The Book That Changed It All

MV5BMTc0ODg0NTQxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDk1NzEzMQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Today is National Book Lover’s Day. That’s every day for me, but in the name of community and comeraderie and all that jazz, I’m going to tell you about my, quote, favourite book. I say that because if asked by a hundred different people what my favourite book was, I would give a hundred different answers. Depending on my mood or my audience or the subject of the conversation that resulted in that question, I run through my mental library and land on different significant books. The one at the top of the list though, is the one I save for very special occasions. That is the one I am going to tell you about.

Miss Depiro was my grade 12 English teacher. She was shorter than me (I barely scrape 5′) with a salt and pepper Dorothy Hamill haircut and thick Woody Allen-esque glasses that magnified her steely eyes. Her classroom was at the end of a long corridor on the 3rd floor, making it virtually impossible to get to in the short gap between classes. More often than not, I would run down the hall to be met with a group of panting classmates arguing quietly about who would knock on the heavy oak door to get in. And also more often than not, it would end up being me. I was a postmodern punk clad in head-to-toe black with a practised resting hostile face that gave the impression I didn’t give a damn about much. To be honest, it did take more than Miss Depiro’s magnifying glass eyes to scare me, but really, I wanted to get in. Miss Depiro was a good teacher and I was interested in what she was teaching us.

Sometimes I would knock and she would open the door and let us all in, sometimes she would open it and send us to the office, sometimes that door would just stay right where it was. On one of those days, when we were shut out of learning, I watched my cohort have a half-hearted discussion about what to do, as I pulled a book out of my bag.  They tried to get me to knock again, but instead I found a comfortable spot on the floor to read while everyone shrugged and dispersed. The corridor was quiet. I like(d) quiet.

When a few chapters had gone by, the door opened and Miss Depiro came out. She appeared to be heading to the washroom, but stumbled over me instead. She looked down at me with a confusion that seemed completely unwarranted, I mean she locked me out after all.

“What is that?” She pointed at my book.

“The Catcher In The Rye,” I said holding up the cover so she could see I was telling the truth.

“Oh for the love of God,” she said grabbing it from me. “Get up. Get up right now.” She grabbed my shoulder and heaved me awkwardly upward before pinching my elbow in between her thumb and forefinger and guiding me brusquely into her classroom and to her desk. It should be said that this was a Catholic high school. As I was being manhandled past images of saints I was trying to decide if this book was on a blacklist of some kind. I had no clue if Salinger was on the Pope’s no fly list and it suddenly occurred to me that I was likely unintentionally in possession of contraband and there was a good chance I was about to be expelled, or excommunicated, or I had no idea what. Miss Depiro deposited me into her desk and told me to stay before leaving again. The rest of the class tried not to look, but whispers rippled through the room. The bell rang before she got back. The class shuffled out, but I stayed.

When Miss Depiro came back she pulled up a plastic chair and sat across from me. “Why are you reading that?” she asked.

I stammered. “I uh…”

“Is it good? Well written?”

I shrugged.

“Are you reading it because it speaks to you or because it speaks to what you want people think of you?”

My face flushed. She was right.

“You’re better than that,” she said throwing the book in her drawer and heaving it closed. She got up and pulled a book from one of the shelves that lined the back wall and handed it to me.

The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.

“Go,” Miss Depiro said.

I didn’t realize it in the moment, but that day, that book, and Miss Depiro changed everything for me.

At first it seemed incongruous. It looked like a book my mother would read. Something I might find in her bedside table stacked with old copies Women’s Day magazine and some Maeve Binchy paperbacks. My mother may have read it, I don’t know to be honest, but it really doesn’t matter. The Lives of Girls and Women is a short story collection disguised as a novel. It centres around Del Jordan, an outcast in every sense of the word. Poor and smart with an eccentric family and unconventional upbringing, she is a misfit in all aspects of her life. She doesn’t fit in her family or in the social circles of her small town. I don’t know that I need to spell this out for you, but I felt connected to Del from the word go. This book spoke to me in a deeply personal way, and moreover it made me understand that great literature, great writing, does that. And The Lives of Girls and Women made me understand that while reading is a way to explore the lives of others, to challenge our own experience and understanding of the world, the most impactful reading happens when you can be intimate with the characters, when you can truly put yourself in a character’s shoes and hope for them and for you that they will be better, do better, than you. When the writer leaves room for you read yourself into a story, that story resonates. It becomes part of your own experience. It changes you.

The Lives of Girls and Women changed me. Alice Munro, through Del, showed me that I wasn’t alone in my misfit-ness. She showed me it was good to be smart and creative and to not fit in. She showed me I was going to get confused by people and by life, I would make mistakes and be embarrassed, I would look back at things that I had seen and done and would sigh and cry and laugh and that it was ok because it’s life and life is a bit cringe-y. She showed me that there was no point in measuring myself in the expectations of others. She showed me that I just needed to keep moving to my own beat in my own way.

I never told Miss Depiro what she did that day. In fact, after that class finished I never saw her again. But I hope she knows. I hope she’s retired and hanging out on a beach somewhere with a self-satisfied grin on her face and a copy of The Lives of Girls and Women in her bag waiting to give it to someone who needs it.

Books About Writing

There are very few books about writing that offer real, useful, functional writing advice. The vast majority contain an esoteric blend of psycho-babble and intangible rules that leave the reader full of self-doubt. And there is nothing that will put the brakes on your writing faster than questioning what you’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for satiating one’s thirst for knowledge. But if you were trying to build a chair and all you could find were books that said things like: clear time for building every day – but if you can’t build think about building, or use whatever type of joining substance feels right for you, you’d give up on the chair thing pretty quickly. While I believe it’s impossible to teach anyone to be a great writer (greatness is an independent endeavour), you can at least teach them the function of writing. So on that note, I have a few favourite books that can help you lay the foundation for a solid writing practice.

1. Story Structure Architect – Victoria Lynn Schmidt

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This book is a true user manual for writing. In addition to being full of useful information, it is accessible. The author, Victoria Lynn Schmidt has a Ph.D, but don’t let that put you off, it’s not crammed full of big words and bigger ideas, it is written to be used. And if you get it, use it you will. It outlines the consistently recurring story structures in every classic story and great work ever written, with Schmidt acting as a bit of a myth-buster removing the shroud of mystery around dramatic structure. She provides practical  models for motifs, plots, and characters and guidelines for combining them to make them your own. She gives a methodology for building compelling stories with character journeys that contain stakes and conflicts, and explains how to create subplots, plan dramatic situations, and develop realistic supporting characters that advance the story.

2. On Writing – Stephen King

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If you have ever taken a writing class, or been to a workshop, or stumbled blindly through the reference section of the bookstore looking for something to teach you how to get your story out of your head and onto the page, you’ve heard of On Writing. It’s kind of the  I Ching of the craft. Part memoir, part instructional manual, Stephen King uses his own experiences to impart practical wisdom to aspiring writers. I have recommended this book to just about every writer I know. Some have turned their noses up at the mention of Stephen King, but they have all come back saying they were wrong. Not only is King a master storyteller and prolific writer, his first career was as a high school English teacher. Come on! He is an expert in his field who was literally trained to explain things…to teenagers. I can’t say anything else. Just go get this book.

3. Steering The Craft – Ursula K. Le Guin

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Ursula K. Le Guin is a Sci-fi writer. Like most sci-fi writers I know, she is logical, sensible, frighteningly intelligent. As such his book is not for the faint-of-heart. From the first page Le Guin makes it very clear that this book is not for beginners. She says flat out in the introduction: “it is not for beginners.” She’s right. This book is for veterans. People who have been to workshops, and classes, and seminars, people who have read other writing books and manuals, people who have been fed nonsense principles and arbitrary rules. This book essentially un-teaches you how to write. Her entire premise revolves around Le Guin’s belief that “The important thing for a writer is to know what you’re doing with your language and why.” That it is a writers “moral duty to use language thoughtfully and well.” The chapter titles are a great insight into the book’s intent: The Sound of Your Writing, Punctuation, Sentence Length and Complex Syntax, Repetition, Adjective and Adverb, Subject Pronoun and Verb, Point of View and Voice, Changing Point of View, Indirect Narration, or What Tells, Crowding and Leaping. Don’t be put off, Steering The Craft explains the why’s of writing in plain language and offers well thought out exercises to drive home the learning.

4. The Art of Fiction – John Gardner

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John Gardner’s tone in this book is, well, arrogant. In fact I hesitate to recommend The Art of Fiction because that can be hard for people to get over. But I like it for a very specific reason. His arrogance comes in handy when he runs through the long list of writing mistakes he says distract from the “dream” that should be your story. He analyzes and explains the impact of clumsy prose, needless explanation, sentimentality, mannerism, and frigidity – something he says “occurs in fiction whenever the author reveals that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be.” His irritation at these infractions is palpable and makes you feel like you should not ever do those things or Gardner will find you and reprimand you personally (or would if he was still alive). He does deal with structure, tone, pace, poetic rhythm, and other building block topics, but it’s really the what not to do that makes this book worth the read.

5. The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

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There are more critics of this book than I care to mention. People have called it stuffy, dry, and pedantic, old fashioned. Those people can suck it. In my opinion, every writer should read this book. I will say that again. Every. Writer. Should. Read. This. Book. It covers the basics: usage, composition, and form, but it goes beyond that. The importance of writing in the active voice, being concise with words, and using appropriate grammar and punctuation are discussed. And while, yes, Strunk and White are rigid, even prescriptive, in their methodologies, they need to be. It is critical that as a group of people all doing the same thing, we recognize that there are rules. I’ll go back to my chair example. If we are all trying to build chairs but doing it in a vacuum, making up the process for ourselves, what would happen? Some people would end up on their butts, that’s what. That’s not to say you can’t change the rules or use them in a different way, I mean look at Eames for example, he made chairs art. But he was a master craftsman before he innovated. At the end of the day you in order to write well, you need to respect and understand the basic functions of writing, including The Elements of Style.

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The Best Place To Start

The best place to start a story is always at the beginning. No matter how non-linear the narrative is, you need to ground your reader in the journey you’re asking them to take. No reader will agree to go with you if you don’t do them the courtesy of first introducing them to the world you’ve created.

So here we are. At the beginning.

My name is Ryleigh. I am a brand new Literary Agent working on building a list of authors as an Agency Assistant with The Rights Factory. I have a life-long passion for books and writing, a ton of experience in writing, editing, and publishing, and a lengthy background in business management that has nothing to do with any of those things.

I have been told I’m all elbows. I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment, but that’s how I took it. And since my goal is to create space for badass new writers, that quality should serve me (and maybe you) well. While I am mostly drawn to literary fiction, suspense, historical fiction, and creative non-fiction, I am open to anything with a teeth. I want a story that sinks its teeth into me and doesn’t let go. And that means writers who do the same. Writers who take risks and buck trends, who make promises with their persona and follow through with their talent, writers with moxie (I love that word). I want to put together a list of authors that would make up a kickass dinner party – or motorcycle gang…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I start ordering invitations and planning a menu – or sourcing matching leather jackets – I’ll be here, right here, blogging about writing-type-things.