Emily of New Moon at 33
L.M. Montgomery is best known for her famous Anne of Green Gables series, featuring the auburn-haired titular protagonist Anne with an e. But Montgomery wrote other books as well, and another series about a romantic, starry-eyed orphan--the Emily of New Moon trilogy.
I've been rereading Emily over the past week. I was worried going in. Often the stories we loved as children don't hold up when we read or watch them again as adults. Would 33 year old Whitney still love Emily? Or would she, to use the language of L.M. Montgomery's always dramatic heroines, find herself in the depths of despair, having realized just how silly and bad it all is.
But Emily is just as captivating as she ever was. I have to think that there's just as much Emily inside me as there is Anne. I'd always known there was a lot of Anne in me. I'm a long time lover of Anne of Green Gables and Gilbert Blythe. In fact, theirs was the first romantic relationship I remember being cognizant of. And reading about Anne's desire to become a writer was the first time I thought... me too. I want that, too.
But Emily wants to be writer as well, and what I loved about Emily, and still love today, is that her ambition is much more central to her character than Anne's is. And, at this time in my life, when my writerly ambition is surging strong, Emily resonates with me more than Anne does.
I know. It sounds like betrayal to me, too.
It is what it is, though. And I can't be too upset because Emily is teaching me quite a bit about writing.
Here's a few of the lessons she has to offer:
I hate love triangles. No prelude into that statement. Nope. It's just the truth. I wasn't always this way, but then I read a ton of contemporary young adult literature and suddenly... poof... can't. Stand. Love triangles.
Love triangles seem to work in two ways: 1) the doubly beloved protagonist is a blank vessel for the reader to pour themselves into, or 2) the doubly beloved protagonist is so amazingly super awesome that the audience has no problem beleiving that every one falls in love with them.
As for #1, I have no interest in putting myself into the protagonist's place. I like to be an observer as I read, not a participant. Also, that sort of romantic pressure--you must choose between two folks who are in love with you!!!--is just too much. I don't want it. For the empty vessel character, think Bella Swan of Twilight fame. Was it just me, or was she stressed and miserable all the time? I don't need that!
As for #2, this is often difficult to pull off. You have to make your character so winsome that everyone falls in love with them, but you can't make the character too fabulous because... well, there's nothing interesting or compelling about a perfect character. Boring.
But Emily of New Moon does pull it off, I think. Emily is certainly no empty vessel--she's full of her own Emily personality. And she's terribly winsome, it's true, but she's not perfect And yet, with warts and all, you can't help liking, nay, loving, Emily. So, when both Teddy and Perry fall in love with her, you get it. Of course they would fall in love with her--she's Emily.
Showing and Telling in 1923
Emily of New Moon was originally published in 1923--almost a hundred years ago. And you can tell just from the prose style that it's not a contemporary offering. First of all, the ratio of showing to telling is very different. Montgomery's third person narrator tells us an awful lot. And, actually, so does Emily in her first person letters to her father.
But I don't mind. I've always like stories that tell, probably because I grew up on a diet of "old" books like The Chronicles of Narnia, the Anne books and, of course, the Emily books. Telling feels natural to me. It feels like coming home.
As a reader, I love telling prose. But as a writer trying to get published in 2018... I have to learn to love showing prose, something I've talked about quite a bit at my other blog, FromNothingToNovel.
But I can learn a lot about how to tell well, when I do tell, by reading books like Emily.
First and Third Person Narratives
One of the interesting aspects of Emily that I didn't remember from reading it as a child is that the narrative uses both first and third person perspectives. There is a third person omniscient narrator who often gives way to letters written by Emily to her dead father.
This back and forth between perspectives allows us to see Emily as she sees herself, but also to view her as others do, giving us a fully rounded understanding of her character and how she fits into her world.
Now, I don't generally like first person narratives, and I found myself skimming through Emily's letters at first. But it wasn't long until I was as absorbed by them as I was by the narrated parts. This means that Montgomery is doing something right here, with her first person narrative.
I think it's voice. Emily's voice is clear, sincere, and authentic (whatever that means...). And she doesn't rehash events and feelings in her letters that the third person narrator has already covered. Each switch between narrative perspectives moves the character and the narrative forward in important ways.
Finally, Emily is a writer--that's her greatest ambition and her consuming drive. So the letters allow readers to experience Emily as Writer. We get to see her spelling, her knowledge of craft, and her ability to handle images, characters, etc develop before our eyes. It's pretty neat. :)
Keep At It
There are several times in the first book of the trilogy that an adult hears Emily's poetry and mocks her or, more importantly, hears her poetry and tells her to keep going.
These moments are sometimes told from the adult's perspective through the third person narrator. Usually, you'd want to show how your protagonist responds to being told to keep working at what they love most from your protagonist's perspective. But I like these moments from the adult perspective because they reveal a crucial lesson writers must learn:
If everything you write sucks except for one single line, that one single line is enough reason to keep writing.
It's nice to hear this right now, while I've revising yet ANOTHER draft of my middle grade novel. It's easy to read your own writing and say, "Welp... it all sucks. Time to throw in the towel and face the music and all those other cliches."
But what you really need to be doing is looking for the one reason to keep going, that one line of prose or poetry that sings, uplifting all the other words, sentences, and paragraphs around it. Fixate on that reason and then figure out how to make more sentences like it.
That's what Emily does, and that's what I'll do, too.