August 25, 2010

The Joy of Writing

I read a post on a blog yesterday about whether or not writing was fun. The premise was that a person (whose name was changed to protect the innocent) enjoyed making up stories and imagining different worlds, but hated writing. They felt that all the joy went out of the story-making when they sat down to write. The author of the post was replying to this person, and said that this is a common ailment among those who call themselves writers; they even quoted Nicholas Sparks, a best-selling author, who said that he does not enjoy writing and it isn't fun when he's doing it. Of course, he likes the finished product, but he looks at writing as "going to work." The writer of the blog concluded that writers-who-are-not-fond-of-writing is perfectly normal and reasonable.

Now, at this point I'll interject to say that I have not read much of the aforementioned blog, and if anyone recognizes the post I'm talking about, please don't think I'm ridiculing the writer. These are just my thoughts on the subject.

My question is, can one be a writer without enjoying writing?

The idea seems to be incongruous. While I will concede wholeheartedly that writing is not always fun, and we all know about those times where we just slog through, waiting for the plot to get easier, this is not the normal situation of a writer. After all, what is a writer? Easy: it's someone who writes. A writer is not someone who makes up stories and then transfers them to paper, but is someone who creates stories with words. Making a straight separation between imagination and work is incorrect. They overlap and intertwine. You don't abandon imagination when you sit down at the computer, nor do you leave off work when you lie in bed thinking about your epic plot; they both make up the art of writing.

So, a writer writes, and a writer should write because there is enjoyment in the writing. There is simply too much uncertainty about the business for one to write for any other reason; there is no assurance that you will be able to get published and make money, and there isn't any fame to be had unless you can do that. Granted, the ability to pay one's bills is certainly incentive to write; granted, for those dependent on their writing to bring income, writing is work; granted, sometimes the joy is lacking from scribbling. These are all true, but at the heart of the matter, writers write because they love creating and capturing things with words - the same way painters love capturing beauty with paint, or musicians love capturing beauty in music.

Any thoughts?

August 23, 2010

The Ten Levels of Inspiration

K.M. Weiland on her wonderful blog Wordplay wrote a post on the fifteen levels of inspiration that led to her current work in progress, called The Deepest Breath. I couldn't pull out fifteen from the dumps of my memory, but I thought it would be fun to do the same for my work in progress, Wordcrafter.

1. It started with either a nasty headache or a cold, I forget which. Not a promising start, but when one is in pain, it is very easy to be inspired to write about someone else who is in pain; so I tottered upstairs to my computer (which really helped my headache...) and wrote a section about a man who had been attacked by a wolf during a hunt.

2. Which then led to some inspiration arising from this magnificent bit of artwork, done for a book that I have never heard of before.

3. Then there was some inspiration from Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy.

4. Add to that some of the features of the Middle Eastern cultures, including the Arabian horses...

5. Then the rampant illiteracy of the Middle Ages...

6. Then the historical struggle between humans over the color of skin, specifically the antipathy toward Gypsies...

7. Andrew Peterson's song 'Nothing to Say.'

8. The movie Amazing Grace, about abolitionist William Wilberforce, inspired me with some themes...

9. Ceylon tea.

10. Then the friendship of David and Jonathan, which only occurred to me after I had several things in the story that tied into the Biblical account. This is probably the strongest inspiration, as it helped me flesh out the story a good deal.

August 20, 2010

He Said, She Said

"...for I have just had it from Mrs. Long!"

A lot of writing guidebooks will advise you never to append any verb other than "said" to a section of dialogue, probably to avoid a stilted feel. In addition, they discourage the use of any adverbs to describe how the character is speaking. But the problem with these hard-and-fast rules is pretty easy to find - it's boring. Not just boring for the writer (quite a few things seem boring to the writer that truly are necessary), but boring for the reader, too. Constant "he said, she said, said Tom, said Jane's" in literature rarely convey the feeling behind the words, and tend to weigh down the dialogue.

Granted, it is unwise to throw out "said's" altogether, or even to major in other verbs. It's a good, old-fashioned, frank word, and it carries a lot of meeting when properly used. But sometimes it's not suited to how the character is speaking, and there is a better word to use that carries more weight and gets the point across. Of course, many times no verb is needed at all, especially when the reader knows who is speaking; then there is little call to tack on an idle "he said."

The same is true for adverbs. While it is true that being told in every scrap of dialogue that John intoned every word smartly and Isabel warbled gleefully is annoying, this is no call for throwing out all verbs and adverbs. It merely means that writers have to be careful that they do not abuse these things, but use them to the best advantage in their prose. It's very difficult, and even a little silly, to make any set, immovable laws about writing technique, because there are always exceptions and variations to every rule.

August 17, 2010

Stereotypes, Big and Small

There are no end of stereotypes for and within every nationality, some more glaring than others, that surface often in fiction. An Irishman idly chewing on a raw potato, when there are other vittles to hand; an American Indian giving that celebrated war whoop; a meek, quiet Quaker. Now, there is no denying that the Irish ate potatoes, that some Indians had war cries, and that the Quakers, as a group, strove to be a mild people. But when these accepted facts begin to weigh down a book, it makes the subject matter grating.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, one of Dickens most celebrated novels, his characters Mark Tapley and Martin Chuzzlewit spend a great deal of time in America. They have come to seek their fortune in the relatively new nation of the United States, and they are hardly on shore before the stereotypes that made the book so controversial, begin. All but a handful of people wear straw hats, bear titles from the army (Colonel, Captain, Major, and so on), and, most glaring of all, talk a great deal about Liberty and Freedom and are absolute hypocrites. The irony comes in when these very same American characters stereotype the British people. Now, this portrayal of the United States is amusing for the first two or three pages, but stretched out over chapters upon chapters, it becomes galling.

The third book of Louisa May Alcott's series, Jo's Boys, provides some more such stereotypes. Emil is the sailor, and having fulfilled his dream of "sailing the ocean blue," he plays his role to the utmost. Everything is "jolly," everyone is a "land lubber," he walks with a swagger, he sings sailor songs, and uses terms like "weighing anchor" and "heave off." Alcott leaves out the harsher facts of navy life, like the floggings, the casualties, and the largely harsh and demanding captains. The result? Your stereotypical sailor.

Dan, the "firebrand" of Little Men, is a wanderer. On returning home from the West after nearly two years away, he is full of stories about Indians named Black Hawk and horses named Lightning and hunting buffalo; he brings back feathers and beads, tomahawks and moccasins and wampum (which were, incidentally, only used by the tribes of Eastern North America); and he teaches his companions to do the war whoop. For me, this went far to ruin Dan's character by giving him such time-worn stories to tell.

These sorts of stereotypes often slip into writing, and they may be large or they may be small. Some stereotypes are absolutely true and almost impossible to avoid - but I believe it weighs down the story when the author unconsciously makes major or minor characters "typical." Original characters are part of what gives spice to books, so it's good to think outside the box when developing them. If your story calls for a character who fits his nationality's stereotype, make sure you can pull it off without jarring the reader. Add a few interesting aspects to his or her background or personality. Ben-Hur's Messala, the Roman and the antagonist, is your typical Roman - proud, arrogant, and a Jew-hater. But not only is that acceptable because that character makes an excellent villain, but he has an original past: he grew up among the Jews. So add some spice to your characters and don't annoy your readers by feeding them stereotypes.

August 13, 2010

Sentence Lengths

I am currently reading Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and recently finished Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Juxtaposed to their trailing sentences, I have recently read several authors and teachers of today who advise making sure that sentences do not exceed so many words or so many lines on a Microsoft Word page. Now, I think it's pretty obvious that the days of Austen's mile-long sentences, speckled with an ellipses here, a semicolon there, and several dashes all over, are long gone; readers do not like having to stop and catch their breath all the time. But dictating the "proper" length of all sentences and cutting one's structure to fit that is not the answer, either.

Strunk and White's Elements of Style advises against these sorts of cookie-cutter sentences and call them 'singsong' and 'mechanical' in their symmetry. A full paragraph of simple sentences is monotonous for the reader and tends to lead their mind (my mind, at least!) to the poor quality of the writing, rather than the point the author was attempting to make. Thus, Strunk and White advise this:

"If the writer finds that he has written a series of loose sentences, he should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, by sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, by sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses - whichever best represent the real relations of the thought." (The Elements of Style, Principles of Composition #18)

In other words, vary the length and structure of your sentences.

Now, there is a place for several brief sentences, especially in expressing sarcasm, the tenseness of a moment, or something of the kind. But we have to make sure that our brevity counts for something in the scene, so we should not go wild with chopping all of our sentences into "bite sized chunks." Keep it reasonable - there is no need to go Jane Austen and run a single sentence out for half a page - but not repetitive.

August 5, 2010

TSC Sample Chapter

Here is a sample chapter of The Soldier's Cross, which I hope you will enjoy.

The wind ran along the muddy-grey banks of the river, kicking up those bits of snow that had not fully melted and flinging them into Fiona’s mouth. She paused to spit them out and squinted up at the black sky to catch the first scent of rain, and a slight mizzle began as she struggled onward again. It was not enough to be hampering and just enough to be vexing; she slapped her arms and rubbed them and blew into her palms as she walked, but still the colour sapped from her hands and left them a ghostly white, thinly veined in blue, and she could barely feel the presence of her chapped lips. Were those her own feet going up, down, up, and down on the turf in front of her? The only thing that she knew to be her own was her head, seated like a boulder upon her shoulders, and that she thought soon to fall off.

Night was coming on and the wind was picking up, though after having soaked through Fiona’s clothes to her skin, the rain stopped. There were no stars and no moon: only clouds. Soon the Marne River disappeared into the blackness on her right; she got down on her hands and knees and ventured toward where it ought to have been, reaching out blindly to feel the slippery embankment or the water itself, but somehow she had lost it. She sat for a little while in the snow, clutching her small, metal cross for fear the wind would take it, until she began to feel drowsy.

Getting back to her feet, she shuffled along—in circles, for all she knew—for minutes or hours, and her hands began to come into contact with hard, rough things in her way. It was some time before her cold-slowed mind and numb fingers realized that she was walking among trees and her heart, already in her belly, gave a despairing thump. She must have wandered far from the Marne; she was lost in a wood, and even with the morning light she was not likely to find her way back again.

Fiona stood still and gazed about her; overhead, above the branching, witch-like trees, there was a stretch of dark blue several shades lighter than the darkness around her and a pale quarter moon now floated in and out of the clouds. It did not illumine her surroundings, but only created a halo about itself and left the world below in gloom. The wind whistled around her, howling as it rushed between the oaks and yews and old, old elms; branches creaked and groaned like sailing ships. Now that she was not concentrating on the next step and keeping herself on the path, the night became frightening and full of evils that she would rather not face on her own. She kept on, her footsteps jarring her head and her already-aching shoulder.

The next moment—or perhaps it was the next hour, or the next but one—her body contacted cold stone. She had walked into a wall much taller than her head and which stretched out on either side of her, and when she began tremulously to feel her way down the length of it, her fingers digging into the cracks and the moss and taking comfort in the presence of something manmade, she found something iron. Upon further investigation she discovered it to be a gate, but beyond it, inside the stone walled enclosure, she could see nothing. On the right side of the gateway her hands encountered what felt like a short rope dangling from an outcropping of stone, just about at the level of her nose, and she tugged on it experimentally.

A loud clanging immediately began above her head and she released the rope, but to no purpose. It continued to swing and the bell sounded over and over; she shrank back against the wall, but did not run. She watched as candles flared within the courtyard and light seeped out from under the door that she saw in the big, stone building inside, and soon three women were crossing the enclosure and coming to greet her through the gate. “Good evening, traveler,” one smiled, as though it was nothing out of the ordinary to be called out of bed in the middle of the night to welcome a stranger. “Do you seek lodging here?”

“I—I—I—” stuttered Fiona through her blue lips, bewildered by the firelight in her face. “If it would not be too much trouble.”

“It is no trouble,” the nun assured her, swinging open the iron gate and reaching out to take Fiona’s arm. Fiona sucked in a breath as the grip broke the numbness and sent pain all up and down her right side in spider-webbed patterns; the nun drew her fingers back and looked at them, finding them sticky with blood. “Saints,” she murmured. “Come inside directly, my dear—what has happened to you? Come into the dining hall. Call Sister Marguerite, Annette, and quickly!”

Fiona was hurried into the convent and through a foyer and corridor to the narrow room that she took to be their dining hall. She had time to observe it as the nuns talked among themselves; it was decorated after the fashion of chapels, and Fiona felt the hundred pairs of eyes watching her from their lofty positions on the high walls as she came in. There was a great, black fireplace at the opposite end of the room as well, however, so she supposed this was not the sanctuary—or, if it was, it had not always been one.

Her guide seated her at a place close to the fire and called for another one of the sisters to light it. How warm it felt! Fiona thought she had never experienced such comfort, but the nun would not let her enjoy it in peace. She came and unfastened the pin that held Fiona’s wet cloak to her shoulders and took it off, showing the red zigzag on the girl’s right shoulder as well as her short, lopsided haircut. The nun gave another exclamation at that, and touched Fiona’s shorn head as if it were the most extraordinary phenomenon she had ever seen in her entire life, as well it might have been. “Well!” she said; it seemed the only thing she could think of to say.

After a moment she cleared her throat and returned to her brisk ordering of things, beginning to peel the cloth back from Fiona’s right shoulder as she spoke. “What happened here? Were you attacked?”

“Only that I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fiona replied ruefully, wincing at the woman’s touch. “I was caught in a kind of brawl. I do not think it is very bad.”

“No, the wound does not seem deep, but we will wait for Sister Marguerite before we decide. Here now, here comes Sister Catherine with some hot broth for you; you must be very hungry. How long have you been walking?”

Fiona could not clearly remember, but it seemed to her that this was the end of her first day. Time was not very important when one was concentrating on putting one foot after the other and thinking about how cold it was. She said so and the nun chuckled, setting the bowl of soup into Fiona’s frozen paws.

“What is your name, girl? I am Sister Elisabeth, but there are so many nuns here that it will be of no consequence if you forget about me. If you stay here for any length of time, you may come to know us all. But now, your name?”

“Fiona, ma’am. It’s very kind of you to take me in.”

Sister Elisabeth waved her off. “As I said, it is no trouble whatsoever. Drink up your broth before Marguerite returns. Ah, does your shoulder pain you?” She watched as Fiona flinched in raising the bowl to her lips, the girl’s hands shaking with exhaustion and a torrent of other sensations.

Fiona thrust her chin up and shook her head. “No, ma’am, I’m quite well. It’s nothing very much.”

“Well, here is Sister Marguerite now. Our guest has a wound in the shoulder, Marguerite; can you clean it?”

Marguerite was a thin, old woman, though still upright and with the appearance of a great deal of strength in her body. She did not touch Fiona’s wound at first, but only looked; presently she nodded. “Easily,” she said, clearly and shortly. “I will go and bring my things while you finish your supper.”

All the nuns but Elisabeth, Marguerite, and the young Annette, who seemed only necessary in that she fetched and carried what the older women wanted, left the room and returned to their beds. The other three worked at boiling herbs and binding them against the cut to prevent more bleeding, and though it stung, Fiona found that she could bear it without too much trial if she thought about the heat of the fire or the cold outside. They had just finished passing the bandage over her right shoulder and under her left arm for the last time and tying it off when another woman entered the room from a door half concealed on one side of the hearth; the nuns curtsied to her, and Fiona looked at her curiously. She was about Marguerite’s age, but neither as wrinkled nor as obviously strong; she was small, though not hunched, and only her eyes and the straight line of her mouth had any power in them.

“Who is this?” she asked, nodding to Fiona. Sister Elisabeth explained the situation as clearly as she knew it herself, and the Reverend Mother—for such Fiona took her to be—nodded. “Has her wound been treated, then? Good. You and Sister Marguerite may go back to bed now, but you should stay, Annette.”

The two older nuns obediently left, and Annette retired to a place farther down the table where she could listen but not be in the way. All became quiet for a long, long time and Fiona thought she would doze off before the woman spoke. At last the Reverend Mother looked straight at Fiona and asked mildly, “What is your purpose, my daughter, in walking through the night in the cold, and alone? You seem too young to be a woman of the world.”

Fiona felt a flicker of indignation, though her mind, which was working again after having been thawed, told her that it was a reasonable question. She looked into the fire and presently said, “I am not a woman of the world. But I would rather not tell anyone—just now—about my life. Please, let me stay and do not question me.”

The woman continued to look at her. Her mouth continued in its stern, immovable line for a minute, but at last it softened slightly and she nodded. “You may stay, my dear. I will not turn you out in the middle of winter. Perhaps in time you will be more willing.”

Fiona did not contradict; she was too tired. “May I go to bed now?” she asked.

“Yes, you may go to bed now. Annette, show her to a guest room.”

Annette stood and Fiona, stiff in every limb, did the same. She did not remember to thank the Reverend Mother, but the nun did not comment; she was watching the silver cross that swung from Fiona’s fist as she walked, thinking.

Fiona followed the nun, who she thought was about her own age underneath the starkly black and white dress, through several corridors to where the guest rooms were. She looked about her as Annette led her into one, commenting under her breath, “It seems more like a room at Gallandon than a convent bedchamber.”

“What was that?” Annette asked. “Did you say something?”

Fiona shook her head, dropping her gaze from the high ceiling again. “No. I was only thinking out loud.”

“Ah. Well, here is your room; I will leave you to yourself for now and you can think aloud all you like. Do you need anything? Good-night, then. I will wake you in the morning.” She went out and shut the door carefully, leaving Fiona warm, full, and alone. Crawling up into the high bed, which, she later noticed, was harder than it looked, the girl put her head down and was asleep in minutes—the cross still in her hand.

She awoke not much later, when it was still very dark and without the slightest appearance of lightening soon. She was very much alert, though, and from the quick pounding of her heart she knew it had been a bad dream that had awakened her; sitting up, she looked about at the block-shaped shadows in the room and wondered for a half second where she was and what had occurred to get her there. The necklace and cross reminded her and she sat back, somewhat more at ease, but still not ready to sleep again.

Presently she put her legs out of bed and stretched her feet to reach the floor, dropping onto it. The convent was still; she crossed to the door and opened it like a sneaking child, looking first one way and then the other down the hallway. Which way had she and Annette come? She forgot now, but turned hopefully to the left and walked along the corridor and past a dozen or more doors, all shut, on either side. After a great many twists and turns through the convent, too many to keep track of, she stumbled into a large, rectangular room that could be nothing but the sanctuary. The ceiling was rounded and smooth high overhead and there were archways to the right and left, separated by pillars with unlit candles mounted on each; there were windows up near the roof and one at the end of the room, letting in a little silvery light.

Hesitant lest someone catch her, Fiona took a few more steps down the middle of the room and paused. Nothing happened and no one appeared, for her footsteps were muffled by the carpet rolled down the aisle. She continued to one of the benches and sat down on it to rest and think, staring sightlessly before her and thinking, not about the chapel or the convent, but about the world outside and the little ornament she held. Then she stretched out on the wooden surface, cradled her head in her arm, and closed her eyes.

August 3, 2010

The Soldier's Cross Publication

I announced on my blog 'As Sure as the Dawn' that my first novel is going to be published by Ambassador-Emerald International, a publishing house that has been in business since 1980 and has offices in both Northern Ireland and the United States. I wrote most of "The Soldier's Cross" for National Novel Writing Month last year (I'm happy to say that I reached the 50,000 word quota) and it will hopefully be released almost a full year later, by Christmas 2010. We are now in the design process, and when the cover has been completed I will post it and the option to pre-order copies.

The Soldier's Cross Plot Summary:

Fiona is not so bad. She attends Mass and services and goes to confession regularly, and considers her eternal welfare secure. She does not see the need to be as religiously fervent as her older brother, Giovanni, believing that if she is good enough for the Church, she is good enough for God.

Her ideas of seclusion, safety, and happiness are shattered when Giovanni is killed at the Battle of Agincourt and his body brought back home to England; his armor is intact, but missing is the silver cross that he always wore around his neck and that has been in the family for generations. Devastated by the loss of her brother, Fiona believes that she has received a sign from God that she is to avenge his death and recover the cross. She discovers, however, that she is not so much seeking the cross as she is its meaning, and in her journey she struggles to find peace in the harsh world of the Middle Ages.
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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