Four Old Books that will Blow Your Mind in 2019

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‘Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)

Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled.  She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom.  Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess. 

Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.  As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends.  But everything changes when Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.

‘Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters.  Like me, you will probably pick it up because when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one.  And you do.  But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.

This book is a perfect addition to the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at their beliefs with a critical eye.  That’s what I try to do in my books.  Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)

If you read the back of the book, you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom.  Well, not quite.  For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is only half of the novel.

The other half is about Levin, a wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the girl he loves.  His long, slow upward trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.

The writing in this novel is amazing (assuming that you get a good translation).  The psychology is beautiful.  It’s also an example of a successful omniscient narrator.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

This book was first published in 1678.  The language, therefore, is more modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as elegant and succinct as either one.  

It is an allegory of one man’s spiritual journey.  It is anything but boring! 

Take the incident where Giant Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle.  He beats them, he starves them, he tells them they will never get out.  It is Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to Hopeful.  The giant encourages the two men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do so.  He also shows them the skulls of past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed. 

All in all, if you have ever been through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body.  This giant and his wife literally sit up at night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.

When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them.  But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.

The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)

Hercule Poirot is the more famous of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple.  All the other characters, being British, consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner.  All the younger and more worldly characters underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village all her life.  They think she is likely to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience.  In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of human nature in her 60+ years of life.  As she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.

Miss Marple’s method of crime detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature.  People she meets remind her of other people that she has once known.  She can recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they will do based on these past people’s behavior.  She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present situation.  Her method of thinking about crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.  Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories.  You could say that Poirot is a plotter and Marple a pantser.   But they both get their man in the end.

Miss Marple is also aided by her fantastic British manners.  She is an amazingly good listener.  She is excellent at drawing people out.  People cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will tell you the truth.

Miss Marple might be a little old lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.  In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”

I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up.

What Makes You Doubt Yourself?

Of course you doubt yourself. All grown people do. In fact, I don’t entirely trust you if you don’t.

Here is the latest thing that made me doubt myself. It starts out with Jordan Peterson classroom footage, but ignore that. At 9:30, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson start discussing archetypes in movies. At about 13:15, Peterson says, “The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what it is he’s doing.”

That gave me pause. Sure, I’m a pantser, but this isn’t about pantsing versus plotting. It’s about whether you are primarily telling a story, or primarily illustrating an idea. And anyone, plotter or pantser, can do either. This made me ask myself, I am too heavy on theme? Are any of my characters behaving less like people and more like embodiments of an idea that I love or hate? Good questions to ask.

What have you doubted lately and how are you dealing with it?

The Great Plotter vs. Pantser Debate

Behold these awful stereotypes of a plotter and a pantser!

Of course there’s no one right way to do it.

If you hang around writerly sorts, you will hear them talking about plotting and pantsing. Plotting means you plan out your entire novel before starting to write it. You make an outline. You decide what’s going to happen chapter by chapter. Obviously, you do any necessary research before starting to write. The term pantsing comes from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” With pantsing, you might have done some research and you might have a general idea where the story is going to go. But you don’t outline. You just dive in, let the story and characters take over, and record what you see happening. You are just along for the ride, like the lovely lady above on the right side of the picture.

Both methods have their advocates. Both methods even have a book which will tell you how to do the method. I have read neither of these books, but have heard them recommended by other authors. For pantsing, there is Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith; and for plotting, there is Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. (How can you not love that title?)

There’s No Right Way, but This Is the Right Way

Perhaps anyone can learn to plot … or to pants. Nevertheless, I think that a strong preference for one or the other is a consequence of the way a person’s brain is wired. This explains why people’s reaction when they hear about the other method (whichever the other method is), tends to be something like, “You mean there are people who live this way?”

Pantsers, for example, tend to sound as if they think pantsing is inherently spiritual. It’s about sensitivity to your characters; it’s about trusting your subconscious and the story itself. It’s about listening to reality, for crying out loud! Writers are people who listen! They don’t impose!

I am thinking here of two of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I love Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and King’s On Writing. Bird by Bird does contain some passages that make it sound (unintentionally, I am sure) as if writers are more mystical or wise or something than the general population. King, meanwhile, believes strongly that you have to let your characters lead. He never plots; he thinks of an intriguing or difficult situation, puts his character in it, and then sits back and lets it play out. Because he doesn’t plan a rescue for his characters, horror usually follows.

I haven’t read as much writing advice by plotters, so I’m not as familiar with their besetting misconceptions. It seems to me, based on little comments that I have seen here and there based on a “how to write a novel” book, written by an editor, that I read many years ago, that plotters have the impression that if you don’t outline, you won’t have a good plot. Nothing will happen in your story. As one person put it, no amount of revision can make a book good if it was a weak story to begin with.

In short, and to make a huge generalization that I will no doubt regret later, diehard pantsers tend to feel that plotting is immoral, whereas diehard plotters tend to feel that pantsing is incompetent.

But Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Plotting or “Pure” Pantsing?

Probably not. 


I can only speak from the pantsing side (in case you haven’t guessed). I am an incurable pantser. But this doesn’t mean I never do any research or plan anything out. When at the writing desk, I tend to look more like the gal on the left. I don’t outline, but to keep things consistent I am forced to make timelines, name and age charts, and so on. I keep research notes and maps handy. It’s just that these things are following the story, not preceding it.

In the same way, I imagine that even those who thoroughly plot spend time listening to their characters so that the emotions ring true. Who knows, perhaps they even change their outline from time to time in response to a character’s wishes or the changing currents of the story.

So the supposed down side of each of these methods is mitigated by the fact that writing is an iterative process and that writers mix in elements from each.

Why Am I A Pantser?

I just am. I am constitutionally unable to make a book outline first and then have that outline actually be the way the story goes.

I might have a general idea of what I think is going to happen (and sometimes it does). But half the time, by the time we get there, things don’t go down that way. The characters have been changed by their experiences and they don’t react the way I expected. Or, they react much more strongly than I expected and do some fool thing that the story then has to accommodate.

This doesn’t make me more spiritual or, God forbid, smarter than the plotters. If anything, it might be the reverse. When my story surprises me, it’s because my subconscious is working out plot points that my better organized fellows are able to do intentionally, with their conscious brains. It may be true that plotting results in twistier, more intricate plots. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t.

In fact, I’m not even able to write a non-fiction piece from an outline. If an outline is required, I do some discovery drafts, let the structure emerge, and then outline it afterward. That’s how pantsy I am.

Luckily, Stephen King is there to remind me that it is possible to be a competent and prolific writer by pantsing.

Now, how about you? Even if you don’t write novels, I’ll bet you plot or pants your way through life. And I’ll bet that whichever you do, the other way seems just wrong.

Also, when you are reading a book can you tell which kind of writer the author is?