September 27, 2012

The Creative Mind

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Last week I finished reading The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels.  I can't say I'm much a fan of her mysteries, but this book I enjoyed so much that I gave it five stars and wanted to wave it in the face of everyone I ever met and scream, "Read this book, it's full of awesome!"  Which is not generally something I do; I try to keep my voice below a scream at all times.  Sometimes, however, I do feel that a higher pitch is justified.

The Mind of the Maker was once such instance.  It is a little hard to explain and do justice to it, for Sayers, with a kind of tongue-in-cheek, no-nonsense style somewhat typical of her generation, covers a great deal of ground in only 250 pages.  She is examining, or rather making a frank case for, the doctrine of the Trinity - and that right there is a monumental task.  She goes about it, however, not from the "top down," but from the "bottom up."  For she looks first at something very near and dear to every human artist, whether writer or painter, sculptor or musician:

the trinity within the mind of the human maker

This doesn't seem self-evident when stated like that, and yet it struck me because some time before beginning the book, I realized that in my writing I seem to have three different tracks or periods of thought.  There is the period where I seem to get the most concepts, where story ideas seem to be popping up frequently.  Then there's the time while I'm actively writing, where all my powers are concentrated on that single story.  And then I have my editing, as I polish and rewrite and convey what I want to convey, and during which I feel the need to edit everything in sight - whether it's mine or not.

These thought-periods very roughly correspond, I think, to what Sayers discusses in The Mind of the Maker, but outlining it her way is much more coherent and profound.  Her "trinity," based on experience, is that of Idea, Energy (or Activity), and Power.  Idea is comparatively easy to grasp: it is the overarching knowledge of the story, beginning to end, the story as it exists within the maker's mind.  It isn't always fully expressed even to the creator, not at first; but it is the guiding pattern of the work.  It is what allows you to say at the end, looking back at the beginning: "This is how the story was meant to be.  I didn't know it at first, but this is it.  Nothing else would have been right; this is the story."

This struck home to me, because it encapsulated my feelings as I stand at the finish-line of The White Sail's Shaking and The Running Tide.  I can't express how unprepared I was when I began the novel on November 1, 2010.  I had little more than the names of two main characters - Tip and Marta - and a setting, and that was all.  Charlie Bent and Josiah Darkwood came in of their own accord, one might say, but I found they were crucial to the story as a whole.  Lewis, only a bully at the beginning, appeared again to star as the villain of the piece - and it was right, though not wholly planned.  I look back over the story and I'm amazed at the unity of it, when I started with nothing more than fragments.  Sayers, I think, gives the explanation.  For The White Sail's Shaking and The Running Tide exist in my own mind as an Idea, and because the execution of it has matched that pattern, it feels right.

The execution, then, is the Energy.  I found the term a little odd, and hard not to confuse with Power; "Activity" works better, I think.  At any rate, this is the outward expression - in paint or words or music - of the Idea in the maker's mind.  For a writer, it's the act of writing.  It's taking the concept and giving it expression, so that readers can see that form and, through it, see the Idea in the mind of the maker.  Sayers comments that this is why it confuses a writer to be asked, "What did you mean by this plot twist, or that character?"  Because if the writer has done his work correctly, his "meaning" should be expressive in the plot twist or the character.  "Meaning" is part and parcel of the Activity.

This concept is mentioned at times, though not in these terms.  It is the same law that says that extraneous characters (no matter how vivid) and unimportant events (no matter how dramatic) damage rather than help a story.  Such goings-on are nothing but the Activity expressing itself, and not the Idea; for the whole purpose of the Activity is to present the Idea. 

Lastly in the trinity, there comes Power.  It is harder to explain than Idea or Activity, as Sayers concedes, but it is something like the conveyance of the Idea's spirit.  It is the invoking of feeling and understanding in the minds of readers - an exchange, as it were, from the writer's mind to that of the reader.  If this Power isn't present, then the expression of the Activity has failed and the Idea is not fully revealed.  I saw a quote recently (by Stephen King - go figure) that reminded me of this: "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."  I think you could accurately add to "description" characters, plot, foreshadowing, dialogue, and anything else that might spring to mind.  All must be planted in the reader's mind, or there is no Power.

I think by this point the analogy becomes quite clear.  For like the Idea, would not God the Father be, for all intents and purposes, unknowable if it were not for His self-expression in God the Son?  And does not Paul - and Jesus Himself - make it clear that the Son is the "image of the invisible God," that "having seen Him we have seen the Father"?  He does not do His own will, but the will of the Father.  And the Holy Spirit, proceeding from God the Father, then testifies of Jesus Christ.

It would be wrong, of course, to say this analogy is perfect; because of the Fall, the trinity of the human maker's mind is corrupted and tends to overemphasize one or another - as Sayers herself points out.  And yet, as God is the supreme Maker, is it not reasonable to see how we, made in His image, are makers after the same fashion?  I wouldn't say this is all that is entailed by the Imago Dei, but it is an integral part of human nature: the true, good human nature that God Himself created.  As we are all made in His Image, so we are all meant to be makers.  Not all writers, not all painters, not all musicians.  But all looking at the world and our work with the eyes of artists, expressing and taking pleasure in our creations.  Because if we don't, if we fall into the rut of ho-humming our way through life and taking no pleasure in our work (for God did design us for work), we are not living according to the pattern the divine Maker has laid out. 

And that's never a pleasant place to be.

in conclusion: read the mind of the maker.  end of story.

September 25, 2012

Trains and Winter Rains

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Some while ago - back in February: was it really seven months ago? - I wrote a little post about some of my favorite things.  It occurs to me now that most of those were objects: things like family and books and pocket watches.  But I also have a number of sounds I love, for their own sakes or simply because they remind me of something else. 

things like...

the sound of distant train whistles and wheels in the night // butter scraping over toast // keys ringing on key chains // my cat purring // the mailman's truck on our street // book-spines crackling for the first time // my family's laughter // waves on the beach // the wind in maple leaves // the north-England accent // the sound of my church-family singing // my characters' voices // whatever happens to be my favorite song at that moment // high heels on hardwood // my clock ticking (and only my clock) // fog horns // rain on the street // gulls crying // percolating coffee

These are some of the things I love to hear.  What are some sounds that thrill and inspire you?

September 20, 2012

A Novel Month

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It's still September, but with Fall in the air many of us are already looking ahead to this year's round of National Novel Writing Month, the challenge to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.  Some of the old-timers are looking forward to it with excitement; some of the newcomers are rather more nervous.  Although I've done NaNo (successfully!) twice, I have to say I'm in the latter category this year, for a number of reasons.

In 2011 I forwent joining in, simply because I was in the midst of The White Sail's Shaking - possibly The Running Tide at that point - and couldn't spare the brain power for another story.  Therefore I'm a bit out of practice.  My writing has slowed - improved, I like to think, but definitely slowed.  Writing a thousand words in a day is a highlight.  The prospect of churning out exactly 1,667 words every day is, needless to say, a little bit alarming.

There are other reasons as well, having more to do with the story itself than my writing deficiencies.  I've already begun Tempus Regina (naughty of me, but I didn't think at the time that I would be doing NaNo) and have had trouble with it, though perhaps no more trouble than the beginnings of stories generally give me.  I can't remember: it's been nearly two years since I started my last "book," White Sail's.  I don't remember what it was like, so the experience is - pardon the really bad pun - novel.  Is this what having children is like?  Women say that if they remembered how agonizing their first child was, they wouldn't have any others.  Tongue-in-cheek, but I, at least, cry a weary, "Hear! hear!"

On the other hand, nerve-wracking as NaNo seems, it is at once helpful, enjoyable, and surprisingly doable.  It helps the author to break the ice - to get to know this new set of characters, to watch the story develop, to be struck all at once with a slew of ideas that might or might not appear in the final draft.  Maybe part of that is just the autumn atmosphere; who doesn't feel inspired when Fall rolls around?  But it is helpful, too, in that it doesn't give you much time to stop and bemoan future difficulties.  You've got a plot (they say it's optional, but I say not) and a goal, and now you've got to make something of them.  In a month.  So there.

I don't know about other writers' reasons for participating in NaNo, but that is my reason this year.  That impetus, that relentless whip-cracking, is just what I need for completing what I find to be the most difficult part of a novel: the beginning.  I don't know that I'll necessarily reach 50,000 words, although I have every intention of trying.  I don't expect that what I churn out will be earth-shatteringly beautiful - the first 50,000 words of The White Sail's Shaking were absolute and total rubbish.  But I think it will help, nonetheless.

NaNo being fun is, I think, pretty self-explanatory, but the "doable" bit is harder to accept.  I'm finding it hard to accept.  But I know from experience that once you get going, the daily goal starts to seem smaller and smaller.  However, several people asked about ways to stay on target and make time for NaNo, so here are a few suggestions.

bite-sized chunks

Not all of us can sit down and have 1,667 words pour through the keyboard onto a document.  If you would rather take it in smaller portions, perhaps you could work out a schedule.   Sit down three times in a day and write 556 words each time, or twice and write 834.  It all works out to the same amount in the end.

use time wisely

This is something my mother used to say frequently, and I think the only reason she stopped is that she knows it's been engrained into our psyche - not that we always do it, but we have her teaching somewhere in our heads at all times.  It is never not important to use time wisely, of course; I'll never forget the passage in The Phantom Tollbooth where Tock the Watch Dog is decrying the practice of "killing time."  Time is important and ought always to be used well.  For NaNo, this might mean getting up earlier or staying up later, or merely rearranging your time table to make writing easier.  Procrastination is by no means allowed, if you intend to make the goal.

keep calm and drink tea

The purpose of NaNo is not first and foremost to write 50,000 words.  The purpose, according to the founders themselves, is to make people put aside their excuses, get their rear ends in their chairs, and write.  If 50,000 words is not possible with your other responsibilities (and I do believe in other responsibilities), do your best simply to write as much as you can.  By the end, you'll still have more than you began with.  The sun will go on rising and setting whether your progress bar turns purple by November 30 or not.

...Yeah, I have a hard time with that one.  I tried to tell myself that in 2010, and everyone else told me.  I still fretted and agonized and panicked and crawled my weary way to 50,000 words.  My life can't go on if the progress bar doesn't turn purple...!

September 17, 2012

Snippets of September

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I come a little late to the party, as usual, but it's time for Katie's monthly Snippets post!  I have done little actual writing this month; I've left off Tempus Regina until November and NaNoWriMo, so my work has been confined to edits.  But here are a smattering of earlier Tempus Regina bits, and a clip or two from recently revised sections of The Running Tide.  (Somebody commented that it sounds strange to hear The White Sail's Shaking become The White Sail's Shaking and The Running Tide; I heartily agree, but I'm forcing myself to get used to it.)  I'm hoping to pull out Wordcrafter and make some major revisions this month and next, so October's snippets should see some of Justin and Ethan and the rest of that lovely gang, whom I've not dealt with in quite some time.  Most exciting!

september snippets


[He] was saying something, but Tip could not hear what it was for the rattling of the man’s chest and the flow of Heerman’s shapeless talk, and the flare of lamplight that seemed loud in the quarters. 

- the running tide 

There was blood on Decatur’s face, Tip noted, spattered like ghastly freckles across his cheekbones. 

- the running tide 

Her voice drifted into inarticulate fussing as, gesturing with both crabbed hands, she drew Regina in—like the witch with Gretel. If she saw any ovens, Regina thought she might panic. 

- tempus regina 

Something crashed like elephant feet above and to the right of her head. Regina shied; the candlesticks down the hall clattered against each other and the ceiling bounced and trembled. Dirt spattered on the floor. Mrs. Godands was imperturbable. 

- tempus regina 

Mrs. Godands found the proper key at last and jammed it into the hole, murmuring happily to herself as, with a sepulchral moan and a burst of dust, the door swung outward from its socket. She played tug-of-war with it for a moment in an attempt to get the key back out; something else smashed in the master’s room; the ceiling bobbled; the door hinges screamed. Regina wished she could join them. 

- tempus regina 

The cat neared the fire, lapping once more at her tail while she steamed in the heat. When she had beaten down the unruly crests of fur, she looked up, a bit of fluff still caught in her mouth, and mewed. 

- tempus regina 

"You mock me, woman, and I will not be mocked. Stand out of my way.” 

- tempus regina 

As he spoke the stranger lowered himself to a squat, balancing on a root beneath the arches of his feet, and turned his head to give Regina a long, upward, lopsided look. She thought him grotesquely like a goblin. 

- tempus regina

September 11, 2012

Growing Art

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We all want to improve.  

I make that a blanket statement, because while there are those writers who already think their writing is as good as it gets, us saner folk still have days when we look at our work and think, "Oh goodness.  I really, really stink at this.  Did I write that?  That is so stupid.  Backspacebackspacebackspace...!" and daydream of a time when our writing is polished to perfection.  (At least, I do.  On rare and not terribly lucid occasions.)

Our desire to improve in the craft of writing is what drives us to read the self-help books and writing blogs dedicated to the subject.  We dig through all the posts on fight scenes or dialogue, hoping to glean something that will make our writing in those areas shine and stand out from the crowd.  We fret and sigh over cliches like "black as pitch" and practically rip our hair out over stray adverbs.  We chew our nails as we wonder if maybe our fantasy world isn't as original, after all, as Patricia McKillip's.  And on top of all that, as Christians we often stretch our brains to amazing lengths to find out how we can fit the Gospel or maybe just a prayer into the plot - because that's what we're supposed to do, right?

Now, some of you know already that I'm not a huge fan of self-help books.  I'm not going to denigrate them, though, because I know that they can hold very useful information and have helped numerous writers work out difficult parts of the writing process; I know that for myself, I frequently store away the tips on such blogs as Go Teen Writers, to be implemented at some later date.  Nothing beats an extensive library and broad tastes, but it is nonetheless helpful for us to see things broken down, the parts examined in detail and then put back together again. 

All things in moderation, however, for this approach can be overdone, and then nothing so thoroughly robs a story of its life.  This self-help business often - necessarily, even - looks at writing in a mechanistic fashion: take it apart, look at the cogs and gears and gerbils, then assemble it and voila! a story!  It can fail to recognize that a story is much less a machine than it is a living organism, needing to be nurtured, not to have its leaves and roots pulled out and inspected.  We simply end up trying too hard.

That is a difficult thing to say without sounding as though I'm implying that writing is an easy flow of words onto paper every single day with no agonies whatsoever.  But of course that is nothing more than a fantasy, and not even a pleasant one when you start to think carefully: what, after all, is writing without any work?  We do have to labor over our stories.  We do have to make the plant grow, and we do have to get rid of all the bugs and the fungus and the what-have-you that distort it.  The point is not to sit back and clear your mind of all the wisdom of other authors and readers. 

The point is to have the right mindset.

Writing is an art.  It isn't the same as putting together the parts of car until when you turn the key in the ignition, the engine comes to life.  It's an art, a work of creation, a tying together of a multitude of thought-threads into a story that feels - and in some ways is - alive.  That is not something that can be taught.  And because of this, we cannot go into self-help books and the like expecting to be shown how to write.  We can be shown how to polish our words.  We can be shown how to spruce up dialogue.  We can be shown when to leave a cliche and when to reinvent one.  But in all that, we cannot be shown how to write.

We can't be taught this, and yet I do believe we can learn it.  We learn it individually in the process of our writing, and also in the process of our living.  Because being a writer is not just an expression of what we do, but of something we are.  I don't know that it is essential and I won't run off on a philosophical rabbit trail; it is enough to realize that writing is a necessary part of who we are.  And I think that perhaps the process of improving our writing is not, after all, so much the process of polishing grammar and the like (however important that is).  It's a process of growing.

September 6, 2012

Dramatis Personae - Tempus Regina

Recently I was looking over my Dramatis Personae for The White Sail's Shaking, written back in March of last year.  It was amusing to see how the characters have since developed, not simply in the usual way of story arcs and all that, but from how I imagined they would be to what they truly were.  It usually takes me a little while to really grasp my characters - somewhere around the 50,000 word mark - and after I've grasped them, I have to go back and correct all misrepresentations in the beginning of the story. 

Yet as I venture into the strange, strange world of Tempus Regina, I thought I would do a Dramatis Personae post for it.  I don't expect this to be accurate to the finished product, or even the 50,000 word product; but it will give everyone a tiny glimpse into the story, and I'll be interested, sometime down the road, to look back and see the differences. 

tempus regina

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Regina

Regina has appeared on Scribbles a few times, but not being of a very open or sociable turn of mind, she hasn't featured much.  She has a spotty history; she can still remember (when she cares to) the time before she, her mother, and her brother moved to London from the country, but since then her life has been full of fog and dirt and hard labour.  Nine years of taking care of her mentally-ill brother on her own have lent ice to her personality, and no matter how turbulent the waters may grow underneath, she keeps that ice intact.  Not even being hurled through time, tangling with history, and falling in with an assassin can break her of that.




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The Assassin

The Assassin has also featured, with some success (little wonder: would you look at that guy's cheeky grin?).  He's a nebulous fellow, with a past about as spotty as Regina's and a present that exists primarily in the dark.  He dabbles in a little bit of everything - a little alchemy, a little astrology, a little assassination.  For a price, he agrees to help Regina find the answer to the riddle of the pocket watch, and thus hurls himself headlong into a hunt that will muddle past, present, and future and change the face of his world.







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Morgaine

Morgaine is something wholly different from either Regina or the Assassin, but her path runs into theirs, and after that there is no separating them.  She is quiet, not with Regina's stoniness, but with the air of someone who has learned to hold her tongue and prick her ears.  As tied to Britain as an oak tree, there yet remains something in her that has nothing to do with that world at all.  She feels it rather than knows it, and the knowledge of her own self, somehow entangled with the life of a woman from the future, shakes her foundations.




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A Fisherman

Living in a hut at the edge of a river, this man passes for a sort of strange fisherman - only, he fishes for knowledge and not trout.  Like the Assassin, he keeps to his shadows; he is the man above the stage, not necessarily making the puppets move, but watching them as they do and perhaps giving the strings an occasional tug.  He knows more about the Dragon watch than the other three characters put together, but there remains a large gap in his information; and until he has filled it, he keeps back and watches the puppets move.  When he comes out, though, I do believe he'll come out with a roar.




 
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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