Book Review: Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones
Reading this made me so happy, but also very sad, because I know I will never get the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. Reflections: On the Magic of Writing is a collection of essays, speeches, and other nonfiction that was published almost immediately following Jone’s death in 2011. It paints a vivid and personal image of her life and career, as well as the life of a fiction writer.
It is everything I could ever want. It is simultaneously educational, critical, yet deeply powerful and engaging. Her essays are extremely readable, but not without substance. As I finished each one, I felt like a knew a bit more about the genre and the way writing works, but it never felt like work. I devoured each of her essays gladly, which is a rare occurrence in nonfiction.
I was first introduced to Diana Wynne Jones through Howl’s Moving Castle. I ended up reading it as an adult, shortly after the release of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, and I instantly fell in love with it. Diana Wynne Jones as a writer and the characters she creates often remind me of myself. Even though I never met her, I felt like we understood writing and art in a similar way.
This is probably going to end up significantly less like a review and more just a 800-word love letter to Diana Wynne Jones, but I don’t care. This book gave me so many feels, it was so so so so good, and I need to share it with you in hopes that someone else will also get it and love it as much as me. It is the perfect collection for writers, readers, and anyone who likes fantasy.
There were a couple sections in particular that really stood out to me as I was reading. The book follows a mostly chronological order, but discussing one essay out of sequence won’t ruin the overall experience. They are related in theme more than content, and while some have similar ideas and assertions, they all stand alone.
In one piece titled “Some Truths About Writing,” Jones talks a bit about repeating characters in fiction:
“Painters are allowed to portray the same haystack a hundred times, or the same lily pond, or whatever, but a writer is not allowed to put the same person in more than one book unless it is a sequel and that character has the same name…But the fact is, such characters have your emotions vested in them, and usually you have had them long enough that they have grown as many quirks and facets as a real live person…They have lived with you so long and developed so many sides to them that you can use a piece of them here and a piece of them there” (Reflections 217-218).
Jones seems to have a hard time describing exactly how a character comes together, but emotions and investment are key. If you want your readers to feel, you have to let your characters feel as well. The emotions you experience are often the realest things you can portray and I just love this section and this idea so much.
In a similar way, her method of writing stories is more based on feeling and less on outlining and meeting specific plot points, which is amazing. I’ve never known of another writer who approaches writing in the same way that I do. Often she would be inspired by a particular scene or idea, and set to writing. I know from personal experience, this ends with lots of cut sections and rewrites, but the story that comes out in the end feels authentic to the overall mood of the story. I also just can’t write outlines. They always change and end up useless.
That’s not to say that Jones can’t be specific and use the jargon of the industry when she needs to. In another piece called “Reinventing the Middle Ages,” she references another book she wrote called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which pokes fun at the many cliches, tropes, and stereotypes in fantasy writing.
“Farming obviously takes place…but most fields will have been trampled and burnt by armies, or else parched by magical drought.” She also criticizes the many narrow perspectives into medieval life in fantasy, particularly the wretched existence of peasants and the fact that everyone is a peasant for some reason.
Similarly, there are overarching themes and ideas that she explores as well, including an all-powerful Empire reduced to a single city, a wizard’s war, as well as the role of swords and how eye color determines personality (i.e. red eyes are always evil).
She talks about these ideas in detail, providing details that are not only a humorous way to point out inconsistencies in fantasy writing, but to also entertain the people she is writing to.
I could really go on and on about all the things I enjoyed about this book, how much she inspires me and mirrors my approach to narrative, but I’ll spare you. Even if you don’t normally read nonfiction, read this book. It’s conversational, and fun. You might learn something about fantasy or just fall in love with Diana Wynne Jones.