Wednesday, October 24, 2018

0 WoW with Katya de Becerra: What I learned about writing craft from my favorite books

Okay. Stop what you are doing. If you haven't read WHAT THE WOODS KEEP, do that. Right now. Order a copy. Hit the library. Do what you have to do. Why? Here's Dana L. Davis (herself the author of the marvelous TIFFANY SLY LIVES HERE NOW):

“If you like howling winds, ominous birds, dark woods, clouds casting shadows over a perfectly creepy town, blood (okay, you don’t have to like blood), cryptic messages, mystery, and intensely likeable heroines in the midst of it all... you will LOVE this book as much as I did. It was the perfect blend of sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy. But this is not your average fantasy. It’s the kind of fantasy that makes you double-bolt the door before you go to bed and maybe even leave on a light or two to ward off the scary dreams. It’s the kind of YA that reminded me of why I love YA in the first place.”

With that out of the way, I am so excited to welcome debut author Katya de Becerra here to WoW. Her guest post below discusses the importance of being a reader and how her favorite books have influenced her writing. Stay tuned after the post for a bit more about Katya and WHAT THE WOODS KEEP - one of my absolute faves of 2018!

What I learned about writing craft from my favorite books
by Katya de Becerra

The best writing advice I was ever given is "read a lot". And this has since become the primary piece of advice I pass along to aspiring writers. Read a lot. Read diversely. Read across genres. And always challenge yourself. As writers, while we’re certainly still capable of reading solely for enjoyment, overall our reading patterns fundamentally change—as writers, when we’re reading, we’re constantly learning, filing our reactions, thoughts and ideas away for later. It’s important to us as writers to cultivate attentive reading, so that when we come across a text that’s absolutely breathtaking, we can try and reconstruct our reading experience to see why this particular story worked so well and what does it mean in terms of our own writing craft improvement.

Looking back at my decades-long history as an omnivorous reader, I can now easily identify those important books that had the biggest impact on me—even long before I started practicing my writing craft. These books educated me on such matters as characterization, point-of-view, pacing and so much more, these lessons staying with me to this day.

So today, in this instalment of Writers on Writing, I’d love to share these lessons from my favorite books with you.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was the first book that challenged me in such a unique way that to this day I’m obsessed with meta-formats and story-within-a-story narratives. In a practical sense, Bulgakov’s complex masterpiece is about the Devil (yes, the) who arrives to communist Moscow and wreaks hilarious havoc; but it’s also a tragic love story, a pointed political critique, a deeply spiritual text, and a Faustian metaphor. Though the main craft lesson I took away from it all is that morally ambiguous characters often make for most interesting stories. The Master and Margarita was perhaps the first book that got me so invested in its antagonist that to me he was always the real hero (not the book’s eponymous pair of the tormented Master and his lover, Margarita). To this day, it is Woland who remains my absolute favorite literary character because of the way he was written as a state of constant contradiction: someone relentlessly doing evil deeds, though perhaps… for a greater good? He's smart, obviously evil incarnate and cruel, and yet he’s also a reluctant kind of evil, the kind that the Goethe quote given in the beginning of the book exemplifies perfectly: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

Kovrigin’s Chronicles by Vadim Shefner is the kind of melancholic wistful science fiction that made me simultaneously hopeful for the future as well as scared of it. In terms of craft, this book has taught me an important lesson about choosing a point-of-view and narrator for your story. The Chronicles is a futuristic story of a prodigy scientist who invents a building material that can withstand any pressure and practically lasts forever, leading to a breakthrough in deep space exploration. It is narrated by the said scientist’s best friend. This choice of a narrator created the most unusual dissonance. As readers we’re wired to treat the speaking narrator as important, more often than not as the hero of the story, and it is because of that expectation, reading Kovrigin’s Chronicles made for an uncanny experience for me. The story’s true main hero—the scientist—is viewed through a skewed perspective of his friend, with the narrative eventually becoming tainted by the narrator’s jealously, envy and, in the end, animosity to the subject of his writing, leaving us with the question: so who was really the hero?

The Moominland stories by Tove Jansson was my favorite book as a kid. It taught me so much about being brave and adventurous and also loyal. But perhaps the most important writing craft lesson I took away from these books is the importance of pacing. Whenever Moomins got into trouble or set off to investigate a new phenomenon threatening their home and way of life, there were always the mindful moments of contemplation in the narrative and that gave me—the reader—time to digest new information and get ready for the next chapter’s happenings. Reading about the Moomin adventures, I learned that quiet moments can be as important as action.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugasky is, like the above mentioned Shefner book, a quiet, melancholic kind of science fiction that I devoured as a child. It is also my first real experience with a novel partially told through ‘found documents’ – or so-called paratexts. Interviews, reports, journal entries all serve to complement the book’s first-point narration, creating a fascinating pseudo-authentic meta-text about the intricacies and dangers of first extra-terrestrial contact in the process. Roadside Picnic has left such a mark on my adolescent psyche that decades later I introduced paratexts in my own craft (I’ve written about it to some extent here). Though perhaps an even more important lesson I took away from this book is that sky is the limit when it comes to a novel’s format and narrative devices.

The Alephby Jorge Luis Borges, both the short story collection and the eponymous short story itself—about a cosmic entity that contains everything at once—made me ponder the importance of philosophical questions in creative writing. Borges has left an indelible mark on my subject matter choices as a writer. He has an amazing ability to weave complex topics like infinite time, immortality, and divinity into the stories of every-day life. His writing is labyrinthine, metaphysical, ambitious, and always thought-provoking. To the teen-me, reading Borges for the first time was like lucid dreaming or moving through space across multiple dimensions. In terms of craft, Borges taught me the value of exploring fascinating subjects and doing in-depth research. It especially came in handy when I was working on my genre-mashing debut and had to research lots of physics and metaphysics topics to substantiate my fiction narrative.

About Katya de Becerra
Katya de Becerra was born in Russia, studied in California, lived in Peru, and then stayed in Australia long enough to become a local. She was going to be an Egyptologist when she grew up, but instead she earned a PhD in Anthropology. Katya is a short version of her real name, which is very long and gets mispronounced a lot. What The Woods Keep is her first novel (out now). Katya's second book, Oasis, is forthcoming in 2019.

Follow Katya on Twitter

On her eighteenth birthday, Hayden inherits her childhood home—on the condition that she uncover its dark secrets.

Hayden tried to put the past behind her, and it worked. She's getting ready for college, living in a Brooklyn apartment, and hanging out with her best friend and roommate Del. But now it's all catching up with her: her mother's mysterious disappearance a decade before, her father's outlandish theories about a lost supernatural race, and Hayden's own dark dreams of strange symbols and rituals in the Colorado woods where she grew up.

As soon as Hayden arrives at her hometown, her friend Del in tow, it begins: Neighbors whisper secrets about Hayden's mother; the boy next door is now all grown-up in a very distracting way; and Hayden feels the trees calling to her. And among them, deep in the woods, Hayden will discover something incredible—something that threatens reality itself.

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