December 30, 2014

Book Launch: The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

I've read some of Harrison's nonfiction, and I've seen her at various conferences, so I'm familiar with her by personality and reputation, but I haven't read any of her fiction.

I attended her book launch tonight because in the last couple of weeks, I've read about her book in the NY Times, LA Times, Kirkus Reviews, and listened to an interview on NPR. That's a lot of buzz for a Jessica Fletcher-esque Mormon housewife, so I was intrigued enough to attend before having read the book.

It was a different type of book launch than I'm used to--the focus was definitely on spirituality and organized religion, as opposed to the author's experience of writing, or a reading from the novel, or any of that kind of thing. It had a very somber feel to it, in fact, when Harrison launched into the discussion by telling the story of her stillborn child--the impetus for her loss in faith and subsequent exploration of the questioning character in The Bishop's Wife.  There was a lot of emotion, both from Harrison and her audience, and a lot of people seemed to identify with her struggle to maintain her religious convictions. It felt almost like a church meeting or self-help group.

While I couldn't identify with Harrison in many ways, what stood out to me as a writer was the way that she incorporated her own experience into the novel. Writers are always being advised to "write what you know," which is sometimes confusing when you're trying to write about house elves or sparkling vampires or whatever else. Of course Harrison has never helped solve a murder in her church congregation (at least not that I know of), but the MC's personality was based on Harrison's own struggle with religion, while the character's strengths--according to Harrison--were based on a real-life friend whose faith and dedication she admires. She used what she did know to give life to the parts that were fabricated.

So, the two things that I took from the launch for my own writing were: First, write what you know--insofar as it helps make completely bizarre and fictional events more real and relatable.

And second, a lot of people commented on the MC's complex, layered personality, so I found it helpful to think of my own characters in ways that I can channel traits based on different people with conflicting personalities to make a more interesting whole.

Harrison did a great job, and I'm glad I was able to attend.

December 1, 2014

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This is pretty much the first book that always comes up when books on writing are mentioned, and frankly, I'm 100% in agreement. It's not a perfect book. For example, I always laugh out loud when I read in the foreword, "This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit." King then proceeds to fill the next ≈300 pages chitchatting about his childhood and car accident and favorite movies (to be fair, his subtitle does say it's a memoir). I've read a lot of Stephen King in my day, and I would never, ever accuse him of being brief or concise in his writing. Second, a lot of his examples about publishing are outdated. He talks about typewriters and S.A.S.Es and taking notes with a pad and pencil. He's not the person to ask if you want to learn about writing apps or current publishing practices or finding an agent.

Still, this book is like sitting at the knee of a gregarious uncle who has been at writing and publishing for a very long time. Any aspiring writer would be crazy to turn down a chance like that. He doesn't offer some ground-breaking new ideas about how he became one of the most influential writers of our time--he sticks to basics like working hard and treating writing like a career and balancing your ambition with your personal life--but still, he gives glimpses into how HE has been so successful by doing very specific things. I really believe that there is something in this book for everyone--it will be different for every single person, but every time I read it, something new strikes me that has helped with my own writing.

I also happen to believe that King is a genius. I've read a lot of his fiction and non-fiction. I think he is brilliant. I think he does things for certain reasons. I think he has done what most of us yearn to do--make a successful career from thinking and exploring and writing. There's a reason he's continually a best-selling author, and I personally don't believe there's anyone in the profession who has nothing to learn from him.

Buy this book--don't borrow it. Own it, mark it up, crease pages, re-read it whenever you're in a rut. Uncle Stephen and his stories will always be in style.