Creativity Friday: The Little Library that Could (Or, How to Transform a Community One Book at a Time)
I love to take long walks—I consider them part of my daily creative “work”, if you will. Besides serving as exercise, these several mile long walks clear my mind of clutter so I can better concentrate on whatever I’m working on. I first became enamored of long daily walks during the year I lived on the moors of Devon. While Ditmas Park (aka my corner of Brooklyn) may not be as overtly scenic as Dartmoor, it nevertheless possesses numerous charms.
Such as this.
Which I found planted oh-so-matter-of-factly several blocks from my house during my daily walk.
Yes, the box is what it looks to be: a free lending library placed smack-dab in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s hosted by my neighbor Jennifer Wilenta and her family.
Upon closer examination, I discovered the library box contained mostly picture books for children and several novels. Once I returned home, I followed the url listed on the box, which lead me to this. Turns out that Little Free Library is an organization that sponsors community-based libraries to bring literature to the streets. Best of all, their website offers instructions on how to steward a free lending library of your own: everything from building plans to registration materials. Here’s a New York Times article about them.
While I love my local public library, I adore the grassroots intimacy of this. A little library box is something an individual would easily do on their own without dealing with large organizations or bureaucracies. All it would take is a weekend and some books to share.
Imagine if there was a library box on every block, each filled with their owner’s personal book favorites and recommendations. What a way to transform a community one book at a time!
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a bit (ahem) obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men. When a Mad Men season is underway, I’ll gladly spend hours deconstructing character motivation, plot points, whether Don Draper is a sociopath*, and the delights of a well-placed Roger Sterling bon mot with my husband and friends. Beyond the obvious pleasures of well-written dialogue and fully developed characters, I also adore the gorgeous 1960s clothes that seem to tell a story of their own.
Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo agree: their Mad Style recaps are wonders of semiotic insight. Generously annotated with screen captures from each week’s episode, each Mad Style post takes Mad Men viewing to a sublimely detailed level. TLo, as their fans call them, claim that Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant deploys clothing in the same way a literary novelist consciously uses symbolism, subtext, and foreshadowing. Nothing is by accident.
Sound crazy? Spend some time reading Mad Style and you’ll agree. Three of TLo’s particularly brilliant observations:
- Joan often wears rose-patterned clothing to signify her fluxuating romantic state.
- Don associates the color red as a call back to his troubled childhood in a whorehouse.
- Peggy is often outfitted in Peter Pan collars and plaids, revealing her Catholic upbringing and lack of fashion acumen.
After mulling Mad Style for some time, I realized I used clothing in a similar manner in THE LILY MAID. Which makes sense—after all, my novel is set during Victorian England’s Aesthetic movement, an era when the rational dress movement faced off against the padded pleasures of the bustle.
For example, my protagonist Elizabeth becomes uneasy when she’s confronted with the costume she’s to wear while modeling:
Dulac handed me a long gown sewn of a softly mottled cream-colored linen with pale green ribbons along the shoulders and waist.
I said, “So the Lady of Shalott’s dress was white after all.”
“As far as I could tell. This will do until a better idea comes along.”
… Before I could get too involved with my examination, Mrs. Dulac led me to a windowless antechamber tucked into a corner. She shut the door behind me. “Let me know if you need help with the lacing, Miss Sirini. I fear you’ll need to remove your stays for the gown to drape properly.”
I had not expected this—I’d worn some form of corset since I was twelve. Somehow the costume seemed emblematic of the Dulacs and their easy, bohemian ways. But I refused to be caught short. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine, Mrs. Dulac.”
Beyond fashion signifying class, I also used color: Elizabeth wears grey half-mourning throughout the book until a crucial turning point. Another character dresses in green, the color of absinthe, to signify his decadence. And so on. Though I’m not nearly accomplished a wardrobe stylist as Janie Bryant, I do have one advantage: since I’m writing fiction, my clothing budget is unlimited.
*After last week’s disturbing Fifty Shades of Grey Flannel episode, I think he is. Don Draper: dark, handsome, and eminently messed up.
Here in the studio, I’m preoccupied with finishing up the third draft of THE LILY MAID. Since I started revising about a month ago, I’ve worked my way through the first 320 pages. Now it’s onto the rest. Alas, this is the part of my novel which requires the most amount of revising—I’m deleting a subplot, two characters, and streamlining for narrative urgency. But I’ve tools for it.
Surprised that a writer has tools? I was too. Before I jumped into writing fiction, I thought all a writer needed was a computer, a word processing program, and a notebook. I believed their work set up to be far simpler than an artist’s, where having the right brush, paints, and papers can make or break.
As a writer, I tend to be more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to drafting. (See here for a detailed description what these are.) My first draft for THE LILY MAID was written during National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, in 2009. (As a side note, I think NaNoWriMo is a powerful creativity tool for writers!) My NaNoWriMo was definitely a pantser experience—I decided to participate two days before it began on November 1st as a dare to myself. When I started writing, all I possessed was a germ of an idea: a revisionist retelling of the Lady of Shalott. Initially I thought the novel would be Arthurian; as my draft progressed I decided to set it in Victorian England amid the Arts and Crafts movement.
I wrote my first draft in Quark Xpress of all programs—as a designer, I was far more accustomed to page layout programs than word processing. Believe it or not, my completed NaNoWriMo draft was entitled APPLELAND, a nod to Avalon; soon after I changed it to THE LILY MAID, after the line in the Tennyson poem. How far I have come since that impulsive NaNoWriMo! Since then, my writer’s toolbox has gotten more complex.
Soon after I won NaNoWriMo, I transitioned from writing in Quark Xpress to Word. As bloated and fussy as it may be, Word is the industry standard for word processing. (Yes, Mac users have Pages, but even so….) But more importantly, I downloaded Scrivener ($45, Literature and Latte), a much more powerful and intuitive word processing program for creative writing.
Never heard of Scrivener? If you’re a writer, it will revolutionize how you write. Scrivener is a powerful content generation tool for writers that can be used for (besides writing) gathering research, restructuring existing book drafts, outlining, brainstorming, and just anything else you can think of. I mainly use it, though, for revising my drafts and organizing my notes. Scrivener is fantastic for working out scene pacing, plot points, moving chapters, et al. THE LILY MAID is such a behemoth of a manuscript—140,000 words or 470 pages—that it’s far easier for me to do this in Scrivener than scrolling through a massive Word file. This written, Scrivener is also useful for first drafting—you can start out sketching out scenes using the corkboard (see above), and then flesh out as needed.
Another tool I like is Aeon Timeline ($40, Scribblecode); it was brought to my attention by novelist Stephanie Dray. Aeon enables you to easily create a detailed timeline for your novel using any sort of time system you’d like—minutes to centuries. As you can see above, it’s very full-featured: you can indicate which characters are involved in a scene, plot arcs, settings, and much more. You can also import your timeline into Scrivener, though I’ve never used this tool.
Aeon was especially helpful since THE LILY MAID has a rather convoluted timeline; the novel jumps back and forth in time over the period of three years. Some scenes are even presented twice from different point of view characters a la Rashomon. Though I’d already created a timeline as a text document before I discovered this program, I had a far easier time viewing how everything was working in Aeon. I was even able to pick up a few errors. For example, in one scene, I had an important character in two places at the same time—now she is firmly grounded in time and place, much to my relief.
Though I’ve only covered computer programs here, there are lots of other great creativity tools for writers. I haven’t even gotten into my favorite notebooks, pens, the necessity of critique partners, or most helpful books and writing workshops—but perhaps that is the subject for another post.
How about you? What are your favorite tools for writing? Please feel free to share in the comments!
Today is Easter, so not much time to write today. Today, instead, is a day for egg hunts, visiting with neighbors, smelling the lilacs, and cooking a yummy dinner to share with good friends. Still, I must admit that I’m anxious about the time away from finishing up THE LILY MAID. I think I’m at the stage where any break from the studio feels more disruptive than helpful—a sign that I’m hopefully very close to the end. I mean, what if my agent hates what I’ve written? What if it’s unsellable? Unlike nonfiction books, novels can only be sold to a publisher upon completion—a big leap of faith. What if my leap of faith was really a leap off a cliff?
To counter this, I tell myself that anxiety is just another form of energy. If I can channel this energy into excitement, then I’ll feel less paralyzed by fear. I’m also thinking about all the things I want to do once I’ve finished with this draft. For example, I want to paint furniture—I was very inspired by my last visit to the V & A. I even have a large wardrobe awaiting my attention. I’m starting to get glimmers of what my next novel may be. The next phase awaits.
Above is a sideboard cabinet painted by Edward Burne-Jones in 1860 the week before his wedding. It is on display at the V & A.
It’s no secret: Anyone who knows me well is aware of the influence JANE EYRE has had on my life. Charlotte Bronte’s classic has rocked my world since I was a tween of twelve—I’ve probably read JANE EYRE on an annual basis since then. I’m thankful to my English great-aunt who insisted I read it way back when. (Interestingly, she claimed I’d enjoy the picturesque descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside. Go figure….)
As a sensitive, artistic, and introverted teenager from a complicated home environment, Jane’s character especially spoke to my condition. I loved Bronte’s exploration of class and gender issues; in the nineteenth century, this was especially provocative stuff. On the romantic end, the scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester are brilliantly written slow-boils of sexual tension. JANE EYRE has even inspired a few tributes in THE LILY MAID, my novel underway. For example, I couldn’t resist naming a little girl Adele, after Jane’s French charge in the novel.
I consider JE “the other Jane” to Jane Austen–her quieter, deeper, more passionate cousin. With all the retellings of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE abounding, I’ve always wondered why no author had ever attempted to update JANE EYRE (to the best of my knowledge, not including WIDE SARGASSO SEA). Anyway, you can imagine how delighted I was when tarotist Diane Wilkes mentioned to me that JANE EYRE had been rewritten as a YA novel. (Well, delighted as well as a bit trepidatious. We JANE EYRE lovers are very protective of our girl!)
JANE EYRE has been recast by author April Lindner as JANE. The good news: JANE is a really fun, well-written read which would be a great gateway drug for teenagers who have yet to read the original Bronte. I sped through it in one sitting, unable to put it down. Since I know the original Bronte so well, I think a lot of my page turning was because I wanted so badly to see how Ms. Lindner would handle each of the original’s plot points: How would she translate them for a twenty-first century teenage audience?
Short answer: I think she did a great job. To make Rochester into the burned out rock star of Nico Rathburn was a brilliant inspiration. Ditto for updating Jane Eyre as an impoverished college drop out with the nom de moderne of Jane Moore. These choices communicate so well the extreme class disjuncture between the original JE and Rochester; of how shocking and impossible their love would be viewed by most of society. I especially liked the author’s handling of the last third of the book, which brings in the subplot of the Rivers siblings. Some reviewers have commented on JANE’s sexual content, but I actually thought it worked very well within the context. After all, this is 2011, not 1847, when the original JE was published. These days, true love leads fairly quickly to tangled sheets (unless you’re Bella Swan). The original JANE EYRE is pretty hot stuff, so it makes sense. I also was thankful for how closely Lindner hewed to the Bronte’s original dialogue, which I’ve always found completely delightful. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
My quibbles with JANE are few and far between, but for the sake of balance, I’ll include them. I do wish that the flashbacks revealing Jane Moore’s unloving, dysfunctional family were better handled and more subtly developed. They felt a bit shoehorned in and a little confusing–the proverbial info dump for the sake of providing backstory and motivation. It’s a challenge, though; the original JE had many, many pages devoted to presenting Jane’s formative years with her relatives-from-hell and subsequent life at Lowood. These reveal her character’s awareness of social hypocrisy and class consciousness, thus clarifying her later choices and actions in the novel. Perhaps this was just too complicated to pull off within the YA constraints?
My other issues probably arise from my love of the original JE. For example, Jane Eyre is this almost fey character (Rochester repeatedly refers to her as fairy-like, of another world), which contrasts so beautifully against his dark cynicism. One really understands their attraction–they’re opposites who have been cut of the same cloth. She serves almost as an angel leading him to personal and spiritual redemption. In JANE, this doesn’t feel so apparent to me; Rathburn seems attracted to Jane Moore because of her blunt honesty and integrity in a world of sycophants. One major plot point (no spoilers) required some serious suspension of disbelief, though for the most part I thought it was handled well.
Overall, JANE is a very enjoyable and well-written retelling of a novel I consider one of the feminist ur-texts. Recommended. I also hope it will encourage teens to read Bronte’s original, which I consider essential reading.
On a related note, it seems like JANE EYRE may be finally getting the film adaptation she deserves. I’m excited by this trailer, which captures the intensely dark, gothic qualities of the book. Can’t wait to see it!
I was also surprised to find JANE EYRE referenced in this Stone Soup comic strip last week.
Also, Jane Eyre Illustrated offers a web-based overview of all of the illustrated versions of JANE EYRE through the centuries. Love it! I have many fond memories of reading the edition illustrated by Nell Booker.
With all this Janeite stuff abounding, maybe it’s just the other Jane’s time? Hmmmmm…..