Category Archives: Reading as a Writer

START HERE: Michael Ondaatje

As I told you in my previous post, I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. I’m sure some of you guessed who I would write about.

As a teen, I was an awkward and, as my brother puts it, bookish girl, growing up a half-breed with an American mother in my father’s hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jeddah had few libraries, and bookstores typically carried more stationery supplies than books. So all the anglophone bookworms banded together. In my junior year of high school, a British friend of my mother’s gave me a plastic bag full of paperbacks she no longer wanted. Out of it I fished, and then devoured, a funny, moving, and poetic memoir about the English-speaking, Tamil-Dutch, Sri Lankan family of Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

Readers may know Ondaatje’s most famous book, the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, which later became an Oscar-winning tragic love story starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. Or they may have heard of his most recent novel, The Cat’s Table. Some may feel daunted by the unconventional narrative structure of the former or the slow pacing of the latter. I think Ondaatje is an important novelist because of the ways he tackles history, memory, language, truth, and identity in a multicultural world. Sometimes, he takes Sri Lanka as his subject. Sometimes he avoids it. Always he plays with the line between history and fiction. We make up our world and our memories, his writing tells us, and that fact brings joy and humor, tragedy and failure.

The pathway I recommend through Ondaatje’s work starts with a memoir that borrows techniques from fiction, works through two historical novels, and ends with a novel that borrows techniques from memoir.

Running in the Family

If you can, get the edition with the photos. They’re hilarious portraits of Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan family, and the punchline to the photo of the authors’ parents on their honeymoon is unforgettable. Running in the Family will introduce you to Ondaatje’s lyrical language, his sensuality (flip forward to the poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” and I swear you’ll smell cinnamon and feel water on your skin), his sense of humor, and his willingness to blur the lines between fact and fiction–a blurring that, in my opinion, is never hidden from the reader. (At a reading last fall, he said of the relatives he interviewed for the book something to this effect: “They were lying up a storm. I figured why shouldn’t I?”)

In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient

I group these two together because they share some of the same characters, they’re both complexly structured historical novels, neither has anything to do with Sri Lanka, they both feature love stories, and they both deal with transnational identity. You could decide to read the two books in chronological order (Skin first, English Patient second). Or answer this question: Would you rather start with immigrant bridge builders in early twentieth-century Toronto? Or a ragtag group of people of various nationalities who take refuge in an Italian villa at the end of World War II? Whatever you do, think about whether you think Ondaatje’s fictional doppelganger (yes, we’re going to play that game) is the Canadian nurse, Hana, or the Indian sapper,  Kip.

The Cat’s Table

I read a review of The Cat’s Table that, while positive, dismissed the book as minor Ondaatje. I disagree. The Cat’s Table is the book Ondaatje fans were waiting for, especially after the brilliant-in-spots but ultimately disappointing Divisadero. In Ondaatje’s most recent novel, an 11-year-old boy named Michael embarks alone on a steamer from Sri Lanka to England, just as the author did. The narrator Michael, many years later, tells the story of his journey, the people he met, and the lifelong connections and disconnections that started during the course of the trip. After giving us family history, national history, and world history, Ondaatje has turned inward, sort of, giving us a fictional tale of an older man’s need to reflect on his own history.


A book review changed his life

A few years ago, when the Washington Post eviscerated Book World, its standalone Sunday books section, and merged it with the Outlook section, I felt (can you guess?) really upset. Book World was the only section I really loved. Even when I didn’t have time to read books, I could read the book reviews and still feel in touch with the book world.

Yeah, there’s plenty of book blogs and Amazon reviews and Goodreads updates and The Morning News’ annual Tournament of Books and other place to read about books. Even so, I miss Book World.

An essay last month* in, HA, the Post, reminded me of the power of the book review. Inmate Gregory White read a review of a book called “Black Jacks,” then he read the book, then he contacted the author, then he eventually became a merchant mariner, living a life on the seas, just as he’d always wanted to.

Since reading White’s essay, I’ve been thinking about whether I can point to a book that changed my life or made me pursue a dream. For me, that book was “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” which I read as a high school student, at the recommendation of a friend who’d read it in a college creative writing course. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but Natalie Goldberg’s book came to me at a time when I didn’t have writing mentors or teachers to encourage and push me and make me shut up and go write.

How about you? What book helped you follow a dream? And how did you learn about it?

*Yeah, forgive me for blogging about a month-old article. I’m slowly emerging from hibernation, y’all …

Italians Without Wine and Olive Oil

Olive oil being pouredIf you write historical fiction, I highly recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s essay at the end of “Lavinia” about the research she did writing the book, a retelling of the Aeneid, and the choices she made about how to portray life before the Roman Empire. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Vergil, I call the towns of the Bronze Age cities, and their people probably saw them as cities, but to us they might look like a walled or stockaded huddle of huts around a fort. Their people went out into the fields to herd sheep, goats, and cattle, and plant and tend barley and emmer wheat and vegetables, fruit and nut trees. They probably had no cotton or linen yet; the women carded, spun, and wove wool into the togas and pallas they wore (not all that different from a sari). It’s possible that they knew only wild vines and the inedible wild olive, and couldn’t afford to buy wine or olive oil from the Etruscans, who by then may have had them. But I couldn’t imagine Italians without wine and olive oil. If it’s any excuse, neither could Vergil.

Image courtesy of

I’ve got to blog more. Or, Shut Up And Read.

I keep reading things about how we’re supposed to read the classics, or we’re supposed to appreciate genre fiction more. And then the New Yorker’s so-called sci-fi issue features a whole bunch of essays about the precise moment of childhood when the writer realized that there was a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, and started lying about what he or she liked to read.

Enough already, people. The existence of a genre-literary distinction is interesting, and debates about where that line lies are interesting, and questions of how and why we value certain kinds of literature are also interesting. Up. To. A. Point.

At the risk of seeming like I’m taking sides, I’m going to quote Shirley Hazzard’s response to Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards:

I don’t see this as ‘we should read this or we should read that.’ We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.

Or to paraphrase God:

To you your books and to me mine.

I like Michael Ondaatje and Robin McKinley. I like E.M. Forster and Ursula LeGuin. I like Jhumpa Lahiri and Tamora Pierce.

You like what you like. It’s all good as long as people keep reading.

So, what are you waiting for? Go read, everyone!

Holding Up a Mirror

Two years ago I assistant taught a fiction-writing class at my local community college. When faced with a character-description assignment, a lot of students asked, “How do I describe a first-person narrator?” Without having the character look in a mirror, of course. The students seemed really stumped.

Now the easy answer is to have the character describe him- or herself. As in this excerpt from “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke:

About my looks: I was tall and skinny as a kid, but with a big head. I looked like a vertical matchstick. … My face is the most prominent thing about me: it’s red, and sometimes it looks healthy and windburned and full of what you might call life, and sometimes it just looks enflamed.

(The description goes on for a while longer.)

But it doesn’t always seem right for a character to describe him- or herself. I mean, how many of us would really want to do that if we were narrating our own lives?

In that case, a lot of writers employ a sort of mirror technique, without the actual mirror: They have the point-of-view character describe another character, and through the description we get a sense of how the character sees him- or herself. Passages like these appear in the opening chapters of “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and “Prep.”

Although the example below, from “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, is in the third person, I think it does the job nicely. The point-of-view character is missing one ear. He hides that fact by wearing a scarf wound tightly around his head. Here he’s buying a shawerma sandwich:

As the Turkish shawerma man sharpened his long knife, Turad gazed at his clean, finely defined ear, which glowed red in the light and heat of the flames. The Turkish shawerma man swaggered proudly showing off his beautiful ear as he carved tender slices from the huge cone-shaped column of chicken wrapped around the spit, piled them up with his spoon, added some fries, and spread a dollop of mayonnaise on the bread. His other ear glowed with every jolt of his body, thanks to the strong light of the halogen lamp that was positioned just above his head and the pile of chicken. And all the time the Turk was singing a sad song in a language Turad could not understand; he just kept staring at that captivating left ear as he wondered about the secret of the sad singing. How on earth could someone who possessed such a wonderfully perfect ear be sad?

I’d want that shawerma if the rest of the description weren’t so … creepy.

The point is, sometimes character descriptions, whether of the person narrating or of another character, can do more than show readers physical characteristics. In the same way that descriptions of setting can establish a mood, descriptions of characters can tell us how a character feels about him- or herself.

Reading Like a Writer

Recently, my friend S sent me a book as part of a care package. On a Post-it Note stuck on the cover she wrote, “Have you read this? The pacing of the last 10-20 pages is amazing!”

Can you tell S is a writer?

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about Reading Like  Writer. What does that mean? It’s sort of like a woodworker staring at a Thos. Moser chair. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t just stand and drool. Well, he does, but then he wipes away his drool and tries to figure out How They Did That. What tools did they use? What kind of wood? How did they get that effect? How did they stain it? Can I do that, too?

Similarly, if S were reading as a reader, she might have written something different on the Post-it Note: “The last section is a page-turner!” But she was clearly thinking about what made the last 20 pages compelling. Something about the way the author parcels out information, about the way she builds and relieves suspense. (I’m sort of guessing here, b/c I haven’t gotten that far in the book.)

Reading like a writer means not just being swept away by a scene, but going back and trying to figure out why that scene swept you away. Was it the dialogue? The actions of the characters? A vivid description of emotions or setting? How did all those things come together to build tension or suspense or beauty or mystery?

When reading like a writer, look for

  • Character development
  • Plotting and structure
  • Language
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Dialogue
  • Setting and description
  • Scene and pacing

It’s a lot! Usually, there are one or two or three things that a particular book does really well, and that’s what I focus on, rather than trying to follow the ways the book handles every single element of fiction. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to just read a passage a drool.

I’ll be following this post up with some posts where I look at particular elements in books I’ve read recently. Look for a post on structure soon. I’d also love to hear from my readers about how you “read like a writer.”

As an aside, Margaret Atwood has read every Conan the Conqueror book!

Lessons on Action From Conan the Barbarian

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a chase and escape scene. (My novel centers on the historic invasion of a major Islamic city.) I like making characters move through space. But in a first draft especially, action scenes can be challenging. In particular, I’ve been having trouble with verbs and pacing.

I told my non-reader husband about this dilemma, and he, being a rocket scientist,* had a great solution. He pointed to me to the collection of Conan books he inherited from his older brother.

Now, Conan’s a bit pulpy for me. My novel has more (ladeeda) literary aspirations, but I learned some lessons from the chase scene (the first chapter of the first book I cracked open, no less!) I skimmed — both about what to do and what not to do. I also got some strategies from the section of Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” that I’m reading right now.

Here’s the advice I’ve given myself about verbs:

  • When your character is running, or doing some other simple action, just go ahead and use that word instead of some fancy synonym.
  • Along those lines, don’t be afraid to repeat simple verbs like run, walk, sit, say. Don’t overuse them, of course, but a reader notices them less than sprint, stride, perch, opine.
  • If you use any of those fancier words, your character had better be actually doing those things.
  • Come up with a metaphor that enables you to use a verb you normally wouldn’t use to describe a particular action. For example, your character is a flame that burns across the floor. Terrible metaphor, but you get the point.
  • Sentence fragments. Again, don’t overuse this technique, but it allows you to skip a verb or two. (See?)
  • Make something other than your character, say an inanimate object, the subject of the sentence. I’m stealing from Obreht here: Instead of “They came around the bend and were surprised to see a house,” write “The house surprised them.” (The second is amazingly better, isn’t it?)

I’ve got no advice on pacing at the moment, if you were hoping for that. But stay tuned, and I’ll be posting a writing exercise for anyone who wants to play around with action and making characters move.

*Technically, he’s a mechanical engineer who works in the aerospace industry, but that’s kind of longwinded.