Until the advent of the samba, the maxixe was the most popular dance music in Brasil. Originating with a Cuban dance form called tango-habanera (the first use of the word “tango” was in Cuba in 1823, well before the tango emerged in Argentina; habanera refers to Havana), the performers were known as—and this is so awesome—crybabies (chorona). It’s speculated that the term “choro” is a portmanteau made of “chorar” (cry) and the Latin word “chorus.” Or it might be a corruption of chorus musician, but that’s boring, so we’ll assume its false.
Chiquinha Gozaga was the first woman to lead a band in Brasil. Her contributions to Brazilian music are so great that in 2012, Brasil created a National Day of Music and set it on her birthday.
I suspect Carlinhos Brown will grace these pages more than once. A Bahian drummer, singer and composer, he’s worked with many great artists and produced groundbreaking work. Amazingly, in 1985, he had 26 of his song playing on the radio in Salvador, Bahia—at the same time.
Today, I have the pleasure of have K.M. Weiland back. Her latest is Jane Eyre, annotated for writers.
Broadly speaking, writing books fall into three categories: inspirational, like Anne Lamott’s writing (if you haven’t read Bird by Bird, do); theoretical, like Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, Beyond Plot; and practical, which take up the bulk of writing titles. Katie’s annotated Jane Eyre is a practical guide with a twist: instead of essays on techniques and approaches, combined with a few prompts, she examines a classic text and discusses critical decisions the writer, Charlotte Brontë, made.
One of the difficult aspects of self-learning is finding books that help you advance your skill once you’ve mastered the basics. When I was learning CGI, there were countless books aimed at the novice, but it was rare to find a book that went into the depth you need after you master the basic skills. The same is true with writing. Often even very good books are 90% content you know once you’ve been writing, getting critiques and reading books on writing. The good books are ones that leave the intermediate writer with a single take-away.
By working with an existing text, the reader gets Katie’s smart analysis over a broad range of writing issues. There are sections about techniques you probably know—enough so that I would recommend this to someone who was just starting to explore a more formal study of their craft. But there are plenty of insights that more advanced students are unlikely to encounter until they start working with an editor that I would put this at the top of my list for anyone who has started to recognize the advice they’re reading in other books. In short, I think this is simply brilliant.
Katie, it’s so good to have you back. I know that the Jane Eyre project started with Writer’s Digest contacting you about a book in their new series of annotated classics. You’ve written articles for them before, but was this a complete surprise? Or had you talked with them about a possible book before?
Always good to be back! The book was a total surprise. One of those moments where you read the email and go, “Hah! No, wait, what—really?” I actually hadn’t written any articles for them prior to that, just the curriculum for a workshop based on Outlining Your Novel.
Jane Eyre is a massive text: 190,000 words! What did Writer’s Digest want from you in terms of annotations? Did they have a list of topics they wanted covered? You had 40,000 words to work with in the annotations: did they have to be distributed fairly evenly throughout the text?
They were actually pretty hands-off. They gave me the word limit for the annotations, and then I came up with what I felt would be the best workable format and tossed a few ideas around with my editor. What I ended up doing was dividing the word count among the fifty or so chapters in the book, then further dividing that word count amongst the number of notes I’d come up with for that chapter. So some of the chapters have many short notes and some have only a few longer notes.
Your fiction work has a long gestation period: three years per book, right? What was it like working with an externally-imposed deadline for the first time?
I hate deadlines. I always beat them by miles (I was half a year ahead of the deadline with this one), but they still stress me to no end. I cranked this one out in just a couple of months. It was a tough book to write, for a lot of reasons, but it was still a relatively quick one.
You’ve had editors for your books, but they were people you hired. With a publisher’s editor, was there more back-and-forth? Do you feel that you learned something from working with a publisher that you hadn’t—and perhaps wouldn’t—self-publishing?
With absolutely no disrespect intended toward my freelance editors (who I respect to death), I found myself much less likely to question this editor’s thoughts. Part of that was just based on the fact that she had the final say, instead of me, part of it was that I knew she was more familiar with the house’s style guidelines, and part of it was that she was just plain right about a lot things. She didn’t have me make any major changes, but she brought me into a greater awareness of tics I’ve developed, especially unnecessarily wordy phrases. So I’ll definitely carry that forward into other projects. It was interesting to hear from an industry professional who’s been there, done that with previously successful writing how-to books.
One of my concerns about personally self-publishing is that I would only have one round with my freelance editor (due to my budget constraints). Was that something you noticed working with an editor paid by the publisher?
We were under the gun and didn’t have a ton of time to do pass after pass (my editor went over her notes with me once, then had me review the proofreader’s notes, then had me proofread it myself after it was typeset–and that was it). But, like I said, the edits were pretty straightforward and minor. It was a lot different from having fiction edited, which is usually more about how the overall piece works rather than finetuning and tweaking the prose.
Did Writers’ Digest suggest Jane Eyre, or did they ask you to pick a classic?
They already knew they wanted to go with Jane Eyre. I probably would have picked something from Dickens and gotten myself into a big mess! So I’m really glad they guided me to Jane Eyre, both for that reason and because Jane Eyre turned out to be such a wonderful learning experience for me personally.
While I adore your annotations, Jane Eyre isn’t a contemporary novel, a fact that shows up in its word count. I can’t imagine a first-time author getting away with even 120,000 words for a romance novel (or romantic literary fiction) novel today. Did working with a 150 year old novel present any challenges?
There are definitely things about the classic novels are that not recommended practice today. I touch briefly on a few of them, but I made a conscious decision to focus more on the novel’s attributes than its faults (there’s no quicker way to get yourself into trouble than to start critiquing a beloved classic!). That aside, I approached the book just as I would a contemporary novel. I read classics like crazy, so I’m “fluent” in their quirks. I wouldn’t say its age added any particular challenges.
One of the elements you comment most on is foreshadowing, which isn’t something I’ve seen covered in depth before. Is this something the novel made you particularly aware of?
Definitely. I think reading with a conscious appreciation for how Bronte was setting up story techniques made the foreshadowing really pop out. And, of course, it’s a great book in which to study foreshadowing, since the Gothic eeriness of the mystery in the attic is at the core of the story. Bronte did such an amazing job with the foreshadowing. It was a joy to pick it apart and figure out how she made it work. I’m a little concerned that some virgin Jane Eyre readers will be annoyed that some of my early notes spoil the twist at the Third Plot Point, but I really feel that knowing where the story is going is vital to understanding how she set it up in the earlier chapters.
Ha. I read a wikipedia summary, otherwise some of it would have been spoilers for me. But I don’t see how you could have commented on foreshadowing without giving the game away. Trying to be coy would have undermined your part of the book. I think Brontë can deal with some spoilers, even a big one.
Well, that’s the other thing: I figured more people than not had already heard tell of the creepy you-know-what in the attic.
The foreshadowing annotations were the most valuable part of the book for me. I’m realizing that even though I don’t rely on a surprise, without foreshadowing to guide the readers emotionally to the final, I reduced the impact. This was mainly because I did set-up and then only foreshadowed a scene or two in advance. How can writers pick out elements need to be foreshadowed, and how far in advance should they be laying clues?
I actually wrote an article about this on Joanna Penn’s blog that I’ll steer you toward: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2013/08/21/story-structure-foreshadowing/. The gist is that the big plot points all need to be foreshadowed, particularly the First Plot Point, the Third Plot Point, and the Climax. We have to prepare readers just enough that they’re anticipating the twists even if they haven’t figured them out.
Brontë gave you the opportunity to talk about how to do foreshadowing well. Are there ways that you’ve seen (in other works) foreshadowing go awry?
There are basically only two ways to do foreshadowing wrong: 1) Fail to plant it. 2) Fail to pay it off.The latter, I find, is usually just bad planning on the author’s plot. She planted something, then forgot to get around to it. All she has to do is go back and pull the false plant from early in the book.
Another big theme in your annotation is the Lie the Character Believes, or the central world-view/perception fallacy the protagonist must overcome. What are the advantages of thinking of your plot and protagonist in terms of a central misconception?
This was actually something that was a huge revelation for me in writing this book. I was familiar with the concept of the Lie previously, but its practicability never really clicked for me until working on Jane Eyre. Next to story structure itself, I believe this understanding has been my single most important realization about storytelling to date. The Lie is central to all character arcs, not just the positive change arc we find in Jane Eyre, so it’s a central thesis no matter what we’re writing. It’s the core of the character, the core of the conflict, and therefore the core of story. So not only do I think it’s advantageous to think about plot and character in terms of the Lie, I’d go so far as to say it’s crucial. On simply practical terms, it makes all the difference in taking character arc from a vague concept of a character who changes in some unspecified way to a specific and applicable structure of resonant evolution.
Can you think of any examples where there isn’t the Lie? If so, how does that impact the story?
I believe there is always an exception to the rule. But even with all the time I’ve spent thinking about this, I’ve yet to come up with a story that categorically defies the inclusion of a Lie. I thought maybe I’d finally found the exception in Singin’ in the Rain, but, nope, the Lie (that living a lie – even when it comes to love – is the only way to success) is buried underneath all the dance numbers. Even monster stories like Jurassic Park (which, actually does feature a subplot Lie in Dr. Grant’s positive change arc) are based on a Lie/Truth premise, in this case the Lie being that man can control nature. In short: I got nothing. But if you or anyone else comes up with a good example of a Lie-less story, I’d love to hear about it.
This was quite an honor (and a savvy choice on Writers’ Digest’s part, I suspect). You’re blog has won awards as a go-to place for writers learning the craft. What’s you’re background? Did you study writing in school, or has your writing education been as self-motivated and -realized as your publishing career?
I was horse crazy when I was young. I was sure I was going to grow up to be a veterinarian or a trainer. I only started writing because I didn’t want to forget the stories (about horses) that I would tell myself. One thing led to another, and I fell in love with the wordcraft itself. Even still, I never planned a career in writing. But people started encouraging me to publish my books, and once I jumped on that merry-go-round, I realized I needed to start promoting them. That led to the blog, which led to my non-fiction books, which led to my being able to write full-time.
I did take a few correspondence classes early on, but mostly I’ve taught myself what I know via writing how-to books and magazines. And, of course, practice.
A final question, the most important one of the lot: what is your favorite Brazilian song?
You know i’ve been dreading this! I’ve been trying to remember, but up until the other day when I browsed through all the Brazilian songs here on your blog, I don’t think I’d ever listened to one (I’m more of a pop punk and symphonic metal – which some Michael Buble thrown in – kind of girl), but I’m going to go with “A Saudade é que me Consola.”
The best way to buy any book by an author you support (which is all of them, right?) is from your local independent book store. A book bought at a small book store is much more likely to trigger additional sales than a book bought at a large retailer or online. But if you want to buy Jane Eyre online, you can find it at Amazon here.
It’s time to get to country. I have no idea if Brazilian country shares lyrical themes with American country, but both are musics that originated in rural areas, creating distinct traditions. And, like it’s American counterpart, Brazilian country remains a potent force on the pop charts. Paula Fernandes is Brazil’s top-selling album artist for the past decade. Country music has many flavors in Brasil, ranging from music with accordions that probably sounds more like tejano music to Americans than either Brazilian or country music, to the commercial sertanejo style Fernandes performs.
Working with Vincius de Moraes, Baden Powell began incorporating Afro-Brazilian sounds into Rio’s sambas at the time when bossa nova was the dominant pop sound. The resulting music shares a lightness with bossa nova, but has a different swing. Powell was master of many different styles of music, from classical to jazz and samba.