This #NewYear, Visit Old #Fiction To Renew Your #Writing Life.

For all the jokes out there about stories being a writer’s children there rings a subtle truth: we want every story to be its best. Like a sniffly child on timeout, they whine, “I want to be nice!” Then show you are nice, we say. “I don’t know how!” they wail.

And while my kids sure as Hades do know that kicking one another in the face does not qualify as “nice,” some stories are genuinely stumped. Is it the voice, the setting, the age of the characters, the villain? All it takes is one off-element to throw the entire body out of whack.

Such was the case with one particular WIP of mine. I first drafted it during NaNoWriMo the year of my daughter’s birth. It helped me break from my postpartum, but it also stumped me as a writer. Something always felt off: not enough gravitas. Too much gravitas. Too many points of view. Too narrow a perspective. Not enough action. Not enough quiet time.  With every draft, the story grew as I created and destroyed characters. I pulled dark bones from my past and formed the heroine round them, re-defining her psyche and voice. Could be done for my hero? Let’s try…

But all of this has taken years of coming and going, always needing time to re-settle my writing eye and ear with the heroine, remember what the heck I was thinking. When I started this site two years ago I hoped to see this WIP through its last editing stage and meet the printed page somehow, but then, well, more motherhood came, and other WIPs captured what little attention I had. Before I knew it, two years passed without a glance.

Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, in a fit of what assuredly was Shooting for the moon (heck, for Alpha Centauri B), I submitted a portion of a New Adult fantasy to Aionios Books, an independent publishing house in California.

They accepted.

I’m still tingling.

Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, my first WIP, one that’s experienced countless growing pains, will be shared with readers–READERS! (Insert mad giggles and hopping in coffee-stained sweats here) But I also know that 2018 is going to be one of the hardest years of my life. Not only am I writing here, with you and for you, and teaching, and parenting, but I must now also answer to editors and see the story from their perspective as professional readers.

Is there a lot of work to do? Hell, yes.

writing

Thanks to a two-year hiatus, I can tell that the voice wants to be first person present for the intimate immediacy, but I kept writing in third for eventual shifts to another character’s point of view. And I wrote in past tense for…reasons? Thanks to a long, long break, I can argue with Past Me and see there’s just no justification for such writing choices.

Of course my new fear is that I cannot find the hidden path between my hero and heroine’s voices: the path of the narrator’s voice. It’s there, but hidden under superfluous phrases and awkward description. Time to clean up the deadwood and find new footing in the old haunt.

What WIPs lay buried in your hard drive and desk drawers? Now that time has passed, pull them out. Take a look with New You’s eyes. The story still breathes. Stirs.

Wake it up.

 

 

 

A Little #Memoir #Music for a #Writer’s #Christmas

Christmas divides Bo and me in a few quirky ways. He’s all about the magic of Santa Claus, Spritz cookies in a rainbow of colors and sprinkles and chips made with his mother’s cookie press, Frank Sinatra crooning as he crumbles ginger snaps over a ham, bordered by mountains of peeled potatoes and veg and butter as he cooks the blazin’ jingle bells out of our kitchen.

For me, it’s all about the music, and that music has always started with a blast of Mannheim Steamroller at sunrise the day after Thanksgiving.

Amidst the groans and pillows thrown at the door to shut it, I could never stop smiling, because that music announced the Christmas decorations had been pulled down from the attic. It also warned us to keep out of the living room, for it was now littered with strings of lights Dad was determined to save, and branches for our ancient fake tree we so often managed to fill with action figures and plush animals before Dad gave up on those blasted replacement bulbs and got new sets.

Mom always helped with the ornaments as a precious vinyl played: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. One song in particular could make her laugh no matter what had happened that day, and drew out the silly side we so rarely saw during a stressful school year. She even pulled this song out while my kids helped her decorate this year, and the four of them giggled and danced enough to shake the snowmen watching from her hutch.

For me, music ripples through memory and carries back the echoes of laughter past.

The insanity of Advent and Christmas preparations tossed baking aside as an impossibility. Did my brothers and I miss out? Oh heavens, no. What better gift for a pastor’s family than a plate of cookies/gingerbread house/cookie bars/brownies/anything sugary? Our screen porch would quickly fill with gifted treats from our congregations. We could have made whole meals off of cookies until Lent. 

For me, stepping onto the cold wood into a sugary kingdom of plastic wrap and frosting always carried a hope for a glimpse of snow. See, snow’s not a common visitor in Wisconsin during December. Lord knows why: we get it at Halloween, often at Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as Easter, but in my three and a half decades on this planet I can only remember a handful of white Christmases. So when snow falls, thickly and heavily, it is a true Christmas miracle.

Christmas Eve Night has always carried the most magic.

For me, we had no Santa–not because my parents were against Santa, but because it just wasn’t practical in our house: we always opened our gifts Christmas Eve night after all the services were over. When I was small, though, and living in a small hunter’s town in the North Woods, we’d visit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

No, I’m not making that up. No, I don’t know why renting a Santa suit and setting up a neat little booth was more difficult than constructing a giant puppet theater/stable with a great black sheet behind this giant, car-hood sized head of Rudolph with a red nose the size of a fist and a mouth that barely moved. (I sifted through all the photos in my house for an image, but alas.) I can’t remember much of those visits, but to this day my mother gives us a little something from Rudolph.

The magic of Christmas Eve night has always come with music.

After a day in itchy stockings and awkward dresses, sitting in church pews chanting “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a decree,” running laps around the classroom while teachers stuffed us with Kool-Aid, cheese, and Hershey kisses only to go back into the church for another round of “that a census should be taken of the enTIRE ROMAN world,” fighting off the other kids for your coat and those aren’t my mittens Mommy someone’s got my right boot…after getting a ride home with Grandma and Grandpa and stepping into the house because Mom and Dad have one more candlelight service at church:

The door opens to the Christmas tree, glowing with thousands of lights. The whole house smells of chili and spiced apples from the kitchen, simmering all afternoon. The Advent wreath candles glow upon the table laden with Great-Grandma’s china and crystal.

And music: Dad always has music, often choirs, singing softly all day long.

To enter twinkling lights, savory scents, and sweet harmonies brought Christmas’ magic to life in me and around me. Add Grandma’s laughter, Grandpa’s turns on the piano, the long-awaited sound of the garage that meant Mom and Dad are home and at last, long last, it’s time for presents and sweets late into the night…

Music always flows around us, but its power heightens with Christmas. May the sounds of the season enchant your Christmas, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

Few stories tell the redemption arc quite like Charles’ Dickens A Christmas Carol. In the midst of Grinches and White Christmases and Peanuts and 34th Streets and Bishops Wives, my family always pulled out four different versions of A Christmas Carol to watch every Christmas: one with Mickey Mouse, one with Mister Magoo, one with the  Muppets, and one with George C. Scott. In more recent years, Bo introduced me to the Blackadder Christmas Carol as well as Scrooged starring Bill Murray.

This year, as Michael Caine follows the Ghost of Christmas Present once more to one of my favorite scenes–

(If you ever wondered what my sons are like at home, those bellboys at the song’s beginning sum it up pretty well.)

–a thought occurred to me, one that has pricked the back of my mind every year I see this:

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

I mean, you can see it at the song’s end: Scrooge is all happy and cheery and dancing like a giant Muppet himself.

Doesn’t he still have another Ghost to talk to? If he’s already all happy and stuff, why’s he need to see another ghost? He’s already reformed. If you’re going to make a character go through three different stages towards redemption, then don’t you the storyteller need the different stages actually necessary? What’s the point of having these different stages if an internal switch simply flitches the protagonist’s changed with little effort?

This year, that niggling thought led to a talk with Bo, and the idea to watch a few more adaptations of this story and discuss whether they transform Scrooge, or merely flip his switch.

Here’s what we’ve found. Thanks for listening!

 

 

#lessons Learned from #AgathaChristie: The Omission Says It All.

Studying Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries has been a real treat this year. But like any favorite food, its taste has grown a touch stale on my writing pallette. Before I take a good, long break from one of the greatest authors of all time, I wanted to share one of the lessons learned from what many consider to be her masterpiece: And Then There Were None

And-Then-There-Were-None-HBI had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. That people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. –Agatha Christie, “Author’s Note”

One extraordinary achievement in this book is the slick point-of-view-leapfrog Christie plays to bamboozle readers from the very start. Yes, changing p.o.v. is something that has irritated me in the past, but has also been used well in her Poirot series. In And Then There Were None, Christie deftly takes readers in and out of a killer’s mind without readers ever having a clue it happened.

How?

Well to start, they’re all killers.

Yup.

We glean this from the little things, the thoughts in the characters’ minds that run to the front of the bus like a child unbuckled…

A picture rose clearly before [Vera’s] mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down–up and down…. And herself, swimming in easy practised strokes after him–cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time… (3)

Well, [General Macarthur would] enjoy a chat about old times. He’d had a fancy lately that fellow soldiers were rather fighting shy of him. All owing to that damned rumour! By God, it was pretty hard–nearly thirty years ago now! Armstrong had talked, he supposed. Damned young pup! What did he know about it? (7)

Lucky that [Dr. Armstrong had] managed to pull himself together in time after that business ten–no, fifteen years ago. It had been a near thing, that! He’d been going to pieces. The shock had pulled him together. He’d cut out drink altogether. By Jove, it had been a near thing though… (9)

Many of the characters wander in and out of such thoughts–all but one. The novel itself begins with Justice Wargrave (is that not just one of the most awesome names for a judge?) en route via train to the coast, where he will take a boat to Nigger/Indian/Soldier Island.* We learn nothing of his past, whereas all the other character introductions dip into the past for at least a paragraph or two. Why don’t we see his past? We’re too distracted to ask, for he’s thinking about the mysterious island, and the letter inviting him there from one Lady Constance Culmington. He thinks about her exotic, impulsive behavior:

Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (2)

Note the words “his logic.” Why does he need to reason out something that, on its bare page, seems very straightforward? After all, the letter inviting him to the island is signed with her name. When he’s reasoning out why she’d send it, he’s not thinking about friendship or past pleasures together. Nope, he’s just thinking about why someone like her would buy an island. Why? We’re not told why.

Another curious moment arises in Chapter 2, when the judge addresses Dr. Armstrong about Constance Culmington and her “unreadable handwriting.” Who brings up that trait of all traits to someone they’ve only just met? We’re not told why.

Chapter 3 kicks the plot into high gear as a vinyl record states all the characters’ names and their murder charges. Justice Wargrave gathers up everyone’s connections to the island’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, and shows the other guests there are no such owners, that the name simply stands for “unknown.”

Vera cried: “But this is fantastic–mad!”

The judge nodded gently. He said. “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (41)

Why the hell would a judge, a man of law and order, go spoutin’ off a description that’s bound to incur panic and other extreme reactions from the guests? We’re not told why.

But by story’s end we surely know: because he knows, in his own mind, what he is.

Such little details given without context, like single puzzle pieces without a box, are as close to clues as we’re going to get. In Chapter 4, Wargrave’s the only one “picking his words with care” (43). In Chapter 6, he tells the others in “a slightly ironic voice”:

“My dear lady, in my experience of ill-doing, Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals–and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.” (66)

For all my ripping over the use of outlines and plans for a story, there’s no denying that one needs to plan a mystery such as this in extreme detail in order to find what one can omit and what one can say with “a slightly ironic voice.” How else could Christie describe a man as “passionless and inhuman” (108) in a setting and plot driven by fear and humanity’s fight to survive against an unseen threat? Plus, Christie distracts readers in Chapter 10 by using characters Philip Lombard and Vera to move suspicion from Wargrave (“He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and death” (114)) to Dr. Armstrong (“He’s the only person here with medical knowledge” (115)). These maneuvers successfully keep readers from missing the omissions.

the-eleventh-hourThis level of subtle hint-craft reminds me of Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. We owned the picture book when I was a kid, and yes, I broke open the super-secret solution envelope at the end to find out who stole the birthday feast. Base painted wee mice into every single picture of the book as clues to the culinary culprit, but these mice were a part of the furniture, the yard, the tennis court–only when you knew what clues to look for were you able to actually see them.

So it is with And Then There Were None: when one’s just reading, one moves with the ebb and flow through the different points of view. Only when the reader reaches the end and learns the judge is the culprit can he/she see the absence of the past, the details that don’t quite fit with such a character, and so on.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy flying by the seat of your pants through that first draft. If you wish to create a mystery with no clear answers, though, plan to work hard on the, well, plan. Some clues need to be heard, seen, touched, but other clues can be created with an absence, removal, a tearing-outing. Only by knowing your villain’s moves from story’s end and back, back to before the story’s start, will you be able to create clues as stealthy as a mouse.

*I have to say that I find the soldier iteration of the poem better than the ethnically offensive versions. Any one of any race can be murdered, but one expects a soldier, let alone a group of soldiers, capable of overtaking a murderer.

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