Discordant Melodies of Heaven

Some places only have character because of memory. This street, for one. It’s the primary thoroughfare for students between campus and the rest of the town.

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Rather than ride a bus and attend a “normal” high school, I attended a boarding high school where teens were prepared to attend a ministerial college. College graduates and seminarians were obligated to watch over us in the dorms, cell-like structures as old as my parents and older.

I should know: my parents met here.

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Some buildings have been left untouched. The auditorium, for one, an important place: it is where my mother practiced music, where my father performed on stage. Where I did both.

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Some spaces have changed. This new dorm was built on the only open green space on campus. Yes, I’m still miffed about that. It’s only been sixteen years…

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At least the little things still thrive. This fruit tree, for one.

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Crab apple? I honestly don’t think of the fruit much. It’s the blossoms I adored every spring. Each morning on the walk to the first mandatory chapel service of the day (for day must begin and end with Christ) we went by this tree. The petals are only waking up now, thanks to Wisconsin’s wonky spring temperament. One can never predict when the blossoms will peak, but I remember walks past that tree when the petals rained down as the organ marched off another hymn, calling His Disciples forth to be counted. I often tuned the organ out to watch the petals dance to their own song, one only they could hear in the breeze from heaven. It was always a beautiful melody. It must have been, the way they swirled about before laying spent on the sidewalk and trod under our feet.

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One day, I don’t know when, I stopped following the march. Oh, my body went along, sure, but my soul stayed behind with the petals. We sang “Here I am, Lord,” and I felt myself a liar, for I knew I was no longer among The Counted. As every pew creaked with our five-hundred-strong bow for silent prayer, I asked God if it was okay.

Please, God, let it be okay.

~*~

I turn to leave the campus. My boys will be done with school soon. Still, I can’t help but pause by the blooms:

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Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)

Hope fills me as my fingers grace the branches, the flowers.

Just before my enrollment, the school changed its mascot to a phoenix. I always found that a bit strange, choosing a mythical creature to represent God’s Followers, but then, the phoenix rises up from the ashes of its old life to live again, brighter and stronger than before. There is certainly a bit of Christ in that.

And, I’d like to think, in me, too.

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Guest Writer James DeVita on the Importance of Nothing Time

I first met actor, author, and playwright James DeVita when I was a scraggly four-eyed kid. My parents had taken me to his family play A Little House Christmas, and introduced me to him afterwards. He was the first author I ever met, and now I have the honor of presenting him to you here. 

River

I fish the rivers of Wisconsin every year. I’m a wader. I like to be in the water when I fish. I always fish alone. It is my meditation time. My nothing time. My favorite seasons are early spring and late fall. It’s very quiet then. No one is around. Desolate. The trees and sky can be stunning. Being a writer, one might think I get a lot of ideas during my hours on the water. Actually, the opposite is true. No ideas come to me while fishing. One can either fish, or think. If I am doing one, then I cannot do the other. I only fish artificials (lures), so there is a repetitive nature to what I do. Hours upon hours of the same exact motion of casting — over and over again – a sort of physicalized mantra. This takes up all of my thoughts. So although I don’t acquire any actual ideas for stories, the outdoor time is crucial to my being a writer. It opens me up somehow to larger ideas –- things that can’t actually be thought at that particular moment – but they can be experienced and just sort of taken in. They come back later as ideas. When they are ready.

 

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Writer’s Music: Peter Gabriel

gabriel_scratchmb_header2Rarely do I allow myself to write with lyrical music on in the background. The words don’t always jive with what I picture in my head, and tend to distract me from the goal of the scene.

And yet, there are some songs that work on a level where the music and the words are intrinsic to each other, like a vine that climbs the old iron fence and flowers before your eyes. You can’t remove the fence, and you can’t remove the vine, for together they create a single unique image. The individual components are now in union, and for the better.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Peter Gabriel’s rendition of “Heroes” so much. Set apart, the strings are just. Breathtaking. The build is dramatically, almost painfully slow, but you know they’re building, so you’re willing to stay, and well up with them. Touch the stars with them. Return to earth with them.

Set apart, Gabriel himself is just. Heartbreaking. The song itself shares a deep hope, yet when Gabriel sings it, there’s this sense of fate–for all the crying out to the heavens, the singer will continue to be alone, for his hope can never be truly fulfilled.

United, this song transcends to a Shakespearean height in longing, love, and imagination.

The first time I heard this song, a scene formed in my head, bright and complete. It’s a rare experience for me, to see a piece of story in such detail–usually I can only hear the dialogue, or see something important, and have to clean up the fuzzy bits over the course of multiple revisions.

Not that scene, though. This song brought it to me, whole and beautiful, and it’s stayed as it was first drafted. Perhaps this song will help you uncover that precious, bittersweet something hidden beneath the starlight.

Click here for more on SCRATCH MY BACK.

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Chapter Headings

220px-Name_of_rose_movieposterI’ve always been antsy about chapter titles. They always seem to have a touch of spoiler to them, such as “Chapter 19, in which Sophie expresses herself with weed-killer” from Howl’s Moving Castle. Thanks a lot, Diana Wynne Jones, now I won’t be surprised when the protagonist gets emotional as she gardens. (I am a very cranky reader before dawn, which is rather inconvenient for one whose reading time MUST take place before children wake.) So when I notice that Eco has them in this massive tome of his, I am skeptical.

The Name of the Rose is divided by days, and then by the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins, etc.). This fits: it gives readers a consistent sense of time and place, since the narrator Adso doesn’t always bother. Eco took great care for the breaks between hours to come with high tension, or tension releases.

Do the chapter headings help or hurt this tension? Let’s see. First one:

First Day, Prime: in which the foot of the abbey is reached, and William demonstrates his great acumen.

So they’ve reached their destination, and we get to see James Bond the Monk be smart. Well that’s a given. Nothing spoiled here.

I do like how Eco sometimes uses those headings to hook me for one more chapter:

First Day, Vespers: in which the rest of the abbey is visited, William comes to some conclusions about Adelmo’s death, there is a conversation with the brother glazier about glasses for reading and about phantoms for those who seek to read too much.

What are his conclusions? Who are the phantoms? See, I had to read a little further.

Yet these headings also forewarn me the characters are about to wander from the plot. While forewarnings are always appreciated, they do make me wonder why wanderings must eat up entire chapters, like this one:

Third Day, Terce: in which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books.

Perhaps Eco has these chapters to screw with the reader. After I muck my way through a chapter of inner pondering, I read another heading, and think Great, he’s going to do it AGAIN.

Third Day, Nones: in which William speaks to Adso of the great river of heresy, of the function of the simple within the church, of his doubts concerning the possibility of knowing universal laws; and almost parenthetically he tells how he deciphered the necromantic signs left by Venantius.

Hang on—what was that on the end? We’re back to the mystery? (grumbles) All right, Eco, I’m on for one more bloody chapter of yours…

And sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if Eco puts the tension release into the headings as if to promise himself he gets to have that moment of release.

Third Day, Vespers: in which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.

I don’t blame him, not when there are other chapters like this:

Fifth Day, Nones: in which justice is meted out, and there is the embarrassing impression that everyone is wrong.

Overall, I must admit the chapter headings are quite useful. They are, in an odd way, a roadmap through the story—no. More like a treasure map, where one clue leads you to another, and while you can see the connections between the past clues, you can’t at all see where this new clue is taking you. Would I use chapter headings in this fashion? I honestly don’t know. I have a feeling I’d be too paranoid about giving something away, or trying too hard at wit and failing. Perhaps such chapter headings will fit your story, and provide readers with the reason to read just one more chapter. And another. And another.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

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Guest Author Michael Dellert Discusses the Land’s Influence on Writing

Time and Place: The Real World of Fiction

Hi, Jean Lee. Thanks for inviting me to write to your audience today.

You asked me recently, “How does the landscape around me influence my writing?”

Nothing anchors a work of fiction so solidly in a reader’s mind as knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in a story or novel, and these settings—along with the characters that will do things in there—provide writers with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply report information.

I grew up in a small, rural farm town in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by reminders of the US Revolutionary War, during the height of the US détente with the Soviet Union. Down in the valley, there are rolling hills, twisting streams, swamps, and small family farms with dairy cattle, sheep, horses, corn and other vegetables. Up in the mountains, where I grew up, there are worn, blunted peaks, steep drops, and tumbled collections of fractured boulders, deposited by the retreat of glaciers so long ago that the land didn’t even know a footprint when those stones were laid down. There are lakes in the low places on top of the mountain, most of them man-made in a time not so long ago when my town was conceived of as a close-to-home retreat for wealthy New Yorkers.

In the winter, the temperatures fluctuate, sometimes bitterly freezing for days at a time, during which the lakes ice over. Then at other times, the weather is mild and merely cool. On such days, the icy lakes suddenly melt, and fog rises, obscuring sight beyond a few dozen yards, and the black-barked, leafless trees loom through the mist. In the Spring (which comes late and slow to the mountains), those same trees suddenly riot with yellow-green leaf-shoots, and the blossoms of flowers in purple, yellow, and white. Summers are a time of blue skies and white clouds reflected on the still waters of the lakes, but also of drenching, earth-shaking thunderstorms. Autumn is a cacophony of colors, gold, red, brown, and yellow, as the leaves change. The temperature drops off in late September when the apples ripen on the trees, and then rebounds for a last hint of summer in mid-October before dropping off again and for good until the following Spring.

As a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate where I’d grown up. It was too familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. I left that small town as soon as I could to see what this “real world” was really like. Since then, I’ve been a lot of places, and seen pictures of the rest. From city to wilderness, I’ve crammed a lot of travel into a short time on this blue-green marble of ours. And one thing I’ve always found? When I’m stuck for inspiration in my writing, one of the things I can do to break the block is go for a walk wherever I am.

The Credibility of Setting

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re always in search of “objective truth,” a common reality that is beyond all dispute and argumentation. Why else is “based on a true story” such a great marketing hook? The idea that some strange, absurd, and fascinating story “really happened” carries a certain amount of magic, doesn’t it?

For this reason, every one of our stories has to really happen in the minds and eyes and ears of our readers. The worlds we create have to exist as surely in fiction as if they had actually transpired in fact. And this comes down to two simple things:

  1. Establishing our characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place; and
  2. Effectively conveying those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.

One of the very best ways to ensure that both of those things happen is to pay close attention to the description of our settings.

For example, in my recent book, A Merchant’s Tale, I take the reader to a time before they were born and a place that never existed. Yet through the description and use of small details, the reader is actually there, seeing the things the narrator is seeing, feeling the chilly, early spring morning of a rural farmland:

The wagon rocked beneath my seat. The trail was rutted and pocked with holes and stones. The axles groaned as the old, grey-haired drover tapped at the oxen with a long, flexible switch and nickered encouragement. Ahead, the hills rose and fell. Early spring leaves on the scattered trees had recently broken bud, and flowers belied the hidden dangers lurking amid the shadows.

We passed through croplands. A ploughman and his ox-goader struggled to drive a team and their ard-plough through a fallow field. It had been cold overnight. No doubt the soil was partly frozen. Adarc told me it was hard work, but they might plough at least an acre that day.

Elsewhere, cow-herds mustered cattle through pastures and dogs barked and nipped at the herd to move it toward the best grazing.

The land rose as we passed through the village fields, bearing east into the hills of Droma. We could look down on the king’s village behind us. It wasn’t much more than a ramshackle collection of thatch-and-daub mud hovels clustered on a wide, shallow bend in the river. The tower was impressive, a three-story shell-keep on a tall hill, but otherwise, I’d seen much more civilized mud-holes.

For the reader, this event really happens, just as surely as the events in any “based on a true story” movie. Despite the distance in time, culture, and place from our modern world, this little scene comes through as clear and crisp as if the reader was standing on that trail on that chilly morning, looking across the countryside of Droma.

All fiction should seem that real to the reader. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want, and only those you need, to convey your story. Then find the very best words you can to describe those details.

The end result will be a work of fiction that brings your readers in and gives them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jean Lee!

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Michael Dellert lives in the Greater New York City area. Following a traditional publishing career spanning nearly two decades, he now works as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach. He is also the sole writer, editor, and publisher of the blog MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing. He holds a Master’s Degree in English Language & Literature from Drew University, and a certificate from the Cornell University School of Criticism & Theory (2009). He is the author of two fantasy fiction novellas: Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, which can be found on Amazon in print and for Kindle.