Thursday, November 14, 2013

Penguins and Portals: Chris Baty Discusses the Origins of NaNoWriMo

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For those not in the know, November is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo (learn more at I participated last year and wrote the first draft of my just-published Otter and Arthur and the Round Table.

The idea is to write a very rough draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I'm participating again this year with the intent of penning the rough draft of Abigail's Atlantis, my story of a 12-year-old girl who visits her grandparents at Topsail Island, North Carolina, for the summer. She helps her grandfather at the sea turtle rescue center where he works - and finds what she thinks is a connection to a modern-day Atlantis.

The point of this post, however, isn't just to plug my projects, but to talk about NaNoWriMo. I had the privilege last night of being one of roughly sixty people to see Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Originally from Prairie Village, Kansas, he was back in town to offer a history of how the organization came about and where it has gone.

images from and

He started it in San Francisco in 1999. He tapped his friends to help with his crazy new idea and 21 people signed on board. It was up to 140 by the next year and ballooned to 5000 by the third year. Now in its 15th year, there are more than 300,000 participants as well as 1000 classrooms.

Baty possesses the rare talent of being a writer who also knows how to engage an audience. He talked about his own love of books and how they inspired his imagination. He shared how he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and would go into the closet at home and search for a portal.

He relayed this experience to writing and how that opens a portal to one's own mind. He also joked about interviews with authors where they are asked questions like, "Where did you come up with the idea for the penguin?" and how the response was inevitably, "The penguin found me." As silly as he said that sounded, he realized how true it was once he began writing. Once the penguin found him, he knew the writing portal was open and would never close again.

Thanks, Chris Baty, for opening the portal for so many of us. Let the penguins rule!

Found: One Penguin. Considered Armed with the Ability to Inspire.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Otter and Arthur sequel coming soon!

image from Merlin BBC series as posted on

The sequel to Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone is coming soon! Here's a sample from Otter and Arthur and the Round Table:

Chapter 8: Stonehenge (an excerpt)

Once we were a safe distance from Morgan’s castle, Ferdinand landed so we could reposition ourselves on his back. “That was incredible!” Dindra whooped. “Do you two live like this all the time?”

Ferdinand and I smiled at each other. “To be honest,” I confessed, “it has been awhile since we’ve had any big adventures.”

Dindra looked bewildered. “King Arthur? Camelot? Merlin? Flying on a falcon’s back?” She patted Ferdinand. “How could life ever be boring?”

“Well, it just got interesting again recently,” I answered over my shoulder. Dindra, who had her arms wrapped around my waist, squeezed a little tighter and smiled.

* * *

We arrived at Stonehenge just as the sun was rising. “That,” said Dindra breathlessly, “is the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen.”

“No people – and few animals – get a bird’s eye view of this,” Ferdinand replied. Dindra and I laughed.

The stones were as tall as four men standing on each other’s shoulders. An outer circle wrapped around five sets of larger stones. A vast empty field surrounded the massive monument. “How do you think humans moved those huge rocks?” Dindra wondered aloud.

I shook my head in amazement. “I don’t know. Just think, though. The same creatures who made this also invented war.”

“Sometimes it is hard to believe people think they’re smarter than us,” Ferdinand added.

He floated down and landed on one of the larger rocks in the center. I smiled upon seeing the two people who gave me hope for humanity: the sleeping figures of Arthur and Merlin. They had set up camp in the middle of the stone circle. A few glowing embers lingered from a campfire and two sleeping horses were tied to a smaller rock nearby.

As I pondered some clever way to wake Arthur, Merlin sat up and looked straight at us and smiled. He seemed pleased, but unsurprised to see us.

Ferdinand flapped down and Merlin patted him on the head. “Good morning,” the wizard said. “You two must have had quite the adventures.” Then he noticed Dindra. “Make that three.”

“Who are you talking to, Merlin?” Arthur sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Otter!”

I rushed to the king and gave him our traditional thumb-hug greeting. “What happened?” he asked. “What took you so long to get here? Are you okay?” Before I could answer, he raised an eyebrow and said, “I see you’ve got a friend with you.”

I introduced Dindra and told Arthur and Merlin how she saved my life. However, I was focused on the urgency of our situation.

“We have to get back!” I exclaimed. “Lot’s going to attack Dragon’s Head and take over Camelot!”

Merlin smiled, looking unalarmed. “Sometimes when the perceived need is to hurry the best solution is to slow down.”

I was annoyed with Merlin for staying so calm. He’s probably had a vision of what’s going to happen, I thought.

He offered no explanation. Instead he gazed up at the orange hue slowly conquering the grey nighttime sky. “I believe I shall go for a ride. I’d like to enjoy the onset of this glorious day. Arthur, perhaps you can share your new idea with Otter.”

Arthur stirred the coals of the campfire. Dindra and I settled down on a nearby rock.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Arthur asked as he took a seat and gazed up at the stones surrounding us. “I bet you’re wondering why Stonehenge was built.” Dindra and I shook our heads and Arthur continued. “Merlin told me people think it is a place for healing or studying the stars.” He paused and got a serious look on his face. “Otter, this is where my father is buried.”

”Is that why Merlin brought you here?” I asked.

Arthur nodded. “My father saw Stonehenge as a symbol of power and strength. That’s the kind of ruler he wanted to be. However, here’s my idea.” Arthur pulled his pack toward him. “Dindra, you’ll be interested to know it was Otter who made me think of this.” He pulled a loaf of bread out.

I scratched my head. “Bread? That was my idea? How’s that going to make you a better leader?”

“No,” Arthur laughed. “I thought you two might be hungry.” He tore off two chunks and handed them to us. “This was Otter’s idea,” he said, retrieving a piece of parchment. He laid it down and smoothed it out. It was a sketch of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was my idea?”

“Well, Stonehenge looks like a giant table to me. It reminded me of your first visit to Dragon’s Tail. Your uncle called a meeting of all the mouse village residents at a round stage. It’s how I’m going to lead Britain.”

“From a round stage in a mouse village?” I munched on my bread and stared at Arthur.

“No,” he chuckled. He waved his arm at the huge rocks surrounding us. “One person didn’t do this alone. If I want to unite Britain, I can’t do that alone. I’ll invite knights and leaders to Camelot to work together. We’ll sit at a round table. At a rectangular table, someone sits at the head and automatically seems more important. At a round table, everyone is equal.”

Hmm… can’t do it alone. An idea was brewing about how I could get Excalibur back.

Check out details about the first book, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone at You can buy it here:

Monday, September 30, 2013

Flora & Ulysses vs. Otter and Arthur: Which Didn't Win a Newbery?

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Okay, I'll acknowledge that one of these books is slightly better known than the other. Kate DiCamillo scooped up her second Newbery Award (given to distinguishd American children's literature, see full list of winners here) for Flora & Ulysses. She is the sixth author to win the prize twice. Stunningly, I have yet to win the award. ;)

Let's see if we can figure out why. Flora is a story of a child who wants a more interesting life and seeks out a relationship with her parents. When she rescues a rodent from certain death, the creature starts exhibiting amazing powers - such as the capacity to communicate with humans - and repays her ten-fold by helping her find the adventurous life she's always sought.

Hey, wait a minute. That's the plot of my first children's novel, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Oh sure, mine's only about a mouse who proves instrumental in giving King Arthur his legendary status while DiCamillo's book focuses on a squirrel who gets sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and then learns to type poetry.


That's what I thought. In all seriousness, I the book left something to be desired. DiCamillo populates her series of Mercy Watson books with lovably quirky characters and amusingly silly plots, aided by great illustrations. By comparison, Flora is served by a quirky, but less-endearing cast in a more head-scratching tale. The book has some illustrations, but not enough to lift it the cartoonishly over-the-top, but fun antics of the Mercy Watson books.

I suppose I should concede that Kate DiCamillo is one of the best-known children's authors around. She's even had her books made into movies, including the Newbery-winning Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie. It would be nice to think my little self-published effort could rise above it all and, like the little engine that could or the story of David vs. Goliath, triumph over the big-time works backed by major publishers.

It would be nice, but I'm not counting on retiring on the vast amount of wealth I anticipate accumulating in the wake of my inevitable Newbery win. Sigh.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Signing: Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone

Thanks to everyone who came out to my book signing at Shawnee Books & Toys! With more than 40 attendees and 18 book sales, it was a success. I did a couple of readings, signed books, and enjoyed mingling with friends, family, and brand new fans.

While the focus was on my first work of children's fiction, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, I also had a dozen other books with me.

Thanks to my wife for providing treats, including (of course) a cheese plate to go with the mouse theme.

I started out discussing the writing process and how the book came about. Then I did a couple of readings from Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

There were also a few door prizes and then I signed books.

Then I got a chance to hand out with friends and family!

Special thanks go out to:

  • my wife, Becky Gunn, for providing the treats
  • my writing group peers who turned out to support me
  • Nicole Cunningham, who took the photographs
  • my sons' Campfire group for making this their event of the month
  • friends, family, and fans who showed up to support me
  • and, of course, Shawnee Books & Toys for sponsoring the event!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Upcoming Book Signing: May 18

Event: Author Dave Whitaker will be signing copies of Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

Date: May 18, 2013
Time: 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
Place: Shawnee Books & Toys
Address: 7311 Quivira Rd, Shawnee, Kansas 66216

You can sign up for the event on Facebook at Book Signing - Dave Whitaker - Otter and Arthur.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Writing Is One of the Defining Features of Mankind

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I had dinner with a friend last night and among our philosophical musings was the impact of written communication on mankind. I suggested it is even one of the core distinguishing features between man and animal. The oral tradition of passing stories on from generation to generation gave individuals the capacity to pass on information beyond their lifetimes. Writing took that even one step further - it allowed one to share information from beyond the grave without the risk of the details being obscured or altered.

The animal kingdom relies on instinct and generation after generation essentially teaching their offspring the same tasks which they were taught. There isn't the opportunity for some grand evolution where one generation is able to preserve the knowledge it acquired to allow future generations to build on it.

Because of writing, however, man has the power to continuously build on past knowledge. What becomes especially significant about that power is that it means individuals do not have to possess a vast knowledge of how everything in their lives operates. One person does not need to know how electricity or phones or computers or automobiles or centralized heat and air operate to benefit from them.

These human luxuries are directly attributable to writing. When someone makes a breakthrough in research in, say, medical technology, then he or she can record that information in written form. That allows others to absorb that information even after the initial writer is gone. As a result, a new person can take what the first person knows and add to it and transform it into something even more evolved.

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That age-old oral tradition of telling stories around the campfire has had another significant impact on mankind. It has fueled our spirit for storytelling. Not only has written communication allowed us to expand the ability to record and preserve the knowledge we've gained from past generations, but the creativity. At one time, a story told around the campfire would take on a different tone every time it was told because of the individual storyteller. With the advent of written communication, however, the person who wrote down the story had the power to preserve it in a form which would not be reshaped and recrafted every time it was shared.

The experience of creating and telling stories is arguably as essential to defining mankind as is the ability to record and preserve past knowledge. We are an enriched species precisely because we have learned to read and write.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making Peace with Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace

close-up of Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace;
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It was only a week ago I wrote up my thoughts on rocker Pete Townshend's autobiography, Who I Am (Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am, 17 February 2013). I dove from that headlong into Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace. I won't go in to detail rehashing my love of both music and writing, but the skepticism in which I approach biographies or autobiographies of musicians. I'll just get right to the point - what did I get out of this book? More specifically, what did I learn about writing?

Having read this immediately after the Pete Townshend book, comparisons are inevitable. While Townshend's book was very linear, serving up a very straightforward historical account of the events of his life, Young jumps all over the place. The book reads a bit like a collection of stream-of-conscious essays. He will even jump around within a single chapter.

For example, in chapter 57 (one of the longer chapters of the book at a mere 13 pages), Young starts out with a story from his Buffalo Springfield days in the late 1960s. A few pages later, he's talking about David Briggs, who worked with Young on Crazy Horse and produced a number of his albums. After telling a story about scraping up the tour bus on a mountain road, the tale leaps forward into the mid-1990s for no clear reason. Young references rocker Kurt Cobain's suicide note which quoted a famous Neil Young line, "It's better to burn out than fade away." He laments Briggs' passing not long after then rewinds to 1990 to discuss some of the equipment he used when recording Ragged Glory.

Next up is yet another unrelated bit where he recalls recording with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson in 1977. Before he even finishes that paragraph, however, he has already backtracked four years. It is a bumpy ride.

It is, however, an interesting one. Young relishes telling his stories and sharing his passion for cars and his hope for a new recording format (Pure Tone, later Pono) leaps and bounds ahead of mp3s. This is clearly a man who likes to create.

Stephen Stills and Neil Young,
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He also fondly recalls the people with whom he has created music over the years. This is not a tell-all where he's dumping on anyone. Despite his own admission that he can be difficult to work with, Young comes across very appreciative of the people who have been in his life. It is uplifting to read someone's life account with such a heavy dose of gratitude and appreciation.

At one point Young talks about Stephen Stills, who he worked with both in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He relays a conversation they had:

"We talked...about the difficult decisions in life around loyalty, loyalty to friends and loyalty to the muse, how sometimes there was conflict, where serving one meant not serving the other...It has not been an easy part of life for either of us...Stephen and I have this great honesty about our relationship and get joy from telling each other observations from our past. The past is such a big place" (p. 133).

Passages such as this reveal a side of Young which surprised me: he's a pensive, sentimental guy despite a public image of him which is more curmudgeonly. He acknowledges all this in one sentence: "I have traveled a long way along life's pathway and have become somewhat of a hard person to work for" (483). In the next paragraph, he says,

"I am trying to find myself again and reconnect with the values I had in the beginning, find the love in the music with others again, return to the camaraderie that we all enjoyed back in the day, respect others, have empathy for them, be considerate, love myself again, and through that, be more true to myself and others."

The concept of being true to oneself is what resonates with me most as a writer. Would I have preferred Waging Heavy Peace was a more conventional and chronological book? Yes. Would I have liked to see a stronger editor reign in Young's ramblings into more thematically-oriented chapters or at least sections within chapters? Yes. Do I want Young to change who he is to make those things happen? No way.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am

First posted 2/11/2013; updated 6/11/2020.

Who I Am

Pete Townshend

First Publication: October 8, 2012

Category: autobiography

Sales: ?

About the Book:

Those who know me are well aware of two of my greatest passions: writing and music. While I have zero talent at the latter, I hope I have enough friends, family, and fans who would say I have something to offer regarding the former.

As a result, I would seemingly scoop up every book I could about some of my favorite musicians. However, my experience in reading biographies leans toward them feeling like long magazine interviews which merely report the events of some famous person's life without any real insight from the very person who is the focus of the article.

I'm even more skeptical of autobiographies. While the idea of hearing a musician tell his or her own story sounds appealing, the reality is that they are musicians, not writers. I'm happy to hear musical giants wail on their guitars or sing their lungs out. I'm not so sure they need to hole up and recast their personal journals into some format for public consumption. Let me reiterate: they are musicians, not writers.

Of course, there are those musicians who have great appeal precisely because of the literate storytelling they bring to their music. This is certainly the case with Pete Townshend, the chief songwriter for The Who. Here was a man who built his reputation on rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. In his solo work, he continued to pursue more involved themes for his albums and often conceived them in broader contexts such as theater and film. Outside of music, he'd even worked with a publishing company, dabbled in music journalism, and written short stories and novellas.

I still approached his autobiography with caution. In tackling previous such works about musicians, I wanted hints about what inspired these people. What makes them iconic? Is it simply an overabundance of talent? A strong work ethic? A supersized ego that will accept nothing less than being revered by the world? Is it all just luck?

Instead, these books typically glorify of the decadent rock 'n' roll lifestyle. How much did I want to dive into another account of a gifted musician with a troubled childhood who carries out childish behavior throughout his adult life? Do I need to know, yet again, that rock stars seem predisposed to overindulge in drugs and alcohol to the point of ruining themselves? In case their substance abuse issues aren't enough, these narcissists sabotage their intimate relationships with a string of sexual dalliances and largely become absentee fathers.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, that's essential what I had determined. I was dismayed that Pete Townshend was, in fact, the stereotypical rocker with all these faults and a seeming unawareness or disassociation with the effect his behavior had on those around him.

Keith Moon, drummer for The Who;
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For example, those versed in The Who would see the death of drummer Keith Moon as one of, if not the, pivotal moment in the band's history. Townshend almost saw it as a mere bump in the road. As he confesses,

"I haven't been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies. It's a terrible defect that makes me appear cold-hearted...In the case of Keith, my reaction was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane...I called a meeting with Roger and pressed him to join me in taking The Who on the road" (p. 309).

He writes that at the funeral "my eyes were hard and dry" (310). In the next paragraph, he's recruiting Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, to take over drums. Moon died on page 308. By page 310, he's history.

Townshend is at least aware of his aloofness. He addresses it again in regards to how he treats his family:

"I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn't give a toss for fatherhood - he needed freedom" (410).

With roughly 100 pages to go, I was perturbed. Townshend wasn't showing much in the way of redeemable qualities. He occasionally expressed regret about cheating on his wife when he was on the road, but he certainly didn't stop. He wrote about giving up alcohol and drugs and then falling off the wagon with a removed nonchalance.

I might have been able to forgive these indiscretions if I'd at least got the other element from the book I wanted - insight into the mind of a musical genius. The closest I got was a paragraph in the third chapter of the book:

I "was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly, I was hearing music within the music - rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I'd been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of atrance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea - and to what might be described as the music of the spheres" (30).

The Who's 'Quadrophenia' used the sea prominently,
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This is pretty good stuff. It hints at what makes a musical genius tick. From there on, however, we get a pretty methodical account of how The Who came together as a band, how Townshend immersed himself in writing and recording in home studios, and struggling with bringing his ideas to fruition. There isn't a lot in the way of revelation as to why he became one of the biggest musicians on the planet. In fact, when The Who first launched, he assumed it would be a short-term thing and he could eventually go back to what he really wanted to do - art school.

This is also where I finally come to a point about writing. Be it a work of fiction or non-fiction (or my own rambling blog), a piece of writing needs an overall intent or purpose - a theme. Autobiographies tread dangerous ground in just becoming an outlet for someone to turn their scribblings in a journal into a book. In the case of Townshend's work, I would have liked more of a message. What did he learn from his mistakes? What inspired him? Give me some foreshadowing - after all, you know how this all ends.

So, in the end, I did learn something about Townshend, but I also learned something important about myself and what I want in my own writing. Be purposeful. Know your intent and make sure the overall work plays into that. I may have to revisit this blog and check myself on that very point. In the meantime, I'll just borrow the title of one of Townshend's songs to prompt you into asking of yourself, "Who Are You?"

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coffee Table Books

The coffee table in our family living room is littered with reading material, both on top and underneath. Technically, only two of the vast pile meet the criteria of "coffee table book;" that is, books whose primary purpose is to give guests something to thumb through without paying a lot of attention to it. One is a collection of Doonesbury cartoons and the other is a homemade book collecting photos of my wife and 10YO's trip to London to see the 2012 Olympics.

There are plenty of "throwaways," meaning those materials that will only have a temporary home on our table before heading to the recycling bin. There's a USA Today newspaper as well as magazines ranging from The Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Ranger Rick, KC Studio, and Q (a British music magazine). Mostly, however, the table serves as a cluttered catch-all for the family's collective readings.

My 10YO and I are chugging through J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring together while Mom has tackled Lois Lowry's The Giver with him and our 7YO. My oldest son is also reading Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. My younger son has been reading Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson Fights Crime aloud to me while I have read Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit to him.

My heavy interest in music is showcased by a couple of autobiographies. I've nearly finished Pete Townshend's Who I Am and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace is on deck. When I'm just killing a few minutes, I dive into one of the collections of Chuck Klosterman, a music journalist noted for work with Rolling Stone and Spin.

Various "works in progress" squeeze their way into the piles as well. Right now there's a clipboard with my 7Y0's first illustration for a temporarily on-hold book, Wart and Scraggles. Last night, the rough third chapter of my Otter and Arthur sequel found a brief home on the table as I read it to my sons for feedback. My 10YO plans to bring his story, The Vine Clingers, home from school so we can type it up on the computer. It's bound to end up on the coffee table soon.

It all ultimately means one thing - we have a messy coffee table. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice published 200 years ago today

First posted 6/12/2020; updated 7/6/2020.

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen

First Publication: January 28, 1813

Category: romantic novel

Sales: 20 million


About the Book:

“‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s witty comedy of manners – one of the most popular novels of all time.” AZ

The basic plot? “Heroine meets hero and hates him. Is charmed by a cad. A family crisis – caused by the cad – is resolved by the hero. The heroine sees him for what he really is and realises (after visiting his enormous house) that she loves him. The plot has been endlessly borrowed, but few authors have written anything as witty or profound as Pride and Prejudice.” TG

In 1894, “renowned literary critic and historian George Saintsbury…declared it the ‘most perfect, the most characteristic, the most eminently quintessential of its author’s works.’” LN In the 20th century, Eudora Welty “described it as ‘irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.’” LN

Its “blend of humor, romance, and social satire have delighted readers of all ages.” AZ “In telling the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett and their five daughters, Jane Austen creates a miniature of her world, where social grace and the nuances of behavior predominate in the making of a great love story.” BN The story “features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues.” AZ

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Jekyll and Hyde: The Good and Bad of Writing

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I have just finished reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's iconic novella first published in 1886. The story has become quite familiar to most - if not in its original context, in one of its many variations. The story has been adapted to multiple movies, theater productions, and other books.

For those not in the know, the essence of the book is that Dr. Jeckyll is a fine, upstanding citizen in London, England. Unbeknownst to anyone else, he conducts experiments to release his evil side, which takes on the persona of Mr. Hyde. All who encounter the latter are repulsed and when Hyde starts committing violent crime, he becomes a wanted man.

The book has largely become a classic on the strength of the idea of dual personalities existing within the same person. Such a state has psychological basis, which gives the story a certain amount of frightening realism. However, Jekyll's actual physical transformation when he becomes Hyde gives the book a more fantastical element as well. The story is a popular source for both monster and super hero tales because of the concept of two identities existing within one individual.

Conceptually, this is a great idea for a book. From an execution standpoint, however, the story has shortcomings. Any writer today has to tire of hearing one of the cardinal rules of fiction: "Show, don't tell." Rules, of course, are made to be broken and there are always examples of writing which is excellent precisely because the author set the rules on their ear.

In the case of Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson manages to make a mere 80-page story feel overlong. He devotes nearly the last quarter of the book to Henry Jekyll's written confession. Instead of letting the reader experience Jekyll's descent into madness first hand, we have to endure him telling us about it for 20 pages.

Part of the flaw of the novella is that it begs to be told from a third-person omnipotent narrator's perspective. However, the story is largely told from the perspective of Jekyll's lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson. This gives the book a serious flaw because Utterson does not know Jekyll's secret or even suspect. He is distressed by his client's actions - such as Jekyll giving everything to Hyde in his will, but never guesses what Jekyll is up to. Instead he assumes Hyde must be blackmailing Jekyll.

This means the reader does not get to witness firsthand why Jekyll does what he does - or how. We only get to read about it later. Obviously Stevenson wanted to keep the reader curious, wondering what the relationship was between Jekyll and Hyde. This could make for a shocking reveal when it turned out they were one and the same person.

However, this could have still been done, and more effectively, through a third-person omniscient narrator. It would have been a more captivating story if the storyteller knew what was going on, but only slowly parceled out the details.

Monday, January 14, 2013

50 Years Ago Today: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was published

First posted 6/8/2020; updated 7/6/2020.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

First Publication: January 14, 1963

Category: semi-autobiographical novel

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

The Bell Jar was the only novel written by American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967. It was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963. WK It didn’t see publication in the United States until 1971, “in accordance with the wishes of both Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, and her mother.” WK It has since “been translated into nearly a dozen languages. The novel, though dark, is often read in high school English classes.” WK

“The novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef because the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experiences with what may have been clinical depression or bipolar II disorder.” WK She committed suicide a month after the book’s first publication in the UK.

The book is a “shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.” BN The story “chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.” AZ

Resources and Related Links:

In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our July 2020 book.