Freesound and Goodreads

I have a couple of links to share with you today, the first of interest to, well, anyone and everyone, really, and the second for the writers among you.

Have you ever asked yourself, “Hey, I wonder how I might go about adding the sound of a beer can being kicked around the street at 3:00 my blog without running the risk of having the interwebby police bind and shackle me for copyright infringement”? Oh, come on, stop shaking your head. Of course you have. Who hasn’t?

And I’m sure you’ve also racked your brains for ways to regale your faithful blog readers with the clickety-clack-down-the-straight-line-track* sound of the daily train from Slavutich to Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. “If only,” you must have said to yourself with a wistful furrowing of your brow, “If only I could do this without ripping off the sound files from my favourite Chernobyl documentary or hopping on a plane to Russia with a suitcase full of recording equipment.”

Well, I’m happy to tell you that you can save the airfare and put the money aside for the that 22.5 carat gold crate your unutterably adorable little pocket dog has been coveting. You will be delighted to know that there is a fabulous repository of Creative Commons licensed sounds available for you to use as auditory decorations for your blog or to share via obnoxious emails and texts with your nearest and dearest as you see fit. can provide you with all manner of audio files from the sound of rain falling on an umbrella, to an old dog snoring, to wind blowing down a chimney.

Of interest to writers:

I don’t know about you, but I tend to find Goodreads just a tad overwhelming. So many groups and lists, so many people wanting to connect, so much email exploding into your inbox. What’s a person to do? Well, mostly I just ignore it and hope that some day all will become clear.

That day has come. Rinelle Grey  just posted a handy dandy primer on Being an Author on Goodreads. Some of the information is a bit premature for me, since I haven’t published yet, but when I get there, I’ll definitely be revisiting this clear, concise and informative post.

One of the things I love about Rinelle is her tact. Embedded in this article are several hints on how to comport oneself on Goodreads so as not to come across as an arrogant putz, but she frames these hints with such gentle diplomacy that no one could possibly take offence. If you’re a published (or soon to be published) author and are still trying to make sense of Goodreads, I urge you to pay Rinelle a visit.

Reading for inspiration, Part 2 – This writing life

Image.ashxIn a reply to one of the comments on my last post, I tossed in the late Gene Fowler’s bleak observation that “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” On the face of it, that’s not exactly a compelling incentive to race for the keyboard and start bashing away at your magnum opus, is it?

And yet, strangely enough, this quotation continues to be one of my favourites in spite of its gloomy summation of the writing experience, because it tells me that those lonely moments of doubt and dread and blind panic when the words refuse to be summoned aren’t unusual. That they are, in fact, normal. Joseph Heller’s insistence that “every writer I know has trouble writing” shores up that normalcy, and George Orwell cements it with his “writing a book is “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

There is something curiously satisfying in taking a brief detour from one’s one writing journey to sneak a peek at how other writers cope with the challenges of blank pages, balancing literary endeavours with work and family obligations, and feelings of inadequacy.

When sentences I’ve tried so painstakingly to shape into loveliness glare back at me from the page like warted, misshapen gnomes, and I start to think that there never has been or will be as hack-handed a stylist as I seem doomed to remain, how restorative it is to read William Styron say to an interviewer:

I never knew anyone who had a passion for words who had so much difficulty in saying things as I do and I very seldom say them in a manner I like.

And when I’m boggling at myself for having taken half an hour to decide on the exact, the perfect word or phrase to convey a particular sensation or image, I find vindication for my exactitude in John Steinbeck’s reflection that:

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.

It’s also interesting–and frequently instructive–to hear successful authors weigh in on some the issues we wrangle over regularly in the blogosphere. Take the plotting versus panting debate, for example. On the one hand, I’d say the preponderance of writing advice floating around on the interwebs lands on the side of plotting, and many of the plotting proponents would probably concur with John Irving’s suggestion that writers should “know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?”

But, hey, pantsers, don’t be daunted by Irving’s dictum (or by his somewhat insufferable tone). There are many, many critically acclaimed authors who don’t share his opinion:

Simone de Beauvoir: “In general I start writing a novel long before working out the plot.”

Marilynne Robinson: “I really don’t [plot my novels]…I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character.”

Paul Auster: “You find the book in the process of doing it. That’s the adventure of the job. If it were all mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

Chuck Palahniuk: ‘Let yourself be with Not Knowing…You don’t have to know every moment up to the end, in fact, if you do it’ll be boring as hell to execute.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Review Interviews, vol iv. Not cover to cover, and not every day, but here and there throughout the week, whenever I need a little pick-me-up, a little encouragement, a dash of insight into my own writing challenges. The conversations contained within its (virtual) covers are long and rich and focused squarely on writing and the writing life. If you don’t have the cash to fork over for the Review, you can find the interviews online, and The New York Times also has an online archive of their Writers on Writing series that makes for fascinating, addictive and and inspiring reading.

How about you? Do you find it helpful/interesting to take a little stroll through your favourite authors’ brains as they reflect on the writing experience?

D is Dickens and David Copperfield

During the month of April, I’m participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. My challenge posts will focus on 26 of the things that have inspired me as a writer or that I’ve learned as I stumble my way toward becoming a writer. Clicky-click on the link to read some of the other bloggers who are participating in the April madness.

I was 12 years old when I first read David Copperfield [or, as Dickens called it, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)]. It was an assigned text for my Grade 8 class, and most of the other kids loathed it with a fury, even we read an abridged version. Perhaps I just wanted to be contrary, but I was won over from those first opening lines:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

When I found out what “abridged” actually meant, I was both outraged and excited. How dared they hack out chunks of a book and expect us to be satisfied with the leavings?! But how thrilling to know that there was more waiting in the wings! I could hardly bear to wait for the rest. But I had to–my family was living in a construction camp in Venezuela at the time, no bookstores anywhere nearby. It  was a couple of years before I was able to lay my hands on the full text. 

David Copperfield may not be my favourite Dickens novel, but it does hold a special place in my heart by virtue of being my first. The ingredients that made me fall head over heels with David Copperfield at 12 years of age are the same ingredients that continue to bring me back to it again and again over the years, the same ingredients that have enriched my reading and inspired my own writing: 

The characterization. Dickens was a master of etching the essence of his characters indelibly into a reader’s brain. David Copperfield is overflowing with characters who have become icons in the literary pantheon of heroes, clowns and villains: the formidable, unbending Betsey Trotwood; the perpetually insolvent and tearful Mr. McCawber; the arrogant, narcissistic Steerforth; the obsequious, unctuous, and repulsive Uriah Heep (He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly”).  

Even the minor characters, like the doctor, Mr. Chillip,  who attends David’s mother on the occasion of David’s birth, are rendered with exquisite finesse in a few brilliant sentences:

He was the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and out of a room, to take up the less space. He walked as softly as the Ghost in Hamlet, and more slowly. He carried his head on one side, partly in modest depreciation of himself, partly in modest propitiation of everybody else.

 The prose. Dickens wrote in a time when readers didn’t get twitchy halfway through a compound sentence. There is a richness to his prose, a freshness and wit to his observations and descriptions that still shine and mesmerize even a century and half later. Well, perhaps that’s optimistic. These days he’d probably be pilloried (wrongly) for spewing out run-on sentences, or accused of excessive wordiness, or of being unnecessarily convoluted in his exposition. 

I’ll tell you though, few things make me happier than a wickedly well-executed compound sentence whose momentum pitches you forward through a mad succession of dips and diversions to land you safely at its conclusion with a clear and gratified memory of the full journey. Take, for example, this description of Mr. McCawber’s outrage at the insufferable Uriah Heep’s behaviour:

The manner in which he struggled through these inarticulate sentences, and, whenever he found himself getting near the name of Heep, fought his way on to it, dashed at it in a fainting state, and brought it out with a vehemence little less than marvellous, was frightful; but now, when he sank into a chair, steaming, and looked at us, with every possible colour in his face that had no business there, and an endless procession of lumps following one another in hot haste up his throat, whence they seemed to shoot into his forehead, he had the appearance of being in the last extremity.

Does that sentence not make you want to stuff yourself into your glad pants and dance a jig of glee?

The mood and themes. One of the striking things about David Copperfield is the beautiful balance throughout between lightness and seriousness, comedy and tragedy. Terrible things happen to poor David, and to his friends and family, and yet the book introduces us to some of the most vivid comic figures in literature. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to write about injustice, child abuse, death and despair and still manage to make your readers laugh.

Illustration: “The Characters of Charles Dickens Pourtrayed in a Series of Original Water Colour Sketches by Kyd.” Scanned and archived at where is was marked as Public Domain.