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Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

This is a review of the book The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which follows the life of nineteenth-century botanist Alma Whittaker.

As one of the few women of my demographic who has not read (nor seen) Eat Pray Love, I came at this book with no preconceived ideas about it or its author. Instead, I approached it with the enthusiasm of someone who is given a book by a person who knows them, with the hope it would be a good read. And I was not disappointed.

Gilbert’s tale is told with sufficient detail and background that I wasn’t sure for a long time whether its protagonist, Alma Whittaker, was a real historical figure or not. The information about her father is just wild enough to be true, especially considering his background, and the details of her early life and the characters of her mother and father are so well developed that it was really a toss-up for a long time as to whether this was a biography or a novel. (Of course, a simple Google search would have been enough to stem that debate, but to be honest it was one I rather enjoyed having with myself. It made the story that much more interesting.)

Alma Whittaker is herself an interesting character. Given the background Gilbert provides her with, it is unlikely she would have been anything else, but even that conclusion is testament to the quality of the narrative. We are told the story through Alma’s eyes, with her prejudices, beliefs and opinions sprinkled liberally throughout, but they make the story more compelling, not less. The arrival of her sister Prudence is stated with the bluntness of an eleven year old who had hitherto been the only child; her discovery later of the outcome of some of Prudence’s decisions means that not only she, but the reader, must delve back to reconsider the sisters’ behaviour in light of this new information. As we see through Alma’s eyes, we are forced to realise the limitations that perspective contains.

Other characters, too, are fascinating for both what they offer and what they cannot. The Dutch housekeeper Hanneke de Groot is a font of information – but only if you know how to ask for it. Alma’s father, Henry, is notable for his wide knowledge and fine acquisitions, but also for his lack of empathy and tenderness. Ambrose Pike, the artist who comes to stay at the Whittaker house, White Acre, is someone who can offer Alma what she wants, but not what she needs. And Prudence, who is to Alma little more than a footnote, is capable of much greater strength and self sacrifice than not only Alma believes, but also than of Alma herself.

Running parallel to the study in characters and their strengths and weaknesses (though not necessarily delving into character studies, so to speak) is the scientific narrative of biology in the 1800s. Alma chooses to study mosses, partly because she needs something to occupy her scientific mind while acting as the matron of her father’s house, and partly because they are convenient in that she does not need to leave the property to do so. Her deductions, however, are more far-reaching than even she could have conceived. She may need to travel to reach their conclusion, but the years at White Acre with her mosses stand her in excellent stead for the research to come.

The way Gilbert links Alma’s study with the wider scientific world of the 1800s is cleverly done, and so seamless it is, again, hard to differentiate this work from biography. Sure, Alma Whittaker is a fictional character, but that doesn’t make her presence in this world any less fascinating. In fact, I was almost wishing by the end that she had existed, as it would have added an extra dimension to the scientific activity of the era.

The Signature of All Things is, all told, a very cleverly written story about a character and situation so complex it almost seems incredible they have been invented. The narrative is smooth and the story compelling. All told, I can heartily recommend this book as a worthwhile and fascinating addition to any library.

 

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
513 pages
Available as hardcover, paperback and e-book

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Feedback, glorious feedback

 

Photo from Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Girl with computer emerging technologies social media by Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Today is a big day for me. Today, for the first time, I read the first feedback I have received for my completed novel draft.

Okay, I admit it, I received said feedback weeks ago. However, what with the Christmas rush, holidays, kids running around my feet and a very real fear of what the document said, I put off reading it. It was from someone whose point of view matters to me and who is in the novel’s target audience. I was terrified they would say they hated it.

Today, though, I forced myself. Found the email. Opened the document. (Okay, I’d opened it before now, and given it a quick glance. But that was it.) And read the whole thing through, word by word. And do you know what? They didn’t hate it.

Sure, they picked out a few things that need working on. Some, I already knew about (or suspected). Some I hadn’t realised were weak spots. But they also pointed out a few things they really did like, and which they thought worked well. That, my friends, was amazing to read. Yes I’ve had reviews before, but this is the first novel I’ve ever thought of trying to get published, so it felt more important.

Naturally, all this pressure was self-inflicted. We are all our own worst critics and we are convinced that every error we see will be magnified tenfold by others. The truth, though, is that this person who is in my target audience liked my story. Said they would read it again. Said the characters were real and vivid and engaging. And that the story flowed and – generally – worked. And that, my friends, is a huge load off my shoulders.

I still have some other betas who have not yet got back to me, and I’m okay with that. The Christmas period is one of the busiest for pretty much everyone and it can be hard to find time to spare to critique someone’s novel. This first one, though, is like manna from heaven. It means the novel isn’t crap, and I haven’t been wasting my time for the past couple of years. Sure, there are a few tweaks that need to be made, but overall it shows promise and potential. And that, I think, is the best Christmas present I could have received.

 

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The Friday blog-hop (part 3)!

Latte_Blog

Latte_Blog (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

Hello again! It’s time to once more trawl through the many worthy and excellent blogs out there to recommend five that you might find interesting to follow. These are blogs that I enjoy reading, and if you follow my blog then chances are you could do so too. Remember, they are in no particular order and the list is by no means exhaustive. :)

  1. South Australian Writers’ Centre. This is my local writers’ centre and their blog is very new, so it’s only fair of me to give them a shout out. The posts so far have been useful and I expect that the ones to come will be too.
  2. Booktopia. Yep, a book shop rather than a writer. They do an awesome blog though and you learn heaps about what other writers go though from reading it. Or, at least, I do. :)
  3. Making Baby Grand, the novel, by Dina Santorelli. I have been known to cringe at blogs that only talk about one piece of work (what happens when you write another book?) but this is particularly engaging, especially as it follows her journey from (self)publication to trying to attract and keep a readership, get herself known and establish herself as an author. It’s a good read.
  4. Cresting the Words, by Wordsurfer. A lovely blog to read, with a nice blend of the personal and the professional (so to speak). I always enjoy reading this one, though I don’t comment nearly as much as I should. But then again, that’s my fault, not hers. :)
  5. Rachelle Gardner. She’s an American literary agent who does regular posts on the agent’s life – as opposed to the writer’s life. It’s engaging, it’s entertaining and it’s incredibly useful to newbies like me.

So, that’s it for this round. I hope you find some of these blogs interesting enough to follow on a regular basis – and if you haven’t seen your name on one of these lists yet, it’s not because I don’t want to list you, but probably because there are so many blogs I want to recommend that I just haven’t got to you yet. All the best, and happy blogging!

 

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A little here, a little there

Writing

You may have guessed that of late my writing itself hasn’t been at its peak. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’ve been working on three different projects, or that in my spare time I’m trying to do a number of other things (like find a venue for a child’s birthday party that doesn’t cost the earth – ugghhh!), but yes, it’s been sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. I suspect this is one reason I’ve been throwing myself in to editing so readily: because the writing thing just isn’t really happening for me at the moment so at least if I’m editing I can feel like I’m achieving something.

Of course, there are a million blog posts out there telling people how to get past writers block. Heck, I’ve written some myself. And I’m sure that if I really applied myself, I’d be able to get a lot more written … but therein lies the rub. If I really applied myself. The trouble is, getting around to applying myself just isn’t really happening.

This is risky behaviour for me. On the birth of my youngest child I gave up writing (and reading, for that matter) for  the best part of nine months. For anyone who knows me, this is nothing short of remarkable behaviour. Me, not read? It’s like asking the sun not to rise in the morning. But, I sense that it might be a very easy trap to fall back into. If I take too much of a break from writing – or reading – then goodness only knows how long it would take before the bug bites me again. Last time it was nine months …  who’s to say it wouldn’t be longer next time?

Yeah, yeah, I know. If I’m to call myself a writer then I have to write. Most people write because they can’t NOT write. Me, well I’ve proven that I can quite happily go without writing for several months. Does that make me less of a writer? I don’t think so, but it does make me pause to think.

In any case, I’m still editing. You know, that zeal that makes you want to get that manuscript just right, no matter how long that takes. Or maybe not just right, because it will probably never reach that peak, but at least good enough to send out into the world. And editing is a key part of writing, so in that sense I’m definitely a writer. And in the meantime, I do find myself jotting down ideas for my other two projects – character traits, things to remember, things to include in the plot arc. And that counts, right?

Yep, a little here and a little there. It all adds up. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

 

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On inhaling the work of others

Writers Week Entrance

Writers Week Entrance (Photo credit: mikecogh)

 

This week, I’m taking a break from the writing/editing cycle. Also from the whole work thing, thanks to some annual leave, but generally from my own writing and editing. Why? Because this week I am taking in a writers’ festival.

There aren’t a lot of writers’ festivals in my home town. Every March, though, we play host to a swathe of authors of different genres, all in town to just talk about writing. It’s one of my favourite weeks of the year, and as such I take the time off work and just go into town and imbibe others’ experiences. A number of them I’ve never heard of, but what does that matter? It’s a great way to find out about amazing stories and to discover a new favourite author.

As such, I refuse to feel guilty about ignoring my own works, just for this week – though it wouldn’t surprise me if I find myself writing anyway. Just being surrounded by successful writers and hearing their stories can be more than enough to inspire me to pick up a pen and jot a few sentences (or pages) down. And after all, isn’t that what an event like this is all about?

So, I’m off to take in some of Writers’ Week – and who knows? Maybe I’ll hear the tidbit of information that just sends me off on a writing or editing frenzy. Or maybe I’ll find a real gem in one of the speakers and spend a fortune in the book tent. Or maybe I’ll just have a lovely, lazy week hearing what some of the best writers going around have to say on the subject of their work. Either way, one thing is for sure: it won’t be a wasted week.

 

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Assorted writing tips #9: Sharing your work

Reader

Reader (Photo credit: Thokrates)

It’s happened to all of us. You get a great idea for a story, you spend some time frantically working on it, and then the enthusiasm dies down and you can’t get motivated to keep going. Sound familiar? I thought so.

Now, I don’t have a magic bullet answer to this. Motivation is a fickle friend and sometimes it just deserts us. Sometimes, though, there are things you can do, and today I’m talking about sharing your work.

By sharing, I don’t mean putting it out there for others to use. I mean, instead, finding someone (or a group of people) who are potentially in your target audience, and letting them read what you’ve done. There are a number of ways to do this.

  • Post online. I know that this won’t work if what you are writing is something you would like to get traditionally published one day. If, though, you are looking at self publishing, or just writing for the love of it, then it’s an option. This works particularly well if you’re writing a chaptered book, because if you post a chapter at a time then you can really get people involved. Serialising work like this can get your readers really hungering for more: two hundred years ago it was common practice. (Now, the equivalent is TV shows.) Plus, you can get feedback on how you’re going and what you’ve done so far. If you are getting comments saying things like, “post more, I need to know what happens next!”, then chances are you’re doing a good job. If you get feedback saying, “this isn’t working for me, I find character X bland and the scenarios clichéd”, then there are things you need to work on. Note, this is not for the thin skinned – but then again, neither is writing, is it? So long as people are constructive, though, then you have built-in advice - from people who might buy your work in the future
  • Join a writing group. If you’re not already part of one, this can be really beneficial. Not only do you get feedback on how you’re going from fellow writers, but meeting once a month (or whatever) gives you a deadline to get new work done. If you’re expected to have an extra 3000 words written before the third Friday of the month, you’re much more likely to do it than if you just set an internal deadline. Disappointing other people is something no one likes to do. Again, the feedback is really helpful and if your fellow writers like what you’re doing, then chances are you’ll want to impress them again next time. :)
  • Find a beta. Preferably one who’s not related to you. Ideally, it’s good to find one either through someone else, or online, because the less close this person is to you, the less worried they’re going to be about hurting your feelings. Again, though, with any luck you’ll get them engaged in the story and wanting to know more, so that will make you want to write more. Like I said above, everyone likes to be praised. Besides – and you’ll see this is a common theme – you will get feedback about what the reader likes, and what isn’t connecting with them. Assuming this person is part of your target audience, this is something that’s worth paying attention to.

So there are a few ideas for sharing your WIP and getting some feedback on it. If you’re struggling for motivation to write that next chapter, then maybe letting someone else have a look at it will spur you on to do some more. After all, who is it you’re writing for? Yourself, or your audience?

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Guest post: To Write or Research? by MCV Egan

Today I’m thrilled to introduce MCV Egan, author of The Bridge of Deaths, a love story and mystery centred around a plane crash off Danish shores just prior to World War II. She has very kindly agreed to do a guest post for me, and even offered her blog for me to post on as well! (You can find my post here if you are interested.) Anyway, you don’t want to read me rambling on, so without further ado, here she is!

MCV Egan

MCV Egan

To Write or Research?

Research in the 21st century is as easy as a quick Google search, watching a film or reading a book. Is it really that easy? I personally think it is not and that many of today’s writers suffer when their work is not backed up by the key component KNOWLEDGE.

As nonsensical as it may seem knowledge is the key component to writing a fabulous and concrete piece. Knowledge comes from experience and research. Is this too absurd, too obvious? Unless you have the educational background in what you write about and stick to just that ‘one subject’ it is not.

If you create a fantasy world to make it believable you need knowledge of how the key components of your landscape and atmosphere will affect the story line, the way the characters breathe, move, feel and exist.

If you write about a certain era you need the clothing, vernacular, and setting. Was that building there in 1890? Was that expression used?

Even in a story of the day, if you have a character of a certain age, how do they speak?

As wonderful and easy as the information superhighway is at providing facts and data right at our fingertips, it has also done so for our readers. The availability of information today has made it far more difficult for a writer; any bored reader can look up a thing or two. The very reader can besmirch your name by blogging about your lack of accuracy!

I personally like to use a wide variety of sources and some are on-line and some are old-fashioned magazines, newspaper microfilm, books, movies, documentaries and interviewing or observing people.

For my WIP I am hooked on Psychology Today. I had not touched a copy in years and I find that old copies are full of fantastic articles that have helped me enhance story line and have also provided some pretty cool and quirky ideas. I also people watch a certain age group; I do so in cyberspace as well as at Starbucks. I am not writing about 53 year old menopausal women fighting hot flashes. If menopause gets any worse I probably will soon!

I believe there are countless fantastic writers out there. In this era of blogging and the ease of communication I see it every day. The one key component that will make anyone standout in the fierce competition of the 21st Century wordsmith is knowledge. This goes to every aspect of a story; Characterization, setting, plot.

Get to know your characters in a level of familiarity that far supersedes what the reader will see. Understand what would make them tick even in areas that are not what you are writing about.

As a writer your awareness will guide the reader to experience the moment, the sound and the feel of it all.

When you have that feeling of eureka with the first draft be your own worst judge when you re-read and look up any fact that you could possibly question, as simple as would a 16 year old today, in the 1990s in the 1980s talk, dress or dance that way? Or as complicated as at what altitude does the thin air in a mountain make a climber hallucinate?

So what do you think? Was I that absurd and obvious?

 

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The Bridge of Deaths

The Bridge of Deaths, by MCV Egan

MCV Egan lives in south Florida in the United States and is fluent in four languages. From a young age she was determined to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s death, which resulted in The Bridge of Deaths, the culmination of nearly twenty years of research and analysis. If you like the way she thinks, please go and follow her blog and, even better, check out The Bridge of Deathswhich can be found at Amazon and a number of other booksellers. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Tag, you’re it!

English: Parallel dialogue (2008)

English: Parallel dialogue (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’m going to talk about dialogue tagging. You know, the “John said” bit of “I can’t understand it,” John said. (Okay, that was probably a little basic, but please stick with me.)

There has been a lot said about dialogue tagging, and how to do it best. Get rid of all the adverbs. Take away all the descriptive tags and replace them with “said”. Ignore them entirely. Naturally the whole thing is terribly confusing and novices like me have no idea which advice to take.

Take adverb reduction, for example. Look, I get where this is coming from. The dialogue should speak for itself without the writer having to explain the tone of voice. “What are you doing?” Mary asked sharply could be replaced with “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary asked, enriching the dialogue itself and eliminating the need for the description.

But the thing is, I think there is room for the occasional adverb. Not all the time, and not at the expense of better written conversation, but description can sometimes add to the whole experience. Besides, I am yet to read a book completely devoid of adverbs. So maybe, I’m thinking, it’s not a case of cutting them out entirely, but instead thinking about each one and whether it’s really needed. Most won’t be, but some will.

Okay, onto the “said” brigade. This is replacing the likes of “Speak for yourself,” Andrew muttered with “Speak for yourself,” Andrew said. The idea behind this is that again, the dialogue should speak for itself without the author having to explain things. Again, though, I’m less than convinced. Sure, it makes the text neater and simpler, but then again I think you lose some of the texture and feel of the scene. Perhaps again it’s a case of selective application. I’m just not sure.

Finally, there’s the idea of removing tags altogether. Now don’t get me wrong, no one does this exclusively, but it can work pretty well with conversations. It doesn’t necessarily mean not tagging the dialogue at all, just removing the “he said”, “she said” type of thing. For example:

Sarah frowned. “I just don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“Are you kidding? It’s as clear as day!” Mark got up and walked to the window, looking out. His frustration was obvious.
“It’s as clear as mud. What exactly to you hope to achieve?”
“World peace. Power over the universe. Or, failing that, I’d settle for getting that prick fired.”

I quite like this. It’s clean, it’s neat and it doesn’t detract from the conversation. However, what it can do is make the reader lose track of who is speaking. To use the example above, at this stage of the dialogue it’s clear whose voice is being used, but if it went on for two or more paragraphs I would find myself counting back to work out who is saying what. Maybe I’m alone in this – just about every book I’ve read this year has had this in several places, with me getting confused as to which words belong with which character. But then again, maybe I’m not alone, and authors (or editors) are inadvertently sacrificing clarity for the sake of brevity. I don’t know. So, while I quite like the technique, I think it should be used wisely so there is as little reader confusion as possible.

So where am I going with this post? Well, I don’t have advice to offer or an argument to make; instead, it’s really just a train of thought about how best to write dialogue. I don’t know that there are any right or wrong answers, but as I inch ever closer to the editing stage of my manuscript, I find myself thinking more and more about this sort of thing.

In the end, I think it’s down to personal tastes. Sure, there are some rules, like don’t go over the top with your descriptions – after all, isn’t it better when the reader has to make their own picture? It gets them so much more engaged – but really, do what you think feels right. Sure, some people won’t agree, but there are others who will … and if you get it horribly wrong, your editor will point it out anyway, right?*

 

*Unless, of course, I have it horribly wrong, in which case feel free to correct me. Thank you!

 

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The Creative Writer Blogging Award!

Today I’m very excited to be accepting the Creative Blogging Award, and would like to give a HUGE thank you to Justin at Write21 for nominating me. Justin has an excellent blog and I hope you all check it out really soon if you haven’t already.

 

 

The award, apparently, “is meant to be given to those who share their creativity through writing stories, poems, and themselves through their writing.

The rules are…

  1. This award should be given to those who have written a poem, a story, scripts, or some other creative form of writing for their blog.
  2. Thank the blogger who nominated you for the award, and link to their blog.
  3. Write a 8 line poem about yourself.
  4. Nominate 4 other bloggers for the award and notify them of their nomination.”

Okay. Easy, right? Let’s see …

I’ve already thanked Justin for his nomination, so now I have to write a poem about myself. This is really off-the-cuff, so please excuse its vagueness and its quality.

 

Hidden from prying eyes,
Chasing the wind,
Clutching at subplots
As magic begins;
Mother and co-worker,
Partner and friend,
Telling a story
From beginning to end.

 

Sorry about that. Now, onto the good stuff – nominations! I am thrilled to nominate the following bloggers for this award, in no particular order:

Now, I sincerely hope you go check out these bloggers as soon as you can because they’re all definitely worth reading. Thanks again to Justin for nominating me for this award, and have a lovely week! :)

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On setting word count targets

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

I’ve been disappointing myself lately. After a great creative start to my revised life as a working mother, my novel has been suffering a little of late. This isn’t because I haven’t had time to work on it – as I wrote a few weeks back, I have lunch hours and the like which have me already sitting at a computer and which give me ready-made writing time. No, I’ve found myself faffing about during that time instead, checking the newsfeeds on the internet or looking at my blog stats or whatever. Basically, anything that doesn’t involve actual writing, I’ve been doing it.

Because of this, my word count has stagnated a little. I hit 90K last week, but since then my total count has actually gone down rather than up. Sure, I’ve been writing (a little), but I’ve been more active doing minor line edits than actually being creative; cutting things rather than adding them. I’m sure the manuscript is all the better for it, but that doesn’t really make up for the fact that I’ve been neglecting the creative side of it.

In order to slap myself into submission, I’ve decided to give myself word count goals – a minimum of 1000 words each day that I have time to sit down and write for an hour or more, and preferably 2000. I know I can do this (I’ve knocked up a 1200-word short story in about 15 minutes on occasion), I just need to be motivated.

I know that word count targets can be counter-productive. Writing just for the sake of writing often produces substandard results. However, this for me isn’t a long-term solution, more of a kick start (or a kick up the rear end). To finish my first draft I’ve got a lot of scenes that need to be written, but which I know will be dull to write. This is my way of making myself write them. If the quality is bad I can edit them later on; for now, I just need them done.

Naturally, simple goals often aren’t enough. I could be sitting at my workstation faffing around as usual, without paying attention to my goals and not feeling guilty in the slightest. However, if I use the carrot and stick method, it’s more likely to be effective.

The answer, for me at least, is chocolate. I will buy myself one or two chocolate bars each day, and leave them sitting on my desk. When it gets to lunch time, if I don’t get to 1000 words I don’t get the chocolate bar. I have to leave it sitting there, of course, as recognition that I didn’t do it, and as motivation for the next day. As someone who has trouble leaving a good Crunchie bar just sitting there uneaten, this is bound to motivate me. (If I manage 2000 words, I get two chocolate bars. Extra reward for extra effort.)

Will it work? Time alone will tell. But I have enough prompts in my WIP to give me the inspiration to write the missing scenes, so that shouldn’t be an issue. The question is whether I want the chocolate enough.

So, that’s my goal. 1000 words per day that I’m able to write for an hour or more. With any luck this dratted first draft will be finished in no time, and then I’ll be able to really go through and do a thorough edit. In the meantime, I was wondering – what motivations work for you? What have you tried to make you get your story finished? And did it work? Because, if my Crunchie bar method isn’t successful, I’m sure as hell going to need all the ideas I can get! :)

 

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