Famous Novelists on Symbolism

Some famous novelists answered the age-old question every typical high school english student asks: Did the author REALLY intend that symbolism or are you just making that up, professor?

Bibliophilia Reviews

Guys, this is a must read! This piece is so good. In 1963 a 16 year old wrote famous authors such as Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ray Bradbury and more on symbolism in their work. Like many of us, he was fed up with his English teacher trying to put words into the authors mouths. Notice that they keep telling him to think for himself, an important notion in literature.

Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

Any thoughts?

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Why Writers Should Carefully Consider What They Publish

Being a writer comes with great responsibility

Ok, sorry to start this post off with an echo of the clichéd Spiderman quote, but it’s true. As writers, we have the power to influence readers. We can change the way readers perceive the world and themselves, which in turn, can influence the way they treat the world and the people around them.

This has been proven time and again. Just look at the modern classics: George Orwell’s 1984 (a dystopian novel warning the dangers of a totalitarian society) and Animal Farm (an allegory criticizing the Soviet Union under Stalin), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a discussion of rape and racial inequality in the Deep South of 1930s USA), The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (an exploration of idealism and the dangers of excess and decadence), and so many more.

All of these books are commentary on an aspect of society that deeply resonated with the public. So much so, that some of these books were (and are still) even banned in various countries in fear of how they would influence the population. And these are only a meager few examples of modern controversial novels. Influential books have been around since what is considered to be the birth of literature. Books and poems like The Iliad by Homer, Dante’s The Divine Comedy,  John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Utopia by John More and so many more have impacted readers for thousands of years. Likewise, social commentary is found in all genres; it’s not exclusive to what’s considered literary or realistic fiction. (More on that in a previous post)

The simple truth is: Books influence people.

As writers, we should consider exactly what we’re publishing

I always try to be conscientious and question what I am writing. Is this character a real, three-dimensional, relatable character? Or is he/she merely a stereotype? Am I unknowingly perpetuating sexism, racism, homophobia or any other oppressive ideology with this scene or event in my plot line? What is my book saying about our society? Is it truly representing our world and its diversity?

Now, I don’t want to get political or too amped up about the unfortunate social issues we have in our society today. This blog is about the craft of writing and literature, and such opinionated rants don’t have a place here. (I am also aware that not everyone shares my opinions or beliefs on all issues, and I respect that.) However, it’s nearly impossible to separate that political/social activist part of myself from my writer self. They are one and the same. Because they are all me. Just as all of the facets of yourself make up who you are as a writer. And you should always be true to yourself— especially in your writing.

Your writing should reflect your perception of the world

Trust me, even when you’re not thinking about it, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Take a look again at your current work in progress or at works you’ve written and published. Inevitably, you have subconsciously chosen to use a certain character, setting, or event to portray your view on social issues. Because that’s what your writing should do: be a commentary (openly or subtly) on things that matter to you.

This is done in numerous ways. Tensions between humans and an alien race in a sci-fi novel can represent racial tension. The fall of a government in a dystopian novel can be compared to the author’s opinions on politics. Even the way your narrator describes the events of your book illustrates how they (and in part you) feel about certain aspects of our society.

Even the little details of your story matter

Aside from politics and civil rights issues, writers can influence people’s perspectives on any aspect of life. I’m talking about things like tolerance and morals that are represented in all forms of writing from books to poems to films to even TV shows. Today, a lot of what I see being produced is quite frankly, garbage. Instead of meaningful stories being told, we have narratives encouraging greed, selfishness, apathy and intolerance. We are cultivating a generation of self-centered, negative idiots. We’re being fed the same stifling crap over and over again.

Shows I used to watch as a child taught empathy, respect and tolerance while also being entertaining: eg. ABC’s Boy Meets World (1993-2000) which followed a boy’s coming-of-age and the life lessons he learned along the way. Now, sadly, kid’s TV shows are mostly about young people trying to be famous actors or singers, or about idolizing people and trivial things. This can be detrimental to young viewers’ perceptions of themselves and others.

This is not only seen in stories for kids. Other books, shows and movies for all ages often center on: popularity, peer pressure, racial/cultural stereotypes, and what society deems expected of certain genders and groups of people and how they should behave. If these subjects are not clearly identifiable as social commentary, they can encourage these negative traits and serve only to produce enmity and divide us.

Shouldn’t we want to make a difference? Don’t we want our readers to be positively affected or changed by the time they finish our story? Countless times have I pondered on a book’s message or have changed my perception on something because of how it was presented in a book, poem, movie or show. Isn’t that what writing, what art, is all about?

So why then are these detrimental stories being written?

What or who is responsible for this? The answer may surprise you: it’s us. 

We are responsible for all of the bad movies, TV shows and books out there. Unfortunately, money runs the world today. What sells is what is being made. Even if it is representing oppressive ideology and setting a bad example, especially for young readers and viewers. Even if it is harmful and not conducive to a positive, healthy environment. If people keep buying into them, they will continue to be produced.

Yes, even as readers we hold some responsibility. As writers, this pressure is even stronger since we are the ones creating it. So don’t be another one of those writers. Let’s try to be the change. Even if you don’t want to be an active participant in this change:

People will see things in your novels whether you like it or not

Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “I’m seriously not trying to make any statement or influence anyone. I just want to write an entertaining story!”

That’s what I said at first too. And that’s what I thought I had written when I finished the first draft of my current novel-in-progress; just a fun, entertaining high fantasy story for people to escape their dull “real” worlds with for a while. But then the beta readers in my workshop started to say that so-and-so symbolized this, and that this event was a comparison of that historical event, and I went “Woah, woah, hold it! What!?” Without even realizing it, there were readily identifiable messages throughout my novel.

Now, you can say that “people see what they want to see,” and in a sense, that is true. But then again, that’s sort of the point. People will see things in your novels whether you like it or not. And more than likely, symbols, motifs and social commentary will crop up even if you had no intention of creating them. So why not try to take a measure of control and make sure these messages represent what you believe and want others to understand about our world?

That could be anything from avoiding the damsel-in-distress character, to including LGTBQA couples, to giving your racially diverse characters more personality traits than just what their limited stereotypes deem necessary. (Again, I know these are touchy subjects about which there are varying opinions and I respect that.) Of course, this is your book and it should represent what you believe so write whatever you wish to address based on your views and opinions.

I hope I haven’t scared any of you away from your dreams of being a writer. But if you are a little afraid, good! That means you are digging into things that really matter to you and that will be reflected in your work in a positive way. All writers (even the best, well-known, well-published ones) are scared about how their work will be received. But if you are aware of your role as a writer in the literary community and of how much of an impact you can have on people, you can take the necessary measures to make sure your novel is not just meaningless words on a page.

Most importantly, be passionate about what you write

When you write about what makes you angry or ecstatic or what you’d like to see change in our world, your writing will be that much more powerful. If you were passionate while writing it, the reader should be able to feel that and love reading it.

Happy Writing,

-Paola ©2014

What are your thoughts on how literature affects society? Do you think as writers we should take responsibility for what we publish? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

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Can We Please Stop Bashing Genre Fiction?

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” – Lloyd Alexander

I met a writer the other day and we got to talking about our works in progress. When I told him I was currently writing a young adult fantasy novel, he gave me this condescending look and said, “Oh. So you’re writing the next Twilight now are you?” You see, he was writing a literary fiction novel and proceeded to explain how he was tired of all of the “brain-numbing teen books” that have been filling bookstores lately. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Twilight, but quite honestly I’ve had enough with people using that tired joke to insult all young adult novels and their authors. In fact, I’m tired of people looking down on genre fiction in general.

This wasn’t the first time I had been judged for my choice of reading or writing material. I’ve heard and been told on many occasions that the only “real” writers are those who write literary (or realistic) fiction.

For your reference, literary fiction is often defined as a book that reflects our world (i.e. no magic, or fictional/supernatural creatures or events etc.) and is a manifest commentary on society and its social, political and economic issues.

Criticism of genre fiction

Some people, like the previously mentioned writer, think that genre fiction’s only purpose is to entertain; it is plot driven and escapism and is generally poorly written prose. People belittle its significance to literature saying that, unlike literary fiction, it does not examine society but merely imitates it. Another argument thrown around is that because these genres can cater to a younger audience (especially Young Adult), writers of these genres and their stories are thus immature.

Not only is this insulting to genre writers, but it is simply not true. Genre writers are every bit as real as literary ones. It requires talent, craft and imagination just like any other kind of fiction. It can even be reasonably argued, when speaking of genres like fantasy and science fiction, that it requires more skill or imagination to invent an entirely new world with new rules and made-up beings. Just because these narratives are focused on teenagers, have magic, dragons, and/or are set in the future or space do not make them any less valid. This goes for all genres: Horror, Mystery, Romance, Crime etc. (However, I will mostly be speaking about fantasy and science fiction since I am more familiar with these genres.)

For the record, genre novels do deal with social, political and economic issues. They are used to scrutinize society just as literary novels are. As famous, award-winning fantasy author Lloyd Alexander says, fantasy is used to understand reality. Although he may be referring to fantasy in general, this quote can still contend that fantasy fiction is just as self-aware as literary fiction. It’s not just written or read to escape our world, but also to understand it.

Examples of modern, highly successful genre novels:

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter saga is of course one of the most famous fantasy series and has had a global impact. Not only is the story of Harry Potter and his struggle against The Dark Lord a wonderful, magical tale, but the series also analyzes key aspects of society. Throughout the seven books, there are themes of love, loyalty, bravery, (represented by Harry and his family and friends), the corruption of power, fear of death, (Voldemort and his Death Eaters) and classism (the discrimination of house elves and muggles) to name a few. These themes are recognizable in our own society and can be related to by many, as has been proven by its success around the world. A recent study even shows that young people who read Harry Potter develop empathy and are not as prejudiced toward minority groups.

Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings series is another well-known fantasy tale that has had so much influence as to have embedded itself into pop culture. The trilogy, as well as the prequel The Hobbit, touch on themes of good vs evil (the fellowship of the ring vs Sauron, Saruman and his evil creatures), death and immortality (Sauron), temptation (the ring), loss of innocence (the hobbits leaving the Shire), fate, free will, inner conflict (Gollum/Smeagol) and grief (the losses the characters face along the way). Despite the narrative being based in a fictional Middle-Earth with mythical creatures like dwarves, elves, orcs, hobbits and more, this fantasy series deals with social issues that can be easily related and compared to in our own world.

Hunger Games

The Hunger Games series is one example of the various modern science fiction dystopian narratives that have reached fame within the past decade. The root of the series’ plot is based on an analysis of a corrupt government and a society that only favors the elite—dare I say, the one percent? The descriptions of the Capitol and its people markedly resemble parts of our own society, particularly, in my opinion, the glamour and superficiality that can be said about Hollywood.

I don’t know about the genre critics, but these novels sure sound like social commentary to me.

Genre novels are equal contenders for critical acclaim

Furthermore, there are countless award-winning novels and authors of science fiction and fantasy. That’s right. Award-winning. Ray Bradbury’s critically acclaimed Fahrenheit 451 (a science fiction dystopian novel warning against state-based censorship and the burning of literature) received The American Academy of Arts and Letter Award in Literature in 1954 along with the Commonwealth Club of California Gold Medal and a “Retro” Hugo Award. It has withstood the test of time and is continued to be taught in schools and universities across the country.

But we don’t have to look so far back. Just yesterday, Sept. 9, it was announced that Ursula K. Le Guin, the widely celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (a science fictional exploration of a society without men or women where individuals share the biological and emotional makeup of both genders), is receiving an honorary National Book Award: the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This is not her only award by any means for her works of fantasy and science fiction.

These are but two fantasy and sci-fi authors from a multitude of others who have won awards for their fiction. All of these examples serve as proof that genre fiction is valid and can have as much depth and impact on literature and the world as realist fiction.

So I ask, can we please stop bashing genre fiction?

These are perfectly respectable genres—and highly successful, I might add. The writing community should be supportive and positive, not trying to tear down other writers’ material to feel superior.

For all of the genre writers out there: don’t let those negative people get to you! You should never be ashamed of what you love writing or reading. You should never have to apologize for being yourself.

In the end, we are all writers and should respect each other as such. Each of us struggles to create meaningful stories that will resonate with our readers. So let’s be supportive. After all, we’re all on this crazy journey together.

Happy Writing,

-Paola ©2014

What do you think of genre bashing? Have you come across such negativity about your own work? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Work in Progress Blog Challenge

I have been tagged by fellow writer and blogger Emma Lindhagen to do a Work in Progress Blog Challenge. The challenge is simple: post the first line from the first three chapters in your current work in progress and then tag four people to do the same.

I don’t normally participate in such challenges, but I think this is a great way for fellow bloggers and writers to get to know each other and share their work. However, I’m going to cheat a little here and give you the first paragraph instead of the first sentence. I’m doing this because the challenge is supposed to get us acquainted with each other’s writing and style, and one sentence doesn’t truly convey that. Also, it reminds us how crucial the first few lines of our book (and early chapters) are in hooking your audience and making them want to finish your story. The reader may not necessarily stop reading your book after the first sentence, but the first paragraph certainly leaves an impression.

So here are my lines from the first book (as yet unnamed) of the Skig Island Trilogy. (Please keep in mind, they’re early draft and therefore very rough and subject to change):

Chapter One: The valley ran for miles, disappearing into the sharp edge of the mountain range. The fields were brown, dead, their colors muted by the grey sky. The wind whistled as it made waves of bent grass that reached Agi’s feet. She shivered in her thin nightgown. There was a figure in the distance. A shadow. Agi couldn’t see who or what it was, but it grew with each heartbeat. There was a faint melodic humming on the wind. She couldn’t make it out, but something about it tickled at the back of her mind. Like a memory. The sound grew louder, aggressive, until it filled Agi up and she felt it was all that encompassed the world.

Chapter Two: Farukel’s steps were quick, urgent. They made fast progress. It wasn’t until they were on the ship halfway home that Agi realized her father had left his wheelbarrow. She wondered if he even had time to sell all his fish. Her chest tightened. Something is very wrong.

Chapter Three: Agi slowly opened her eyes. Her head felt heavy, like it was filled with cotton. She gingerly sat up, cradling the back of her head. She pulled her hand away to check if there was blood, but it was clean. She was still in the boat tied to the dock. How long had she been out? She looked around for her family but the dock was empty. My family! Agi lunged forward and cried out in pain. She put pressure on the back of her head to stifle the pain and got to her feet, gritting her teeth.

After doing this, I’ve realized how dissatisfied I am with my first lines :/ I am an Over Writer and tend to over describe things which can lead to melodrama. Also, I know, I know, it’s super cliché to start a book with a dream, and it’s often deemed a big no-no. I am working on it. :P It’s too important to cut though, which makes it difficult. I have a lot of revising to do! Writing and rewriting, as always.

In any case, I hope this has sparked an interest in my story. Please, I’d love to hear any and all feedback you may have and want to give me!

I would like to tag the following people. You may be better than me at following rules and choose to do the one sentence. Or, feel free to share your first paragraphs:

1. Hannah Heath

2. ChrisEberhard

3. Brittney Michelle

4. You! :) If you’d like to join the fun, go right ahead!

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Procrastination Done Right: How to be Productive While Procrastinating

Sometimes our muse decides to be evil and runs out on us for a few hours. Or days. Or…weeks. :S And we find ourselves staring at our screens, chin in hand, drooling onto the keyboard listlessly.— Okay, maybe I’m the only one who drools onto my keyboard, but still. You get the idea.— Or on the other, fortunate, hand, our muse is very much alive, shouting at us about so many different plot points and character developments all at once. We know exactly what we’re supposed to do. We can do this. We’re going to write our little butts off. We’ll—“Oh look, it’s a video of a dog doing yoga. I must watch this. This is very important.” And so the rest of the day is eaten up by pixelated youtube videos featuring adorable animals.

Procrastination is normal.

We all go through this stage. Many times. Sometimes at various points during the day.— Look at me, I’m procrastinating as we speak!— Now, it’s important to learn to master your procrastination. Your novel will not write itself, after all. But when a strong bout of procrastination hits you and you simply cannot bring yourself to write, it does not have to be the end of the world. You can use your procrastination to your advantage by taking this break from writing to work on other things for your novel.

So if you thought this post was about the best cat tumblr sites or the best Buzzfeed quizzes to take, sorry. You’re going to have to peruse the internet on your aimless procrastination journey by yourself. Here we’ll be discussing the various ways to use your short attention spans to your advantage. (*whispers* But if you want to talk about some hardcore procrastination after you finish your writing quota for the day, I can hook you up with a great “What Kind of Sandwich Are You?” quiz later.)

Here is a list of a few things to do when you feel like you need a break from writing:

1. Update Your Novel’s Outline and Character Profiles

In a previous post, I talked about creating an outline for your novel on a Word table or an Excel spreadsheet to make it easier to gauge your progress at a glance. If you’re struggling to get words on the page, this would be a great time to fill in your table. (Or create one if you haven’t already. Please refer to previously mentioned post/link for details on that.) It will make your life a whole lot easier if you consistently plug in new data into your outline. The purpose of your outline is to be a guide to help keep track of your novel’s progress, continuity and the overall idea/goals you want to accomplish. If you don’t update it, it will be of little use to you.

Same goes for your character profiles. (Again, more on that in previous post.) In early drafts of your novel, your characters are constantly fluctuating: maybe it’s their physical description or their personality or the motivation behind their actions that you keep changing your mind about. As this is happening, you should make sure your profiles for those characters are in sync with your current draft.

So if your short attention span is getting the best of you, why not let it work for you to focus on short snippets of information at a time as you fill in your table’s columns or update your profiles?

It doesn’t require high levels of concentration and you can make it more fun by jamming out to music that would’ve otherwise distracted you from writing. Do the desk chair dance!— if you don’t know what this is, you’re really missing out.—Who knows, maybe you’ll get pumped enough to go back to writing.

2. Create/Improve Your Novel’s Extra Materials

A lot of books today have fun bonus material that goes along with the narrative. This includes anything from maps to illustrations to family trees to even Indexes. Just take a look at Fantasy author Christopher Paolini’s extensive Language Guide for his Inheritance Cycle series, for example. (They’re great books for any Fantasy readers out there by the way!)

If you’ve decided to include extra material for your novel, you can take full advantage of that and use it as an excuse to procrastinate. Go create that map! You can even live up your childhood days by coloring it in if you’d like. There are also programs on the internet that let you create virtual worlds and maps online if you are not artistically inclined and would like a better visual. If you already have these images or extra materials, there is no harm in perfecting them. Go perfect that map!— I love novels with maps. They’re awesome. If you don’t have one you should seriously consider getting one. Unless, of course, it really doesn’t work with your story in which case I would sadly understand.

Realistically, the final, real version of your map/illustrations/family tree etc. will not be something you hand drew.— Unless you’re an amazing artist and I would have to bow down and go hide my shameful stick-figure drawings from you— But it’s good to have a solid idea or blueprint of what your world looks like. For visual learners like myself, it is beneficial to have a physical image of the world your characters will be roaming around. Even if you don’t use a map. You can still jot down ideas of the physical space you’ll be working with in your novel. It will help with setting, description and many other things as you write.

Eventually, when your novel gets published— Yes when. You will get published. I believe in you!— someone else will be in charge of illustrations and maps and family trees and book covers. (At least, in the traditional print publishing sense.) But this someone needs to know what exactly it is they will be creating for you. By having the image already, you can be clearer in your instructions and it can make everyone’s life easier.

(Self-publishing is a completely different animal and I do not have sufficient knowledge to speak on how the printing of maps, illustrations etc. would work in that case. If you know how it works, I’d love for you to share your knowledge in the comments below! I, and others I’m sure, would appreciate it.)

3. Read, Read, Read

This may sound counterproductive. “What are you talking about, Paola?” you may be asking, “Isn’t reading taking time away from writing my novel?” Yes and no. For me, and I believe for many others as well, reading is actually a great way to get inspiration or motivation to write. There’s that famous quote that’s always used:

“You can’t write if you don’t read.”

I’m not sure who actually said this quote—Does anyone know the origin of this quote by any chance?— but it most certainly rings true for me. Every time I’m reading a good story, I always think about how I can improve my writing to match the skills of the author I am reading. Same goes for when I read a poorly written book. That is in fact how I started my current work in progress; I read a rather disappointing book with faulty prose and decided that I could write something better. Granted, that was the overconfidence of a thirteen year-old speaking, but I’m sure the sentiment can be true in other occasions as an adult. The point is, reading will almost always lead to writing. We can get great ideas and tips on craft from reading. So don’t feel bad about picking up that book.

Now, when I say procrastinate by reading, I don’t mean curl up under the blankets with hot cocoa and your cat and be dead to the world for hours on end. — Just to be clear, I don’t have a cat. I’ve been told this makes me not a “true” writer and that I miss out on a lot of adorable cat-interrupting-one’s-writing moments. Because apparently all writers have to have cats? *Shrug*

When I say read, I mean read with a purpose.

If you are currently working on characterization, go read an author whose characters you fell in love with. If you think you’re procrastinating and avoiding writing your novel because you’re struggling to create setting, study a book whose world came to life for you. Or, if you really don’t think you have the self-restraint to stop reading a good book once you’ve started, try reading a book that you think is lacking something: setting, characterization, description, plot etc. The key is to analyze how well these authors use their craft (or don’t use it well), and use it (or improve it) in your own work. However, remember not to imitate. Learn from them but create your own voice. Let their writing spark an eagerness to work on your own novel. And stay focused!

In the end, it’s pretty simple: Reading = Inspiration = Writing.

So go read! And then write! And if procrastination makes you stop writing, go read again! Chances are, you’ll end back at your novel with a new idea or writing goal.

These are just a few examples of things you can do to make your procrastination be productive. See? My procrastination led me to write this post. It wasn’t in vain. At least I hope not. If your procrastination led you to my blog and this post, I hope my list helped you focus your procrastination or inspired your own ideas. Of course, you are always welcome to come by again when the procrastination bug bites or at any other time. I hope you do. :)

Happy Writing,

-Paola ©2014

What do you do when you procrastinate? Do you have any other tips on how to make your procrastination work for you? I’d love to hear from you!

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