gothic and angsty. The main character is depressed, scared, horrified or crying most of the time. But when not interrupted by landscape descriptions, it still kept me wanting to turn the page and see what happens next. There are also a few good themes and associated morals, including a strong warning against superstitions, which I thought was somewhat avant-garde for the late 18th century.

In conclusion, while I do think there are some excellent elements in this book, I can also understand why it’s only ever mentioned nowadays as context for Northanger Abbey. I’m glad I read it because it does make Northanger Abbey funnier than it would have been otherwise, but I’m also glad to be done with it.

Rating: 5/10

Who would I recommend this to? Crazy fans of Jane Austen’s like myself, writers (alongside Northanger Abbey) and maybe history lovers.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Week 4

NaNoWriMo Week 4The final week! Last year, that one went smoothly… I even managed to write over 5k words in a day. This year though, the cold I’d caught during week 3 persisted all through week 4 until the very last day. I managed to kick myself in the butt, however, and write until I reached over 15k words, the equivalent of 500 words a day. I used to consider this the bare minimum, but this month was crazy busy so… this a win. If it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo, I’d probably have written even less than that.

And now what? Well, on December 1st, I came down with a gastroenteritis. I wasn’t even fully recovered when my daughter started throwing up, too. I took a week off any self-imposed obligations and rested. jean-baptiste-camille_corot_-_the_reader_wreathed_with_flowers_virgils_muse_-_wga5288This week, I’m back to blogging, although I’ll probably take it easy fiction-wise for the rest of December. There are just too many other things that need to be done this month. Besides, I still feel a bit ill, with an almost constant heartburn and occasional nausea – probably my thirties slapping me in the face.

I’ll also use this time to “regroup” and plan my next steps. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do next… Rewrite my first novel? Continue brainstorming on my NaNoWriMo 2017 project? Continue another of my several WIPs? Challenge myself to write one short story every week or month and publish it? So many possibilities!

NaNoWriMo 2017: Week 1

Hello folks! Are you doing NaNoWriMo? How did your first week go?

NaNoWriMo Week 1Mine was rough. I wrote only 4,216 words when I should have written 11,667 words. Responsibilities, homework and social obligations prevented me to write 3 days out of 7, which didn’t help. The fact that I was tired the remaining 4 days didn’t help, either.

I almost gave up. I thought my exhaustion was proof enough that I shouldn’t be doing it this year. But the thought of giving up was too depressing.

Besides, this false start isn’t a problem. At this point, 50,000 words by November 30 is still achievable.

Story-wise, I almost switched to something else. Before NaNo started, I had trouble outlining this story because I couldn’t choose a direction. It is complex, as all psychological thrillers should be, so trying to plan it all ahead is a nightmare. I settled for using NaNoWriMo as a month-long intensive brainstorming session. If I can end the month with enough material to make a fairly detailed outline for draft 2, I’ll be happy.

Do not give up, people! No matter how late you are, no matter your chances of reaching 50k, don’t give up. Nobody “loses” NaNoWriMo: every participant ends the month with more words than they had at the beginning and that’s what’s important. And if it can get you into the habit of writing every day, it’s even better! It’s a win. A win that will outlast NaNoWriMo and make you grow as a writer.

NaNoWriMo is an exciting challenge, but it’s easy to get discouraged and forget why you’re really doing it: because you love writing.

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NaNoWriMo is about to begin…

Happy Halloween everyone! Enjoy the costumes and decorations and candy because November 1st is the start of the craziest writing challenge of the year: the National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who don’t know what that is: you have to write an entire novel (50,000 words long) in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words a day, every day, for 30 days. It’s a writing marathon.
NaNo-2017-Participant-Badge

This year, I thought I wouldn’t do it. It has only been two weeks since I’ve started working again after my burn-out leave, I thought it wouldn’t be very wise of me to add “writing 1,667 words a day” to my already very busy schedule.

But.

As usual, the pre-NaNo hype got the better of me. I love that excitement, feeling like I’m doing something completely crazy, and spontaneous and passionate… It’s a treat for my inner madman. Moreover: I’m doing it with friends. It’s a wonderful thing to get to do what I like the most in the world with people I love.

So! I’m too busy and unprepared and I have little chance of success, but I’ll attempt to write 50k words in a month. Who’s with me? Feel free to add me as a friend on the NaNoWriMo website.

I won’t attempt to give a crash course on NaNoWriMo, but I can link to some useful resources by The Lady Writer and K.M. Weiland. I’ve used some of their resources and found they helped. Other than that, No Plot? No Problem! has helped me a lot too, though it might be a little late start a 200-page book now.

That’s all for this week; I need to go write my outline already!

Review: Magnified World

Context

I’m taking an online creative writing class this fall at the University of Toronto. Of course, the teacher, Grace O’Connell, is a published author; that seems to be a prerequisite, alongside “having a master’s degree. So I figured I’d read her debut novel Magnified World, to know a bit more “who I’m dealing with”.

Magnified WorldReview

I’m not sure I should be reviewing this book. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I could have adored it because I love new age stuff and psychology, but I didn’t like the “artistic direction”, if that means anything to you; I liked the ingredients, but not the final dish.

The writing is irreproachable, as you’d expect from an MFA. There are a few weird images along the way, but better that than clichés, I guess. There is a bit too much setting description to my taste: I often caught myself reading a sentence or even a paragraph without really registering it in my mind because I didn’t care. But that’s just my personal taste and I’m sure people who love literary fiction above all else wouldn’t mind.

In terms of story, I loved the beginning, the images it painted in my mind, the mood. And I loved the ending, how the main character finally healed… but is still at risks of a relapse. However, I found the middle too long. There’s a lot of foreshadowing all through the first half of the book, and although it’s subtle, when combined with my knowledge of psychology and writing, it ruined the punch for me: I’d seen every plot point and plot twist coming from miles away.

That  being said, from the reviews I’ve read on Goodreads, it seems if you’re not a psychology connoisseur, some aspects might actually be too subtle: a few people complained they still didn’t understand who Gil was at the end of the book; I knew it, or at least had a strong feeling about it, after the very first card he’d sent. But hey, I’ve spent two months in a psychiatric hospital; I know things most people don’t.

The characters are well crafted and I could sympathize with all of them, although I could identify with none… except the mother, and only a little; only the hardships of raising a child while struggling with a mental illness. I found the main character a bit annoying because I couldn’t understand her. However, that didn’t prevent me from rooting for her, so I guess it’s all good.

The main theme is grief, and you’d think the book would make you cry, or at least make you feel miserable a little, but it doesn’t. I must say, it’s probably the first time I’m disappointed that a book didn’t give me any strong feelings. I did cry once, but I think most people wouldn’t even understand why I cried at that specific point because it had more to do with my own history than the book. It’s not funny either, though. I have no idea what the writer wanted to reader to feel, but I suppose it didn’t work with me.

Overall though, I think the book has a lot to offer… it just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 7/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of literary fiction, especially in their early 20s. Possibly psychology amateurs.

Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

Review: Viral Airwaves

Viral AirwavesContext

Claudie Arsenault was Québec City’s NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for several years. I have chatted with her a few times over the internet and even went to her place for a write-in during NaNoWriMo 2011. I don’t know her very well, but still, when she published her first book, Viral Airwaves, I felt I had to read it eventually, if only to show my support to a beautiful person that inspired me a lot.

I admit I delayed it voluntarily, though. I imagined her to be good and I was scared to be proven wrong. I finally purchased her book on an impulse, after having started a literary fiction that would likely be hard on my nerves and realised I wasn’t ready for another one of those yet.

I wanted her to be good with a force I hadn’t realised until I picked up the book with the intent to start reading it… as scared as that time I opened the letter that would tell me whether I was accepted into the only university I had applied to. I had an idea of how hard she works, how passionate she is about writing. If she could produce awesome work, then maybe I could, too, by following her example. I needed her to be good.

I was so scared. My expectations weren’t realistic, I thought. This was just her first book, even though I knew she had written several, already, by the time she published it. It was “just” an independently-then-self-published book, too. I couldn’t expect professional quality. Yet, I could expect no less, either.

That fear, however, died within the first chapter. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute I’ve spent reading this novel.

Review

This was my first time having a book printed from CreateSpace. The cover turned out more pixelized than expected (I don’t know if that’s due to the actual cover quality or the printing press), but the book is otherwise pretty and agreeable to read. The font might be a bit on the small size.

balloon

The language is fluent and agreeable. If I’m not mistaken, Claudie’s first language is French, and I was somewhat afraid it’d show… Now I feel silly about it. The book was obviously professionally revised, possibly more than once. It should have been obvious: the writer I know is too serious about her work to fudge essential steps.

The story is deliciously fast-paced, although it allows for slowdowns once in a while. Those short breaks never grow boring or pointless, however; the 464-page novel is action-packed and even I, who often wonder at the relevance of certain passages in other (ahem, traditionally-published) books, feeling as though the writer didn’t have enough story to fill 300 pages, couldn’t find a paragraph that didn’t belong.

The plot elements are brilliantly weaved into each other, too. I especially appreciated the discreet foreshadowing.

There is more romance than I like in my adventure novels, but… for me the perfect amount would be close to nil so it doesn’t really count. I didn’t buy all the love stories in the book, I rarely do, but I wouldn’t say they were badly handled; only, they aren’t the main focus. However, those are still better and more credible than the love stories in action blockbusters.

The characters are colourful and vivid. Maybe not as deep as the characters from another dystopian novel I reviewed recently, but deep enough. This book is action-oriented, after all. Too much psychology and emotions would have killed its entertaining quality and fast-paced awesomeness. My favourite is probably Treysh, but Andeal was the one I rooted the most for.

There is a bit of humour scattered here and there that either made me smile or laugh out loud. I love humour so this was the cherry on top. And besides, some of the events in the book are so terrible, I was glad for the relief those provided.

Of course, if I wanted to find faults with the book, I probably could. For one, there is so much knocking people out of their consciousness, it’s a miracle no one has any obvious brain damage. But I can forgive it just as I forgive it (among other things) in blockbusters or best-sellers all the time. There would be no point in my being harder on an acquaintance’s book than I’d be on perfect stranger’s, out of paranoia that I might be biased. I’ll have to trust myself on this

The White Renegade

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of adventure novels, especially if you like fantasy or science-fiction. I don’t especially like science-fiction, but there wasn’t so much science in it as to lose my interest. I mean, they fly in a hot air balloon over trees and rivers: nothing like the grey dullness of spaceships or Coruscant-like cities.

I already have a Kindle version of The White Renegade, a prequel to Viral Airwaves, but now I think I’ll get it printed… I might get City of Strife while I’m at it. I’ve found my self-published gem. I can’t believe it was so close to me the whole time.

If you happen to read the book, I’d love to hear your opinion about it!