Personal Cannon: The Ten Megan Classics

Once upon a 1909, Dr. Charles Eliot put together a compilation of literature in trustworthy forest green boards with serious gold type and called them The Harvard Classics. These were meant to provide any person who read them with the elements of a liberal education, but reading them still won’t qualify you for a supervising position at Target.

Of course, now it’s 2016 and the very idea of cannonical literature holds as much water as a sieve: Whose cannon? Why is this book important? What do you mean English 101 kids are reading Gardner’s The Art of Fiction but not Barry’s What It Is? (Both are brilliant books on writing, but I prefer Lynda Barry’s because it’s got all sorts of pictures and is less interested in academia than the occasionally heavy handed Gardner.) There are so many ways of learning, so many important books, that it is impossible to read them all. But I do like the idea that a set group of books can provide a single person with the elements of an education for… whatever, so I’ve drummed up a personal cannon that when read will give you the elements of a Megan education.

Rather than the 51 classic books provided by Dr. Eliot, I have limited this list to a ten book summer course. If undertaken, these ten books will provide you with an introduction to Megan, and you will be well on your way to all of the neurosis, excess coffee, and indecipherable reminders written at 3am that she enjoys on a daily basis. Alas, you will still be unqualified for a supervising position at Target.

Half Magic by Edward Eager: Thinking deeply about the proper way to word a wish will extrapolate itself to thinking deeply about every word said, until you’re not sure you should ever say anything! And Katherine fights Sir Lancelot, that’s fun.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: This will provide a counterpoint to Eager, when the Trunchbull gets away with her atrocities by never committing any act by half. All in, until no one will believe you, Miss Honey.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress: My first introduction to Hugo winning SciFi by a lady type. The sheer idea that it could be done was well formative. Likely, you will bond with your future husband over all the hobbies you’d both aquire if you never had to sleep.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud: you have already read a few comics as a prerequisite for this course, and now you will understand their language.

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera: Story as music, explained by the son of a student of Antonin Dvorak. (Not that Kundera’s life as an expat Bohemian living in France is any less interesting than his connection to Dvorak.) All art is intersectional, all story has the capacity to be Art. Which is the excuse you’ll give when caught humming O Mangum Mysterium while you read.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal): Art as a novel.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry: Visceral and ugly, looked at so hard that it becomes beautiful. You’ll still need to take a shower after this. You’ve been warned.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin: I loved this book so much that I made a shirt with her map of Annares on it. I. Made. A. Shirt. I expect you to make a shirt after reading this.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor: Science fiction is fantasy, fantasy is real, genre is whatever you want to make it. This book is scary and amazing, and Onyesonwu is going to rewrite your world. Extra credit: follow Okorafor on Twitter for delightful animal pictures!

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett: Read this at any age, the wee men talk funny but it’s Tiffany and her grandmother’s understanding of the world that is Real. If you want to be a witch, read the Tiffany Aching books. (Obvs you want to be a witch. Who doesn’t?)

List is reflective of the order in which these books were read.  Extra credit: read Half Magic out loud while following your dad through the garage, and then read the chapter What Happened to Katherine another twelve times.


So what is your cannon? What ten books would make a you?

Writing Process Blog Tour for 8/20/14!

I was tagged by Tamara Kaye Sellman to participate in a blog tour that asks four questions about the writing process Tamara had some great answers last week involving magical realism and the necessity for today’s writers to go against conventional advice for the writers of yesterday, and next week I’ve tagged Michelle Kilmer, author of When the Dead and the upcoming Last Night While You Were Sleeping, and Ripley Patton, author of the PSS chronicles to give their answers. I’m looking forward to reading them both! Today it is my turn. Let’s go!

1) What are you working on?

I just finished the second draft of a novel and I am working really hard on not flipping out and hiding under a table where I’ll likely scratch into the walls all of the worst possible things I imagine my beta readers could say about it with a pen knife and ultimately throw the manuscript into a volcano. I’m one of those writers, the “nothing will ever be good enough” sort of writers, but I’ve come to a place where I know if I can just sit tight in this storm of bad-feelings a week will pass, I’ll read through the book, and decide “this aint all bad, I can probably work with this.”

This is the second novel I’ve written, but it’s the first I want read, so the standards are pretty dang high. It’s way different from the short stories I’ve done, which I still revise until the moment revision becomes “put the comma in, take that same comma out… maybe put the comma in again?” and that’s when I know I finished the story three months ago. I’m slowly learning I can’t revise the novel that way, I just don’t have the stomach for it. I suppose what I’m really working on is distraction. I’m finding small stories to fiddle with in the interim, and I’m making things with my hands. Hands are good distractions. I wrote six word biographies for the main characters in the novel to help siphon off some of these nerves, and I just did a self portrait in sharpie and cut paper because sometimes writers need to get out of the words for a bit, and sit, and find some calm before we ruin a project with too much fussing.

There’s an episode of Metalocalypse in which the lead singer of Dethclock is staring at the final cut of their latest album, and everyone behind him is saying “Nathan… don’t do it…” and then he just pushes a button and erases everything. I know exactly what that’s like. Nathan just needed to give it a week. I vow not to touch my manuscript for a week (okay I’ll read it but not edit… I’m putting it down, I swear.)

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think I write horror. The novel is about monsters and urban legends, and I’ve found common themes of insects, three eyed people, and madness in my short stories, so what I write tends to fit within some vein of horror. That being said, I am a genuinely cheery person, and so much of what I write comes from a place of love, which I think is reflected in the stories I tell. It’s a very cheerful horror. Sometimes it feels like I come from a place of naiveté. I am young, yet, for a writer. Right now I am struggling with the disparity between the world I live in and the world reflected in what I write. There is so much evil out there that it feels comical for a fairy tale witch to be the greatest antagonist in the world of my novel, but I have to remember that a story is not the world. It never can be. Jose Saramago got around this by cutting off the outside world at the borders of his unnamed country, Milan Kundera acknowledged fiction’s shortcomings within his novels by writing openly of their fictitious nature, and Mike Carey in the Unwritten comics named this the negative space in the story; that space where the story stops short and in order to work cohesively cannot acknowledge the vastness of the world, but must remain focused on the small world it has built for itself. The Unwritten is chock full of brilliant breakdowns of the way we read and write, all in a fantastic story to boot. It’s on the “writer’s reference” shelf in my personal library. I organize my books like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I carried myself off there for a wee bit. But that minor turn toward structure and influence is not altogether off topic, they are what make me different. I would not call what I do “meta fiction,” but while I write stories that often turn horrific, I focus less on being scary and more on the structure of a piece, what is left in and out, and that structure is genre-less. I also read a lot of comic books. And children’s books, and magical realism, and yes, horror. All of which inform the way I write.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Wow that’s tough. I have a hard time writing about myself (don’t let the blog fool you). And talking to people. I think a lot of writers (especially fiction writers) have this problem. I’m not saying that I write because the only conversation I want to strike up is a monologue about spiders, but I think all artists are looking to communicate something that cannot be simply said in conversation. Writing is the medium I’ve chosen to communicate those things I can’t say about love and madness and fear. Fear particularly (I’ve been working with that a lot in the novel) is such an insidious concept that to speak openly about it degrades any arguments that touch it. Better to construct a life that is so entrenched in fear, and watch how he lives when everything around him runs with its sap, and let that act as a method for understanding what fear does to a person who cannot control it.

Stories are things I can make that are immersive, they demand full attention, and unlike movies which provide everything from story to visuals to music, they involve the participation of the reader. Language is a give and take thing, I can say “Isabel let herself fall back into the Leviathan, and drew her strength from its ancient wisdom” and how you see that happening is what you, reader, bring to the story. It is dependent upon how you see Leviathan as an abstract concept, what sort of person you envision an Isabel… you get the idea. It would have more meaning if more words were built around it, a narrower focus, that is what writing does, but I don’t have space here. It’s why when we speak of fiction we often speak in metaphors. Naming unnameable concepts.

I think video games are the one other artistic medium that demands nearly the same type of involvement from its participants, but video games are held hostage by technology, and their stories are often diffused through a production team. I collaborate like Edward Gorey; open to collaboration, but you might not see me for weeks while I “collaborate.” I prefer language as a technology for story telling, anyway. It’s incredibly advanced, and it only gets better as we discover new concepts and ways to speak of them. I, for one, welcome “hot mess” as an addition to the dictionary. It probably won’t make it into any of my short stories anytime soon, but it does detail a specific idea, and I like knowing “hot mess” is there if I need it.

4) How does your writing process work?

I usually begin with a character, and some idea of a problem she’s having. I like to write off of prompts for anthologies, because blank pages are terrible, so those prompts are thrown into the stew. I’ll jot down a couple of random sentences on a blank document, perhaps a line or two of dialogue, and sometimes if I’m having a really hard time beginning the story, I will play around with rhyming couplets because they make me smile. Rhymes loosen the brain, they keep me from worrying about perfection in a first draft.

Then I do the dishes. (Or something to distract my hands.) While my hands are someplace inconvenient, the right first sentence comes into my head, and I go back to the computer and write it down, then write furiously, attempting to throw everything on the page, spitting words against the wall until I’ve discovered the silhouette of what I really mean to say and I do not edit while I write because that kills it. That’s a lie, I do edit, sometimes, but I try really hard not to. At the end of the first draft which always takes more time than I have, (it’s broken by work, and sleep, and making dinner and spending time with my patient husband,) I try to give it a couple days before I edit for real, and in this time I doodle characters, or knit. Sometimes if I’ve really enjoyed an object in the story I will try to make it. I love making things with my hands, and it gives some sense of accomplishment so I don’t go back to the computer stuck in the mire of bad-feelings, having convinced myself that the story is pointless. And once enough time has passed, I go back to the first draft and make sure that the fury I conjured out of couplets and dishwater is cohesive, and that the words sound right together. Sometimes writing this way gives the correct feeling to the story right away, but I more often need to wrangle it back from the brink and turn the phrases straight so they better reflect the story they are telling.

This fugue state writing is the only way I can get my editing brain to shut up long enough to finish a first draft. I think I might be in the minority for writers, but I love to edit fiction. I think that’s where the magic actually takes place. First drafts are gathering ether, raw power for a spell, and editing is putting that into place, directing it so that it can affect another person the same way the ether has affected you. Writing is magic. Oh! Oh, that’s my answer to number three! The process ends in a spell, and then someone else reads it, and then we share that tiny world, but privately, in our own time. Magic!

Be sure to tune in to and next week for their answers to these same questions!

Michelle Kilmer is a lover of the macabre, especially zombies. She is a frequent zombie walker and can be found, with her twin sister, in “full gore” at many horror-related events. Having grown impatient for the zombie apocalypse she decided to bring one to her doorstep in When the Dead… her first novel. With the positive feedback on When the Dead, she has continued to write. In 2013 she co-wrote a short story collection with her twin sister. Her third book, a zombie YA novel is due out in May 2014.

Ripley Patton lives in Portland, Oregon with one cat, two teenagers, and a man who wants to live on a boat. She is an award-winning short story writer and author of The PSS Chronicles, a young adult paranormal thriller series. Ripley doesn’t smoke, or drink, or cuss as much as her characters. Her only real vices are writing, eating M&Ms, and watching reality television.

All that is, but isn’t there.

There is a great amount of your writing that you will never put into words, and leave for the reader to fill in on his or her own.  I like to draw.  But, the problem I come across when drawing perspective is that I am not allowed to draw in every piece I can see in my mind.  The brain sees in three dimensions, the paper has only room for two.  The cubists ignored this and wrote it out anyway, giving all sides, but the brain cannot properly process three dimensions in two dimensional form, and it looks abstract.

When looking at a skyline, while traveling, you can see… everything!  But really, to be truthful, it’s your brain that is filling in a lot of what is there.  Your eyes aren’t actually seeing individual branches way up on the mountain, and it’s your previous experience of branches in close proximity that fills in the blanks.  The same thing happens in writing.  There’s great amounts of scenery in a book that your previous experiences fills in to allow the writer to ignore those boring bits.  That Saramago quote from Seeing was a moment of allowing the reader to understand that absolutely none of the anonymous buildings have been provided, and all these people have been speaking in some city hall you’ve provided for them.  Powerful stuff for Saramago, who leaves his narrative’s location purposefully open to interpretation, and you automatically fill in your own state buildings.

But it is possible to leave something too open.  In a story I sold recently I left a relationship unwritten between a father and daughter, because my own mind filled in the relationship I have with my dad.

My dad is awesome, by the way.

But not everyone has that kind of touchstone for “father/daughter” and their landscape filling brain would change the story I wrote.  My awesome editor, caught on to that and asked for a bit more background, and I got out the canvas to add a few more trees.

Getting a little metaphor loopy.  Sorry.

In the other direction, I have read stories in which every single piece of the scenery is oppressively overt, and a paragraph (long one) is devoted to the way garbage flutters in the street.  Sometimes this can be used to shove the reader out of the protagonists head; illustrating a main character a little too big for his britches, but golly it can be an exhausting read.  When the reader starts to skim to get to the meat of the story… that’s really not a good sign.  Elmore Leonard, God rest his soul, advised one leave out the parts of the story that the readers like to skip.  Very sound advice.

Writing is a struggle to put in and leave out just the right combination of words to allow the story to come naturally to the reader’s mind.  And because all readers are different, you’re never going to write something that will resonate with everyone’s brain.  But you can come close.

A really good story that alights another person’s brain, and gets them thinking your thoughts, is about as close to telepathy as I’m going to get.  One day it will develop into Magical Powers.  I write because it allows me to go on thinking I might be a secret wizard.

Or an alchemist.