July 28, 2011

Assassinations and Executions

Morbid a bit? Yes, rather, but I promise that this post is about writing. It is, after all, the only venue in which murders are allowable and assassinations are common fare; writers get to kill people any day of the week without fear of the law (although going around in public saying "I murdered someone yesterday!" is not advisory). It's one of the fascinating things about being a writer that you hold sway over the lives of your characters, despite the fact that the opposite frequently seems to be true.

Unfortunately, this often presents difficulties in stories. Most writers - I have never known one who didn't - become attached to their characters and regard them as friends and children, and some grow so attached that the thought of killing one of the characters terrifies them. I frequently hear things like, "Oh, I love my characters too much to kill them!" and "[Name of Character] insisted that he wanted to die, but I wouldn't let him." This refusal to follow the path of the story may result in a happier ending, but I'm willing to wager that it will not be as satisfying or meaningful a conclusion as it would otherwise have been. The characters live, but to what purpose? They are all happy for ever after, but does that destroy the whole drive of the storyline? Writers, if they want to progress and write solid stories, must pay attention to this as they determine the fates of their characters.

This analysis does not mean that writers should go the route of Diana Barry and kill all their characters indiscriminately; a depressing story does not necessarily equal a profound story. In fact, the stories that end in the death of the main character are and should be a minority, since in general people do not want to follow a person through a tome of six hundred pages only to have him be killed off in the end (unless the novel is Russian, in which case this is to be expected). Death should be doled out sparingly, but it should be doled out.

off with his head!

One important consideration is whether or not the death is necessary for or at least adds to the plot. In The White Sail's Shaking, for example, a good portion of the plot hinges on the murder of one of the characters. I'm fairly certain I'm going to get hate-mail for that, but it is what it is - the character had to die or the story would not work at all. This can also work in a smaller way when the plot itself does not depend on the death of a character, but the main character's development or some other important element of the story does. Although perhaps not as readily evident as when the plot is driven by a character's death, the grief, guilt, or anger that the main character feels at the death of this other person may be important in moving him through his character arc.

Conversely, writers have to consider whether or not the death detracts from the story. In planning my to-be-written novel Tempus Regina I expected to kill one of the major characters toward the end, but then realized that to do so would bring the story full circle and rob it of any point. Therefore, the character lives. Don't kill for the sake of tragedy or drama; make sure it adds to the story as a whole.

Another consideration, which may seem painfully obvious, is whether the death is historically accurate. If dealing with a historical figure, don't kill them at Place A and Time B if they didn't die there and don't have them survive Scene C if they didn't survive. In The Soldier's Cross I got quite attached to one of the characters, but they had to die in order to be accurate to history. (I was extremely cut up about it; I put The Soldier's Cross away for about a month because I didn't want to write the death scene.) Although alternate history is becoming popular, it is in its own genre and shouldn't be mixed with others.

we survived, but we're dead!

The somewhat easier considerations of when to kill a character aside, how do loving writers survive these deaths? All right, so I'm being a little facetious, but I do know the difficulty of killing off a likable character and knowing that he won't be there for the rest of the novel. An enjoyable and helpful solution is to work on fleshing out that character's backstory, which serves the dual purpose of giving you more time with that character and of deepening his personality in the parts of the story where he does show up. The deeper his character is, the more likely it is that his death will resonate with readers and make them care about the rest of the story.

July 22, 2011

Beautiful People - Justin King

It's that time again! The next batch of questions for "Beautiful People" has arrived. For those of you who are not yet aware of how this works, here is the summary:

Once a month Sky and Georgie will be posting a list of 10 questions for you to answer about your characters. You can use the same character every month, or choose a new one for each set of questions. Your call. You can answer all the questions, just one, or however many you have the time and energy to answer. Just go for it and have fun.

This month I will be combining the June/July and July/August questions, since I did not get a chance to answer the former, and this month's Beautiful Person will be the hero of my novel Wordcrafter:

Justin King

1. What kind of music does he like?

Justin likes a variety of music, but dislikes heavy rock, rap, and heavy metal. He prefers peaceful or cheery songs, and I was just realizing the other day that he would probably like the style of Owl City.

2. Does he like to go outside?

Justin is an outdoorsy person, as long as the outdoors is fairly tame.

3. Is he naturally curious?

No, not really.

4. Right or left handed?


5. Favorite color?

Blue, very light or very dark.

6. Where is he from?

Justin describes himself as a British mutt: he has a little bit of everything in him. He has some Irish from his mother’s side, Scottish, Welsh, and a little English from his father’s. His family moved around frequently when he was young and he spent most of his first six years in southern Ireland, but when he was seven or eight his parents moved to a farm outside Edinburgh.

7. Any enemies?

As he develops friendships, he also develops enemies. I can’t say any more than that.

8. What are his quirks?

He has a habit of rubbing the side of his right hand, which is always stained with ink and graphite, against his trousers. If under extreme mental strain, he takes to straightening his things obsessively.

9. What kinds of things get on his nerves?

People touching his books and being interrupted during his writing. Also, forward women.

10. Is he independent, or needs others to help out?

Justin is more dependent than independent.

11. What is his biggest secret?

That his father committed suicide.

12. Has he ever been in love?

The first time he has been in love was when he fell for Jamie Fairbairn.

13. What is his comfort food?

Tea. Not really a food, but he loves Ceylon.

14. Does he play a musical instrument? If so, what?

Justin does not play an instrument, but he does have a good singing voice; he used to be in a choir as a boy and the talent stuck around.

15. What color are his eyes? Hair?

Justin has brown hair and coffee-brown eyes.

16. Does he have any pets?

Ram, his horse, is the only ‘pet’ he has. As a child he used to have two squirrels.

17. Where is his favorite place to be?

Justin has a lot of comfort places—the park; the library and his bedroom in Tera; the pastures. He likes quiet, meditative places.

18. What are some of his dreams or goals?

Before meeting Ethan and going to Tera, Justin’s biggest dream was earning enough money to leave the plant at which he was working and write for a living. He wants very much to be married, a dream he very rarely talks about.

19. Does he enjoy sports?

Justin is not cut out for sports—physically or mentally—and has no interest in participating in or watching them.

20. What is his favorite flower or plant?

He is fond of honeysuckle.

July 19, 2011

That Necessary Evil

The necessary evil. The one that is almost always a little more evil than the villain of the story. It's called Editing.

Editing can be fun at first. There's something exhilarating about brandishing the red pen at your story - something exhilarating about cleaning it up, or about the concept of it being cleaned up. But then you settle down for the long, hard haul and things don't look so fun anymore, especially when your novel is over two hundred thousand words long. (Just ask Jenny, although you might regret it afterward.) This is when editing becomes the necessary evil.

Now I know some people think that editing is fun, but I personally consider them to be in a state of hopeless denial. However, I am sure it is a blissful one, and if you happen to be in it I have no desire to shake you back to reality. I regard you with envy. I personally have not seen or tried a method of editing that is "fun," but, like just about all writers, I do have a process that I use and it helps me complete the task. So in case any of you are looking for ideas to make the editing process go more smoothly, I thought I would share mine.

the overwhelming heap of awful

Some people wait to edit their manuscript until they are done with the rough draft. Others swear by doing an edit every time they reach a fifty-page mark. Still others edit by chapter. I don't hold to any of these choices exclusively, as they all have merit and have been useful in editing one novel or another. In general, I do edit as I go, clipping sentences and taking out words here and there as I write each chapter. This makes the actual drawn-out process of editing somewhat easier. Apart from those minor edits, however, I can use either the complete-novel edit or the fifty-page edit. In the case of Wordcrafter, for instance, I waited almost exclusively to edit until I had finished the first draft. This worked because Wordcrafter flowed, and at the beginning I knew essentially where I was going. I knew the characters at the start; I didn't have to turn around at the half-way mark and realize that those fellows at the beginning were imposters. The things I changed when I was done with the rough draft were relatively minor - an added scene here, a tweak there, a change of voice in one scene or another, a bit of foreshadowing in this chapter or that.

With The White Sail's Shaking, it was - and is - a different story. Literally. I began writing it for NaNo last year, and the fact that I barely managed to squeak by at 52,000 words, as opposed to The Soldier's Cross' 62,000 the year before, will give a very slight indication of the troubles the novel caused me. On October 31 I had some vague ideas about the plot, no villain, an elusive main character, no supporting characters, and an outline that I had discarded several days before. It sounds like a typical NaNo novel, right? But that's not how I operate, so my little writing self was in shambles on November 1 when I plopped down at my computer and opened a new, white, terrifying Word document.

To cut a long story short, although I managed to get through NaNo without killing either myself or my novel, the first sixty or seventy pages were pretty much rubbish. I gamely ignored them, trudging on with the story in a valiant attempt to finish before I turned my attention to editing. But it was so awful that I finally had to stop and edit the first fifty pages - and I am very glad I did.

So complete-manuscript edit or fifty-page edit? It depends entirely on you and your story. If you're the kind of person who gets bogged down with edits and then never completes the story, wait to draw the red pen until you've hit that last page. If you need to keep your story flowing as you go, try for the fifty-page edit.

checking it twice (or thrice)

When I finally decided to edit White Sail's, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of disgust for those miserable pages written during November and by the impression that everything and its cousin needed to be changed. So I turned to what I had done on a much small scale for The Soldier's Cross, when I was thrown into a whirl of edits that had to be completed on a deadine: I made a list of the things that needed to be changed. I made the points broad so as not to overwhelm myself yet again and put check boxes beside each (because there is something immensely satisfying in checking off things on a list). In the end, I had only nine major points. Nine isn't too bad, right? Well, at the very least it doesn't seem so bad as the vague and unnumbered things that had been gathering over me, and it gave me a place to start.

the red pen of doom, death, and the like

If you go around our house, you will find a lot of notebooks. If you look inside those notebooks, the chances are high that you'll find one edition of Wordcrafter or another. A thoroughly red-blotted one, a copy full of colored tabs, a copy with miscellaneous notes in black ink - I was pretty thorough in printing out that one. For White Sail's, I had so much trouble printing out a single copy that I haven't dared trying to do another full one.

After printing out a copy, I go through the laborious process of punching holes in it, round up a ring-binder, and enclose the manuscript in it. Then I pull out the red pen that is, miraculously, still alive and get to work. For sections that must be thoroughly rewritten, I don't bother applying the red pen; I just put a note up at the top to say "Rewrite," plus some insult to the scene. Elsewhere, I will dash through sentences and rewrite them in red pen until whole pages seem to be bleeding. Occasionally I put notes for myself to keep in mind, such as "Add such-and-such scene" or a historical note that I did not know when I wrote the chapter the first time and need to incorporate. As the story progresses, the huge amounts of red ink begin to drop off (I'm pretty sure there's a dramatic change from November 30 to December 1).

you mean I have to do this again?

At the end of the tiring business of blotting all over the printed pages, I get to work transferring the edits to the Word document. At this point I tackle the big issues that I could not easily address in pen, such as adding scenes and completely redoing whole chapters. Then, when everything is typed in and cleaned up, I go about something else. With Wordcrafter, I sent out queries; with White Sail's, I returned to the actual writing process. But then after awhile I will print out another copy and go through it again for things that I know I tend to do, like flogging semicolons to within an inch of their lives. This invariably results in a pretty thorough edit in itself, and so the process is repeated on a smaller scale.

A story is never done until it's published - that's the cold, hard truth. And writers should take advantage of the chance to make changes while they can, because even when the book is out and under the public eye, you'll probably still see things you wish you could alter. At some time, however, it is necessary to let it go, because even the agony of editing becomes strangely addictive after awhile. There comes a time to move on - but you shouldn't move on too soon.

July 15, 2011

Ink Blots and Ships

A little while ago I did this questionnaire for Wordcrafter, and I thought I would fill it out for The White Sail's Shaking as well. Enjoy!

1. What’s your word count?
Approximately 80,000.

2. How long until you finish?
I hope to be done by November, but that may be wishful thinking. I’m scared to sit down and actually approximate.

3. If you have finished, how long did it take you?
“I have not yet begun to fight.”

4. Do you have an outline?
Sort of. I use FreeMind for The White Sail’s Shaking (I did a post on it a few months ago) and I have it separated into chapters and the events that take place in each.

5. Do you have a plot?

6. How many words do you typically write a day?
White Sail’s is a difficult story, so my daily wordcount varies widely. I can go anywhere from nothing to about three hundred words (!) to a thousand. During NaNo I managed about 2,000.

7. What was your greatest word count in one day?
I can’t remember. I’d take a stab for about 3,000.

8. What was your least impressive word count in one day?
0. Nada. Nothin’.

9. What inspired you to write?
I’ve always been interested in the Age of Sail, which, although a gruesome time, still manages to hold a romantic appeal. Ian Toll’s book Six Frigates, a history of the early U.S. Navy, inspired me to write a story set during the First Barbary War.

10. Does your novel/story have a theme song?
No, but Owl City’s music is linked to it in my mind.

11. Assign each of your major characters a theme song.
See my Characters and Music post.

12. Which character is most like you?
Tip. At first, as with Wordcrafter, I didn’t think any of my characters were very like me, but as I continued to write I found that some of the things Tip struggles with (not his family; I have a wonderful family) are things I have trouble with myself.

13. Which character would you most likely be friends with?
Oh, that’s a hard question. All of my main characters are friends already, so I can’t really answer.

14. Do you have a Gary-Stu or Mary Sue character?

15. Who is your favourite character in your novel?
I’m pretty fond of Charlie…

16. Have your characters ever done something completely unexpected?
Are you kidding? Charlie was unexpected. He showed up and bullied his way into being a main character without ever consulting me.

17. Have you based any of your novel directly on personal experiences?

18. Do you believe in plot bunnies?

19. Is there magic in your novel/story?

20. Are any holidays celebrated in your novel/story?
I haven’t gotten to Christmas yet, so I don’t know about that.

21. Does anyone die?
“That joke is funny because the squirrel gets dead.”

22. How many cups of coffee/tea have you consumed during your writing experience?
I don’t drink coffee. I like tea, but don’t drink it very often.

23. What is the latest you have stayed up writing?
I did the first 52,000 words of White Sail’s for NaNo, but I went to bed on time.

24. What is the best line?
“Brighton!” the spectre [Charlie] exclaimed, his face flashing into a grin as he crossed the room and grasped Tip’s limp hand. “I didn’t expect you; Tatty said the newcomer was well-dressed and rather good-looking.” (In my writing notebook, not in the Word document yet.)

25. What is the worst line?
Ugh. Do you really want to know? I haven’t edited everything yet, so shall we just say that there are a lot of bits that need help?

26. Have you dreamed about your novel/story or its characters?
I don’t think so.

27. Does your novel rely heavily on allegory?
No, not at all.

28. Summarize your novel/story in under fifteen words.
The story of a midshipman as he learns what honor really means.

29. Do you love all your characters?
Mostly. Marta’s a bit hard, but I’m sure she’ll grow on me.

30. Have you done something sadistic or cruel to your characters specifically to increase your word count?
No. I don’t do things just to increase wordcount, because I’ll only have to cut it in the editing process.

31. What was the last thing your main character ate?
He’s eating right now, but I don’t know what.

32. Describe your main character in three words.
Bull-headed. Awkward. Compassionate.

33. What would your antagonists dress up as for Halloween?
He’s much too busy to play dress-up.

34. Does anyone in your story go to a place of worship?
Not explicitly.

35. How many romantic relationships take place in your novel/story?
One. Well, two-ish.

36. Are there any explosions in your novel/story?

37. Is there an apocalypse in your novel/story?

38. Does your novel take place in a post-apocalyptic world?

39. Are there zombies, vampires or werewolves in your novel/story?
Oh, this is definitely a zombies-meet-navy story. Don’t you think it will sell? (The frightening thing is that it probably would.)

40. Are there witches, wizards or mythological creatures/figures in your novel/story?

41. Is anyone reincarnated?

42. Is anyone physically ailed?
No, but some characters are physically aled after some time in the tavern.

43. Is anyone mentally ill?
If I say yes, my characters will come after me. With sticks.

44. Does anyone have swine flu?
No. And there aren’t any flying pigs, either.

45. Who has pets in your novel and what are they?
Tip has a pet Barbary macaque.

46. Are there angels, demons, or any religious references/figures in your novel/story?

47. How about political figures?
Various and sundry, but my characters don’t meet any of them.

48. Is there incessant drinking?
What does “incessant drinking” mean? “And they drank and they drank and they drank and they drank and they breathed and then they drank and they drank and they drank and they breathed a bit and they drank and they drank and they…”

49. Are there board games? If so, which ones?

50. Are there any dream sequences?

51. Is there humor?

52. Is there tragedy?
I should hope so. I mean—no, of course not! What makes you think that?

53. Does anyone have a temper tantrum?
Charlie’s a bit of a firebrand, but I wouldn’t say he was infantile enough to have a temper tantrum.

54. How many characters end up single at the end of your novel/story?
Hard question. I suppose you could say that one character does.

55. Is anyone in your novel/story adopted?

56. Does anyone in your novel/story wear glasses?

57. Has your novel/story provided insight about your life?

58. Your personality?
I think so, but not intentionally.

59. Has your novel/story inspired anyone?
No one has read it yet.

60. How many people have asked to read your novel/story?
Only a couple, but because it isn’t finished, I turned them down.

61. Have you drawn any of your characters?
Absolutely not. That would be cruel.

62. Has anyone drawn your characters for you?

63. Does anyone vomit in your novel/story?
Tip is seasick at one point. I think that will be the only time anyone throws up.

64. Does anyone bleed in your novel/story?
Tip… Charlie… Darkwood… Yes, just about everyone.

65. Do any of your characters watch TV?
Eh, no.

66. What size shoe does your main character wear?
I don’t know, but they’re probably large.

67. Do any of the characters in your novel/story use a computer?
Now that would be weird, wouldn’t it?

68. How would you react if your novel/story was erased entirely?
Whoever put this questionnaire together is a cruel, cruel person.

69. Did you cry at killing off any of your characters?
I’ve gotten a little teary-eyed, yes.

70. Did you cheer when killing off one of your characters?
No. Killing characters is an exhausting business.

71. What advice would you give to a fellow writer?
Oh, why bother coming up with my own when Jenny voiced her advice so nicely? “Persevere. Don’t be content with the mediocre and cliché. Read good literature.”

72. Describe your ending in three words.
Bittersweet. Refreshing. Jasmine.

73. Are there any love triangles, squares, hexagons, etc.?

74. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being the least stressful, 10 being the most) how does your stress rank?
This novel plays its scales like an expert. Right now I’m feeling pretty sanguine. (“You’re feeling bloody?” “Yes, because I just shot someone.” “Oh, I see.”)

75. Was it worth it?
If I say no, my characters will go on strike. But honestly, yes, it’s always worth it.

July 12, 2011

Not a Tame Lion

Within the genre of Christian fantasy, as it is known in that vague place called "the market," perhaps the most used tool in making the fantasy world "Christian" in some way is allegory. This can be as slight as having a different word for God, or it can be as broad as having a Christ-figure, angelic beings, demons, and a Satan-figure. Writers want their stories, whatever genre they fall into, to reflect God's truth and to have Gospel elements, and in the difficult genre of fantasy, the simplest way of doing this is to employ allegory.

Sadly, the rise of allegory can probably be traced to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, some of the best-loved children's books since their publication in the 1950s. Most fantasy authors will admit that their primary inspiration came from such works as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Lewis' most famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even though neither man wrote his book intending for it to be taken as an allegory. The Chronicles of Narnia are "what if" tales, as Lewis specifically stated: "...[Aslan] is an invention giving an answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all." This is made clear at the end of The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' when Aslan tells Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace that in their world he has another Name, and that they must learn to know him by that Name.

But even this is a dangerous position for an author to take, for when he writes a being like Aslan, he is making a statement about Christ. In fact, he is essentially writing Christ. This is taking on one's self a massive amount of responsibility, but because Lewis got away with it (and in doing so created a classic), many writers now operate under the assumption that they can do the same. The shelves are filling with allegorical fantasies that feature Christ or a Christ-like figure as a dragon, as a canine, as a feline - and authors have lost sight of the magnitude of what they are attempting to do. The process of writing an allegory has become as simple as picking some creature that seems in the author's mind to represent some attribute of God, and then enhancing that attribute to make the creature into something which (again, in the author's mind) is "like God."
"The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God
that are unworthy of Him."

This quote by A.W. Tozer sums up the state of affairs in modern American Christianity. God has been put in a box. His perfections have been diluted and cheapened into "what God is for me," and this personalized, subjective, and unbiblical way of looking at Him cannot help but overflow into the writing of professing believers. Thus, Christians have no problem with portraying Christ as a dragon or of comparing God to their dog. In fact, it seems perfectly natural to them. They never stop to think of the horror the early Christians would have felt at the thought of applying such base images to a holy God.

One argument that might be raised in defense of such allegories is that it helps readers to understand God better, or at least to understand certain of His attributes better. But unworthy thoughts do not lift the mind to see God more clearly; they lower God to the level of the human mind and thus degrade Him. In the pages of Scripture, God does not express much enthusiasm for man's self-made ways of worshiping Him. He has given us His Word in order to reveal Himself to us, but too often we forget that in the Bible we have God Himself speaking to us; if we recalled that to mind more often, why would we think we need weak word-pictures to reveal Him to us? God does not need help in revealing Himself to us.

Is all allegory evil? I would not go so far as to say that. I do think that Lewis, in portraying Aslan as a lion (a scriptural term for Christ - the Lion of Judah), in pointing always to Christ, and in grounding the representation in Scripture, did an excellent job with his Chronicles of Narnia and created a deep, thoughtful story worth reading over and over. But writers ought to be careful with this method of Christianizing their stories - and, indeed, with any method of Christianizing anything - and should stop marching on as though they had every right to portray God however they want. Although they may think they are sharing the Gospel and proclaiming Christ, it is quite likely that they are doing more harm than good. The nature of God is not a thing to be taken lightly.

July 9, 2011

"Drop Dead."

Jenny's post on Between Earth and Sky prompted me to post a little, non-spoiler section of Wordcrafter for those of you who have been interested in this novel. While it is "completed" and currently in the querying stage, leaving me with my attention primarily focused on The White Sail's Shaking, it's never really finished until it's published. I even made a couple changes to this bit before posting. But anyhow, here it is.

Chapter 15 - The Harvest Knot

Justin blew a heavy breath and wrapped his arms around his drawn up knees, watching carefully for a hint of the “excitement” Ethan foretold. He saw nothing even resembling it for a time, and it took him by surprise when at last it did come. There was a sudden, tense silence all through the crowd, and then Ash materialized on one side of the blaze and leapt toward it. Justin jerked forward, but Ethan, now sitting upright, body tense, grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back with a breathed, “Wait!”

Justin obediently waited, though he strained against his friend’s hand. The warrior kept on until he drew near the ring, then swerved to the right and ducked away to the far side of the fire from Justin; when he came around on the opposite side again, he had been joined by Sparrow’s lithe form. From every part of the circle warriors continued to join the wild, twisting knot-work of a dance, and though Justin knew many of them, he could not afterward remember who had been there and who had not. Each and every one of them danced with an agility that he would not have expected from them, and took a different part of the dance as characters from Justin’s books played different roles in a plot. No motion of their bodies as they wove around the fire was extraneous, but every whirling step, every flash of firelight on their upturned faces, told a kind of story—one that Justin would not have understood months ago, but that he recognized now.

They danced a tale of wildness and laughter, of summer hunts and winter fires. They danced the dance of the wolves and boar they hunted, and of the horses who were their pride. They danced for the pale blue sky of Tera and the stars that shone in it; they danced for their women and children; they danced for feast and famine, rain and drought, joy and sorrow. They danced for Tera, and they danced for the God who made her. They danced the story of the Horsemen.

The winding dance went on, gaining in numbers until it seemed that it had reached its crescendo and could go no higher. Justin sat enraptured, aching to join them but knowing that he had neither the grace nor the power of a Horseman to dance in the Harvest Knot. He glanced over at Ethan and found the Hound gathered up like a wolf waiting to spring, eyes shining, his whole face full of mingled delight and anxiety as he waited to see if any of the dancers would miss a step. From behind them a boy spoke up, shoving Ethan in the shoulder. “Come, prince, you must join them,” he cried.

Ethan shook his head, still not drawing his gaze from the pattern.

“You must!” the boy persisted. “You are the life of the dancing; the Harvest Knot is missing its heart if you are not part of it.”

Ethan hesitated, and Justin saw it. He glanced at his friend, then at the dancing, then at Justin again, and at last he rose. He shook off his boots and undid the lacing of his tunic, pulling it over his head and tossing it to the laughing boy, and then faced the dancers with a different kind of expectancy than before; he was braced again as for a lunge, waiting for a break in the pattern where he could dive in and become part of the formation, and after what seemed an eternity, it came. He leapt in, and all in a flash Justin saw what the boy meant.

Ethan Prince danced as none of the other warriors did. He danced the way he played his harp, with no set plan, but only a vague idea in his head that he then expanded and embellished and vivified. He could no more dance any other way than he could play a song merely because one was demanded of him; but though his dancing was unrefined, Justin could not imagine the onlookers expecting anything different. He was, as the boy had said, the centre of the Harvest Knot. He was its heart—as he was the heart of his people. Justin had thought the Knot’s story a beautiful one before, but now he knew that if Ethan were to drop out, it would become ugly.

The formation twined around the bonfire again, and Justin caught a glimpse of someone slipping out and changing the Knot slightly. Ethan disappeared in the film of smoke, then reappeared. His bare feet flashed up and seemed to hang in the air for longer than was possible, then came down to the dry earth again with the pounding note of a drum. His face glowed in the wavering firelight and his eyes gleamed jewel-bright, reflecting both his wild delight and his fixed concentration. Watching him and the other dancers, Justin wished to join all the more. He almost did, but then his common sense and embarrassment overwhelmed him and he relaxed back into his place again.

He thought later that this must have gone on for a long time, but it did not seem so as he was watching, for there was always a new twist in the dance, a sudden move that he could not foresee, and it kept the crowd wanting more. These dances were ages old, yet he knew from the fascination each face showed that it was new every year. How could it not be? They had nothing to follow but their own memories and inspiration, and so, by degrees, it changed. But in the midst of his reverie Justin suddenly realized that the dance was drawing to its climax and he leaned forward, waiting for whatever was to come.

The thread of warriors wove back to the place where Ash had begun and then curved, Ethan in the centre, facing the fire and sweeping toward it with doubled strength. Justin knew how it would be now. He waited eagerly for the turn, but it seemed to him that the Hound was going a little too far, that Ash had veered off before now, and that the prince was going to burn himself in the fire. Justin sat with his mouth open, dumb and horrified, incapable of moving; and, as he watched, the Hound gathered himself up and hurtled through the flames.

For a moment he was gone, and then he came into sight again, his body gleaming like burnished copper for an instant, his feet arched and one outstretched to receive the ground again, and, just as the other dancers began to close the gap around the fire, he touched the earth. The breathless crowd waited, ears pricked, to catch the sound of his landing: it was silent. It was as if it had never happened. He stood in the centre of the ring of warriors, poised with his head upflung, only the occasional, spasmodic tightening of the muscles in his belly showing the exertion he had put his body through.

The silence continued for several seconds longer, and then the assembly erupted into cheers as the warriors dispersed. They did not stay to receive the applause of their fellows, but only dropped out and made for the water and mead barrels. Justin scrambled up and went in search of his friend, his heart still thudding in panic, and found him near one of the low, makeshift tables. He stood with his legs widespread and his head back, a mug to his lips as he drained the last of the drink; it was such a common sight that Justin half wondered if he had dreamed the dance and the fire-leaping, until he came nearer and saw that Ethan’s breeches were blackened and singed in places.

“I thought you landed a mite heavy,” Ash was saying, finishing off his mead in two gulps and swinging the goblet at Ethan. “Have you put on a pound or two? You have to be careful what you eat.”

Ethan laughed at the good-natured jest and flung it back with, “I did, did I? Well, you got too near the fire and burned yourself. Here, let me by.” He retreated from the press of the crowd and came to Justin’s side, drawing a deep breath. Putting his fists on his hips, he said, “So, was that exciting enough for you?”

“It was amazing,” Justin stated. “You once told me you could dance, but I did not know you could dance like that.”

Ethan chuckled, brushing himself off as though it would help get rid of the black marks. “Still think the harvest fires are boring?” Justin made a wry face and gave no answer. “So, then,” the Hound continued, “you liked the Knot. Think you will be joining it next time?”

“Drop dead.”

July 5, 2011

A Faultless Felon

Two weeks ago when Anna came to visit us she brought her copy of G.K. Chesterton's Four Faultless Felons, a short book that I proceeded to borrow and read over about a week-long period. It was my first Chesterton book, and while I am not sure I agree with everything in the four short stories, the major point that he was driving home made me think. Each of the characters had done something or appeared to do something that in the eyes of those around them was illegal, earning themselves the titles "felons." Yet their actions were in fact not felony at all; each man was faultless when his motives and real actions were taken into account.

One of the points of Four Faultless Felons is that genuinely good actions are so confounding to the world that if they were practiced more often, they would be mistaken for felony. How can evil understand Good? How can darkness understand Light? Can the things of the flesh understand the things of the Spirit? Another point is that we ought not do good in order to be seen as Good People by those around us, and that when the world starts calling us Good, we should stop and examine ourselves very closely. The people did not call Jesus "good," and when one man did, Jesus turned it back in his face with the reply, "Why do you call me good? There is none good but God alone." It isn't about appearing to be good; it is about being holy.

Yesterday I was working on my author website, getting it set up to launch, which involves doing summaries for my novels and all that good stuff. I had done The Soldier's Cross and Wordcrafter and was working on The White Sail's Shaking, mulling over some of the themes that have come to play in it - friendship, courage, mercy, and true honor. Only, I hadn't really thought about the last one very much. Tip is driven by a need to prove himself, to show his family that he is something more than mediocre and to show his fellow officers that, unlike his relations, he is not a Loyalist. I already knew that that would be a point of the story; I knew subconsciously that Tip was facing a decision - whether to seek honor or to do right - but until yesterday I hadn't come to the foundation of the choice.

It isn't about whether to choose honor or righteousness; the question boils down to what honor is. Honor is doing right, or at least it ought to be, and as Chesterton points out, it often comes out looking very dishonorable to everyone else. Tip is hunting glory, not honor, and though the two words are used synonymously, in this fallen world they are very often opposites. What is our conception of glory but greatness? And what, after all, do we really know of greatness? When we say a man has won glory, we mean he has won the people over into considering him great, which is not at all the same as the man really being great. Again, Chesterton's point is a good one: if true greatness were seen among fallen man, it would be considered base. When a great Man did come, what did the world do but ridicule Him and mock Him and put Him to death?

And so it is that when real honor is seen, it is usually misunderstood. To seek real honor is to seek something very low in the eyes of the world, and it is a great deal harder than winning glory. Any scum of a man can set himself up as something great, but it takes a different kind of man to be a faultless felon.

July 3, 2011

Scribblin' Notebooks

Although technology has all but displaced writing whole novels by hand, most writers still carry notebooks around with them for scribbling ideas in during the day. Some people are more comfortable writing this way; some people prefer typing. I like a mix of both. Some sections seem to want to be written by hand - especially scenes that take place beyond the point at which I am in the "actual" writing - while others like to be typed and won't flow on paper. I always carry a notebook with me in what my family calls "Abigail's little red bag." "Did you get your little red bag?" "Where's your little red bag?" "Don't you have your little red bag?" During Wednesday night Bible Study, Thursday night theology class, and Sunday evening worship, I'll pull my notebook out and write, which actually helps me pay attention rather than distracting me. I currently have three writing notebooks - two completed, one in progress.

The middle one was my first, and not decorated by me; those are Elrond's twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, up at the top, by the bye. It has some of my planned novel Sunshine and Gossamer but is mostly full of Wordcrafter - lots of messy scribblings on Wordcrafter.

The one on the far left was my second, this time decorated by me. The sketches of the two women are of Lizzy and Jane Bennet, drawn by professional artist Niroot. The drawing in the bottom right of the anthropomorphic cat sitting at a burning typewriter is from the webcomic Lackadaisy. The middle image is a drawing of Legolas with "If You Can Read This, The Dwarf Fell Off" written on the back of his tunic. Over on the right and at the top are some signature graphics (original art not mine); the one on the left says "blue jeans in Tera" (Wordcrafter), the silhouetted man says "Justin King" (Wordcrafter), and the woman up top says "Marta Rais" (White Sail's).

And the one on the right is my current notebook. Like my second, it has an Arabian horse on the left (for Marah from Wordcrafter). It also has a couple signatures - one for Justin (again), one for Ethan, and one on the right that says "I answered you in the secret place of thunder." It also has an adorable picture by a gal who...seems to have deactivated her deviantART account. Then I've got a cover for Sunshine and Gossamer and another for Tempus Regina, my other planned novel.

I write the scene on the right-hand page only; it's easier that way. At the top I mark the story and sometimes the chapter, if I'm actually advanced enough to have a chapter list.

I also write notes on the top of the page, usually having something to do with the teaching. (The top note, for those of you who are peering curiously at it, is the quote from Wives and Daughters, "I'm not saying she was very foolish. I'm saying one of us was very foolish, and it wasn't me.") On the left-hand page I write the location of the scene, more for the fun of using elaborate fonts than for anything else, although with White Sail's it is helpful. For instance, the scene I was writing in the right picture took place in Boston; others take place on the schooner Enterprize, and I'll note that and the location of the ship at the time (if in port). I also use this space for writing more notes, or for scrawling furiously when I can't think of anything to write.

And sometimes I write on the bulletins our church has for Sunday mornings. This is for Tempus Regina, but I'm not going to translate it for you.

*The cat featured in some of the above photos is Buster. He was more interested in lounging than in posing, however, so he looks a bit...well...loungy.
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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