What Makes a Book Classic?

“A classic … is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it’s safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It’s acquired a picturesque dignity …”

-Scott Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and Damned

When I think of my favorite classics, I remember how much joy they brought me. Growing up I read The Velveteen Rabbit and Too Much Noise, and growing older I read The Little House in the Big Woods, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Great Gatsby, A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre … I could keep going.

I know a book is classic when it is intelligent, when it soothes or inspires me, and when it has clear transitions between its characters’ development, plot progression, and moral teachings. There is no plot summary that can satisfy the definition of a classic, but when readers from the next generations remember the most famous lines from a book, the book has survived into longevity:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick)
  • “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit)

 

That, my friends, is the definition of a classic. I am proud to be one of the readers to enjoy and pass on these tales of wonder.

How to Introduce a Book, and Why I Like Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….

-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.

Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:

“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].

“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”

“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”

“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”

“I remember everything from when we first went together.”

The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.

“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”

When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.

My Inspiration, the Goose

One would think a goose to be a terribly insufficient role model for a writer, but this goose is a particular inspiration of mine. She is from the novel Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, who has reconstructed the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat in this modern adaptation with farm animals. The best animal among them is the goose, whose name is Lady and who carries herself with such dignity as to command all others’ respect for her.

Here is the excerpt which I found so diverting:

It was a curious thing, the Lady’s authority. The horses obeyed her, along with everyone else except the rats. What gave her power was how steady she was. She never rushed; she was always sure, she took responsibility. When something came up, she said what to do. Presence of mind counts for a lot in this world. The Lady was as confident of her judgment as she was of her beauty. Nothing so improves the appearance as a good opinion of oneself.

It is commanding enough to be a sermon or Sunday school lesson. Whenever there is an inspirational message or motivational piece, there should always be an example of model character. This goose is by no means real, but she is a genuinely wonderful model character.

The curious thing about the Lady is that she’s particularly ugly; though she has clipped wings, a lopsided gait, and an irregular shading of colored feathers, she does command the respect of those around her, and that is the admirable quality which I find so comforting and inspiring.

I think that even the best of preachers would give an example like this to encourage their audience. Thanks to Alan Armstrong for creating such a good character.

The Publishing Industry–Depressing Fiction vs. What Readers Really Want

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the first few weeks of my editing class, I was introduced to the publishing industry, specifically the genres, markets, and age groups that editors keep in mind when acquiring books. Our first assignment was observing the publishing industry by skimming through Publisher’s Weekly, Christian Retailing, The New York Times, and Bookforum, which covered a range of books and age groups including children’s picture books; middle-grade, young adult, and adult fiction; nonfiction; and Christian and secular books.

I had already been acquainted with the publishing world from observing my own county’s library, and I have discovered that the books marketed for older age groups tend to have content that is more violent, realistic, and depressing than the books marketed for young age groups. This realization makes me sad, for sometimes I find no reason why these age groups should be characterized by these grim topics. In fact, I have even found that some adult readers prefer younger-aged books for pleasure.

However, my own conclusion is that sometimes the grimmer, sadder topics conjure the deepest emotions of the human heart, and sometimes many of the readers relate to these topics because of their own experiences. If the latter is the case, I will not judge these books based on their audience’s reception, yet if I am to continue my career in the publishing world, I will keep being aware of the various topics, subjects, and audience needs that fuel the publishing industry, knowing that I may have to read some of these stories if I go into the publishing world.

How to Represent Your Land in Fiction: Flannery O’Connor’s Thoughts

One of my favorite locations, out in the Minnesota waterside.
Landscape often inspires me. This is one of my favorite locations, out in the Minnesota waterside.

In her Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor defines personality as reflecting the specific region of the character. When writers fails to describe their character’s region or include the idioms of that region, and instead universalizes their setting, they ineffectually loses their grounding and focus. The plot is meant to reveal the character’s personality through colloquialism directly related to the character’s specific region. If a writer, for instance, centers on a story in Georgia about a man born in that state, yet fails to relate anything from Georgia, he is creating a flat, universal atmosphere.

In my own fiction writing, I have learned to place my characters in specific settings in order to convey reality to my readers. I understand I must observe my natural surroundings in order to help my readers fully experience the story. I must show where the writer is through specific dialogue, such as through colloquialism, setting, and action.

Mystery and Meaning in Stories

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

According to Flannery O’Connor in her Mystery & Manners, meaning is “embodied” within the story, while a theme is an abstract idea, an element that’s recognizable enough to extract from the story. Meaning conveys some “mystery of existence” and can be associated with the elements that matter most to the characters. The writer must convey what matters most to himself or to his readers, not just elaborate on some abstract idea.

When I am asked what the plot is for my story, I understand that one sentence is insufficient for describing my story; I must tell it all. If my theme were easily recognizable, then the plot would be predictable. Likewise, in relation to O’Connor’s explanation, an excellent moral or plot cannot be simply stated without telling the whole story. Ultimately, the mystery of the plot must be intricate enough to grab and maintain the reader’s interest.

Should We Stick to a Word Count?

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s shortest short story. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve heard published writers talk about writing to meet a word count. Emily Shore from Eagan, Minnesota, writes 1,000 words a day to fulfill her writing goal and wrote “The Legend of the Last Bookkeeper” in 2012. She, like many authors, writes to ensure her work gets done and possibly that she never loses her creativity. But for me, I’ve never been a word count geek.

I always abide by my instincts and prefer to write on a flowing stream of consciousness until I realize that my novel is more than 30,000 words. But I never set a word goal because to me, the content is more important than the length. I understand that some writers never obsess over an exact number of words, but I want to assure you that having a word count is irrelevant to writing fiction. Only your stories count. Your truth, your characters, and your beliefs will shine through your fiction and render all calculations gone.

Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must…read a lot and write a lot.” This is true, but I don’t think that a word count is necessary for finishing one’s creative writing. If you’re like me, and you don’t like calculating your words, don’t ever stress over the idea of writing 1,000+ words a day. Your readers will relish your fiction when you allow yourself that freedom, and it doesn’t matter whether your stories are 300 words or 30,000.

Did you know that some stories are only 6 words short? Visit Ernest Hemingway’s story to find out more at Six Word Stories.