The Wordsmith and The Raven

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171 years ago today, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe was first published. The perceptive among you have most likely already come to the conclusion that the name of this blog is in tribute to that poem; quoth the raven, quoth the wordsmith.

This has always been one of my favorite pieces from Poe. The rhythm is pure perfection with the words fitting snugly together without any jagged edges or awkward pauses. Even if you aren’t a fan of the meaning, you can appreciate the pure artistry that went into crafting this masterpiece.

The first line, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” is the writing equivalent of a master-crafted sword. The rhyme and rhythm lend themselves to an effortless pace, letting the reader recite the prose the way it should be without having to try. It makes even the most stilted and awkward reader sound like a bard of old.

And it’s all because Poe pieced the words together in such a way that they read beautifully no matter how you say them. I can’t even imagine how long it took to write the entire poem, since there are so many lines like it within the full work. The vocabulary it would take to write something like this is baffling alone, especially seeing as it was made during a time when you couldn’t just Google “what rhymes with Lenore”.

As a writing exercise, as well as a small tribute to the man who sparked my penchant for prose, I decided to challenge myself to rewrite a small part of the poem:

Once upon an “edits day” dreary, while I right-clicked, weak and weary,
Over many a dull and lifeless lines of Calibri; page 90 of 324—
   While I backspaced, nearly crying, suddenly there came a sighing,
As of a laptop gently dying, dying without a save, I’m sure.
“It will recover,” I muttered, “feeling anxious to the core—
          I think I remember it has before.”

   Then this soft and distant voice reminded me I’ll have no choice,
But to edit it all again if it doesn’t back-up or restore,
   “Quiet, self!” I did decree, “Surely it’s just a myth,
you’re computer skills certainly aren’t that poor!
Tell me I’ll learn this time for sure?!”
         Quoth the Wordsmith, “It’s your not ‘you’re’.”

I thought this would take a few minutes, but it took me nearly an hour. If you’re a fan of Poe, I encourage you to join me in celebrating The Raven‘s publishing anniversary by leaving a few lines of your own.

Here’s to Poe, and all those who inspire us. May your words live forever!

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

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Welcome to my Bookshelf

Welcome to my BookshelfI find it fascinating to observe the bookshelves of others. When I visit friends or family, my eyes will inevitably wander to where the books are, whether stacked on an intimidating shelf in the sitting room, or piled in a small stack on an end table.

You can learn so many things about someone from what’s on their shelf, and I don’t mean just the books alone. Aside from books, I’ve got seashells, a few keepsakes, a beautiful picture of my grandmother on her wedding day, and some candles.

And whenever one of the various book-related Facebook pages that I follow asks their followers to post pictures of their shelves, I love to look at the colors, how the books are stacked, how many empty spaces there are, and what they have that I do too.

So today I want to share my bookshelf with you. And I’ll do more than just post the picture. Since 7 is my favourite number, I’ll give you some insight into the 7th book on each shelf, depending on how well my memory serves me. Let’s begin:

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, J.R.R. Tolkien. Much to my shame, I haven’t yet read this book. I bought it when it first came out, and then it kept getting put aside for lighter pieces. That’s one of my favourite things about my shelf; I haven’t read everything on it yet.

Lady of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is part of Bradley’s Avalon series, which I love. It’s an adult, feminist take on the legend of Arthur, saturated with real Celtic traditions and history.

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett. This was the first book that I read by Follett, and it was after I watched the mini-series. I would highly recommend both, since one won’t spoil the other. It’s a rich, standalone book that baffles in the way that it comes full-circle between the first chapter and the last.

The King’s Grace, Anne Easter Smith. My grandmother sent this book to me because of my passion for historical fiction. Though a steadfast fan of Philippa Gregory, I enjoyed reading about the Plantagenets from a different perspective.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. I first watched the movie, and then read the book. Because it often happens that I watch a movie only to discover that it was based on a book in the end credits. Now, I loved this story. The relationship of a father and son is told with simple, honest writing, and the book is deeper because of it. However, McCarthy didn’t use contractions. Enough said.

Each one of the books on my shelf has a story outside of the one within it. Like the ones that my grandparents read and then send on to me; the pages turned by their hands, just as I turn them myself. Or the ones that I dropped in the snow or the tub or that were lost for a few years and then found again. Or the ones that are on one of my other shelves, the ones that hold places of prestige in my home, that I read over and over again.

To me, my shelf says that I’ll always believe in dragons. It says that I’m an adventurer, and even a little bit of a romantic. But mostly, it says “me”.

What does your shelf say? What is the 7th book on it?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Reading by the Season

Seasonal ReadingAs fall approaches, I find myself craving books that I first read when the leaves were turning and tumbling to the ground. I am, as many of you probably already know, a dedicated re-reader. Some books that I have read I will only ever read once, but some I try to read once a year.

Those books, the annual reads, tend to call to me at specific times each year. For example, right now I could do with a bit of historical fiction by Philippa Gregory or a long afternoon with The Hobbit, but come November, I will be itching to read Harry Potter all over again, or His Dark Materials.

In the spring, I like to settle in with something from Mary Stewart or James Herriot, and in the summer I make way for books like Dove and The Hunger Games.

And I can only assume that this is because I am a nostalgic person. When I read these books, I’m taken back to the very first time that I pulled open the cover and ran my fingers over the pages. I can remember the sense of wonder that followed me through every chapter, and I remember falling in love with the story one word at a time.

When I was younger, I would become so entangled in a story that I would start to become it at times. When I was reading the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, I would relish the descriptions of food; heavy creams and honey drizzled over fresh, warm bread, pitchers of berry juice and spiced cider, and soft, smoked cheeses encrusted with nuts.

This obsession would drive me to survive of mostly breads and cheeses and juices for the duration of the book, causing my mother to question why the honey and cheese always disappeared so quickly.

Likewise, when I first heard of Lembas from LOTR, I wanted it. But the closest I could get was by purchasing Sesame Snaps. I would sit up in my room, and every time Sam and Frodo would eat the elven sustenance, I would too. I so desperately wanted to be in the story with them.

The same thing would happen when I was very young, but not with food. I remember reading about fantastic worlds with magic, and heavy woolen cloaks, and mystical beasts and feeling an ache in my heart that I couldn’t be there too.

This depth of reading takes you from the simple experience of being a watcher to being an active player in the story. You become entwined in the words, feeling every weather change, tasting every wine, and wielding every sword as if you were there yourself.

This is the beauty of fiction and the ultimate purpose of writing; to have experience that you, or others, may never have otherwise. To feel the scales of a dragon, or to have a heavy crown placed upon your head. To become a hero or a heroine, or to wreak havoc on the world.

I believe that my seasonal cravings for books are borne from this total immersion into stories. Just like the Sesame Snaps, reading the books again during a season that is either well-described or poignant in the book makes me feel even closer to it. It is the difference between being an observer and being a participant. Whether to stand by or to act.

So now, as autumn settles in, bringing with it cool nights and stunted days, Bilbo calls to me from the worn pages on the shelf, beckoning me to join him once again as he trudges through damp, dank forests and dark cold caves. It’s not really surprising that he is on my mind though, seeing as he and Frodo share a birthday two days from now.

Do you read any books seasonally? Do stories affect you in the same way? What stories call to you the loudest, and which do you get lost in the most?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Dry Spells

Dry SpellsA couple of months ago, my grandfather sent me a box full of books. I had been complaining about having nothing to read, and books are where we always find common ground. He has never suggested a book to me that I did not like, so as I opened the box, inhaled the smell of old books, and started to pull them out, I was feeling that unique high of a reader; anticipation and indulgence all swirled into one.

There were maybe 20-30 books in this box; I can’t even imagine what shipping must have cost him. I found homes for all of them on my shelf, and left the one that he had spoken the most about on my end table (Sailing Around the World, by Joshua Slocum). Around the same time, I had ordered 4 books from Chapters as a birthday present to myself, so, as you can imagine, I was inundated with reading material.

I should be through those books by now. I’m a fast reader, my evenings and weekends are free, and the only things that beg for my attention are my pets, who would gladly curl up next to me to enjoy a few quiet moments with a book. But I’m about 30 pages into Sailing Around the World, and it’s a good book; clever, full of dry humour, adventurous, and well-written. So why aren’t I finished?

It’s because, as sometimes happens to me, I am experiencing a dry spell. No book can hold my attention, not even Harry Potter or The Hobbit. I can’t re-read any of my old favourites. I can’t get caught up in a new bestseller. I can’t even finish a book that I started months ago. I don’t want to read in the evenings. I don’t want to read in the bath. I don’t want to read on a sunny weekend afternoon.

And it’s not that I have no desire to read, it is that nothing interests me right now. My brain is craving other forms of stimulation, regardless of how I feel about it. In some ways, it can be a blessing. When I read a book, when I become entranced by a story, I am a slave to it. I eat it, breathe it, sleep it. I physically crave it when I can’t read it. I will become so involved in it that I will read even when I only have 3 minutes to spare.

This makes me wonder if perhaps it is healthy to take breaks every so often, to lose that all-consuming feeling of curiosity and longing. After all, if I were to feel like that all of the time, it might drive me quite mad. Reading has become an addiction to me, and to abstain from it for a week or a month at a time can help me to clear my head.

I find that when I keep my distance from the pages, I am able to focus more on my own writing. Questions that have been floating around in my head for ages suddenly have answers and plots can be untangled. I have more time to explore other mediums that I relish, such as video games, movies, and theater.

And the strange thing is that during these dry spells, I do not miss reading. I do not gaze at the books on my shelf in exasperation or frustration. I do not feel as if I have lost anything, but instead, as if I am taking a vacation and will soon return to the routine that I know and love. I know that I will return to their pages soon, and that it will feel like home.

As I have said umpteen times, we are all different. How we read, how we write, and what inspires us are all individualistic experiences that help to shape and define us. There is no “right” way to read, and no “right” way to write. We are who we are, and there’s no one way to be a bookworm.

Do you ever have dry spells? Or do you read constantly? Do you take conscious breaks from books, or does it happen naturally?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Why You Should Kiss Your Editor

Manuscript PageI read a rather upsetting quote the other day that was something along the lines of, “editors edit because they cannot write”. I can’t admit to remembering the exact context or source of the sentiment, but I found it to be naive and juvenile all the same.

Being an editor is similar to being a dentist. Often, people dread paying you a visit, but they have to do it in order to show off those pearly whites (or pearly pages) to the world. Editors need to polish, shape, scrape, and clean a manuscript just as a dentist does to your teeth. It’s bad enough to have writers dread your red pen, but to have people who believe that you do what you do because you could’t make it as a writer? Well, that’s even worse.

I write during about half of my professional time, and the other half is spent editing. My writing is good enough to be published to the masses, and my editing good enough to prepare the content of my co-workers for the same. Am I an anomaly? I think not. I think that perhaps whoever came up with that idea either had a terrible experience with an editor, or has a lot of trouble editing themselves.

An editor can be the difference between a flop and a bestseller, truly. They don’t only look for spelling and grammar issues, but they’ll make sure that when you said Sally’s eyes were blue, that they don’t change to brown halfway through the book. They’ll make sure that your readers won’t stumble or lose interest. They’ll make sure that when you say that your character traveled from one place to another in a single day that it makes sense logically. Some will even test recipes and calculate the passage of time to ensure consistency.

An editor expects to receive a rough story, even though the writer spent ages smoothing it. They’ll go over it carefully, exploring the intricate webs and structures of your words, sanding it down and helping to define the shape. And often, because they spend so much time perfecting the work of others, editors make excellent writers.

For me, the two go together like peas and carrots. To write well, you have to understand language at a deeper level than someone who does not write. To edit, you have to have a passion and adept knowledge for writing. You cannot expect to write well if you have no interest in editing, and you cannot expect to be a good editor if you do not enjoy writing.

I think that too much emphasis is placed on separating the two, when in actuality, editing should be set alongside reading as well as writing. To create quality material in any capacity, for any audience, you need to practice all three skills. They complement each other in such subtle ways that to ignore one is to damage the other. And in damaging one, you cause cracks and crevices in your stories.

Editors take your story and simply point to where they think that you could improve it. And ultimately, it is your work, so any good editor will make sure that you know that you may or may not accept some of their suggestions. They’ll walk you through the changes, and will often be willing to discuss or debate anything you wish to question. Remember, if something comes back to you with a lot of red, it means that you have an editor who spent a great deal of time trying to make your work the best that it could be.

So, instead of harping on them for missing a mistake or for wanting you to make a change that you don’t want to, try to find a little bit of appreciation for how much time they put into polishing your creation. Remember that they have the soul of a reader and writer as well, and that, if you picked a good one, they likely know what they are doing.

We should all be grateful to have people around who are willing to read our work over and over and over and provide insight while fully expecting to be criticized. So next time, show them that you genuinely appreciate their time and their skill. Show them that what they did made a difference to you, and that you think that they are just important to the story as you are.

What have your experiences with editors been like? What could have been better? Do you think that writers need to have editing skills as well?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

Why Some Books Suck

Why Some Books SuckTo be honest, I find it very difficult to start reading something and then to leave it unfinished. I’ve read a plethora of books that I didn’t like, because I either hoped that they would improve, or I had already invested too much time into them. But just because I finished something doesn’t mean that I would ever, ever pick it up again.

Sometimes I read unpleasant books to their ends in order to learn more about what I don’t like, so that I can avoid doing it in the future. Sometimes a book doesn’t turn out to be painful until you are already too far in. There are a number of reasons as to how books can go bad, and I want to explore some of them today.

We’ll start with the “I didn’t know the milk was bad until I’d already drank half of it” type of book. These books are jerks. The covers are usually nice, the back cover copy enticing and interesting, and the endorsements come from good sources. This is the kind of book that you pick up at the grocery store wondering how it ended up in the clearance pile until you get it home and start reading.

Then there are the “this is terrible but I can’t stop reading it” books. For me, this was the entire Twilight series. The whole time I was reading them it was like self-torture. But I couldn’t stop. I had to know what happened. I had to know if the story ever redeemed itself. These books are like dollar store chocolates—they are similar to something that you know you like, but once you take a bite you realize they’re cheap replicas of the real thing.

Next on the list are the ever painful “a family member recommended/gave this to me and now I have to read it” books. These usually come in the form of, “Oh, you vaguely enjoy non-fiction and politics?! Then you are going to LOVE your birthday present!!!” And because you are a good person, and because you are a book lover, you give it a try. But it is just as you expected and getting through it is like trudging through cement wearing overalls and a backpack full of bricks.

Oh, but let’s not forget the “this book looks pretty, and it’s expensive, so it must be good!” mistake. Also known as the “I paid too much for this not to read it” mistake. Yes, we’ve all been there. A beautiful hardcover calls to us from afar, and when we pull it from the shelf our hands tingle with anticipation. It is beautiful. It is expensive. And we must have it. Then we read it and find out that all that pretty paper just masked a whole lot of nothing.

Or the “I LOVE this author” splurge. I mean, if you liked all of their other books, why wouldn’t you like this one?! Well, because it’s not the same book. Because sometimes authors explore other genres and styles and it doesn’t always suit your tastes. Because now we have a book on our shelf that made us think differently about a favoured author.

What about the “THIS WHOLE BOX OF BOOKS IS ONLY $1!” decision? The one that gets you no good books, but that makes you feel as if you have to give all of them a shot anyway? Yes, that one. And will you ever learn from it? Probably not. Because who on earth could let a box of books escape them for only $1? What if there’s a first edition something or other in there? You never know. So you will probably do this over and over again.

See, all of these reasons are generally the fault of the reader, and not the writer. Every book out that has been enjoyed by someone, so it isn’t up to the writer to make you pick books that you will like. That’s all on you. It isn’t always easy, especially when you are a book collector or an avid reader. Books just seem to flock to you, and it’s hard not to welcome them with open arms.

Have you experienced at least one of the above? Do you have any to add? What was the worst book you ever read?

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The Flavor of Writing

The Flavor of WritingWriters know very well that the style in which they write may not be sweet to every reader. Every piece of writing is defined by a genre, sub-genre, category, sub-category… and the list goes on. Some readers enjoy broad genres, such as fiction or non-fiction, while others prefer more specific categorization, like historical fiction or sci-fi.

Unfortunately, whether we will it or not, whatever we write inevitably falls into a class that defines it. This offers both positive and negative side-effects. The positives being that we can reach our readers more readily, and skip those who wouldn’t be interested in the first place. The negatives being that others who have written within our genre may have helped to create stereotypes that automatically cause readers to avoid our predetermined classification.

Of course, every genre can have romance, or humor, or history. However, the small details are not taken into account when vendors and publishers choose which heading to set above a book. To me, this is, in many ways, tragic. Separating books so clearly gives readers the ability to be as picky about books as they are about food. It’s just as easy to say, “I don’t read fantasy” as it is to say “I despise onions”. But onions always have the same flavor. Books do not.

One fantasy story could be found to be long and dull, while another could be enthralling and captivating. Not every fantasy has dragons, just as not every romance is about some young girl falling in love for the first time. It’s simple to say that you do not like one food or another, but the flavors of writing are more intricate and less defined. You could easily class one book in the sci-fi genre as an onion (or other despised food of your choice), and another as a slice of the most delectable cheesecake (or other delicious dish of your choosing).

The spark behind this post was an article that I saw about how GRRM has seemingly “revolutionised how people think about the fantasy genre“.  And, although I love his books, and will be watching the season premiere devotedly this evening, I have to disagree.

The reason why his books have become popular is because they got picked up by the right place at the right time. They have been thrust into the public eye, and, I suppose, in that way, they have made people think about fantasy differently.

But, there have been countless authors who have written quality fantasy over the years that have received much praise, and likely even more that have remained under the radar for whatever reason. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of high-quality fantasies out there that I have never even heard of. And part of that is because of the stereotype surrounding the genre as a whole.

GRRM was lucky. But even his books were a near miss. He started the series a long time ago, and it has only reached popularity in recent years. I have a plethora of books on my shelf that I would define as equal in quality to A Song of Ice and Fire, both in terms of writing ability and strength of story. Are all of them as wildly popular as GOT? No. Not even close. Should they be? Probably. If they had been given a chance.

So, next time you avoid a genre simply because it hasn’t suited your tastes in the past, remember that books are not as easily classified as onions (I just assume everyone else abhors them, because I believe they are the absolute worst). Remember that just because a book is classed within a genre that you don’t often sample, that doesn’t mean that it is anything like the last one that you tasted.

Books within the same genre are as vast in flavor and texture as a hundred course meal served at a banquet. Some are light, some are sweet, others are heavy and thick. Some are bitter and some are as smooth as cream. Some will leave you asking for seconds, while others will congeal on the side of your plate after an unpleasant sample.

Let your palate for books be much more tested and open than that of your tongue.

Have you ever been surprised by a book in a certain genre? Is there a genre that you avoid altogether? Do you think that GRRM had a direct impact on fantasy because of the quality or because of the timing of his books? 

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The Magic of Books

The Magic of BooksAn interesting article was publishing recently, which spoke to the benefits of reading paper books. I highly suggest you read it, even if you prefer onscreen reading. In the article, it talks about how actually physically turning the pages of a book helps you to absorb the story, as well as giving you a sense of control—you can flip back and forth as you choose, fold pages, and even feel a sense of completion at the end of a page or chapter. Not things that you can generally do with e-books. I know that some allow you control, depending on your ereader, but not all.

This article got me thinking about the different ways that books can influence our minds, even in the simplest of forms. For me, they are a means to time travel, a comfort “food”, and landmarks of learning and experiences.

For example, when I open a book that I have read before, I am instantly taken back to the first time that I read it. The smells, the time of year, the emotions that I was feeling—all of it floods back and it helps me to put everything, not just the book, into perspective. Perhaps I was reading the book at a stressful time, and now, coming back to it, I am proud of how I improved my situation.

Then there are those times when I want to feel the way I did before. When I pick up a book that I was reading during a happy, comfortable time in my life and those feelings return to make me feel safe, happy, and whole. How every page will remind me of a home cooked meal at my grandparents, or a snowy night curled up in a pile of blankets. Sometimes I pick up those books not because I want to read the story again, but because I want to remember what it was like when I read that story.

Or how a realization in a book caused me to change the way that I thought, or taught me something I hadn’t known before. Tracing the arc of your thought process, and attributing that change or tangent to a book can be a phenomenal experience. It proves that authors who we have never met, and who we will never know, can influence our minds, and even our souls. Books go a lot deeper than just words on a page.

I have always read books in a way that they touch every one of my senses. I remember the feel of the cover and the pages, the small of the paper and ink, the taste of the sesame snaps I was eating while I read, the sound of the rain and snow outside of the window, and the bright sun or soft lamp that showed me the words. Each one brings something different to me, from an experience that I had before.

I know that the ebook debate will rage on for years, just as the serial comma debate, but I want to know where you stand, and if that article set the gears in your mind to working.

Do you read ebooks or paper books, and do you find that you experience them differently? Are you an “all senses” reader, and if so, do you still find that you get the same experience from onscreen reading?

Re-Reading

Re-ReadingDo you do it? I often hear people that either do or do not. I don’t seem to come across many “sometimes” or “it depends”. I know that some people who don’t will make exceptions for a specific series or their absolute favourite book, and I know that some that do will refuse to re-read certain things for whatever reason.

I re-read all of the time. Over the holidays, I re-read both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I believe it’s the third time that I have read them, even though I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are my favourite books. The writing is very poetic, with a beautiful cadence that enhances the feel and taste of the story, but I have issues with the main character and a few passages within the books. However, that is for another day. These books are quite hefty, and by reading on and off over the break, between cooking the turkey and indulging in Bailey’s, I managed to finish them in less than a week.

I couldn’t count how many times I have read the Harry Potter or James Herriot books, and though I just finished the entire Sherlock series recently, I am already thinking about when I should start it again. I re-read because I love to feel the story all over again. I love to remember the smells and tastes and emotions of the story, and I almost always miss a few things the first time around. It’s an act of discovery for me that evokes nostalgia and comfort and interest. As a side benefit, I suppose it would be quite flattering for the authors to know that their content is worth looking at more than once.

I have always re-read books, from small storybooks to novels to entire series’. I don’t have a library card, because for one I am terrible at bringing the books back, and two, I have a deep desire to own what I read, so that I may re-read it whenever I choose. I’ve only just realized now that my desire to re-read books probably plays into why I prefer to own books, oh, self-realization! I’ve just never been one for borrowing, probably because I find it too restrictive.

For me, re-reading doesn’t just allow me to experience the story all over again, it lets me look into more than just the story. The second time, I can pay more attention to the word choices and the dialogue. The third time perhaps I will realize that I don’t even like the book after all, but was just caught up in the story. Perhaps the forth time I will decide that the book is worth reading because, even if I don’t love the story, the writing is just terrific. Each time allows me to understand the author more, and to understand the book as a whole, instead of just one small piece of what the writer was trying to say.

Of course, there are books that I just couldn’t bring myself to re-read because I disliked them so much the first time. A good example would be Twilight, I read the whole series because I couldn’t leave it unfinished, but the entire time my mind was swelling with sarcastic remarks and frustration at the story and the writing.

The Color Purple, although very, very good was just too jittery for me. The way that it is actually written kept pulling me out of the story as if I were being pulled out of a warm bath over and over only to be thrown back in after being left in the cold for a moment or two.

The Handmaid’s Tale was definitely interesting, and thought-provoking, but I still haven’t decided if I will read it again or not. I feel as if I learned all I needed to from it the first time around.

So, there are exceptions to what I will read again and what I will not, but for the most part, if I enjoyed it the first time, I will probably like it even more the second, third, or fourth. I also believe that really understanding someone else’s writing helps you to be a better writer yourself, and the only way that you can do that is by reading.

So, how about you? Do you re-read or not? Why or why not? Have there been any exceptions?

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