Thursday, August 29, 2013

Like a Trojan

   As I prepare lessons for my first creative-writing students, I have been thinking quite a lot on how mythology has influenced our culture and literature over the years. From the myths of the Greeks and Romans to the tales of the Norse gods, we've carried away countless, faint impressions. One could never speak today of opening Pandora's box and expect anyone to understand the term unless we knew that the world has some understanding (however vague) of the tale. Telling you that controlling his temper was  my character's Achilles' Heel would gain me a blank stare if you had never heard the reference to that Myth before. In one of her recent letters, Jenny reminded me that if one wants to get anywhere in literature, one must have a sound knowledge of the Myths. Why? Because whether you'd like to acknowledge it or not, our culture--our entire concept of story--has roots in the Myths. The Iliad and The Odyssey were actually the first foray into the world of personalized story, since formerly the tales had revolved strictly around the Greek gods. In these two epics, human involvement is cultivated and thus you have the start of the first novelistic literature in history.
    Fairytale is another form of Myth that has heavily influenced our culture and our ideas of what constitutes a good story. How many books, movies, and plays can you think of in which fairytales are referenced, rewritten, or outright copied?
   But cultural mythology is not the only basis on which we build story. There is, of course, what secularists calls "biblical mythology" but that which I call the biblical pattern. The difference in my view and the secularists is, of course, that I believe the tales in the Bible to be one hundred percent true, while the others would tend to say that they are no more true than cultural mythology is true. But whatever you wish to call it, mythology, pattern, example, what no one will deny is that the Bible has influenced literature quite as much as any other mythology. I think this is part of what fascinates me about story: we are living a story as well as writing stories, and as authors we have the capability to reflect The Story in our stories. This is the concept on which books like John Eldredge's Epic and Dorothy L. Sayers' The Mind of the Maker are based; it is a concept well worth considering, not only for a better understanding on the foundations on which we stand, but also as a fount of inspiration for plotting purposes.
   As you know, I am entering Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Five Glass Slippers contest; to enter, you must write a novella based on the tale of Cinderella. At first I thought, "what could be simpler?" - indeed, it seemed an attractive assignment, since skeletons are always my Kryptonite. (Oh look: another mythological reference!) What could be simpler than basing a novella on the story of Cinderella? There are, of course, a myriad of ways one could twist the plot to come up with a new telling of the tale, and you've already got principle characters, a series of events, and a solution. This is exactly the reason I am working madly on two very different stories, hoping one will take precedence so I don't have to juggle two contest pieces in conjunction with my own WIP.  (Driftfire and The Windy Side of Care) It got me to thinking though, what a resource mythology can be to a writer. This should be evident to the person of average intelligence, but having never tried it myself, I had not taken seriously enough the fact that in mythology we are handed the bones to stories that have endured for hundreds of generations. In addition to the convenience with which one could ease a plot over the skeletal structure of a Myth, there is another attraction to basing a story off another story:
   People like to think themselves clever, you know. We like to recognize ourselves or our favorite things -whatever they are- in the world. There is not a person I know who fails to feel a certain personal pride in their favorite actor's accomplishment of another blockbuster movie. Or an Olympian from one's own country winning a medal; surely you've felt that you were a part of that triumph, somehow. In the same manner, we like to have ownership in a story. So when you can, for instance, build a story off of a popular structure but add your own flavor to the brew, your reader will be drawn in immediately. "I know this story!" they'll think, then add: "Only not quite. I must keep reading, but what a jolly good job she's doing with my old favorite!" 
   Of course I am not presenting an opinion that every book someone writes ought to hearken back to a Myth or a Bible story, but I am pointing out that the thing is available. There are as many or more variations for a story as there are stories in the world, and they are all for the taking. When I began to think of how one could present the Cinderella story in a way it has not been done before, I started to wonder if it was possible. But then I remembered the ways filmmakers have found to present new versions of classic favorites over the years, and my spirits rose again. Below, I've listed several, and the stories they were built off of:

Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? (The Odyssey)
Kiss me, Kate (The Taming of The Shrew)
Ever After (Cinderella, though that is obvious)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Pride and Prejudice)
My Fair Lady (Pygmalion)

   So you see, it's not a new idea, and some (like My Fair Lady) have enjoyed ongoing success, bringing the classic mythology to new viewers, readers, and generations. Now I'm going to get off my soapbox, dust my hands, and dig in to my Cinderella-esque stories to do some actual work! Cheers, y'all!
" Had no one thought it mildly suspicious that the sequence of events followed a logical criminal course? Unhappy man marries coldly beautiful woman. Beautiful woman shapes up rather nasty. Unhappy man unhappier than ever. Beautiful woman unhappy as well. Three short weeks, digitalis in the wine, oops, he’s dead! Uh-oh. Poor dear child, let’s see what we can do with her in the meantime. " -The Windy Side of Care

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Works in the Wings

 Do you know what I love?
   I love the luxury of flipping through my writing journal (after copying into it 7 1/2 pages of quotes from P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction) and seeing all the starts to stories, scrawls of inspiration, and newspaper clippings from everywhere.
  I love sorting through a binder and coming across a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline of Au Contraire, waiting for me if I am ever in need of an ambitious plot.
   I love remembering that story I began, Find Her, and going back to read the two chapter-scenes I had typed out and realizing that, gosh, this is a really good story. A really good one. And I might be about ready to dive into it, head-first.
   I love writing down new story ideas (Murder, Miss Snubbins), and finding title-ideas for sequels to Fly Away Home that I don't even expect to write (The Lobbyman's Belle and Maralie We Roll Along), but have pegged down just in case.
   I love reading the scraps of description and dialog I spread throughout the pages of the much-abused writing journal and remembering where I was and what I was doing when they came to me.
   I love looking at my old writing and admiring certain turns of phrase, certain word-choices that I am allowed to admire without fear of vanity because so much water has gone under the proverbial bridge since I first wrote them.
   I love listing all the ideas currently in the wings (including stories I don't really intend to write and realizing there is enough material here to keep me busy for years and years:

Driftfire (for the 5 Glass Slippers contest)
Au Contraire (historical fiction)
Murder, Miss Snubbins (romantic thriller)
Find Her (mystery/thriller)
The Green Branding (historical fiction)
Curvy Girls (contemporary fiction)
Jacq of All Trades (contemporary fiction)
Grey Goose Downs (historical fiction-ish)
No Mere Mortals (contemporary fiction)
Sentiment, Durrant (dystopian and thus, probably will never be written by me)
The Glass Half-Full {and a lemon-wedge} (inspirational fiction)
The Scar-Girl (allegorical fantasy)
Hearing, I See (undetermined)
Rockingham Shambles (mystery/thriller)
The Sirens of Baker Street (contemporary fiction)
The Traveler (humorous fiction)
Banbury Cross (historical fiction)
Madeleine (romance)
Butter-Boats (contemporary fiction)
The Lobbyman's Belle (inspirational romance)
Maralie We Roll Along (inspirational romance)
Gloamingswood (fantasy)
The Treasure of Riverly Manor (historical mystery/thriller)

  Twenty-Two titles, so that I might not appear so uneducated as to compared to Jane Fairfax. ;) Some of these starts I absolutely love and intend to write someday, like Find Her, No Mere Mortals (which already has 20k words?), Murder, Miss Snubbins, and Rockingham Shambles. The others are entirely up for grabs for the days when I am out of plot ideas. You'll notice that on this list I have quite a few mysteries; something I swore I'd never attempt again after Riverly Manor (at the age of 13) fizzled out. Well. I shall be more careful, but I don't see how I can avoid writing one at some time; mysteries have always fascinated me. Especially when Find Her is looking so terribly attractive alongside Murder, Miss Snubbins. Oh well. Nothing doing till The Baby is finished!

Yes. This is what I love: discovering I'm not anywhere close to running out of ideas, even though I might sometimes feel a bit disenchanted with current projects. And see, too, what a good thing it is to give your plot bunnies attention? If I chased after every story on this list (you'll notice I didn't mention The Baby because it is my current and ONLY project right now. pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasebehave) I might give a teeny bit of attention to the grooming and shaping up of something else, but I intend to finish The Baby, no matter what of a devil it is being. (In fact, soon as this post is done, I'm off to write) What are your works-in-the-wings? I'd love to hear about them!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tagged, bagged, and incorrectly labeled

My good friend, Meghan Gorecki has started the most nobby little affair I've ever seen: Every Good Word: a blog for writers by writers. One of the things I love about Meghan is her precision. She's a precise person and calls herself a perfectionist, but that has served her well on her personal blog and I am looking forward to her organization, vision, and sense on Every Good Word. To celebrate the launch of this new blog, Meghan has concocted a wonderful tag to help everyone get to know other writers! I thought I'd participate, so there you have it. Be sure to go take a wander on the blog; it's going to be a wonderful place.

What was your first-ever piece of writing? Poetry, I should think. As far as stories go, the story that is still somewhat nameless and that I refer to as Ella & Cornelia. Funnily enough, that story actually made it to full-novel status, albeit useless as far as content goes. I suppose that is peculiar for starting authors. I was only twelve at the time.
How old were you when you first began writing? Poetry began as soon as I realized rhymes existed - and it was terrible. Then it improved. Then it was rather good for an eight or nine-year-old. And as I said, my first story and, hence, my first novel was written at the sagacious age of twelve.
Name two writing goals. One short term & one long term. Short term goal: Finish The Baby by the end of the year. (copy-cat, I know.) Long term: be a realio-trulio published author and become trademarked for my charming, unique style in whatever the genre is. I want people to be able to read one of my books and not even see the name on the cover and think, "This sounds like Rachel Heffington", and then flip the book over and see that it is mine. 
Do you write fiction or non-fiction? Oh my. Well, I suppose you can say both since I do blog, but I consider myself almost exclusively a novelist.
Bouncing off question 4, what is your favorite genre to write in? This is a sticky and complex subject for me, as I don't style myself as any particular kind of author. I dabble in it all and enjoy it all. I have fantasy, historical fiction, inspiration-romance, children's fiction, YA and now mystery under my belt. Rather than being stylized by a genre, I prefer to bring my own twist to whatever genre I choose. I love diversity so I enjoy working in many different categories. 
One writing lesson you've learned since 2013 began? There is something to be said about plotting beforehand instead of pantsing, as I tend to do. (Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-ing.) This lesson was learned only by coming to grief first, I warn you.
Favorite author off the top of your head! C.S. Lewis. Oh, that's boring because everyone chooses him. Oh well. I would still have to say Lewis is tops. He's just...argh. He's just him and if you don't know what that means, you're missing out on something immense.
Three current favorite books. (Remember what I said about precision? Thanks, Meghan, for choosing the word "current".) A book I just picked up at the library and have fallen in love with already: P.D. James Talking About Detective Fiction ; fascinating read. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy might be sensational, but that woman could write, by Jove! It's been a favorite since I first read it. Anddddd....I will go out on a flattery-limb here (because it's true) and say Jenny Freitag's mysterious novel, Plenilune, which isn't published yet but taunts me eternally with beautiful snippets. It's a favorite of mine before I've even read it. So there.
Biggest influence on your writing {person}. Hrm. This is difficult. There are so many people who have influenced my writing... Speaking of modern people, not deceased authors, I would have to begin way back at Diana Sharples (author of soon-to-be-released Running Lean), who have really tough critique but built me into stronger stuff than I had yet been. Jenny Freitag is always an inspiration to keep red blood flowing through the veins of my characters. Rachelle Rea has given me gentle but pointed critique as well. My grandmother, as well, who is a terribly well-read person and thus not a flatterer when it comes to reading my work. She is my Alpha-Beta-Reader.
What's your go-to writing music? I don't usually listen to music when I'm writing, actually. My characters demand center-stage and music can be distracting. I do, however, like to listen to Andrew Peterson or Kate Rusby if the volume is low. Their music soothes my soul.
List three to five writing quirks of yours. I have to be barefoot to write. I make faces in accordance with whatever dialog I am writing. I talk about my characters as if I had nothing to do with their creation. (Do I?) I always begin my stories on paper; the feel of the pen inspires me to no end.
What, in three sentences, does your writing mean to you? A chance to see the world the way I see it and to cause other people to look at it in a way they may never have before. A chance to give to literature what literature has given to me: beautiful, timeless, charming stories that cause one to yearn for the onward and upward. A chance to conduct words into a living, breathing current of whimsy no one has read in the exact same pattern before.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Irresponsible things like engagements of state..

  When people ask what inspires a certain story, there is generally a list of things that spring to mind on a basic level. Elisabeth Grace Foley's question started me thinking about what really did inspire The Baby, and to be sure I did not give a pat, off-the-cuff-links answer. She admitted that this is a question she has great difficulty answering, so I am sure she will have grace with me for being a bit abstract, perhaps.

      As far as strictly commonplace things that inspired The Baby (or helped me come up with it, or whathaveyou), the first that comes to mind is a man I know. I do not especially like this man (which is why he showed up as Darron Ap-Brainard, bwa-ha), but since the very first of my acquaintance with him, he made me cock my head and try to figure him out (which is also how he swaggered his way into the novel). There is a strange mix of charm and double-faced-ness about the real man which lends itself well to making a good antagonist. I do not think the man himself is a villain, so you will not find complete villainy in Ap-Brainard. (But honestly, a complete villain with no shred of ruined goodness about him is not much of a character to read about.)
     The other commonplace thing that gave me the idea for this story was the peculiar thing that happens to me with many of my novels: the first line. Usually I end up changing the first line in the final draft, but it is usually a first line that gives me the idea for a whole story. I'm a big one for starting different Microsoft Word files for bits of writing that probably won't go anywhere. But occasionally they do, and The Baby is one such. At the start of it, you have a little shred of dialog:
 "We could mutiny!"
 And that's all. But from that bit of dialog came the whole of the story as you know it now. Wonderful, how the mind ends up making mountains out of molehills. Please don't ask how a lost baby came out of a line about mutiny. I couldn't tell you.
  But sometimes inspiration can be retroactive, meaning that some of the less-obvious things that prove as inspiration for The Baby were not even recognizable as inspiration for anything when I first became acquainted with them. Oftentimes they are things from years back. Or, even if recent, the items that inspire seem to have very little to do with the matter under inspection; upon seeing a pin-board for a new novel idea, Jenny suggested I read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Shield Ring for inspiration, though it is "off by a thousand years." In the same way, the names of the Balder children sprang from nothingness: they are both named after their father's shipping firm; Jamsie's real name is 'Jamaica', from the sugar-plantation that has been in her family's possession for several generations. Richmond was named for the great city in America where their father's company has a sister shipping-office. The ideas for the family business were inspired in some part by Amazing Grace (quite opposite an effect than Wilberforce must have been thinking), as well as The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In both cases the source had very little to do with why I retained some little impression about plantations, but...I did. Something about slaves and sugar and Barbados and Jamaica. I dunno.
    The whole idea for The Puddle came from a nighttime walk to the mailbox when the eery idea whispered in my head as I sloshed through a murky pool of water in bare feet: "What if you stepped into a puddle and it had no bottom?"  Starling and Leona (And hence, Smidgen) came out of two separate dreams I had that, at the time, I thought I ought to write down because there had to be a story in there somewhere; I didn't write them down, but I remembered all the same and got two playing-pieces from it. The Admiral and his Fleet came from a hyphenated scrawl I had down for inclusion in Cottleston Pie: "Passenger-Pigeons." But all at once this story needed The Fleet and they had to be black and voila: you have mail-carrying crows.

So in a very long and roundabout way, Elisabeth Grace, I hope I've answered your question to your satisfaction. I find that there is almost never one single thing that influences my stories. They just are or they are not, and the ones that are end up making it to "The End" and the others rarely even make a debut on this blog. Just as my life is a mash of everything including the kitchen sink, so my stories grasp ideas from anywhere and everywhere ranging from sugarcane to excursions to get the mail.
"My brother thinks the king should not have gone on the trip himself, especially when I was so near my time; irresponsible things like engagements of state are better left to members of the House of Polaris who like to go sailing."
-The Baby

Saturday, August 24, 2013

In Which We Play At Being Orphlings

A 25-year anniversary...

Five days....

Eight kids on their own...

(Well, some of us are no longer kids)

A cold in the head...

A toddler that should be weaned but still nurses a couple times a day for comfort's sake...

A camera...

An "empty" house...


May I reiterate the "Five Days" thing?...

Oh yes. 

This is the life of the Heffington kids this weekend. We are going to be baching it here while Mama and Dad celebrate their 25th with their first trip away (without a baby in tow) since they had Daniel, almost 23 years ago! I am looking forward to this weekend and the funny videos we plan to shoot. It's going to be amazing! I am dosing my cold with cinnamon-and-honey and PG Tips, so here's hoping it withers away quickly! We've got fun things planned and of course I know my uncle and aunt are right across the field so if I need any adult help I've got it. But I think we'll be just fine, and it's kinda fun playing The Boxcar Children for a whole week. Keep your eyes out for any videos that make it through production! ;)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Dragonwitch

Buy it here
When fantasy-author Anne Elisabeth Stengl asked for a group of people to read advance-copies of her book, Dragonwitch, I signed up. I was a little leery of what this book might be, as dragons are frightful enough without being witches. But as soon as I read the prologue of the fifth book in The Tales of Goldstone Wood series, I knew I was in for something quite different than I'd pictured:
    Generations had passed in the mortal world above as the brothers battled and then lay still. At last Etanun roused himself and turned to Akilun. "Brother, I have sinned," he began, but the words vanished from his lips.
     Akilun was dead.
Brother-plots have always been a favorite of mine, so knowing that Dragonwitch started with a few pages that almost made me cry definitely set the tone for the rest of the novel.

The description from the back of the book:
     Submissive to her father's will, Lady Leta of Aiven travels far to meet a prospective husband she neither knows nor loves - Lord Alistair, future king of the North Country.
     But within the walls of his castle, all is not right. Vicious night terrors plague Lord Alistair. Whispers rise from the family crypt. The reclusive castle Chronicler, Leta's tutor and friend, possesses a secret so dangerous it could cost his life and topple the entire nation.
     And far away in a hidden kingdom, a flame burns atop the Citadel of the Living fire. Acolytes and priestesses serve their goddess to the limits of their lives and deaths. No one is safe while the Dragonwitch searches for the sword that slew her twice...and for the hero who can wield it.
It is a rare book that I actually like more than I hoped, for too often I have a higher expectation of a book than it actually merits. But with Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Dragonwitch, I found wrenching, beautiful allegories thrown in amongst the characters in an effortless way, and though I had never read a Goldstone Wood tale before, I hope to have the chance to visit the Wood Between the Worlds again soon.

What I liked about Dragonwitch:

Etanun's story, and the portrayal of Hri Sora, the Dragonwitch herself. I don't think there is a finer portrayal of goodness-gone-sour and though I despised the Hri Sora, my heart broke for her. I also have a fondness for The Chronicler, and Mouse. Funny, because they don't end up together, but they were my two favorites. And of course Eanrin, the Cat-Man; how can you not love him? Does anyone else picture him as played by Kenneth Branagh? :D
I also loved the way the author wove Truth all through the pages; like I said: sometimes I felt like I was reading a beautiful allegory which is a mark of fine writing, in my opinion.

What I didn't like about Dragonwitch:

At the beginning I didn't know Alistair well enough to care about his night-terrors, so I was more impatient than sympathetic when he would wander about in a clammy daze; however, afterward I grew to love Alistair, so I don't think the sudden introduction of his dream-problem had an adverse effect in the end.
Also, for the first third of the book I felt confused over which world was which, who was who, and had difficulty remembering names (i.e. to the new reader, "Etanun" and "Eanrin" are easily confused). But I believe this has far more to do with the fact that I'm jumping in on the series with Book 5 and would not have that confusion had I started where one is supposed to start.

Final words:

Read Dragonwitch. Read it twice. And then pass it on to your friends so they can read it. While not quite a challenging read for an adult in terms of dialog and theme, it is a beautiful book to pass a week of rainy evenings with, and you will find therein much to love, admire, and ponder. I give Dragonwitch 4 out of 5 stars. (I rarely {if ever?} give any book 5 stars if that gives you an idea of how good I think it is.)


   "The little man swallowed, his jaw clenching. 'This...this is the Haven of the Lumil Eliasul. The Haven of the Prince of the Farthest Shore. Built by the brothers Ashiun.'
    'Well done, Chronicler,' said Eanrin. 'You've done your research.'
    'I don't believe in this place.'
    'I don't see what your lack of belief has to do with anything.'
    'And you're Bard Eanrin.'
    'That I am.'
    'I don't believe in you either.'"

    "'Love is a terrible thing,' Mouse whispered.
     'Only love gone astray,' said the prisoner. 'the time has come you should be frightened. If fear will awaken you, be afraid! and then be courageous in your fear and act.'"


Don't forget to enter your questions about The Baby in the post below!! 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"That man with the quizzical brow."

It has a been a long while since I've done a Q & A post for any of my stories, let alone The Baby. I know that I have been helter-skelter and feather-brained with the information of this particular story, so if there is anything you have been wanting to know, any points upon which I've confused get the idea. Your funny questions, your tough questions, all of them - please ask in a comment below! I like to converse with people and the best way to do that is to have a give-and-take. Please inquire! I love to answer impertinent questions about my books and give back-chat for them.

"By my troth. You aren't quite so much of a porridge-head as I took you to be."
-The Baby

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rummaging: when plot must be yanked by the hair

Over on Google+ (yeah, who uses that?), I often keep people updated with bits and pieces of things that never quite make it to the blog. After all, some things don't warrant an entire post of their own and are much better left to a short, snappy, 140-character status. But when I posted this photo (below) with a mention of character-profiling, Bree Holloway inquired further as to how this system works. What faith that child has: asking for instruction when I'd only posted the picture to show how few I'd got done, and how many more I had left.

However, there is a certain satisfaction in these closely-written sheets, and they have actually become life-savers for me so I will oblige Bree and the rest of you by explaining this method of Character Profiling. I like to call it "The Rummaging" and you may do the same. Surely another author-or-thousand has done this same method, but since as far as I'm concerned I made it up, I will take the time to post about it for your enlightenment.
Essentially, it all came down to this: my strengths are my character-interactions and their behavior on-page. My weakness is plot. I could banter and spar and cockawhoop all day long, but you might never get to that crucial scene that you're aching to read. And I go into my novels knowing that I will need to focus specifically on the plot. I've learned that and now it's not quite so much of a pain as it used to be - I'm growing used to having to drag plot from myself. Isn't that ridiculous? Some people have plots squirming out of their heads constantly; I have people. Que sera, sera. When I got temporarily out of temper with The Baby, I knew it was only because I had used up what plot details I'd thought up at the start of the project. I always have a beginning and an ending, but I seldom know the in-between. I had a handful of amazing characters but nothing for them to do.
That's when "The Rummaging" began. It started as a way for me to ask my own questions about Lord Darron Ap-Brainard, and to answer those questions in the best way I could. Questions like:
Who is he?
Where does he live?
Why not the House of Polaris?
What is he prepared to do in order to keep a member of the House of Rushes on the throne?
- Things like that; questions I didn't know the answers to myself, but that I knew would be vital to me understanding and portraying Ap-Brainard correctly. The funny thing is, in a way it's like a Beautiful People exercise, only...different. See, I Rummage: I ask myself sensible, pertinent questions and answer those questions with as much detail as I can, and the results are striking. I didn't stop at Ap-Brainard: I moved on to Smidgen and Starling and The Admiral and Leona and John Brady and Richmond, and there are still many more left to Rummage out. The best part of this exercise is that it builds plot on its own... I cannot set up a series of cause-and-effect and plug people into it. That does not work for me in the slightest; I have to dig and delve in my people and figure out what they do. That builds the plot quite apart from me. I found out certain characters have duplicity with which they certainly didn't start. Others have heroes who are part of Crissendumm's mythology that has a direct effect on their political tendencies in the current story. I don't use  completely the same questions for each character. Some are similar (i.e. I often note where they live) but others vary widely. Smidgen is one of the only characters who has a defined hero. Starling has a dream that is complicated and multiplied by a certain friendship. The Admiral has more responsibility and depth than many realize. But there was one question that helped with plotting more than any of the others:
How did they get involved with The Baby?
This question sets me up perfectly because I have to be able to provide an answer, and that links people to each other and then to events and all of a sudden, through this stack of question-and-answer sheets, I have the plot I was searching for. I spent most of yesterday afternoon finishing off most of the profiles, and my sense of direction with this story came back as I trusted it would. The only thing left to do is to go back through all the sheets and assemble the various details into one long timeline so I don't leave out any of the important details that have made "The Rummaging" a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

One of the best things you can do for your own writing is to know your strengths and weaknesses and watch those weaknesses with a close eye, doing things like "The Rummaging" when need be. I promise it is worth any of the extra work; I can't tell you enough how pleasant it is to sit down, pull Smidgen's sheet out of the stack and know exactly where he is supposed to be at what point in the plot. Bones, people. Bones. You've got to have a skeleton or all the skin in the world isn't going to bring the thing to life. Now that all its bones are in order, The Baby is back in business. I cannot wait to show you the thing in its entirety someday.

Friday, August 16, 2013

May I present The Warren?

If you are fond of whimsy and wit and words, then you will be fond of The Warren. "What is The Warren?" you might ask. First off, The Warren is the place Plot Bunnies shop for their owners. The Warren is, in fact, a brand new shop that I have begun at Here you will find literary-inspired jewelry and paraphernalia; bookmarks, earrings, necklaces, scribbling-notebooks - anything and everything. Each creation is unique, and as I make the items, I post them. The inventory is always changing and always full of my trademark whimsical charm, and if that weren't enough, it's all "green", meaning that I re-purpose and recycle many things to bring to you the lovely items you'll find in the windows of The Warren. (not that we care about that here, but it pleases the save-the-trees people who like to criticize writers for using too much paper.)
I have not yet made a button for the blog, but when that does come round, if you would be so kind as to take one and stick it on your sidebar? And please spread the word about this shop! There is something for everyone, and like I said, the items are on a lovely merry-go-round and like to change often. :) Below are some of the current items for sale in The Warren:

(these make me think of Mirriam)

(these make me think of Jenny)

Please drop by The Warren and take a look around. You are very welcome among the fluffy plot bunnies and charming products; I hope you'll enjoy your stay.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Am I Equipped to Teach my Craft?

Last year I taught English literature, and this year I'm adding creative-writing lessons to the brew. When I imagine telling people I teach creative-writing lessons, I can just imagine their sarcastic smiles, the barely-disguised patronage in their voices: "Oh really? How nice. And what books have you published?"

This raises a question: must one be a published author to be equipped to teach creative-writing?Or, on a more basic level, must one be published before one can consider oneself a writer? 
My short answer is "No".
My longer answer is still "No".
And it all depends on your definition of teacher... I don't believe that a landscape-designer must have a degree in landscape-design, have built their business till it earns 300k a year, have been featured in the newspaper, and have a commercial on the television before he can bring a young man on as an intern. If the man has the skills, the man can --no-- has a duty to pass those skills on to whomever is looking to learn. This is not to say the landscaper ought to assign his intern a college degree with a tin-foil medallion hanging around the youth's neck after the boy has worked for a summer. But to lay a foundation for the young man, to start him on the path toward his goals, to give him an appreciation and an understanding of the way it works, surely the basic and valuable knowledge of experience is enough to qualify one person to teach another.

I do not have a college degree in literature or journalism, nor do I have a book published. But I have quite a few skills that other aspiring writers do not have; things that I believe equip me to teach the art of creative-writing. Some of these things?
Passion: Earnestness is contagious. I love reading, and the whole reason I began to write is so other people could enjoy reading as much as I. Now my love of writing is quite as cemented into my being; if you love something enough, there's not much hope that people will be able to avoid catching the infection.
Experience: I have steadily grown better and better since I began writing nine years ago. The change is immense, and I can truly say my talent has quadrupled (or even quintupled) since I first got this mad idea to write a novel. If you don't believe me, ask me to send you an excerpt of A Year With The Manders.
Determination: Did you know that many aspiring writers have actually never finished a novel? So if you have finished a novel (or more than one!) than good on you! You obviously have what it will take to be that writer. And, in addition, you'll be able to coach a younger writer through the wilderness of plotting, writing, revision, and self-editing - something an author who has never finished a book cannot effectively do. I have written 5 full-length novels, though only 2 are what I'd consider "viable options" for publication. Three more are in progress. Still, those three unusable debut novels were the necessary stepping-stones to where I am now. And the best part? I actually finished them; I didn't give up halfway through and try something else...something with... OH I KNOW! Talking, sparkling, FLYING horses. With names stuffed full of the letter "y".
Skill: I'm not trying to be my own plug here, but I believe that I do have some measure of skill in the art of creative-writing. I came up with a definition for creative-writing the other day, and though it's of my making, I think it's true of any solid novelist out there:
"Creative-writing is the ability to look at the same world everyone else looks at every day, but to see it in a way no one else has seen it before."
I call myself the "cock-eyed optimist" sometimes because I always see the world a little different than the next person...and I have used it to forge my own flair for the whimsical, poignant, and pretty that has become my literary trademark.
Criticism: I've been in a critique group and when that disbanded, I have continued to send my work to friends and "colleagues" to get their honest criticism. I ask for all the bad things in the project as well as the pats on the shoulder. I want to know my weak points, and learn from them. Not only have I benefited from it in my own skill-set, but I have also learned how to give criticism: something that is a vital skill for a teacher to have.
Well-Read: Since I learned to read the age of five, I have not stopped loving books. Formerly, my mom would not let me read what she called "twoddle" and as I grew to make my own literary choices, I had an inherent knowledge of what's good writing and what's shabbiness. This has helped me be able to detect the same in my own (and any students') work. I'm not the sort that looks at a chop-job and thinks, "What beautiful prose! What effective description!" It's instinct now, knowing the quality of the cloth. Beyond knowing literature, I am constantly reading books on grammar and story-craft, books on self-editing and revision, blogs from older, more experienced writers...and putting it all to work in my life.
Age & Maturity: I'm not looking to teach creative-writing to adults or college-aged people. I'm looking to teach students between the ages of twelve and sixteen or seventeen. Because I'm twenty-one and have seven younger siblings, I'm good at this sort of thing. I know kids, I love kids, and I can handle them. There will be a large enough age-gap between me and my students to make me actually useful.

These are the reasons I think I'm ready to start the job of teaching the art of creative-writing. Yes, my only students right now are my siblings and my cousin, but that is only more experience. Someday (any day now?) I will get another student, and then another, and some of these actually might pay me. I am not setting myself up as a college-level teacher and a New York Times best-selling author. I am setting myself up as a sensible, intelligent, experienced young woman who would like to tutor kids and teens who are interested in writing; I know a heck of a lot more about it than most adults. Do I have more to learn? Of course--but even Suzanne Collins should never stop at success. Do I know enough to teach my craft? Yes. Remember. I am teaching kids. To reiterate: I don't believe you must be a published author to teach creative writing. I am not here to teach a workshop on how to be published; I'm here to teach the difference between mediocre and great writing, and to provide a spring-board for young minds. And I'm ready, willing, and capable. Let no man stop me with petty excuses. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

"It's kind of an off-day for me.."

When it comes to writing, it can be hard to keep your head in the game. If you're anything like me, your life is unpredictable at times; things like potting strawberry runners, working on top-secret money-making ventures, and wedding-season get in the way and it's easy to find yourself on the lame end of inspiration. The story-world that you worked so hard to craft appears to have lost its luster; your characters are stubborn, your plot won't move along, and you're out of the habit of writing at all, much less writing something readable. What's a writer to do? Here are some things that I've been using lately when The Baby needs attention and I find myself uninspired after having given all my time to Driftfire. (a novella-contest piece hosted by author Anne Elisabeth Stengl) I hope these ideas will help jolt you back into inspiration.

Keep Notes: Even when you aren't writing, you are living life. If you have eyes to see it, inspiration is everywhere; pay attention and you'll find many things to cultivate your writing skills. Write these things down and when you sit down to write again, you'll have a ripe field of what I call "small-sight": the little half-noticed things of reality that cross the frail line between stilted and vibrant writing.

Do Dishes: I don't think well while sitting still; for some reason the moment my body is completely still, my daydreams kick in and my mind is off on its own merry way which, sadly, never seems to junction with my WIP's. I know we've all heard it, but it's worth saying again: Agatha Christie swore by doing dishes to bring on a bout of inspiration. Maybe her point was because most people don't enjoy doing dishes so they'll feel like writing just as soon as they've begun the dishes. I like washing, however; proving her theory true, I put my mind to plotting out The Baby the other afternoon and ended with quite a few good ideas. For me, I think my creative brain is stimulated by doing something that doesn't require active brainpower but is productive. Sitting down with nothing to do is my body's signal to space out for a while. (Which, perhaps, is why I love to read so much.)

Watch an old favorite: Funny enough, one of my favorite things to kick me back into a good creativity-spell is to go back and watch a favorite movie: something that is so familiar to me that I can quote it forwards and backwards. Something that draws out the simplest, most important parts of me and brings them back to the light. Usually it's a movie I haven't seen for a long time, but that I love all the same.  There are some films that actually have an adverse effect, such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy; when I watch these, the hope of crafting stories that great seems a weak one at best. Some of the movies that work for me? The Sound of Music, Miss Potter, Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, Little Women, and Roman Holiday as well as any of the Pixar films.

Write a letter: One of the reasons I keep blogs is because I find that writing fiction and fiction only is actually not that great of an idea. I can easily be tricked into thinking that I'm sick of writing (I know, shocking) when actually what I'm sick of is this particular aspect of this particular story. The best cure for this kind of ennui is a good foray into something logical that still stimulates the need/desire to write. Blog about something entirely unrelated to the topic of writing, or better yet: shut down your computer. Take out some paper and write a letter. Just putting the current events of your life or your recent thoughts into a tangible form is amazing therapy for the novel-weary author.

Work: We authors tend to think that our work as a writer is the only work we will stoop to doing. Believe me, I've been guilty of this. In our heads we're already well on our way to being the next Dorothy Sayers or Percy Jackson; only problem is, the world doesn't know. I'm here to tell you that getting your tail out the door and grubbing around in the garden or painting a dining room or whathaveyou is far more beneficial that you'd think. You might consider menial work below you: oh well, get over it. Even a few days of labor in a row with no writing involved can be better for your novel than three days of a 500-word plunk that you'll end up rewriting anyway. Trust me.

Play with words: Sometimes just being around the comfort of words is enough to inspire. Play Scrabble. Read a gourmet-cooking magazine. Cut up an old book that is falling to pieces and make something cool out of the pages. Doodle. Seriously - doodling is a legitimate form of therapy for those of us who can't bear to put the pen aside, but find ourselves drained of words.

What I mean to say in all this is that you don't need to panic: I'm busy with a contest-piece and monetarily scheming and feel a nagging in the back of my head that says The Baby needs work and I'm neglecting this blog and many other things. Oh well. I don't have to get my tail in a knot over the fact. Inspiration has hidden for a week or two, who cares? If I've learned one thing over the course of my years as a writer, it's this:

Don't worry about your inspiration: Yeah, it might be gone; but it's too arrogant not to come back.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When Re-writes Pay Off

By the way - I did not model Smidgen off of Gavroche.
The picture just fit him. 
Rewriting is a thing I only do when I absolutely have to. I used to fear it. Now I just dislike it. I'm not talking about editing so much as I am talking about those moments when you open up one Word document file, sigh, and open a new one, needing to create something entirely different. There are several reasons why I usually wait to rewrite until the entire novel has been finished. If you're too picky on a first draft you'll find yourself bogged down in fixing problems that might straighten out by the end of the novel. But sometimes you just know that you'll go from bad to worse if you don't rewrite a scene right now. I came across this dilemma in The Baby a few chapters back; the chapter was finished and well-written and had done its duty of introducing a plot twist and a new character or two, but it just wasn't right.

Then I realized the problem: this scene intended for a children's book had no children in it--in fact, it dealt with a dilemma that most adults would find intimidating, let alone the 12-14 year olds who will be reading this book. Once I determined what the problem was, there was nothing left to do but fix it. I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and set to work. Below I have excerpts from the former version of Chapter Six, and the new version. Former is written in red, latter in blue:

     At Whiskin's Abbey in quite another corner of the valley, a young man waited in the shadow of an apple-tree.
     "Morning, John Brady," an old man said, tugging his cap in passing.

     Smidgen pushed his spine against the curve of the apple-tree outside Whiskin's Abbey and waited for John Brady. A hum like a hive of drones poured over the wall of the Abbey-school, but Smidgen knew it was no honey those boys worked for--it was lessons and more lessons. 

Not only is the second passage more interesting, it's also more intimate. In the former passage you are told there is an apple tree near  a place called Whiskin's Abbey. In the second it is spoken of as "the apple-tree outside Whiskin's Abbey..." A slight difference, but one that sets the tone and brings the reader in.

     Leona sat on a boulder--soft and white against the dark firs--and slid off as he noticed her. She came up smelling like sunlight and heather and wrapped him in her arms.

     Smidgen swung himself to the ground and led the way across a field ripe with cockleburs and over a ridge into the fir-filled copse. Leona was perched on the boulder where he'd left her, only now that she saw John Brady, that strange, worried look left her face and she smiled as she usually did.

Here, the second example is less intimate, but much more what a young reader will identify with. Smidgen is concerned for his sister, Leona, and he doesn't notice her beauty--he notices that she no longer looks worried. That, to Smidgen, is the thing that gladdens him, while John Brady would be more inclined to notice her physical appearance.

     She glowed brighter than ever and pushed a sweep of red hair from her eyes. "We are fine." As she said the words she raised her eyes, and John felt himself swayed by the intensity.
     "You and I? Yes. We are very fine." He touched the very tip of her pixie-like nose and smiled.
     Leona shook her head. "I meant something quite different."

     "We are fine."
     Something in her voice struck Smidgen as unusual, and he looked up from thrashing the grass to see a funny look on her face.
     John jerked his head with a laugh and touched her nose. "You and I? Yes. We are very fine."
      "And me," Smidgen said. He thought it advisable to remind them he existed. "I'm fine."

You can tell the difference here. Smidgen's appraisal of this conversation is much more casual and indignant. He feels the tension and he plants himself in the middle of it, which adds interest to what could be no more than a lovers' conversation which--as any third wheel knows--is not terribly interesting.

     John threw out his arms, exasperated. "Within a Community?--yes. Promises there are binding. You know this as well as I."
     Leona's head was bowed and her shoulders shook. John rolled his eyes. Oh God, no crying. Why do women--? "Leona, be a reasonable creature. What could possibly make our lives more difficult than they are now?"

     "Don't start acting like a woman, Leona," John said. Smidgen watched his obvious impatience at the first signs of Leona's tears, and wondered if John knew how rarely Leona cried. How could he? He'd never lived with her.
     Smidgen took her hands in his. "Tell me. I don't mind if you cry." 
     John rolled his eyes and elbowed between them. "Oh come now. Neither do I. Just don't...overreact. What could possibly make our lives harder than they are now?"

This is one of my favorite bits in the whole chapter, since I can imagine my young brother being just as protective of me. Smidgen likes John Brady, but he still considers himself the first man in Leona's life. Thus, when he sees John making Leona cry, he's ready to wedge himself in that little crack and be the one to comfort the lady. There are two dynamics here that weren't there in the first version of the chapter, since Smidgen never comes to the valley: a brother-sister, long-standing relationship that John and Leona can't possibly have, and a sense of triumph; Smidgen has scored a point over John. Something he's probably been waiting to do for some time.


Can you see how rewriting pays off? Smidgen is now a much larger character and that has sprung me into new plot depths I hadn't expected. All because I took a morning to restructure a chapter that wouldn't have fit in a children's novel. It's definitely worth a thought. You never quite know what might happen if you take out your scalpel and start probing!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Crissendumm: a world inside a world

It is generally an excellent maxim to explain to your readers where a story is set, and what the place is, and if you've made it up, how it differs from any other world. For instance, there's not much sense in setting a book in a different world if it could just as easily happen on Earth. There's also not much sense in making a world that is entirely the same as Earth, just by a different name, because in that case you're simply confusing the reader with useless information, and saddling yourself with tedious, involved world-building. That being said, I suppose it is time to give you a proper introduction to Crissendumm, which is the world in which Jamsie and Richmond find themselves in The Baby. I'll categorize like Jenny did a rather long time ago for her Plenilune so I can cover more topics more effectively. So. Here we go.

Crissendumm and Earth
Crissendumm and Earth are what you might call "parallel universes", except that in this case, Crissendum is like a smaller globe that fits inside our globe and there are portals between the two. As you've often heard, Earth-folk reference this world frequently, only they are prone to spelling it wrong. (Christendom) Crissendumm is the older of the two, or at least feels itself the hands-off observer-protector of our world. The inhabitants are more or less content to leave Earth-folk alone, except when one falls down one of the portals, and then the Earth-person will find himself rather patronized. Crissedumm is the older sibling who seldom takes risks because risks are ridiculous. It is the steady sister, the rocking, wide-bosom'd ship that our world falls back on for wisdom when they're out of their own. "In all Christendom," is a common term heard here, or "What in Christendom?" which is an equally valid term, considering that Crissendumm does things a bit differently than we do here. Accents, language, literature--all are very similar to our England's, with a few additions.

At the time of the events of The Baby, Crissendumm is not far behind in things than Victorian England. At least in the knowledge of things. But in typical older-siblings-who-does-things-better fashion, Crissendumm has kept to many of the "old ways" that have become medieval elsewhere. They absolutely refuse to build railways or use automobiles, for instance, but have clocks and pocket-watches and other paraphernalia. The Castle is rather ancient in design, but the manor-houses in the valley, such as Darrow-Dwelling are quite what you'd find in Derbyshire or any other prosperous county in England. So you see, anything they do not have at the time of the story that England does have is simply a matter of taste, not of lack of invention.

Clothing is, of course, essential. And the inhabitants of Crissendumm move more slowly in their fashion than Earth-folk. The Queen Veronique, for example, wears a little something like this:

//the baby pinterest board//
The gowns are beautiful, elaborate, and made of classically royal materials such as silk, lace, brocade, velvet, etc. At least for the palace women. Women elsewhere are clothed in more or less classic "women's clothing" which ends up looking rather more Victorian than the royal people. Dresses like this are popular among the younger women, as well as skirts and blouses, shawls, and aprons:

 They are not much given to wearing hats unless they are caps, and those only among the middle-aged, married women. The men almost never wear hats, unless they are porters, post-men, etc. In general, the men go for strong looks of leather and metal and other things like that. Knee-boots, gloves, belts, and daggers are all common wear. They like facial hair well enough, especially in the case of Lord Darron Ap-Brainard who is characterized by his wealth of dark, unruly hair on his head and face. We don't particularly think that attractive, but he will wear it that way.

The prime religion of Crissendumm is Christianity, though whether Protestant or Catholic never quite has been stated. The monks at Whiskin's Abbey are involved closely enough with the government of Crissendumm, Brother Aristophenes in particular serving as Lord High Chancellor to the queen, but otherwise there is very little religious tension between denominations.
The monks are considered to be among the most well-educated in Crissendumm, and to be a teacher at an Abbey school is a coveted position with strict life-choices. The teachers must live at the Abbey by the same rules and regulations the monks do for a contracted period of four years during which they will not make a salary at all--such a position is honor enough for any young man, and whoever holds this position is required to live literally like a monk. This causes trouble for some vibrant young men who don't relish the thought of living four years doing nothing but teaching.

History & Mythology
Crissendumm's history is still being revealed--I am not certain of all the parts and pieces of it, only that the royal family has always been peaceful and little-given to fighting expensive wars. There are plenty of conflicts within the place itself, that the main events in recent history have been passages between Earth and Crissendumm now and then, and of course the events of The Baby, which haven't yet transpired. Crissendumm breeds stronger men, perhaps of a less-diluted variety than the Earth-folk do, so there is a rich history of heroes of the Crissendumm race. In Starling's view:
Lord Ap-Brainard stood larger n’ life inside her head: tall, good-looking, brawny. Someone who might go well alongside the people in Crissendumm’s stories: Verog with his pair of bulls and tattooed arms, or Salisbard the Mighty--so large a man, they said, that the birds built nests in his beard, thinking his legs were tree-trunks. And Lord Darron Ap-Brainard was just as alive in her mind. Some folk thought the legends were made up by silly old men long ago, but Starling wasn’t so sure.
The people of Crissendumm are clannish and a bit quarrelsome at times with each other, though they present an united front in the face of any 'foreigners'. There are common social classes, but each citizen is generally a bit wealthier than the average citizen in London. There are very few slums, for Crissendumm is still very much tied to the agricultural system and there is always work to be done for those who have the will.
The mail is carried by "fleets" of birds, usually crows, who work in the same fashion as passenger-pigeons, and are overseen by an "admiral" who is responsible for their care and well-being.
When it comes to food, Crissendumm is a rich world with a good appetite. Any of the plummiest dishes are made, and made frequently with a very high and British fondness when it comes to tea and toast. Banquets are not unusual affairs, especially in September and October as the harvest comes in.

So. I hope you've enjoyed this bit of a world-building study, and that you will feel free to point out any categories I've missed! I also hope that by now you've got a better grasp of Crissendumm, and will be able to follow the story even better now that I've set forth a few things in a bit of a clearer light!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

One-liners: a twist on snippets

Wherein I have gathered the best single-lines of The Baby for your enjoyment, rather than the ungainly chunks so often presented:

"Sometimes Jamsie could be the most annoying thing."

" 'What a hash. What a horrid, mealy, bungled hash.' "

" 'Just goes to show you what you get when you leave your precious baby in the care of a kitchen maid. Darn her red hair.' "

" 'Worried? Course I'm worried.' It wasn't exactly a falsehood."

" 'Kidnapping used to be as common a profession as farming. It might be coming back in style.' "

"She shrieked, somehow hearing her voice gobbled up by Richmond's twin yell, and felt the plunge."

" 'We had better go then. Off to The Castle--and my uncommon doom.' "

" 'Ahhhh...T-O-A-S-T-A-N-D-T-E-A--that's th'way to spell 'Darrow-Dwelling, your majesty.' "

" 'And has the kingdom gone to ruin without its mail?' "

" 'Did my napkin startle you, lad? Your nerves play a high pitch.' "

"Richmond shot a pea across the room."

"A law against laughter couldn't possibly be a useful law."

"Starling craned her neck to get a last look at the sleeping baby--fat as a pan of sweet-buns left to rise in the sun-shine."

"Starling hid herself behind a potted rosebush and hoped she looked something like a topiary."