Boozy Books: The Idiot

Hello, and welcome to the third in our “Dreary Russian Literature” specials! I think I picked the wrong time to work on my length issues, but I suppose it’s go big or go home, right? Let’s get started.

Prince Myshkin is one of literature’s best, and most famous, characters. In describing The Idiot, one must speak of him because he is the idiot. Or, to be more specific, he is called the idiot because no one can understand his goodness. The world is an affected place, full of hypocrisy and greed, and to people like this, the purest embodiment of the Christian love of man (Christ-like, not Christian in the sense of religion, as Myshkin could — and would — tell you) can only be seen as a lack of intelligence. And so they ridicule the kindness, goodness, and openness of a truly good man. Thus, The Idiot is a look at just how corrupt our world is, and how far from the ideal, a subject that Dostoevsky visits more than once.

Something like this is also seen in The Brothers Karamazov, which A discussed last week, during The Grand Inquisitor, a tale told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha. In it, Christ returns to Earth only to be sentenced to die by the Inquisition, who claims the Church no longer needs him. The Church is a worldly thing, burdened by worldly cares, and is thus antithetical to the true Christ. And Dostoevsky was, as a writer, very concerned with this dichotomy. In The Idiot, he turns that concern into a novel that becomes one of the greatest stories of all time.

This is not an even novel. Of all of Dostoevsky’s works, it is probably the least polished and most meandering, as if the author himself was using it as a chance to explore rather than write a cohesive narrative. And as someone who’s a bit of a philosopher myself, getting the chance to read one of the great philosophical novels is a real treat. Although, because it’s Russia, it does not end all that happily. Oh, Russia. You strange beast.

As with all things Russian, vodka must be on offer. But that is hardly surprising or exciting. So, because I think one needs to keep a mostly clear head while reading this book, I’m going to recommend something called Mors. It’s only slightly alcoholic (so little, in fact, that it’s given to children) and made of fermented foxberries (or sometimes cranberries). It’s typically used as a mixer, though children often drink it straight. If it’s too hard to find here, just toss some cranberry juice into the vodka. I’m sure that’d work. Don’t drink too much, though. You wouldn’t want to be too worldly.



Monday Muse: Getting to Know You

Heyo! Welcome to today’s Monday Muse! In my continuing bid to keep these posts short and sweet, I am going to get to the point.

Getting to know your characters. Yes, this is one of those practical muses. So, short AND helpful! The Holy Grail of Blog Posts.

I’ve done some stuff on writing before. I’ve talked about worldbuilding on multiple occasions, as well as the joys of research. But I don’t typically talk about how you can get to know your characters. I’ve mentioned my love of things like character sketches (brief scenes in which you answer questions about your characters) and finding physical models (especially for the sound of their voice), but there’s another tool that is the best kept secret of the writing community:

The Myers-Briggs Test

Yup. That’s right. The INFJs ad ESTPs you’ve heard about. They’re an amazing tool for understanding your characters. What motivates them, what kinds of characters they’d have good relationships with (not just romantic, either), what kind of careers would fit, etc. The classification is a great foundation tool, and a great way to help a bunch of behaviors coalesce into a cohesive personality type. Of course, the danger of taking this test is using the classification as gospel, refusing to deviate even when it doesn’t feel like your character. After all, this is just a tool, and in the end, you are the person who knows your character best.

Another great thing — and bear with me here — is running your character through the Hogwarts Sorting Hat test. Obviously, going through the whole thing on Pottermore means creating a new account for each character, but there are plenty of other versions that are near-copies and provide just as good a result. And there’s this really cool post that explains why so many characters seem to fit multiple houses that also really helped me come to an understanding about the main character of my NaNo novel. Which is great.

Now… these aren’t fool proof. Obviously. That character I just mentioned? She is one of those for whom the tests aren’t terribly helpful. Hedy’s marginal. She’s introverted, but is also often the brightest star in the room. She’s judging, but also has a tendency to be a dreamer. She’s a thinker whose strong emotions often obliterate her logic. She’s intuitive but her intuitions come from her experiences and sensory input. So, basically, she’s a little bit of everything. And it took FOREVER to come to the realization that, of all the types, INFJ is the only one that comes close. But KNOWING that (along with the Gryffindor primary & secondary with a Ravenclaw model) helped me build off of what I knew and construct her identity. Or, rather, put words to what I already knew. Which is just as important for, you know, a writer.

Well… that’s it from me today. And, yes, this is short. Comparatively. I’m working on it, I swear. I’ll be back on Friday for the continued Russian Literature Depression-Off!


Silly Sunday: Go Loco For Loki

Oh, yes… this is definitely the calendar you’re looking for. Even if you didn’t know it.

Right! Hello, y’all! Welcome to today’s Silly Sunday. In my continuing attempts to keep things short and sweet, I think this post mightn’t be more than a few lines long. Why? Because I need to procure me a calendar.

This Calendar, To Be Specific

Yup. That’s right. A Norse Gods of the Year calendar, complete with Pin-Up sexiness. You know you want it.

OK. Look at that. SO  SHORT. I’m getting better.

Watch me ruin it tomorrow with the Muse. *sigh*


Shakespeare Saturday: Choose Your Own Bard

Hello, and welcome to today’s Shakespeare Saturday! Today, I continue working on my ability to keep things short and sweet by presenting you some of the most fun Shakespeare greatness I’ve had occasion to experience in a while.

You remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from when you were a kid? You get to pick your character and determine everything your character does, whether for good or ill? And, of course, whenever you realized you’d made a bad decision, you went back and pretended, “Nope. I really meant to do this other thing! The one that wins me the ending I want!” Because, uh, there’s no way you’re dying in some random cave! No way, Jose.

Well… now you can Choose Your Own Adventure: Shakespeare Style! That’s right. You can take on the Bard’s immortal characters and do, well… whatever you want with them. You know, so long as it’s one of the choices. Otherwise, you’re just doing what A and I did and writing your own novel. Which is cool, too. We totally support that!

Anywho… there’s two different choices: Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. And both of them are FABULOUS! (I am particularly fond of becoming Ophelia: Denmark’s Greatest Ruler!)

Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be Or Not to Be (Either one can be the answer.)

You should do it! I totally plan on doing it.


Boozy Books: The Brothers Karamazov

Happy Friday, readers! It’s time for some more dense Russian literature! Last week we presented War and Peace so now I’d like to move on to some Dostoyevsky. Ya ready? (The Russian for yes is “da”)

If you aren’t familiar, settle in. The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia. It explores ethics, God, free will, and morals. The plot revolves around patricide and paints a vivid and incredibly detailed portrait of man’s struggle with doubt, faith, reason, and forgiveness. Composed of 12 books and an epilogue it is an epic, wide-spanning story set against a backdrop of a Russia that is rapidly modernizing.

The three brothers for whom the book is named are each very different and each experience spiritual and emotional struggles revolving around the centerpiece of their father’s death. There are lots of side stories and rationalist ideologies and nihilist things… Quite frankly, it’s a lot. There’s a lot. Trying to provide a concise overview without writing a novel myself  is kind of impossible. 

But I can tell you that this Russian novel is not really as dense as it is thick. Wait, what. Anyway, it’s not really an intense read the way War & Peace or Anna Karenina are. It’s a lot quieter and introspective and examines humanity in action around a central event that draws people together.

Pair it with vodka. Drink a lot of it.


Monday Muse: Query Schmery

Please, don’t let today’s title fool you… I’m simply trying to follow Dumbledore’s advice and find the happiness (even in these, the darkest, of times) by turning on a light. That light is optimism. YAY!

Now listen, this query writing business isn’t hard so much as it is stressful. Ok, maybe it’s also a little hard. But have you tried to boil your work down into a concise yet exciting pair of sentences? Every word choice has to have the power to grip an agent by the throat and show no quarter. And THEN you have to reel ’em in with a concise and exciting synopsis of your work without giving too much away AND you’ve just gotta sell yourself. That’s the whole point. SELL SELL SELL. Which, frankly, is rather against my nature.

I have done the research, I understand the concept, and I’ve read dozens of queries that have and haven’t achieved success. I’ve even written a rather snazzy hook that I’m pretty proud of. The whole thing still needs a touch of organization and finesse, but it’s on its way. It’s just… So hard, dammit.

But I can do it! And so can you if your project has reached that stage. All you have to do is remember to turn on the light.


Silly Sunday: Not-So-Silly Dreams

Heyo! Welcome to this week’s Silly Sunday. It’s going to be brief because I’m already picking which shows I want to see next year in Stratford. Oh, yeah… we’ve already booked our week up up there and now we’re just left to be SUPER EXCITED ABOUT THE AMAZING FUN!

Like… guys… they’re doing Romeo and Juliet next year. Next year… when our novel could very well be published. That novel that’s a thriller version of, you know, Romeo and Juliet?! OMG. It could be kismet. We already have dreams of doing book signings with the… no extra time we have. Shut up. We’ll do it for a couple of hours the afternoon we’ve set aside for our Anna Mae’s trip… and then the morning before we leave for the airport?

Shut up. We’ve got lofty goals. Doing a book signing of Killing Mercutio at our favorite Shakespeare festival the year they’re doing the very play that inspired our beloved novel… yeah, that’s one of them. It’d mean a lot to us.

But none of this is silly. I mean… maybe it’s a little silly to be planning book signings and stuff, but I don’t think so. I think that’s what anybody with a dream does. So, in order to make up for that, here’s Ron Swanson’s (well, Nick Offerman’s) impression of Hamlet. (Warning: spoilers.)


OK. So… from a girl who’s excited for more theater (50 weeks to go!) and for the chance that a bunch of people she admires might read and enjoy her book… have a great rest of Sunday. A will be back tomorrow with the Muse!


Shakespeare Saturday: The Bard & A Banana

Hey! Welcome to today’s slightly late and horribly brief Shakespeare Saturday! It’s C again, here to lighten things up after yesterday’s dip into Russian literature. Because, really, the Russians seem incapable of writing a happy novel. Oh, sure, sometimes there are happy endings, but are the novels themselves happy? No. Not usually.

But, I suppose dealing with those winters means writing slightly bleak novels. We are, after all, a product of our environment.

Anyway… I wanted to share something with you today. Apparently, Monkeys Are Writing Shakespeare! Yes, that’s right, the old adage has finally come true! Except, well… it’s not really about the study of randomness so much as our ability to communicate, and the ability of technology to be a facilitator of said communication. Yeah, even the historian sometimes wigs out over science.

OK… that’s it. Yes, I know! I KNOW. C wrote a short post! Break out the jams, it’s time to party!

I’ll be with you tomorrow for the silly.


Boozy Books: War and Peace

So. Welcome to today’s edition of Boozy Books. It is I, C. Who is probably genuinely insane for choosing to read this book of her own volition.

Or, at least, that’s what the general reaction of the world has been.

I’m going to go a little different tack today and, instead of telling you what the book is about (it’s really damn long and has too much stuff, but suffice it to say it’s about five Russian families and the way they deal with the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, beginning in 1905 and ending with that disastrous 1912 invasion, and is more a look at Russian society, class, philosophy, etc than anything else), I’m going to focus more on how other people have reacted to me reading this book. Why? Because I think it’s an interesting look into the way books develop their own mythos.

Let’s begin by saying War and Peace is an easy read… when it comes to syntax, word choice, grammar, etc. It is not a difficult book to understand insofar as the writing itself is concerned. Allowing for differences in translation, of course, but I doubt there’s a version out there at the 12th grade reading level. BUT! A book is not made easy or hard simply by its language. No, no. An easy book may be made challenging by tough language and a difficult one made easier by accessible language (or, of course, a challenging read made impossible…), but the two are linked. And, in the case of War and Peace, there is no way this is a fun summer read for sitting by the pool. (Unless, of course, you’re me and have no intention of getting in the water, interacting with people, or even, on occasion, remembering to eat.)

But, oh, the characters! Oh, Andrei Bolkonsky. Oh, you nihilist fool, just constantly searching for meaning in life. I think we can all relate to wanting to find a proper place in the world and to making our mark; it’s just Andrei goes and does it so tragically. *le sigh* Part of me will never forgive Natasha.

But I was going to talk about reactions! And then I’ll give you drinks. I’ll give you multiple drinks because, well, you’ll need them.

Whenever someone sees me reading War and Peace, I get a reaction. Literally. Not a single person looks at the title and just walks on by. I guess it’s because the novel’s become the byword for ‘climbing the literary Mt. Everest’, but I think War and Peace might be the world’s most famous novel everyone is too scared to read. (Like… Moby Dick has people groaning in despair, but I think people are genuinely scared to read War and Peace.) These reactions tend to fall into three categories: 1) The ‘Holy shit’! 2) The ‘Damn! Well done!’ and the 3) Fuck you, you pretentious intellectual. (For sho, the third one is real. I get such disgusted looks from people, like I’m reading this book in public just because I want to show off I’m reading it and not because I wanted to get out of the house and have some coffee.) The third group can suck it because, well, who the fuck is anyone to judge someone for their intellect? Or for the way the choose to spend their free time? The first and the second, though… those are interesting.

We’ve built this novel up into a behemoth. It’s too long, it’s got too many people, it’s too complex. But that’s so silly. Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive has two books right now, both of which are over 1000 pages. In hardback. My copy of War and Peace is 1110. And, let me tell you, just because Sanderson writes fantasy doesn’t mean there aren’t pages of philosophy to occasionally swallow, or intense worldbuilding to assimilate as you read. Or! What about the final two books of The Malazan Book of the Fallen? They’re immediate sequels to one another. One story, split in two. Each book is, individually, the same length as War and Peace. And, again, if it’s the philosophy that scares you… there’s plenty here. Not to mention eight other books you really have to read to know what’s going on.

I do not understand why this novel is so feared. Maybe it’s because I do regularly make a habit of reading doorstop fantasy novels. Or because I’ve always liked the classics (except Moby Dick. Fuck you, Herman Melville. Well, and The Scarlet Letter), even the ones other people tended to balk at. They read easy to me in a way that sometimes modern novels don’t (or, rather… modern novels can read TOO easy to me). So maybe it’s just me… but I don’t think War and Peace is scary. And I don’t think anyone else should, either.

Now! I promised you some drinks! First up… vodka. Yeah. Vodka. What else were you expecting? Just take the vodka… and drink it. There’s a dark, almost black bread, Russians eat with it that’s supposed to make the burn go entirely away (this from my Russian history professor). So… do that. If you’re feeling fancy, or if you’re a traitor to the Tsar and want to support that unholy Napoleon, a dark red Malbec should do you. If, however, neither of those are to your taste and, perhaps, you’re feeling like you want to try something so Russian, it’s been around since Kievan Rus’, get yourself some Kvass. It’s like beer, but made from black or rye bread, and was often used in food dishes as well as drunk. Russians are so hard core (and there’s so little alcohol), it is considered a non-alcoholic drink there. Flavor it with fruit, if you’d like!

Well… like War and Peace itself, this has been a long post. I apologize. A will be back tomorrow with the Shakesdown.


Monday Muse: How To Write Like A Cactus

Greetings, readers of Nerd Cactus, and welcome to us getting back into the swing of things after Stratford. The fact that this is happening only a week out is an improvement over last year, when it took us at least two. So, let’s get going…

One of the most common questions I get is, “what’s it like to write with someone else?” After all, writing is mostly a solitary act; it’s one person facing the great abyss of white and attempting to fill it with letters. Two people trying to pick the right word is basically a recipe for disaster, right?

Not if you plan ahead of time.

Yeah, that’s really the secret to writing well with another person: No Pantsing. Because you’ve got two (or even more) people working on the same story, all of whom need to be working toward the same goal. A novel (or screenplay, script, whatever) needs to be a single vision, a piece entire without distractions or digressions. Every single person needs to be on the exact same page.

(Just not at the same time. But more on that in a second.)

The only way to get that done is to plan, plan, plan. If you’re not a plotter, you need to learn to be one if you want to write with someone else. There is simply no way for pansting to work. Two different people just writing the story with the plan on going back to edit later? Do you know how IMPOSSIBLE those edits would be? It’s hard enough to edit for consistency in word choice and syntax; the last thing you need is two stories that simply don’t fit together. So, before you write together, you’ve got to plan together.

In the case of Killing Mercutio, A and I spent months creating character bios, character arcs, and a detailed outline right down to the individual chapters. We had a Book Bible, for lack of a better word. And then, to ensure that each character was completely consistent over the entire novel, we split the six POV characters between us. Each character was then allowed to have slight variations in writing style that could be explained as character voice. Thus, A and I were allowed to write on our own (hence the not at the same time comment above) based on the shared vision of the bio. Then, whenever we finished a chapter, we immediately sent it to the other person for their opinion.

Basically, we created a Bible, wrote on our own, and workshopped each chapter extensively. Then, when the whole thing was done, I took the time to edit the whole thing for any foibles and then A, who got a couple months away, went back for an objective clean-up. By the time we sent the thing off to Beta Readers, it had been workshopped and edited twice as much as a novel by a single writer.

See, that’s what we like about collaborating. As much work as it takes, as much as it means occasionally compromising on your vision for a novel (though, to be honest, A and I did very little compromising because our vision was developed together), writing with someone else means you always have another pair of eyes with as much at stake and as much passion for a project as you. And, of course, the other person can never escape all the excited babbling (and probably wants to talk, too), which is the best thing a writer could ask for.

Well… there you have it. That’s how to write like a Cactus. I’ll be back on Friday to pair War and Peace because that’s what I’m reading now and if I have to pair it, I might read faster… (It’s not an easy read, guys.)