Do You Hear the People Sing?

Warning: This is a blog post about Les Misérables. I can’t seem to write about Les Mis without rivers of praise gushing forth from my keyboard, so… Well, all I can say is that I tried to reign myself in.

Les Misérables Program

My program from the production!

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to see the restaged version of Les Misérables. It is, without reservation, my favorite musical. It’s one of my favorite novels as well—if not the favorite, which is a risky thing to say as an English Lit major. (Pick my favorite book, you say? That’s impossible! There are far too many books in the world, too many stories to love.)

Still, despite all the competition, Les Misérables stands out to me. I first fell in love with it during my junior year of high school. The novel is sweeping, sentimental, and unabashedly spiritual in scope. The characters are so iconic they seem like something out of legend or myth, rather than part of a book penned only two hundred years ago. The redemptive quest of Jean Valjean, the convict who spends nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, is the kind of epic narrative that is impossible to forget.

Victor Hugo is a role model for me, both as a writer and as a human being. His writing practically bleeds compassion, which I admire even more than his keen grasp of human psychology or his eloquent turn of phrase. During my senior year of high school, I chose the following quote of his to inscribe under my photo in the yearbook: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Needless to say, his work has a great deal of personal resonance for me. So as I sat in the theater two weeks ago, watching a gorgeous dramatization of one of my favorite stories, I remembered how much I loved it, and why. I also realized something new, something that surprised me. In many ways, Les Misérables is the standard against which I measure myself as a writer.

I will never write a novel as classic and beloved as Les Mis, of course. I’m no Victor Hugo, no literary genius or visionary. But I will say that when I set out to create a story, I am most satisfied when I attempt to include the following elements:

-A large cast of characters, each one as layered and sympathetic as possible

-A setting in which time and place connect closely with the plot

-A plot concerned with large-scale events and themes (Hugo writes about love, politics, poverty, war, and the salvation of the soul, just to name a few!)

-A story in which profound tragedy occurs, including but not limited to death


-A story in which every event, character, and place could symbolize something deeper than the literal narrative—a story, in other words, which deals with archetypes and our cultural/mythological heritage as human beings

More than any other work of literature, Les Misérables taught me to value these qualities in storytelling. Honestly, any novel that aims for less tends to seem a little insignificant by comparison. I mean, if your characters aren’t dying bravely for a lost cause on top of a barricade of broken furniture, well then, what’s all the fuss about?

In all seriousness, though, Les Misérables taught me to think on a larger-than-life scale when I write. After all, what’s the point if I don’t push myself to convey the most important and interesting ideas I can? When I look at the list in this post, I realize just how far my own stories fall short of this goal. Not every novel can be a literary epic, and truthfully, not every novel should be. But Victor Hugo’s masterpiece motivates me to always aim higher. As the saying goes, even if we miss the moon, we may very well land among the stars.

On that note, I would like to conclude by embedding the trailer for the movie version of the Les Misérables musical, which comes out in December. Not because it relates to my post in any meaningful way, but just because I’m near-delirious with excitement (and this trailer gives me chills, every time!):

In Which the Wayward Writer Resumes Her Blog

Some of my reading lately!

Has it really been seven months since I last posted? That’s hard to believe. I spent the previous week debating what sort of thing I ought to write here, after such a long (and mostly unplanned) absence. I even began a terribly serious essay about birthday goals and the inevitable passage of time and all sorts of philosophical contemplations. Then I remembered that I’m only capable of so many serious sentiments per day before I realize how boring I sound, and decided to scrap it.

So here is the gist of that entry, minus the lengthy musing…

Two weeks ago, I turned twenty-six. The number still seems a bit surreal, since I feel the same as I did when I was in college. All in all, though, I’m reasonably satisfied with what I’ve accomplished in the past few years.

But I also realized how much more I want to do, especially when it comes to writing. So I drew up a few goals for myself. I now have a reading schedule, which means I’ll be reading more books—and that’s a relief, because aspiring writers need to read the same way we need oxygen. Published books help us to remember that yes, it is possible to write a whole bunch of sentences that eventually come together to make a beautiful story, and yes, it is important to have fun with your work and create something you love. Other writers have managed to do it, and so can we! (If that sounds obvious, and also a bit pathetic, that’s only because it is.)

I’ve also resolved to be more diligent about blogging. So from now on, I hope to post here on a bi-weekly basis. It will be nice to write something without having to watch how many adverbs I use. (Although my inner editor has become so particular that I’ll probably end up deleting most of them anyway!)

As for what happened in my absence, I’m afraid don’t have much to report on the writing front. It was a long and busy spring, during which I finished another revision of my current novel, followed by a difficult summer. I received a manuscript request from my dream agency, followed by a rejection with surprisingly positive feedback—which I took as a good sign. Later, I received the most brutal critique of my first ten pages that I’ve had to date, from a very different source. So like many writers, I’ve had a mixed bag of feedback so far. I don’t know what will happen next, but in the meantime, I’ve been brainstorming new projects and tweaking old ones.

I do have happier things to report, mostly involving the SCBWI Summer 2012 Conference in L.A., where I got the chance to hang out with my incredible critique partner Kourtney Heintz. But I’ll save those thoughts for another entry. In the meantime, I’m glad to be back, and I’m hopeful that the next twelve months will be productive and positive ones.