How many books written by a dead white man have you read? How many books have you read from someone of the same gender as yourself? Of the same ethnicity? How many books have you read by someone from your country?
When we choose what to read, we tend to gravitate to what we are familiar with. I was brought up in public school to read classical books, books by white people. I reflect on all the stories I’ve read, and I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t that surprised.
It is time we diversify our reading — and I’m going to approach this in a pragmatic way. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading books by white men. No, it just means I’m going to expand my perception of books that are available to me without that feeling that the author had not written the book for me. It was written for me — if I choose to read it. So here is what I’m doing.
I’m calling it the 1 out of 5 rule. 1 book out of 5 I read will be from a writer of a different gender or sexual identity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different ethnicity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different nationality. 1 book out of 5 will be a book that I think I’ll hate, which I feel will oppose my beliefs and interest. 1 book out of 5 will be a book of my choice, anything I want.
With something like books, we can’t be colourblind readers, because currently in most book store white authors take up more shelf space and therefore, if you just go in and grab a book, you’ll likely pick up one from a white author. At this very moment, if you want to read something written by a black, indigonious or person of colour, you need to dig for it. You need to make a conscious choice to do that. You need to go further down the aisle to look for it. And it’s fine. But let’s make that effort to do so. And this is how we start. It doesn’t mean we are going to stop reading Hemingway, Whitman and Faulkner. It means we are going to bring up the other authors as well, authors with perspectives that aren’t of the white man.
Look, there is no clear way forward. People are arguing and people are yelling. People are unable to be compassionate. People are blaming and people are shaming. Before we join that mob. Before we yell and scream — and add to the noise. Before we make a post about how we care and make other performative activism. Before we get overwhelmed and outraged. We need to start not by destroying the system, but we need to start by fortifying our ability to have empathy and our ability to be compassionate. That is where it starts. Reading is where it starts. Understanding is where it starts. Learning to think for ourselves is where it starts.
That’s how I’m going to diversify my reading and I hope you’ll join me.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
Don’t get too distracted, but here is my YouTube channel filled with writing inspirations and ideas to help with your creative process. Check it out!
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As Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men would put it: when we look back at the past, we tend to view it through “pink lens”. He recalled regular conversations with his grandmother, where she lamented that in her youth, young men wouldn’t spend nights playing poker while their girlfriends were left alone. Of course, such proclamations, as McCarthy knew, were unfounded as men have been known to partake in poker, pool, and other activities without their better halves since the beginning of time. However, his grandmother believed her statement and that in her lifetime the world had shifted — perhaps for the worse.
Written during the apprehensive periods after 9/11, No Country For Old Men is a story about corruption and greed, chance and justice, but it’s also a story about the foreboding future that we’re hurtling towards, and the ineptitude of our leaders, our law enforcements, and ourselves as we brace for violence and destructive forces that our beyond our comprehension.
Over a decade since it’s initial publication and adaptation by the Coen Brothers, the story’s nihilistic themes are still relevant as we’re now confronted with obstacles that the old men in charge seem unprepared to handle.
This is the story of Cormac McCathy’s inspiration and Joel and Ethan Coen’s process towards adapting the novel that pulls off the shades and reveals a world worthy of pessimism.
Born in 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy knew from an early age that he would fail to be a respectable citizen. Hating school from the early days and vowing never to waste his life working, taking orders from others, he pursued a life as a writer, educating himself with books during his time in the Air Force while dispatched in Alaska, when he was twenty-three years old.
With a curriculum designed by himself, he read novels feverishly from literary greats including Herman Melville, Fedor Dostoyevsky, and William Faulkner, who was perhaps the one he drew his style from the most. A lot of Faulkerian themes could be found in McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965 had, which makes sense because it earned him The William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable debut novel.
McCarthy, with a literary grant, would end up building momentum from his first novel, travelling Europe, writing three more novels, before receiving a McArthur Genius Grant that enabled him, in 1985, to publish his fifth and perhaps most critically revered work, Blood Meridian, pushing him to the level as one of the great American writers of his generation.
In the 90s, McCarthy finally got mainstream recognition for The Border trilogy that included, All the Pretty Horses, published in 1992, The Crossing, published in 1994, and Cities of the Plains, published in 1998. While Blood Meridian was a violent, horrific story full of blood and carnage — The Border trilogy was restrained. However, with his next novel, No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, McCarthy turned the dial back, as the depiction of senseless evil required a trail of blood for the readers and the old sheriff in the story to follow.
As the years past, McCarthy stayed true to his personal ideology and avoided succumbing to greed or distractions. He made his writing the prime focus of his life, forgoing lucrative opportunities and public adulations. He grew up not wanting to work, and in a way he succeeded. In a rare interview with Oprah in 2007, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel, The Road, the writer dispelled the illusion that his achievements — although were not work — weren’t effortless. He had no advice to offer aspiring writers seeking a workfree life, except this, “if you are really dedicated, you can probably do it.” One has to work to not work.
Prior to 2000, the relationship between McCarthy and Hollywood had not been great. For example, Blood Meridian was deemed a cursed adaptation project. The list of esteemed filmmakers that had been linked to the project and then forced to surrender due to the complexity included Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, John Hillcoat, and James Franco. The problem wasn’t that these filmmakers weren’t imaginative or talented enough, the problem was that the studios weren’t willing to take a risk on it.
Go figure, that the first adaptation that Hollywood would commit to was All the Pretty Horses in 2000. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, All the Pretty Horses received an overwhelmingly negative reception to no fault of the source material. What hurt McCarthy’s first movie adaptation was the politics behind the production. The first cut of the movie was over three hours long, as Thronton had wanted, but Miramax insisted that he cut 35% from it. It was this that ripped the heart and soul from the movie, making it feel rushed, uninvolved, and flat. Some believe that the edits were forced upon Thronton because of his previous directorial foray, Sling Blade, in 1996, where he’d refused to make edits.
McCarthy always had an interest in stage and cinema. During his career, he experimented with writing scripts including a play, Sunset Limited in 2006 and a screenplay, The Counselor in 2013, directed by Ridley Scott. No Country for Old Men was originally written as a script, however, when it didn’t gain any tractions from Hollywood, he rewrote it as a novel.
Luckily, by the time he was ready to publish, the manuscript found its way into the hands of producer Scott Rubin. Rubin purchased the film rights and handed the script to Joel and Ethan Coen, who were starting their next project, which was an adaptation of a novel. The novel they had in mind initially was To the White Sea by James Dickie, published in 1993, a story of an American gunner surviving the final months of World War II in war-torn Tokyo. In the summer of 2005, the Coen brothers decided to put To the White Sea on the shelf and focus on No Country for Old Men.
What motivated them to pursue No Country for Old Men was how unconventional the story was told and the subverting genres. They loved the idea of the good guy and the bad guy never meeting face-to-face. They were drawn by the unforgiving landscape and the sentimentality of the story.
While No Country for Old Men would be the first official Coen Brothers adaptation, they were no strangers to drawing inspiration from literature. Their 1990 neo-noir, Miller’s Crossing was inspired by American novelist Dashiell Hammett and the 2000 comedy, O’Brother, Where Art Thou? was a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. When asked about their selection process by Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview, they simply stated, “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?”
And so they did. While one brother typed on the computer, the other held a copy of No Country for Old Men open flat. They were praised for the faithfulness to the novel, where they didn’t so much as alter, but rather compressed scenes to fit with the medium of film.
Shot by the admired cinematographer, Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men was a sharp left turn from the Coen Brothers’ two disappointing attempts at comedy, Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Cathrine Zeta-Jones in 2003 and The Ladykiller starring Tom Hanks in 2004. Pulling from the starkness of Fargo, the violence of Miller’s Crossing and the stylization of The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men required the Coen Brothers and Deakins to be absolutely precise technically, in order to capture the realism that the story required.
Meticulous storyboarding kept the movie on track, even through all the debates regarding the staged violence on screen. Without the violence, the emotional payoff would be lost and the merciless evil will lack the gravatas the story required. The movie doesn’t glamourize the violence, but instead shows the brutality of it. The violence happens quickly, savage and painful — and in a way, without purpose. The famous coin flip scene in the convenience store simply wouldn’t have the same tension, if we, the audience, didn’t recognize what could be possible if chance went the other way.
No Country for Old Men is a movie almost devoid of music. The choice to go with a minimalistic soundtrack was seen as a removal of a film making safety net. Music helps the audience reach an emotional peak faster. It guides the story and builds tension, allowing the viewer to anticipate what will happen next. Think back to any thriller or suspense movie, and you may recall the soundtrack leading up to a climactic moment. But without music, the storytelling is exposed, giving the audience an out-of-the-comfort-zone experience, making the movie arguably more gripping and suspenseful. It puts you there with the characters. You hear the breathing. You hear the footsteps. You hear your heart pumping.
The Coen brothers had a clear vision of who they wanted to cast in the role of the aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell. There was a shortlist of actors who had the qualities to portray a character who could really inhabit the landscape and provide a profound performance of an elderly man coming to terms. Tommy Lee Jones grew up in San Saba, Texas, not far from where the story was set.
Initially, the role of Lewellyn Moss was offered to Heath Ledger, who in 2006 was coming off one of the biggest years with starring roles in The Lords of DogTown, The Brothers Grimm, and Brokeback Mountain, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. However, Ledger had to turn down the opportunity because he wanted to spend time with his daughter.
Then came Josh Brolin. With help from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to film an audition reel during a lunch break while on set for 2007’s Grindhouse, Brolin entered the conversation for the vacant role. While the audition tape — shot on a million dollar camera — didn’t have the desired effect for the Coen Brothers. The director and writer duo would eventually meet with Brolin, through much persistence from his agent — and decided that the child star from The Goonies was the right choice. Even though before shooting started, Brolin got into a motorcycle accident while heading back from a wardrobe fitting, breaking his collarbone. Luckily for Brolin, his character would have a bullet wound in the shoulder for the majority of the movie.
The most memorable performance in No Country for Old Men came from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh. The role brought a lot of challenges to Bardem, including a femine haircut that was not a wig but his real hair, which made going out in public during the three months of filming a unique experience for the Spanish actor. Another challenge was finding humanity in a character that had no qualms towards human life. Bardem pointed to the scene where Chigurh was alone stitching up his wound as an important one for the character as it showed the audience that he was not immune to pain, he was not a robot, and it’s there that we understand that this monster was like us, and that made him so much scarier.
With a budget of $25 million, No Country for Old Men was shot in the early summer of 2006 in Las Vegas and New Mexico, where it first crossed paths with a rival movie that it’ll forever be connected to: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The Daniel Day-Lewis epic about a ruthless oil tycoon, based on the 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair Oil!, shared location with the Coen Brothers in Marfa, New Mexico. The biggest problem with the shared location was that There Will Be Blood’s production sent heavy smoke into the air one day, causing No Country for Old Men to pause their shoot to allow the smoke to dissipate. Both movies set in the desert, with similar themes of greed and corruption, will be deemed by many to be the top two movies that year.
What made many love No Country for Old Men were perhaps the same reasons some disliked it. It was a movie that defied conventions, it straddled genres — suspense, crime, western, and american gothic — and it was, to many, infuriatingly mysterious. The offscreen death of Moss, the villain’s pathetic escape, and the abrupt ending, left many confused. But it was in those cinematic choices that made the movie so memorable, because it mirrored the lives we were living. We brought our own interpretation to the story. Are we governed by destiny or self-determination? Are we the hunters or the hunted? How have our immoral acts lead to where we are now, and how many more can we get away with before our luck runs out? These are of course questions without clear answers, but No Country for Old Men suggests that our luck is already up, and here are the consequences. What do we make of that?
On May 19, 2007, No Country for Old Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it became a frontrunner for the Palm D’or but would end up losing to the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. On November 9, 2007, the movie was released in the United States, grossing over $1,200,000 through the opening weekend, becoming the highest-grossing Coen Brothers movie of the time.
The movie would be nominated for eight Academy Awards for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and winning Best Adapted ScreenPlay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Javier Bardem, Best Directors, and most incredibly, Best Picture, beating out Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and their western rival, There Will Be Blood.
No Country for Old Men is a movie I think about often. It was released in my final years as an inspiration-seeking teenager and I watched it in a theatre that no longer exists. Like the character of Sheriff Bell, who reminisces about a simpler time, I too think back fondly of that experience — I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in that empty theatre on a Saturday afternoon. I have failed to recreate the experience ever since. That’s a great lesson in life, and perhaps the most pertinent theme of the story, regardless of chance or free will, we can only have this moment and whether we choose or not, this life will happen, so if nothing more, we should brace for it.
If the Coen Brothers were to adapt another novel, what would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below.
You have writer’s block. You’ve been sitting there in front of a blank page for hours and nothing is happening. Or do you feel like all you do is write about yourself?
I struggle with empathy. As a writer, that is a handicap. I find myself too focused on my own world and my own goals that I seldom take the time to acknowledge others.
Writing is good medicine for the unempathetic, but like meditation, it is something I need to practice.
Here is how you can practice writing and strengthen your empathy skills.
Allow me to introduce this idea to you. I call this The Cup of Sonder technique. You might have heard this word before, Sonder.
Sonder is the realization that everyone you see passing by is living a life as rich and complex as yours.
It’s basically people-watching. Sit at a coffee shop, sip your americano, and look out the window. Watch as the characters pass by. All you are given are their external traits.
Pick a person and fill in the colours of their lives.
Where are they going? What are they concerned about? What are they looking forward to?
Start writing all of this down and begin to create a world around these serendipitous characters.
I know it’s not the best time to be outside, people watching…
So, if you can’t go sit at a coffee shop and delve into sonder, I have created a list of 100 writing prompts below. Each one is designed with 3-5 traits of a stranger passing by.
Please feel free to write about these characters:
1. A woman with a ponytail and large round glasses is wearing a trenchcoat and holding a briefcase.
2. A burly man with a large beard and a big belly is wearing boots.
3. An older woman in an expensive jacket is shouting at someone ahead of her.
4. A man wearing a tank top with tattoos on his exposed arm is walking casually with a smile.
5. A young boy with a green cap is carrying a big case, walking purposefully.
6. A curly-haired woman in a denim jacket is locking up a bike.
7. A woman in a long purple dress that exposes her shoulder is smoking a cigarette and listening to music with big headphones.
8. An elderly man — with a thick mustache, has his hands in his pants pockets — is looking up at the top of a building.
9. A 300-pound man with small glasses is texting urgently on his phone.
10. A boy with long hair is brushing the tears out of his eyes.
11. A bald woman is wearing a fur coat and walking a large 200lb dog.
12. A skinny man wearing a construction vest and a hard hat is covered in soot.
13. A man with his hair dyed green, wearing a black trench coat and holding a cane, stands idly waiting for the traffic lights to change.
14. A woman, wearing yoga pants and a tank top with pigtails, is carrying a bag of groceries.
15. A man with tangled hair, wearing a sports team hoodie, is walking an old bike with the loose chains.
16. A teenage girl, with a fluorescent pink backpack, is listening to music and nodding her head to the beat of the song.
17. A large man is looking at a piece of paper in his hands, shaking his head in frustration, and swearing loudly to himself.
18. A mother, wearing an expensive green dress, is pulling her son who is resisting her command.
19. An old woman, dressed in a red velvet coat, is pushing a dolly of full plastic bags.
20. A man, with sunglasses and a popped polo shirt collar, is spinning his keys on his finger and whistling a song.
21. A large woman in a baggy black hoodie and sweatpants jogs by.
22. A thin man, wearing a baseball cap backward and a small black t-shirt, is walking with a limp.
23. A man, with a strong build and short brown hair, is holding his phone, looking up occasionally, and reading the street signs.
24. A bigger man, in a brown sweater and a toque (beanie), wearing earphones, is walking with one hand in his pocket.
25. A woman, in blue jeans and a blue tank top that might be a one-piece swimsuit, passes by holding a bicycle helmet.
26. An elderly lady, wearing a blue bucket hat and carrying a backpack in front of her, is looking into a window of a restaurant.
27. A man — wearing sunglasses, a gray blazer, and shorts — crosses the street, while drinking a cup of coffee.
28. A teenage boy in a striped shirt is holding a bouquet of flowers like it is a suitcase.
29. A dad, crossing the street carrying a toddler and holding the hand of an older child, is expressionless as he picks up a shoe that fell from his toddler’s foot.
30. A woman with long brown hair stops to look through a shopping bag she was carrying.
31. A younger woman with crutches and a leg in a cast hobbles past.
32. A small woman with big glasses in a fluorescent raincoat is holding a mailing tube tightly.
33. A man with bed head hair is wearing earphones, scrolling through his phone, and looking up now and then to avoid hitting anyone.
34. A well-dressed woman hands her boyfriend her phone and poses along the street for a photo.
35. A large man, wearing a construction helmet, is taking notes on a tattered notepad.
36. A man, with a baseball cap and big lumberjack beard, is walking with a cane.
37. A woman — with short blonde hair, black sunglasses, and a turtleneck — is waving at someone across the street.
38. An unshaven man with greasy hair, wearing a polo shirt, is holding a door open.
39. A woman in scrubs is untangling her earphone cords while holding her tablet.
40. An older woman in sweatpants is drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
41. A younger man wearing sunglasses with short hair is helping an old lady cross the road.
42. A bald man with a white backpack and a long beard is carrying a pink electric guitar.
43. A chubby woman dressed all in black is riding a kid scooter.
44. A man with long white hair, wearing a safety vest, is holding a bundle of blue tarp and searching for something on the ground.
45. A man, with a white hat and big brown boots, is carrying a hiking backpack.
46. A woman with her hair disheveled passes by, wearing a long baggy rock band t-shirt and flip flops.
47. A woman with short hair dyed blue wearing a basketball jersey.
48. A man, wearing a bowler hat and a pink-patterned trench coat, walks by swinging his arm wildly.
49. A woman, with a blonde ponytail, dressed all in black is digging through her purse.
50. A very tall man, towering above everyone else, passes by concealing something moving in his pocket.
51. A young man, with feminine features, strolls by with a bounce in his step.
52. A man, with a mop-top haircut, is wearing thin-rimmed glasses on his long nose.
53. A woman with a large afro in a blue patterned dress and three-inch heels strides pass with a purpose.
54. A woman, wearing a black hoodie and sunglasses, is holding a large feather like a glass of wine.
55. A man with bandages unwrapping around his legs is trying to gather the loose ends.
56. An androgynous man runs by with blond hair in a bun, wearing a red hoodie t-shirt and spandex pants.
57. An old woman in a red silk coat stands at the corner with her arms behind her back staring across the street.
58. A fit woman with a ponytail, wearing a green sports bra, is pushing a baby carriage as she jogs.
59. A very large man, shaped like a balloon, trudge by wearing a big blue shirt with Al Pacino’s Scarface on it.
60. A tall woman, with long hair down to her butt, is wearing a black romper, holding a small purse casually at her side, and walking with great posture.
61. A man, with many piercings on his face and hair dyed with multiple colors, passes by with a cigarette in his mouth.
62. A shirtless man, with short messy hair, is holding a clear plastic cup with nothing in it.
63. A man with a backward cap and a goatee, wearing a red plaid shirt, is carrying a flagger stop sign.
64. A woman with dreadlocks is pushing a very large double bass case on wheels across the street.
65. A tanned man with long curly hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt, is skateboarding as fast as possible down the street.
66. A girl with a fairy haircut and eyebrows that spike up at the end walks past with a cup of coffee.
67. A balding man with comb-over hair is wearing a long shirt — way too long for him — and walking as though there is a rock in his shoe.
68. An old lady wearing a blue fishing hat is pulling a two-wheel shopping dolly that has flower patterns on it.
69. A woman wearing only an orange bikini and running shoes is filming herself on her phone as she walks by, not acknowledging the glances she’s receiving.
70. A teenage boy with long hair, wearing a black tank top, is lighting a cigarette that won’t spark.
71. A woman in a pink dress is riding a motorized wheelchair, speeding by and almost hitting some pedestrians.
72. A tanned thin wrinkly man is holding a garbage bag open and telling people to look inside.
73. A well-built man with a white beard is wearing a beanie and a whole assortment of necklaces from animal teeth to colorful gems.
74. A man in an ill-fitting tuxedo is pacing nervously, pulling out a flask from his inside coat pocket and taking a swig.
75. A grumpy old man sits on a bench, wearing a brown coat, with his arms are crossed as he watches people stroll him by.
76. A small short-haired woman is wearing multiple layers of clothing, topping it off with a vest, and following a couple asking for change.
77. A woman with silky blonde hair is adjusting a big gray backpack that clung heavily on her shoulders.
78. A man, with a salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow, is wearing a green hoodie with the zippers unzipped, revealing that he is not wearing a shirt underneath.
79. A man in a fresh new blue t-shirt is walking around with a snake wrapped around his shoulder.
80. A little girl in a white dress is eating chocolate ice cream and walking a dog the same size as her.
81. An older man is running down the sidewalk, pushing a two-wheel hand truck with a tower of boxes upon it.
82. A small man — but very muscular — with a lot of tattoos is constantly looking over his shoulders.
83. An athletic woman is rollerblading while wearing a long pink dress.
84. A man with thick eyebrows and a thicker mustache is carrying a cardboard box filled with antique.
85. A woman, wearing a red shirt with the number 69 on her back, is laughing loudly as she walks by.
86. An older lady carrying a shopping bag in one hand and a rolled-up yoga mat in the other is in no rush to get where she’s going.
87. A glamorous woman in a beautiful gown has her make-up ruined from tears still on her face.
88. An athletic young man wearing a white t-shirt decided that here is the best place for him to do some pushups.
89. A woman in a plaid shirt and ripped shorts is carrying a six-pack of beer and a brown paper bag.
90. An elderly woman, with slicked-back greasy hair, is wearing aviator glasses and a leather jacket.
91. A strapping man in a larger yellow shirt is pushing a double baby stroller that has no babies in it.
92. A man wearing a motorcycle helmet on his head is shuffling through a folder full of documents.
93. A college student is typing on her laptop as she walks down the street, carrying a backpack with the zippers open.
94. A man with a long ponytail is smoking a pipe and curling his curly mustache.
95. A woman with a lot of plastic surgery is wearing a shiny dress that is reflecting the lights off the sun.
96. A young girl with pig-tails is riding a unicycle down the street and waving to people as she passes by.
97. A lady in t-shirt, shorts, and high-heels falls to the ground, her glasses sliding away from her, her elbows are scraped.
98. A man, with a handlebar mustache and a mullet, dressed in a denim jacket, is carrying a medicine ball in both arms.
99. A 20-something-year old is holding a case of beer, but the box is broken, so he’s having an awkward time carrying it.
100. A man wearing a facemask and sunglasses is standing at the intersection waiting for the street lights to change.
I hope it can inspire you and that you will create something wonderful from it. Please feel free to share what you’ve written in the comments below, I’d love to read it. And if you are up for the challenge, you can try to write all 100, one for each day.
For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.
Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.”
Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked.
Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.”
Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?”
“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…”
Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?”
While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it?
A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.
When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard.
Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities.
One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential.
As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:
In order for artists to improve, they need to draw the same thing over and over again. Each time they draw something, they see something different. Something they didn’t notice previously. Each time they draw, they dig a bit deeper. They see angles, colors, textures in a different way. They challenge themselves to be more refined or more creative, bringing something new to the original idea.
We can apply this creative technique to writing as well. For the next 30 days, I want to challenge you to write about the same thing every day. It can be your chair, your room, your dog, your family, your cup of coffee, anything, but whatever you pick, stick with it for 30 days. Each day, write one new sentence, as long or as short as you want.
For me, I chose to write about the intersection in front of my apartment. It’s a busy place with a lot going on. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And each day, I see something a little different in it. Or at least try to.
Some days I write something really good, other days, I just try to get a sentence down. The goal of this exercise is to practice observing deeper, seeing details that aren’t immediately visible. It also helps you develop a habit. For many people, writing every day can be a challenge, especially if they have a lofty goal, like 2 pages a day or a 1,000 words. This challenge simplifies the process: 1 sentence. Easy. Write about the same thing every day. No need to wait for inspiration, it’s there. Write about that!
What makes this a challenge is that you need to overcome your own perceived limitations. By day 5, you’ll run out of surface-level stuff to write about. That’s when your creativity really kicks in. That’s when you hold on and discover how your mind actually works. You may feel bored around day 10 or 15, but keep going, because your best sentence may come at day 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, or 30. You may need to get through the shit first. And that’s the last thing about this challenge. It allows you to practice perseverance. And perseverance is essential.
I encourage you to start after you finish reading this article. There is no time better than the present. Good luck! I look forward to reading your work.
For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.
The heroine is cornered. Laser beams and death rays are aimed at her. The villain now has his chance to destroy his enemy, leaving him free to take over the world. But then, just before the laser beams and death rays are fully charged, the heroine sees an open panel beneath the floorboard. She heads towards it and escapes. In the same moment, the villain’s goofy sidekick bumps the button and suddenly the weapons of mass destruction are turned upon them. The evil HQ explodes. The heroine gets out in the knick of time, saving the day!
Looking at this story, you may think a few things:
“Wow! The heroine got very lucky!”
“And the bad guys had a series of convenient mistakes.”
Or you may think, “Hmmm… This story was contrived.”
That was certainly what Becky thought when she folded the book and read the embossed text of the author’s name, JLL Rubinsteen.
Rubinsteen is known for his fast pace stories, and while they are sometimes entertaining, many considered his storylines contrived. But what does “contrived” mean?
When someone is talking about a story being contrived, it usually means that it feels forced. In other words, the author got lazy and rushed. Yep, that’s you, Rubinsteen!
When Becky picked up the book, she expected an adventure! She wanted to start at one end of the story and arrive at the other, enjoying all the sights and sounds in between. A writer’s responsibility is to pave the roads. However, what a contrive storyteller does is that instead of taking a scenic route, it hops onto the freeway, or when traffic gets heavy, decides to take a shortcut, causing the reader to yes, arrive at the destination, but miss the joy of the ride.
Take the paragraph at the beginning. The heroine is cornered — a common place for writers to get stuck. When a heroine is trapped, the author might find an easy way for her to escape. In this case, the open panel in the floorboard, an element in the story not mentioned before. It just happened to be there and the heroine happened to see it. Just in time!
Another example is the goofy sidekick. How convenient of him to bump a button that causes the villain’s plans to backfire. The villain is vanquished and the world is saved. Easy! So easy that it feels forced by the author.
Even though Becky wanted the heroine to win at the end, the way in which it was accomplished made her feel a little ripped off. She invested all her time to read this? And this is how it ends?
There are arguments that all stories, to some degree, are contrived, because regardless, writers need to weave a tale together, manipulating certain aspects, so that the protagonist can go from the beginning to the end. A story is not like real life and will always be artificial.
However, we can also agree that some stories are more believable than others. That is because believable stories reveal the details in a functional order, requiring the writer to put in some work, dropping bread crumbs along the way so when the heroine is cornered, the escape route is doesn’t appear magically like a cheat, and the clumsy minion’s mistake is surprising, but not completely random.
If earlier in the story, Rubinsteen had described the evil lair as being rundown and in need of maintenance, talking about how his unreliable contractors are always leaving jobs unfinished, perhaps the open panel in the floorboard would be more believable.
If Rubinsteen mentioned that the laser beam and death ray rely on a cheap imported generator, because that’s all he could afford, then maybe the slow charging doesn’t seem like such a convenient delay for the heroine.
And finally, if Rubinsteen rounds out the evil sidekick’s character, making him more than a klutz. Then the reader can see that he is struggling with an internal battle over whether to do what his leader says and what his gut is telling him. Then the sudden slip on the button wouldn’t feel like a convenient end, but rather a character overcoming an obstacle. A redemption.
As you can see, all of these suggestions would require Rubinsteen to do more work, leading to that epic moment where the heroine is cornered by the laser beam and death ray. But it’s worth it, because by putting in the work, the events in the story will feel like they’ve happened naturally, as opposed to feeling artificial and unrealistic.
Yes, in stories we want heroes to win, mysteries to be uncovered, and lovers to get together, but the journeys in which these objectives are achieved are as important as the results. If a writer rushes through, missing necessary details about plot, characters, and settings, in another word, being too lazy to pave the path for the reader, then their story will ultimately come across as contrived.
Was there a part of a story that you’ve read or watched recently that felt contrived? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:
Louisa May Alcott grew up in a poor family that was frequently at risk of being broken up, needing to move in order to avoid food shortage. Her father, Bronson Alcott, who rarely held steady employment as a transcendentalist philosopher and educator, was not a good supplier and the efforts of keeping the family afloat fell upon Louisa’s mother, Abigail.
While Bronson had failed in many rights, he did encourage his daughters to embrace their God-given talents. Anna pursued acting, Lizzie took to music, May to arts, and Louisa to writing. This was the early 1800s, a time when women were discouraged from putting pen to paper. It was a culture that believed a woman writer was as shameful as prostitution.
And it certainly felt that way during those times. In 1867, 35 years-old, Louisa was approached by Thomas Niles, a publishing partner at Roberts Brothers. He solicited her to write a book for girls. Alcott didn’t like girls or knew many, only her sisters, so she was reluctant. However, her family needed money and after some pressure, she began work on a novel called The Pathetic Family.
In September 1868, The Pathetic Family was published under the new title: Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in the England publication, released two months later, it was titled: Four Little Women. This semi-autobiographical story was a success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out instantly. Alcott received letters from readers, mostly young girls, who wanted to know what happened to the March sisters, most importantly who those girls married.
Because of this great reception, Alcott began working on the second half of the story, following these Little Women into adulthood. It was undeniable that the characters had a parallel with Louisa’s sisters and herself in real life: the death of her sister Lizzie, Louisa’s rivalry with her sister May — which mirrored Jo’s rivalry with Amy — and even her friendship with a Polish man named Laddie she met in Europe, who was represented in the story by the character Laurie.
There were two main divergences from the real experiences: First was the father figure in the novel, Mr March, who was depicted as a Civil War hero, while in reality Bronson Alcott was hardly such and was often seen as an embarrassment to the Alcott family. The Marches were much more well off than the Alcotts.
The second was the protagonist, Jo, who Alcott had based off of herself. While Alcott remained single her whole life, saying that she had a man’s soul inside of her woman’s body, Jo ended up married, which at the time was the pretty bow necessary at the end of any respectable tale.
Alcott was against having Jo married, but in the end, the best she could do was to make a compromise. She set Jo up with an unconventional husband, which was designed to subvert adolescent romantic ideas, for he was older and unfitting — when it seemed like she would be destined to end up with Laurie.
Nevertheless, in April 1869, Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second was published — in England, it was called Little Women Wedded.
Women from all different classes and national backgrounds, during a time when immigration was high in the US, could envision new dreams for themselves after reading Little Women. This was especially true during the 19th century when there were hardly any models for nontraditional womanhood. Literature was the first place to spark that self-authorization, opening the door for women to evolve and even encourage them to have a change of heart when necessary, whether it’s in their relationships or careers.
Alcott was an abolitionist and feminist and in the early 1860s, prior to her fame from Little Women, she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War escalated, in 1862, Alcott went to Georgetown DC to serve as a nurse. During her six-week service, Alcott contracted typhoid and nearly died. She survived and her letters home were revised and published in a Boston anti-slavery publication and a collection called Hospital Sketches. This earned her her first critical recognition as a writer.
While serving as a nurse, her father would send her poems saying how proud of her he was for her services. No doubt, Bronson Alcott would continue to be proud, as Louisa’s influence grew as one of the key female voices during the Gilded Age, which included Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Anne Moncure Crane. In 1877, Alcott would become a founding member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, designed to support women and children during the rise of industrialism.
Tragically, on March 6, 1888 — two days after her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott at the age of 55 died of a stroke. She would never get to see her story of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth come to life on screen, but her novel and the themes within will last for many generations to come.
In a 1979 essay by literary scholar Judith Fetterley, entitled “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War,” she argues that the novel was pushing back against the framework for adolescent girls of that time. One prime example was where Beth, the character that best exhibited the acceptance of the woman’s role, died upon reaching adulthood, while the sisters that resisted conforming survived. Little Women will be the subject of feminist and literary criticism for years to come, and while some deemed it unworthy to be catalogued with the great American novels like Huckleberry Finn, the story had consistently attracted writers and filmmakers.
From 1917 to 2019, there have been numerous adaptations of Little Women made for the television and the stage, as well as 6 feature films.
The first was a lost British silent film in 1917 starring former Gaiety Girl, Ruby Miller who played Jo.
A year after, an American version of Little Women was produced around Alcott’s home in Concord Massachusetts. This was also a silent film and it starred Dorothy Bernard as Jo.
The first talkie adaptation of Little Women was released in 1933 and it was a huge box office hit, garnering rave reviews from the critics. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, the movie’s theme about simplicity, frugality, and resilience resonated with the audience during the midst of the Great Depression. With that, it ended up earning the movie three nominations at the Academy Awards, one for best picture, one for best director, and one for screenwriters, Victor Heerman and Sarah Y Mason, who won for best-adapted screenplay.
In 1949, Little Women was adapted once more, this time in Technicolor, starring June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. According to many critics of the time, it couldn’t hold a candle to the preceding version starring Katherine Hepburn, saying that although Allyson may have tried to emulate Hepburn it wasn’t as persuasive. But nobody could blame Allyson for copying as the script and music were taken directly from the version that was released over 15 years prior.
When Denise Di Novi, known then for producing Ed Wood and Nightmare Before Christmas, reached out to director Gillian Armstrong to gauge her interest in remaking Little Women, Armstrong, feeling the movie was too similar in theme to her first feature, My Brilliant Career, declined. However, Di Novi was persistent and encouraged Armstrong to reconsider. When she did, she found that the story was pertinent to the times and perhaps it was worth revisiting after 45 years. Armstrong would only then discover that Di Novi, producer Amy Pascal, and screenwriter Robin Swicord have been working on modernizing Little Women for 12 years. Their main pitch was for it to be a great family Christmas movie.
When Robin Swicord wrote the script for the 1994 version of Little Women, she looked back at the previous adaptations and saw that the main question in the story was “Who will these girls marry?”, but she knew even at a young age, that the question should be, “Who will these girls become?” Considering what Louisa May Alcott had at the heart of the story, she wrote the script focusing on the themes of ambition and identity.
Filmed in Vancouver with a budget of $18 million, Little Women starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Christian Bale as Laurie opened to over 1,500 screens in North America on December 21, 1994, grossing over $50 million — a success.
In addition, the film earned three Academy Awards nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Actress for Winona Ryder. Robin Swicord was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America Award but lost to Eric Roth who wrote Forrest Gump. Although many critics were skeptical about this remake at first, feeling it would be cheesy or overly sentimental, they found that it was full of serious themes and warm and meticulous performances.
Between 2013 to 2015, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, and Amy Pascal teamed up again for a new adaptation of Little Women. While the news about the project started to spread, many wondered what new aspects can be brought to a story that was now nearly a century and a half years old. During this time, Olivia Milch, who would eventually write Ocean’s Eight, was working on the script.
Later on, in 2015, Canadian actor and director, Sarah Polley — known for the movie Away from Her — was hired to take over the script and eventually direct the movie, but she never got much deeper into the project than the discussion phase.
Finally, in August 2016, Greta Gerwig was brought on to write the script. Little Women was a book that she grew up with and loved. She went as far as saying that the character of Jo was someone she idolized, inspiring her to be a writer herself. Gerwig saw themes that other adaptations glossed over, including money, authorship, ownership, art — but mostly money.
After the success of 2017’s Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig was signed on as the director for Little Women. While on the set of Lady Bird, upon hearing that Gerwig had such influence in such an influential movie, Ronan approached her evoking her desperation to play Jo.
In addition to casting Ronan as Jo, Gerwig continued to make major decisions regarding her rebellious protagonist. Upon doing her own research of Louisa May Alcott, she discovered that so much of Jo was pulled from Alcott’s own life, however, the author had to make many compromises as per the pressures of the times. Gerwig wanted to bring more of Alcott into the character that Alcott herself was unable to do. Convinced that the author had never wanted to write a story where Jo got married, Gerwig made a movie that she believed honoured the original creator — a redemptive adaptation — while being faithful to the novel.
Telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, Gerwig began the 2019 adaptation of Little Women with Jo trying to sell her book and ending her story not on the importance of finding a man to marry, but rather the qualities of the sisters, most notably the intelligence of the bratty sister, Amy, played by Florence Pugh.
While the whole cast, including Emma Watson as Meg, Laura Dern as Marmie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March all received positive reception for their performances as an ensemble, it was Ronan, Pugh, and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie that were deemed stand out performances by the critics.
On Christmas Day 2019, Gerwig’s Little Women, with a budget of $40 million, was released and ended up earning $206 million worldwide. The movie earned six nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading role for Ronan, Best Actress in a Support Role for Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig, and Best Costume Design, which was the only win of the night.
There was a bitter taste when Gerwig was left off the ballot for Best Director, which many called foul, feeling that Gerwig had done a phenomenal job modernizing the classic and bringing a uniqueness to a story that was so familiar, blending the contemporary and the nostalgia so masterfully that it made the adaptation relevant.
Nevertheless, no one can deny the sustaining power of the story of the four March sisters. While so much of our world has changed since Alcott had written the words, so much remained. We can only imagine what the next twenty to fifty years will bring. How much will change? And how will the next version of Little Women be interpreted? As the readers of Alcotts’ time had wondered what will happen to Jo — we can also do the same… as we look towards the future.
What was your favourite adaptation of Little Women? Let me know in the comments below.
No real writer likes what she’s writing ALL the time, or even MOST of the time. The important thing is to stick with your story until the end. That’s when the magic happens. – Meg Cabot
It’s so easy to give up on a project. You’ll get stuck and bored, and you’ll want to stop. You get another great idea and you’ll want to chase it. But finishing the story you started is so important, here’s why:
Respect the project:
When you start a project, you’re responsible for it. A project is like a child: it’s born, it needs someone to take care of it and help it grow, and then one day, when it’s developed, it’s sent out into the world. It’s your job to make sure it survives and prospers once you release it, making you proud. You gave the project life and now you have to take care of it. If you don’t, if you’ll simply let it die on the shelf, you’ll rob it of its potential.
Respect your time:
Think of everything that you could have done if you weren’t writing. You could have spent time with your pet or talked to your spouse. You could have watched a movie or read a book. You could have napped or gotten drunk. There was a lot you could have done, but you chose to write. You chose to spend your limited time on Earth doing this activity. You’re investing your most precious resource into this. It’s like paying for a membership for the gym, showing up, and sitting there for an hour without using the equipment and going home, then being upset because you aren’t seeing any results. Respect your time. Finish your work.
Okay, let’s say I convinced you and you’ll pull out that half-finished project and write to the end. But where is the end?
Honestly, you can end a story anywhere (even in a mid-sentence), but that would be disrespecting the audience — unless it’s a really good half a sentence. When the reader starts reading your work, you’ve made a promise that you will give them a sense of resolution, enjoyment, or fulfillment. You don’t want to disrespect your reader’s time either. You want them to come back one day and read your other works. With an honourable completion in mind, there are places that make sense to end a story.
And as the writer, you get to decide: do you want your story to have an explicit ending or an implicit ending?
When there is nothing more for the reader to know, when all the questions are answered, then it’s an appropriate ending. This type of ending is a nice little bow on a wrapped up story.
I like to think of these as success or failure stories:
Did Rocky win his match? Did we save Private Ryan or kill Bill? Did the lovers get together? If your story is about a specific mission, then at the end, the audience should know whether it was accomplished. Did the hero get what he or she wants? Did good conquer evil?
These types of stories tend to leave the reader satisfied.
The other type of endings are…
Often known as open-ended stories, these endings leave the resolution up to the reader’s interpretation.
One main example is a…
Which leaves the reader wanting more.
As one mission ends another begins! What adventures are your characters up to next?
A cliffhanger can have the character literally hanging off a cliff, Or it could be done subtly:
The last scene can be of a man calling his ex girlfriend. Throughout the story, we learn that the man is overcome with guilt. He wants to make amends with his past lover. The story ends before she picks up the phone. The reader wonders, did she answer? Was it the right phone number? If not, what would the man do? The reader draws her own conclusion.
These types of stories will leave your readers thinking about it even after they’ve put the book down.
If you are struggling to finish, aim for one of these two endings. Yes, they’re broad, but they will give you a lot of room to make adjustments and edit when it’s done.
Write to the end (even if it’s bad):
It’s going to be bad. There’s no avoiding that, so you might as well get over it. After all, that is what editing is here for. The faster you write to the end, the faster you can start editing. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Remember as the writer, you are the first reader. The first draft is a discovery. You don’t really know what your story is about before you get to the end. You don’t know if it’s going to wrap up nicely or leave the reader wanting more, but having a target gives you direction.
Let yourself discover, because that is some times where the best words come from. Don’t give up on your writing, no matter how small the project is. Write to the end.
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“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
When Peter read that passage from one of his favorite books, he paused for a moment and processed the words on the page. On the surface, it was merely describing what Samwise Gamgee saw and how it made him feel.
Through the cloudy gloom, up upon the mountains, he saw a white star — and that star gave him hope because it shone through all the darkness.
Yet, there was something more. Something underneath the literal. To which it made him say out loud, “Wow… that’s deep.”
But what did he mean? Why did that passage out of the thousands of passages in the trilogy stop him? Or better yet, how did it stop him?
The phrase “that’s deep” when we hear it in a literal sense, sounds like someone’s talking about the ocean floor. While that might sometimes be the case, what Peter meant when he said that’s deep was that the writing was profound. So in order for us to understand what makes something deep, we must understand what makes something profound.
Yes, Sam Gamgee saw the star — but it was what the star represented that made the passage profound. It was so beautiful that it smote his heart and even looking at all the destruction, he had hope. Perhaps we have all been where Sam Gamgee was — not literally, not Mt Doom — but we have all been in a situation where we felt as though we were ready to surrender. There were moments where we felt hopeless.
Peter certainly did. He was neck-deep in student debt and looking for employment in the entertainment industry. Of course, the world was not looking for another filmmaker, and any project he wanted to get off the ground was consistently met with rejections. He was in the clouds on the dark tor, ready to quit.
But the star, a light of high beauty can never be dimmed by the shadow. The shadow in Peter’s world was the debt. No matter how deep he falls into debt, his love for filmmaking and storytelling will never die. The star was his passion and when looking up upon it, he remembered the feeling he got when he premiered his first student film in high school. The audience laughed and cheered. It was what he loved doing. It made him happy. It fulfilled him. It kept him warm and made him feel as though life, his little life, was worth living. And that life — that will to live — hangs so high above the debt, that he knew poverty would never make him hate his passion. For he was living for his passion, not for his debt.
He closed the book and placed it to the side. Peter, filled with hope and inspiration, his white star visible through the darkness, goes and picks up his camera and starts filming. He didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t ask for a budget. He didn’t go get approval or a permit. Like Sam, he’s focused on the twinkling star and not on the forsaken land beneath.
For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small passing thing.
We all have a Shadow — a capital problem that follows us — but Tolkien doesn’t make it obvious, he layers it with imagery and symbolism.
Imagery is vivid and descriptive language. It creates visuals in the reader’s mind by appealing to the senses. In this case, sight: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.”
Symbolism is the use of characters, settings, or objects to present an abstract idea. It holds hidden meanings and requires some deeper thinking to identify. In this example, it was the star and the Shadow. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Of course, Tolkien didn’t have Peter in mind when he wrote the story. But by using imagery and symbolism, he was able to emotionally impact a wider audience and his writing has lasted generations. That is what profound writing can do. Profound writing transcends time and space. It captures what it is like to be human without ever stating the obvious, “here, this is what you have to do. These are the facts.” It lies not on the surface and requires the individual, with their own values and personal experiences, to dig underneath. And it’s the process of digging that makes a piece of writing deep.
Is there a profound passage of writing that really resonated with you? I’d love to read it, so please share it in the comments below. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, check out these two other posts in the series:
Three weeks ago, I started my journey to type out The Great Gatsby. I remember reading an interview from Johnny Depp saying that this was something Hunter S Thompson did because he wanted to know what it would be like to write a masterpiece. Since then, I was eager to give it a shot, thinking that it would be an enlightening experience. As unpleasant as the current situation is, it had given me some extra hours in the week to put my anxious energy into a new project, so I decided, now is the time.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby exactly ten years ago and remembered feeling little about it. That goes to show how little I knew when I was younger. It was like listening to The Beatles’ Hey Jude and then going, “Who’s Jude?” I’ve missed the point.
It takes practice in order to have an appreciation for craft, especially when the world is full of junk. Like food, after you limit the amount of sugar you consume, you’d begin to appreciate the complex flavour of vegetables. It’s a beautiful moment when that happens. The same goes for art. When we start noticing the qualities of a craft, we begin to see junk lacking in substance.
I was confident there was something I could learn from copy The Great Gatsby, as there is copying any masterpiece, regardless of the craft. Learning by replicating is an effective way of recognizing the little details that make up a full piece. A great piece of writing, in the end, is just a combination of words. When you acknowledge each individual word, giving a real moment to type it out, you see each brick for what it is — a unique piece in a mosaic that is easy to miss when looking top down. I wanted to see everything Fitzgerald put into his story that I wouldn’t if I was speeding through it, as I did a decade ago…
With all that in mind, here are six key areas of The Great Gatsby I wanted to focus on while I’m going through this copying process:
Vocabulary is to a writer as to what colours are to a painter. From descriptions to dialogue, I was curious to see all the words that Fitzgerald chose. Some, I’m sure, will confuse me and others will surprise me. When writing, I find myself using the same words over and over again — using colours I’m comfortable with — but by typing out every specific word in someone else’s novel, I’ll hopefully discover new ones and widen the spectrum of my vocabulary.
Variety of sentences and paragraphs:
When we read, we are absorbing information, but at that speed, we might miss the rhythm of the language — or at least not be conscious about it. By typing out a story, I will slow down the process of consumption and see the varying lengths of words, sentences and paragraphs. If this was music, I’d not only focused on the lyrics, but I’d also be hearing the tempo of the drumbeat, the harmony of the bass, and the cadence of the melody. I’d see how Fitzgerald draws out a detail in a long expository sentence or increases the pacing in a heated dialogue.
The order of information:
Good communication is the delivery of information in a coherent and logical order. Good storytelling, however, is the strategic reveal of details that increases drama and evokes an emotional response. A good story isn’t simply a sequential order of events: this happened and then this happened and then afterward this happened. No! Great writing is magic, because like magic, the principles are the same but instead of sleight of hand it’s with words: hiding, switching and misdirecting. By typing out the novel, I’m hoping to catch F Scott in the act and see what tricks he used to keep us turning the pages.
Narrator and characters:
One of the biggest challenges while writing is making sure your characters don’t all sound the same, so that in the readers’ minds, they are all individual people, with personalities, feelings, and beliefs so realistic that they’ll feel as though they’re sitting next to them. It’s certainly a challenge I have, so I’m going to be paying attention to the character construction while typing out The Great Gatsby and see how Fitzgerald helped us identify with Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby.
When you are writing, everything slows down, you begin to notice each sentence, each phrase, and even every syllable. This aspect is fun because you feel a bit like an archaeologist or like the Tom Hanks character in The Da Vinci Code. You study the writing, like The Last Supper, looking for hidden messages and wondering whether the creator expected it to be there at all.
Is typing out The Great Gatsby as valuable as a creative writing course? Hmmm… That’s a question for another time, but I truly believe that there is a lot to learn from this exercise. You will see how the story is constructed. Like a painting, you’ll experience each brushstroke. Like a song, you’ll be able to hear each note. Like a house, you’ll notice each nail, and that is what copying a piece of work offers you. Additionally, it’s a therapeutic activity, much like knitting, building a LEGO miniature, and solving a jigsaw puzzle.
If you are interested in following my typing out the Great Gatsby journey, please join me via my YouTube channel every Saturday at 11am PDT. We can chat about all things writing and creativity, or whatever else is on your mind!
If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.