Mama Robin calls as morning’s dew captures light … Never mind writing haiku without coffee is hard.
‘Tis July first! The year is officially halfway over, and with all that’s happened in the world, I know many would prefer to wash their hands of 2020 and be done with it.
But then there are folks like me, who see a half-year of potential rather than a full year wasted. Lamenting opportunities lost only breeds bitterness and anger. Now is the time to grow onward and upward with whatever we have.
Even if all we have is a page of fantastical hopes.
Fellow Young Adult author K.M. Allen posted a couple articles recently about her own struggles with time management during the lockdown life and balancing the writing we do for our platforms vs. the writing we do for, you know, storytelling and whatnot. (Allen used a much better term–“The Art of Authoring.”) Her posts got me thinking about my writing mindset, and how I’ve tended to lump aaaaaaaaall the writing together into this single act. Writing a blogpost? Still writing. Writing notes on history? Still writing. Writing an actual honest-and-true story? Still writing.
Were my extra teaching jobs and graduate school work still a part of my life, this kind of writing would be enough. Heck, I’d be ecstatic if I found time to blog while writing term papers. But these extra factors are not a part of my life right now. Sure, University work still is–I even presented on nonfiction writing at the Lit Fest earlier this month. While researching I stumbled across a Writer’s Digest article called “The 9-Minute Novelist,” and that got me thinking…
Why not me, too?
I know I’ve bemoaned my struggle with time before–when my kids were toddlers, when they attended school but only part-time, when everyone’s home on summer break, etc etc etc. When lockdown life began, I thought for sure I could do do a little, just a little, writing. But too often I allowed blogging, researching, plotting, and those other -ings replace the actual DRAFT-ing that needed to happen.
With the coming school year’s attendance procedures impossible to predict, parents like myself have to be prepared for more of “School at Home” while also working in or out of the home. (And of course, just as I type this, Bash has come into the room. “What is it, dude? I’m trying to work,” I say. “But I wanna be by you,” he says with the smallest possible voice, and moves all my materials to snuggle up by me. Oh, little kiddo.)
Some days the kids are great at occupying themselves, and other days not. Parent-Writers, we know setting aside “hours” to write, even once a week, just isn’t realistic. Heck, I’m amazed when the kids leave me be for twenty minutes in a row.
And that’s the key here: working with the minimum amount of time, not the maximum. Let’s consider what non-kid stuff requires our attention in the day, and where we can find those nine–or ten–minutes to write.
Risky thing, setting aside an hour. Either a movie better be on that ALL the kids will watch, or someone else needs to be in the house with the kids. My online classes are an hour long in the evenings when Bo is home. If I do a movie during the day, that is my one chance at an hour block. This time’s usually needed for grading, a task that I can safely break from and start back on when kids intervene. Writing-wise? That hour better be had outside of the house.
(Aaaand now Biff is in the room, poking Bash with his toes. “Why don’t you two read something?” *Two pairs of eyes continue staring off into space as toes continue poking legs*)
Done right, half an hour can be a very productive time. One can write proposals for a conference, respond to a few students, or catch up on the late grading. As a writer, thirty minutes is perfect for looking through research, scoping out potential publishers, or drafting.
(Aaaaand now Blondie pokes her head in with a page she just has to read from Dogman: For Whom the Ball Rolls. “Yes, kiddo, thank you. Now go and occupy YOURSELVES. I am not here to entertain you!” Three bodies sluff off, complete with drooping shoulders and groans of “I’m too tired to build Lego.”)
This is probably where one can feel the sprint effect–that is, there’s not a minute to waste. Good! Too often I fall down the social media hole with Twitter or YouTube. We must make every minute of that twenty count, be it drafting, editing, grading, or…gasp…exercising.
Again, being realistic with myself. I know I won’t set aside an hour for it, not even half. Twenty…yeah, I could swing that, if the mood strikes. Plus I can drag the little “what are you doing nooooow?” buckos right along with me. Win-win.
Okay, THIS has to be the golden number for one who’s got kids and job AND writing in life. Even my attention-lovers can be occupied by books, drawing, or Snoopy Monopoly for ten minutes.
So many lovely moments can be made in just ten minutes: reading a story aloud to kids. Drafting dialogue. Answering student questions. Editing a scene. Playing catch outside. Prepping for class. Networking on social media. Writing a Goodreads review.
Maybe it hurts a little inside to think I’m only spending ten minutes with my kids/story? I can’t do that! They deserve better! We need to remember this important point.
The day is no mere ten minutes.
I’m usually up from roughly 4:30am to 9:30pm. Want to guess how many minutes there are in seventeen hours? 1,020 minutes. Or, 102 slots of Ten Minutes.
You are not giving your kids 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. You are not giving your writing 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. Don’t beat yourself up over organizing your time. If you don’t organize your time, then you will always feel like something is being set aside for the sake of the other, and that fear will lead to nothing but bitterness, anger, and the Dark Side.
Nothing has to be sacrificed here. Honest and for true. You just need to jigger those expectations over what you want to do and when. Take me, eager to publish the sequel to Fallen Princeborn: Stolen before 2020 ends. If I set aside 10 minutes to edit every day, I can make that goal. I want to expand and re-publish Middler’s Pride, too. 10 minutes a day can get me there. I’d LOVE to get “Hungry Mother” in an online magazine, finish the novella What Happened After Grandmother Failed to Die, work on the OTHER Princeborn novella I’ve sketched out–
And I can do all those things. I will do all those things. And you can, too.
Ten minutes at a time.
STAY TUNED NEXT FORTNIGHT!
Yup, two weeks. Part of this “jiggering” of expectations means blogging can’t overwhelm the story-writing. I’m going to follow K.M. Allen’s idea of blogging every other week, scheduling my own posts for the first and fifteenth of every month.Thank you all so much for your patience, kindness, and encouragement, and I hope you’ll be back when I share the interviews, analyses, music, and doodles waiting in the wings!
Soooooo my puppet plans for the day went so-so. Each kid had a snit at some point: Blondie in making the puppets, Bash in writing his play, and Biff in performing for his family. Still, the kids had TONS of fun at various points of the day creating their robots, rockets, and superheroes. We also took breaks to watch the ultimate puppet show, The Muppet Show. The episode with John Cleese is always a favorite!
I also had a lovely chat with long-time friend, Anne Clare. It always lifts the spirit to connect with an old friend and fellow creative who adventures with teaching and parenting at home as I do. Be sure to stop by her site and say hello!
This week we also found the library that contained the last book to Blondie’s current fav series: Last Dogs by Christopher Holt. She’s found a lot of escape in this series, and I didn’t want to cut off her escape time by missing one of the books.
Escape is very important in times like this, and I hope you each have found that beloved book to transport you out of the current chaos (feel free to share it in the comments below!). I’m excited the stories I’ve written have helped others escape; nothing helps me reset like escaping into my fantasy writing. Diana Wynne Jones also considered fantasy stories to be a delightful bit of escape and adventure for children, but she also reminds writers that fantasy is much more than that for children. Through fantasy, children discover how to be their best selves.
…many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.
Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the ind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all around it and see the tights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black and white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the cruel parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.
An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them…it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.
If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.
As you all continue on your adventures through the fantastic, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember the authors who inspired you with their monsters and warriors, and how those stories brought you here, to your Wyrd and Wonderful place, to create a new world of monsters and warriors to inspire a new generation of readers drawing up their own blueprints to becoming their best, their brightest, their most unique selves.
And let’s not even talk about the parents that spend the day graveyard-hopping with their kids (post forthcoming).
For those of us confined to a house of snits and snaps and other plastic mayhem, the hope for peace and quiet and magic feels all but gone, especially when lockdowns are extended, when schools are closed for the year, when jobs are furloughed until further notice.
Oh, I cried when Wisconsin’s governor extended the lockdown. Even though all the rational parts of me knew this was coming, I still cried. I had hoped my mother could finish her teaching tenure with her students. I had hoped my sons could continue their Occupational Therapy. I had hoped my daughter could return to her friends. I had hoped for a little time for myself, too.
But none of this is meant to be, dammit, so here we are, fearful of the outside world while driven mad by the inside one.
How do we counter this?
Perhaps you find it in an old story, as I did. “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” began with a photo spotted in the fall of 2018.
Something about the old woman reaching for that apple…it was like she was reaching for, for something else. For me? N-no, but something about the urgency in her manner, the aggressiveness. She needed that fruit. But why? I mean, it’s not like people’s lives depend on a single apple.
Uuuuunless they did.
And from here came the crack and thunder of magic gone wrong. People’s lives did depend on this apple, if that apple was needed in order to stop a Happening from, well, happening.
But what was Happening?
Why, a story, of course.
But sometimes even an inspiring photo isn’t enough. We need to look beyond the photo’s perimeters. What does the traffic sound like on the street? How high do the buildings tower over others? Are we in a world of electronics, or some sort of yesteryear? And smells, don’t forget smells.
In order to build upon that initial inspiration, we’ve got to put our sense-memory to use. After spotting the wee shop in the background named “Meatball Obsession,” I focused on my first date with Bo when he cooked me spaghetti. He loves making his own sauce, a day-long endeavor that fills the house with a rich, spicy, meatiness that makes you think the very air is edible. And suddenly I’m imagining people walking about nibbling on saucy meatballs since apples were for magic and not eating.
Hmmm. Sounds a bit silly.
Eh, why not? It’s my story, dammit. At the time I wasn’t looking for serious fare. To help me stay lighthearted, I even put on the soundtrack to Midsomer Murders while I wrote, Parker’s themes for mystery in rural life the perfect balance of spooky and delightful. The mix of smell, sounds, and sights helped me focus on building a story about a woman—no, not just a woman. Look at that hat and coat. Come on. Surely this is a Madame, one of status and prestige…even if no one else agrees. But Madame who? Hmmm…say, isn’t that my Midsomer CD over there?
(Yes, that is occasionally how things come into my stories. If something’s in my eyeline, then iiiiiiiiiiin it goes! So when in doubt, look around you.)
And one apple seems so paltry. Surely Madame Midsomer would insist on purchasing not just one apple but a dozen, certain she could stop the mayhem of her own doing from destroying the entire town. The seller, however, doesn’t like her, refuses to help, and the magical authorities take her away and everything’s fine and life is happy the end.
After posting the story on my free fiction page, I decided to send it off to an online magazine. They didn’t take it, citing the need for more developed worldbuilding and consistent tone.
Well, poop. I liked it, so the story stayed as is…until this past March.
Something Or Other Publishing reached out with information regarding their latest anthology project and inquiring whether or not I’d like to submit.
Um, sure? Except my current short fic WIP wasn’t close to being ready, and SOOP’s deadline was just a few days. What to send, what to send…
I passed “Tampering” off to another fantasy reader to get feedback. While he liked a lot of things, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the meatballs.
But. I. LIKE THEM!
Maybe in this confinement, when we’re so ready for ANYthing to break us out of the rutted dread, I was hoping for those meatballs to just come a’ rainin’ down, blessed by the wind.
A fresh challenge comes when we remove that presumed Thing from the worldbuilding. To us, that Thing embodied so much of the story, like the meatballs representing the out-there zaniness of my setting. In focusing on that zaniness, though, I forgot to give the setting any sort of history, or rules, or heck, even a name. When we over-prioritize the gimmicky Thing instead of characters or plot, is it any wonder readers question the story’s logic or tone?
This calls for serious inspiration.
I didn’t want this urban fantasy to feel too dated, but I did want it to feel different. It hit me I wanted magic to be a normal thing in this society; at first this was to be through the meatballs, but now, I wanted a calmer presence, something akin to Ingary in Howl’s Moving Castle. Witches and wizards were simply a part of life there. One went to a wizard for spells or potions to protect a voyage, help a crop, etc.
Why not let magic be as natural as a flower from the ground?
*gasp* Or the fruits of the trees?
So many possibilities opened in that moment. A quaint farming community, a town proud of its home-grown magic…because it was unique?
Or because it was dated because the rest of the world had moved on to more modern methods?
Imagine magic factory-made and shipped to big box stores, as pleasantly packaged as a box of cookies, consistently good. Not as good as home-made, mind you, but still, you know, good.
Now this story wasn’t just about a sorceress angrily fighting with a fruit seller. This story was about a community struggling under the weight of a pompous magic-wielder. A town proud of its natural magic and fed up with those who misuse it.
At last, I’d found the world built.
And its name was Pips Row.
“Hullo, Seller!” Madame clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. It made no difference to her that the Seller was addressing a small group of whiny school children and their frazzled teacher on the importance of fruit in Workings and other Spells. “So, just as there’s a fruit for every season, there’s a magic for every fruit. Why, if not for lemons, you’d never have fireworks. If not for holly berries, you’d never have snow for Christmas.”
“Isn’t that fascinating, children?” the teacher said with as much enthusiasm as a slug in a salt shaker. “While most communities import their magic from the capital’s factories, little places like Pips Row carry on the old-fashioned way.”
Old-fashioned, indeed! Madame Midsomer had half a mind to show this frumpish excuse of human being just how “old-fashioned” a Regional Sorceress could be. “Excuse me, Seller?”
“Why don’t people here buy by their magic from Merlin’s Mart like everything else?” One gap-toothed girl asked while licking sprinkles from her fingers.
The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Madame Midsomer brushed her aside. “Manufactured powders don’t hold a snuff to the real thing, child. Now out of my way. I have urgent business to discuss with Seller.”
Out of the corner of Seller’s eye, he could see the tower of Madame Midsomer’s residence shudder ever so slightly, sending a cloud of pollen from the flowers of her creeping vines into the air. The wind coughed—an unsettling sound to any native of Pips Row.
Seller gave a tight-lipped smile to the teacher behind the little mob. “If you’ll excuse me.”
But this school group was not of Pips Row, and had so far only learned they can throw sweets without consequence. “No! The hag can shut up so you can show us real magic!” the girl said, and the lot of them pitched fistfuls of sprinkles at Madame Midsomer.
This was unwise.
Dear writing friends, do not look upon this time of lockdown as a creative drought. Peruse old works for new potential. Tap the dust off favorite reads for new lessons. Lose yourself in the emotions of music. Look upon the world outside your window, and ask:
Happy Saturday, one and all! I’m reveling in the last bit of springtime sunshine before rain and snow slush their way through Wisconsin in the next 48 hours. I can only imagine how fun it would be to hide the kids’ eggs in the snow…
(No, I’m not evil, but I may be driven to that evil if the kids can’t stop fighting for %^@$&# minutes.)
Yeah, it’s been a rough week. I had hoped to update everyone on Wednesday, but between teaching my kids and teaching my own university students, the time to write you wasn’t there.
Plenty of time to ponder, though, especially as I cleaned Biff’s puke out of the car. (No, he’s not sick. Apparently the string cheese from one of the community lunches must have been bad, because he puked two minutes after eating it and was totally fine afterwards. I’ve smelled a lot of puke in my days, but cheese puke is right up there as one of the worst.)
Anyway. As one who sits on both sides of the educator’s desk–
–we gotta talk.
Teachers EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. Unless you’ve been trained to teach online and have a class structure that functions online, you are flying by the seat of your pants to make what were paper assignments doable online. You’re having parents take pictures of homework in the paper packets you had to send home because many of your kids don’t have the technology or Internet capabilities to submit anything online. So many of your lesson plans depended on in-person classroom time, and now you have to learn how to mediate an online meeting with kids who may or may not have any other person in the same room with them, which can make it impossible to reign in behavioral issues.
And even if you ARE one of the lucky ones who is already trained to teach online in a well-established online classroom, you’re STILL dealing with students not logging in, not reaching out, not submitting work. And for all you know these students are sick, or have loved ones suffering, or simply don’t care. Without any communication, you have no idea. And that terrifies you.
Parents EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. It’s like the teachers assume parents can just pick up the lesson plans where teachers left off. They expect students to accomplish 6-8 subjects in a day with or without any meeting via phone or chat. They expect parents to create picture-perfect photos of completed work, and God forbid the kid uses a pencil like she’s supposed to because the pencil never shows up in the photos. And even though you hear from teachers not to push the kids too hard, they assign several daily tasks to be completed online–you know, on the computer YOU are supposed to be using for YOUR job if you still have one. Not tiny tasks, either–30 minutes on this program, 30 minutes on that program. Make sure they take this quiz, read this book, complete X squares of Phy Ed. Bingo and show, SHOW they completed those squares by videotaping them, and don’t forget creativity! Make this chalk! Make these toilet paper tube animals! Make this clay!
And this is all assuming your teachers are on the same page. God help you if you have twins with different teachers, who despite teaching the same grade in the same school assign COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS. One has to spend time on Program A while the other’s supposed to check out Program Q and fill in a story diagram, but the one needs to go to Program H and learn this song and sing it back while the other has to recite poetry from Program T and identify diaphrams and ENOUGH.
We gotta take a moment, and we gotta breathe.
While I am desperate to create school days that keep my three Bs engaged and excited to learn, I know I am not the same as any of their teachers. Even my three do not fit into any sort of one-size-fits-all learning mentality; while Blondie and Biff can both self-motivate to accomplish school jobs, Bash constantly struggles to focus his ideas, all of them brilliant, but always “too much work” to put down. He sees his brother and sister make it all look so easy, and he gets even more stuck in how he’s not yet done. He’s not done yet because he must be stupid. He IS stupid. He’s always stupid.
Anxiety’s not the only emotional struggle, either. Blondie keeps hearing the boys on their programs and asks why SHE doesn’t get to do any fun computer games like they do. Biff sees how short his work list is and complains I’m making him do extra stuff–though all I’m doing is having him follow the same work schedule as Bash.
All the while I fear that if I don’t push them at least a little, that if I solely leave them to whatever the teachers have dumped into my inbox, that they will lose the learning stamina they’d slowly gained over the school year.
Surely there is a calm somewhere in this storm.
So far, I’ve found success–small, but consistent–with establishing themes for their school day. No matter what the teachers assign, we will gather to read a little, write a little, and explore a little. I will have them practice handwriting with cool facts about outer space, go on a virtual field trip with an astronaut or to facilities like Boeing via Discovery Education, and then do a space-related experiment through Mystery Science. We’ll read a couple bug books together, write neat bug facts, watch an episode of Monster Bug Wars, then check out bugs with Blondie’s microscope. We’ll listen to the birdsong outside and try to spot who’s chirping and draw the birds for science, then read about nests and write bird facts. We’ll tour Washington DC, read about a president, and then design our own monument for the capital. We’ll visit the Lego House in Denmark, write facts about Lego, and then experiment with building Lego boats.
You may see that in all my themes there is one task running throughout: handwriting. No computer game, video, etc. is going to make a kid work on his handwriting, such a vital fine motor skill that could easily atrophy if left out of the plan.
Am I overloading the day? I probably ain’t helping it much. But I know that school should be more than just a bunch of computer games and worksheets. Even one hour of these themed activities sprinkled throughout the day gives the kids a chance to feel like they’re together learning something. And any learning community is better than no community at all.
Click hereand herefor a mix of online and printed resources I’ve been using to keep the homeschooling humming along.
So parents and teachers–take a sec to breathe. We’re all of us overwhelmed. We’re all of us scared. We’re all of us praying our children’s futures aren’t lost to the lock-down. So long as we show our students of all ages that yes, we care, yes, we want to see them succeed, and yes, we can only do our best until things change for the better, then just maybe we can keep that spark of curiosity alive while the school windows remain dark.
A blessed Easter to you all! May your day be one of peace and hope and not, well, this…
The whole cartoon is here, in case you’re in the mood. 🙂
Darnit, I almost forgot! The whole “Write at Home” thing and how that’s coming…weeeeell it’s slow. Very, very slow, but it’s there. Fellow teacher, mom, and indie author Anne Clare recommended keeping the goals in easy reach; unlike many writers on social media who speak of how much writing time they now have because of the lock-down, we parents in the crowd are all–
–so yeah. No “I can write my whole novel at last!” going on here, let alone a bunkerin’ down at Camp NaNoWriMo.
Writers, there’s always SO much we want to do, but if we don’t pace ourselves our eyes’ll never stop twitching.
I’ve narrowed myself down to three projects–not to complete, per say, but to at least develop.
Fallen Princeborn Series Arc. YES, yes, I still want to make progress on that series despite all that’s happened after the first book came out. The problem is that I still don’t like how the series itself wraps up. Until I create a series synopsis with milestone events that both fit the characters and my vision, then I can at least finish the edits for the second book.
Academic article. Creative writing is nice and all, but universities want to see professional writing from its teachers, too. My department chair has said in no uncertain terms that if I want to advance my career, I must publish something for academia, sooooo I need to get that started.
Short Story Submission. I already have one short piece out for consideration, and I’d like to complete one more before spring is over.
Speaking of short stories, thank you to all who’ve voted for my revamped “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer”!
If you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, please do so–every tally counts in increasing the story’s chances for acceptance into a local anthology. Click here to vote!
Unsure what you’re voting for?
In a few days I will share the worldbuilding process of this story with you, showing that even when confined to one’s home, there are entire lands of magic and mayhem just outside one’s window.
Later on, I’ll recommend some of the books that the three Bs and I have enjoyed reading together. I also want to tune you in to some amazing music (har har) to help you escape those same ol’ four walls and find yourself in a blissful Other-Where.
Greetings, one and all! After a rough week schooling the kiddos at home (stay tuned for THAT post), it’s high time we celebrate Indie April with an interview with an AMAZING writer and reader, Chris Hall.
Let’s begin with the niceties. Tell us a little about yourself, please!
Nice to be here, Jean!
I was born, grew up, lived and worked in the UK until 10 years ago, when childless, in our forties and fed up with our jobs, my husband, Cliff and I upped sticks and emigrated to South Africa. We’d already met people here through a school exchange programme which Cliff was involved in, visited numerous times, and finally decided to come to a new country and do something different.
We’ve settled in a town about 30 miles from Cape Town, where we can almost see the ocean from our house. Our cat, Luna (after whom my blog is named) emigrated with us and loves it here. We inherited some chickens along with the house, all of which have since gone to chicken heaven at a ripe old age, but now we have two large brown hens which usually means lots of lovely eggs, although it’s a bit hot for laying at the moment they tell me.
Since I moved out here I’ve done various voluntary work, been employed as an administrator in a guesthouse and an art gallery, and now I’ve turned freelance doing copywriting, ghost-blogging and social media stuff for other creative people who lack the time/patience to do for themselves. In my spare time I write a lot and read a lot (when I’m not chasing hens off the veg-patch or catering to Luna’s little whims). It’s all a far cry from the 24 years working in risk management which I left behind in the UK.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Two of my favourite authors have written about the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin, have both had a positive impact on the way I write. Their words are wise.
But also, when you read any book with the eye of a writer, your experience is a whole lot richer. Considering the way that other authors construct their books and frame their words makes me think that little bit harder about my own writing.
What is your favorite childhood book?
This is difficult! I’ve wrestled a bit with this, but having roamed my bookshelves, it has to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – and if forced to choose one, it would be The Little House on the Prairie. For the whole of my first high school year (aged 11-12), I totally lost myself in Laura’s world. The daily chores, the struggles and adventures of pioneering life, within the context of this close-knit family, enthralled me. I always had one of her books in my school bag. I’d take it out at every opportunity before and between lessons and bury my head in the pages. The covers are little battered and the pages yellowed, but I still have them all.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
My ‘stand out’ visits were to the homes of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. I fell in love with his poetry when I was studying advanced level Spanish, prior to a series of visits to Spanish-speaking countries back in the early noughties (that’s another story).
Neruda has three houses in Chile: in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra. I visited all three over the course of two trips to Chile, and I found all three utterly stunning: true reflections of the man and his poetry. The ultimate is the house at Isla Negra, located right on the beach in a tiny, remote town. Getting there on a local bus was an adventure in itself, but the sprawling, single storey property and its surroundings are jam-packed with mad collections of ships mastheads and bottles, shells and ship’s bells and all manner of things. I especially liked Neruda’s writing room which looks out onto the ocean. He made his desk from a piece of driftwood which he waded in and rescued from the waves.
Blogging has been a very happy accident. When I began with my website, I really had no idea that there was this big, friendly and supportive world of writers (and others) out there. What a revelation!
The support and the feedback from the people in our little corner of blog-land has been a tremendous encouragement, which I hope I reciprocate adequately. Keeping up the blog has helped me with the discipline of writing something almost every day, although I don’t post all that I write. Some things are remaining under wraps.
A blog gives you a presence as an author (indie or otherwise). It gives you a chance to get out there, show off you books and share a little about yourself. My Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn accounts are all connected to my blog, and more recently I’ve added Instagram too. So now I can be found and so can my books, should anyone care to look. Whether this had as much impact on the sales of my books, I’m not so sure, but it forms a foundation.
Blogging has been, and still is, a journey for me. What I put out on my blog now is all my own work or about my work: stories, installments, reviews, a bit about my successes (and failures) in trying to promote my books and occasionally, a bit about my writing life.
And I don’t think there’s anything I wish I’d done differently at the start. As in many things, I’m still learning and growing. Change is good; development is better. I’m planning to set up a separate author website under my actual name; it’s something I’ll ‘get around to’.
You chose to publish your first book, The Silver Locket (2012), under a pen name. May I ask what your reasoning was for using a pen name then and not now?
I have to admit that it was out of a lack of confidence. I was a ‘secret’ writer then. I hardly told anyone about the book when I first published it on Amazon, much less publicized it. But little by little, as people I knew downloaded it – even bought paperback copies from me – then read it and told me that they enjoyed it, my mindset started to alter. I could actually bring myself to tell people that I was an author!
Then I had a couple of short pieces published in online magazines and I joined Medium and started publishing on there, all under my own name, so it seemed logical to continue. I now wish that I’d written under my own name from the start. Holly Atkins will remain a one book wonder.
Your next publication, A Sextet of Shorts (2018), takes reader through a variety of quick adventures both personal and fantastical. Can you take us through the process of how you choose to craft a story as short fiction and other stories as novels?
The six short stories I published in that slim volume were ones I’d written way before I started working on The Silver Locket. They were the stories which I’d written for the creative writing classes which I attended for a couple years before we left the UK. I’d had good feedback from the writing tutors and members of the associated writing groups, and I was pleased with them.
Two years ago, I decided to dust them off and publish them to use for a bit of local publicity. With my bio and blog details on the back cover, there are copies in waiting rooms, doctors’ surgeries and hair salons around my home town. A couple of them are quite well-thumbed now!
Since writing them, and although I continue to enjoy writing the many, many micro- and flash-fiction pieces I’ve put on my blog and flung out around social media, I’ve discovered how satisfying working on a novel is. There’s so much more time and space to get to know the characters, immerse myself in their lives and watch what they get up to. And that comes back to finding my Happy Place.
You’ve published TWO novels in 2019! The first, You’ll Never Walk Alone, takes readers back to the 1980s in a location quite different from your own! What inspired you to set the story in Liverpool, and in that particular decade?
My former life in Liverpool has been an enormously important part of my personal history. I moved there in 1981 to attend University, and You’ll Never Walk Alone is set in that city at that time. I was in my early twenties and those were truly my formative years, when away from where I grew up, I started to make my own way in the world. Very little of any of that is in the book, but Gina and Lucy would have been my contemporaries, and the house in which they live is based on one of the large, converted old buildings where I had a flat, even down to the Chinese landlord. The locations in which the novel is set would be very recognizable to anyone who knew the city then, but everything else is pure fantasy!
The novel was a long time in the making. Gina, Lucy and Cynthia were born out of a short story I’d written more than 10 years earlier. That’s a long time for a character to be hanging about in The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde, 2003), but now they have a book of their own, and they’ve told the world they want another. One day, ladies!
Considering your experience writing fiction set in the past, how would you describe your research process in taking care the historical context is accurate? What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Can I say how scary it is to think that the eighties are historical now?! But I do always check my facts so far as I can, mostly via our friend, Mr Google. Even though I lived through the times and events which form the backdrop to You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Silver Locket, (circa 1983 and 1989 respectively), I covered the research ground as wanted to make sure there were no glaring errors.
When writing Following the Green Rabbit, I was even more conscious of the two time periods in which the narrative is set. I researched what people would have worn, what they would have eaten and drank, what herbs would have grown in England in the early 17th century and so on. I deliberately left the earlier date vague and avoided mentioning any identifiable historical figures for the very reason of avoiding any dilemma about portraying real people.
Your latest, Following the Green Rabbit, features some heroic children in an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure. What would you consider to be the biggest challenge in writing a Middle-Grade adventure, and how did you see yourself through that challenge?
First if all, let me correct any misconception that despite the tropish title, the story has anything in common with the Lewis Carroll fantasy story. It may be sub-titled a ‘fantastical adventure’, but that’s to do with the girls’ inexplicable transition to ‘past-times’. There are no mythical creatures or size-changing potions; the children find themselves in a place and time where the dangers are very human and very real.
As for the challenge of writing for a MG audience, I hope I made the story page-turning enough, I hope there were sufficient cliff-hangers and there was adequate suspense and enough alarm. But I suppose I fell back on telling a story which I would have wanted to have read, with characters with whom the much-younger me would have identified.
Time and feedback will tell me to whether I pulled it off as a MG adventure, but I’ve described it as a ‘novel for adventurers everywhere, from 9 to 90 years’, partly based on the fact that my 90 year old mother said she ‘really enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end’. My mother is not one to hand out compliments lightly, so I consider that to be praise indeed!
Out of aaaaaall the fiction you’ve written through the decades, what would you consider to be the most difficult scene you ever had to write? What made it so hard, and how did you overcome it!
Ah, this is where sex rears its ugly head!!
Both of my adult novels required sex scenes. None is gratuitous; each is an integral part of the story. The ways in which each of the scenes play out tell the reader something more about the characters involved, and after all, people in their 20s who are attracted to each other will inevitably end up in bed.
There is no doubt that sex scenes are difficult. You don’t want to be too cheesy and you don’t want to be too anatomical, and I believe that cutting to ‘waves washing over a beach’ is a cop out. The scenes must feel real.
Basically, they all involved a large number of rewrites to hit the right tone. I haven’t written anything especially graphic, although I did end up toning down the one at the start of Chapter 10 in You’ll Never Walk Alone during my final, final edit.
Well, yes, I was indeed busy with a new book during NaNo. I guess I’m almost half way through the first draft now. It has been semi-parked through December, but now we’re in the final days of the holidays, I’m ready to get stuck in again.
I decided to write a novel firmly rooted in South Africa this time. The story is set in the present day, in a fictional small town on our West Coast and the overarching theme is the lack of water which is a serious and on-going concern for us here. The narrative combines a slightly romanticized tale of everyday folk with a large dollop of magical realism and myth thrown into the mix. I have assembled an eclectic cast, some of whom people might recognise from some of my stories last year. All but one of them is contributing nicely to the story, but I can’t quite get under this one’s skin yet.
It’s a more ambitious project than any I’ve worked on before, but for the moment I’m just going with the flow. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull all the strands together, but that’s all part of the fun. I’m hoping to complete the first draft by mid-2020, so who knows, maybe it’ll be ready for release towards the end of this year. No promises though!
Last question, I promise! (Hee hee!) Does writing energize or exhaust you?
When I’m deep inside a story, crafting that story energizes and excites me; there’s a little shot of adrenaline too. That’s when it’s going well.
Ah, but when it isn’t! It’s frustrating, it’s unnerving, it’s heart-thumping for all the wrong reasons. I question what I’ve written. Is this a story? Is it going anywhere? I guess some of that might not happen if I planned properly. But that’s not how I write.
I go through a whole gamut of emotions. Not every day, not all the time, but enough.
Many, many thanks, Chris! I can’t wait to see how your writing blossoms in the months to come.
Inspired by street photography and fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” takes readers to the town of Pips Row, where magic grows as sweet as the fruit of the trees. In the wrong hands, however, magic becomes as rotten as the sorceress who wields it, and no one is more rotten than the fearsome Madame Midsomer. Today, the people of Pips Row have had enough.
The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer
Stay tuned! Gah, I gotta vent a little about teachers NOT used to distance learning having out-of-whack expectations of little kids. I’d also some lesson ideas for you to use with your children, and then some music to escape the home and discover writing inspiration.
Hullo hullo! I hope you’re healthy and safe, wherever you are. Today was…well, it was a Monday, make no mistake. But we did get through the morning, and I did get to work this afternoon on revising a short story to be submitted to local publisher Something Or Other Publishing (SOOP).
For those who recall my Free Fiction installments from oh so long ago, there was a tale called “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer.” I’ve been spending some time revamping this tale for a submission to one of SOOP’s anthologies, and the submission is now complete! All that’s left is for you, dear readers, to vote.
I didn’t just want this post to be a “meet MY needs” kind of post, though. Tonight while slurping down some reheated beef soup I was paging through Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction and came across a page that all writers could appreciate.
(Well, all writers could appreciate this entire book, but that goes without saying.)
This excerpt comes from the chapter “Inner versus Outer” discussing that ever-nasty writer problem of showing vs. telling. Enjoy!
Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.
Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.
Such feelings fail toexcite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Thosedaggers have dulled. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived–they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. ….
Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is unescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.….
We’re clear. We’re vague. We hate. We love. We feel passionately about our shoes yet shrug off disasters on TV. We are finely tuned sensors of right and wrong, and horrible examples for our kids. We are walking contradictions. We are encyclopedias of the heart. ….
With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing to me that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. I want to feast on life, but instead I’m standing before a fast-food menu, my choices limited to two patties or one, fries or medium or large. …They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.
So how does one create emotional surprise? …
Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of storytelling.
Gosh, I love this book. I’m going to keep stealing time away to re-read Maass whenever the kids are busy with school stuff. Craft-talk like this does wonders to the creative fire, especially when it’s revision mode. Do you have any craft books you’d like to recommend? Please do in the comments below!
Stay tuned! I’ve a lovely indie author interview coming! No, I didn’t forget about the homeschool lesson plans or music. We’re getting there. 🙂
Schoooooooool’s out, for, summer….schoooool’s out for-ever…..
Well, not quite. To stem the spread of COVID-19, many states are shutting down schools for the next three weeks. That leaves me with Blondie, Biff, and Bash every day while Bo goes to work (until they close that). I’ll need to teach online. They’ll need to do homework online. Everything will have to be done at home, period. No zoos, no museums, no libraries. Just us and our computers so long as the Internet holds. Maybe a park, too, if the day’s nice, which ain’t lookin’ too good this week.
In a word:
At least we managed to get a visit in at the library on Saturday before they closed today. Blondie’s got some novels on wolves, Bash gathered books on building robots with Legos, and Biff stuffed his arms with as many truck books as possible.
Don’t forget all my comic books downstairs, Bo texts me. We’ll make this work.
Not gonna lie–it’s hard to feel that all that positive right now. I’m sitting on my bed, staring out the window like I so often did during those bloody months of post-partum depression. All those people out there, the birds, the flowers. All right out there, yet another world away from what I feel in the moment. Sitting in this spot again, knowing I can’t take the kids anywhere…damn, but I can feel that depression lurking beneath my bed like a monster out of Calvin and Hobbes.
We’ll make this work.
Okay. We’ll make this work.
I know you’re out there, fellow parents, wondering how the hell you’re going to make this work, but you will because you must. We all must.
It won’t gel right away. I’ve already written today off with its lousy trips to the grocery store and dentist (“Where’s the pizza? We can’t make muffins without eggs! I want a toy EVERY DAY! I’m going to race through all the dentist chairs and spin them like crazy!”). But we can’t write off the next three weeks. Tomorrow morning I’m going to get the kids up a little while after their normal wake-up time, and at breakfast, we’re going to make a plan for reading time, creating time, play time, cleaning time, screen time, the lot. Schedules are vital for sanity around here, especially with twins who suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder. Biff especially thrives on the order he expects in his classroom, and now EVERYthing is in disarray. Bash doesn’t necessarily fear failure right now, but how will he react to online school work? And Blondie bummed because as of right now, her piano recital, her choir stuff, her play dates…all cancelled.
And then there’s me, who was so determined to finish her short fiction and share it this week, continue her Star Wars analysis.
We’ll make this work.
That starts with chucking the pessimism.
Let’em have their bears powered by fart rockets today with commercial breaks featuring poop pizzas. Tomorrow, we build the plan for a new normal. Tomorrow, we will make this better.
“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion. The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.
“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”
The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.
Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.
I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.
I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.
“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education. “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”
“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”
Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”
Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!
This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…
Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.
I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…
But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.
Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.
It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.
Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.
It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.
Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.
The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”
Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.
He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.
“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.
It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.
The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”
Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.
It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.
We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.
So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.
Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.
This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanistis calling for western speculative flash fiction:
Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Nametrilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)
As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.
That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.
So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.
(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)
Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.
Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!
Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.
More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.
Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.
Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.
“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”
Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.
Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.
“Triangle at Rhodes”
Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.
And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.
When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.
The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.
Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.
“The Affair at the Victory Ball”
Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.
Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:
Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.
Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.
“The Cornish Mystery”
It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?
Ah. That is why the reader reads on.
So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.
National Novel Writing Month called to my imagination with the promise of storytelling in spite of all life’s commitments. Thousands take up the challenge, so why can’t I? And I was realistic about this, too. I knew 50,000 words was impossible, but surely there could be SOME way to accomplish a meaningful amount of words. I’ve done it before, and dammit, I could do it again!
But if you saw my banner for November, you might already know what changed the course of my plans.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the motherhood. I managed to turn Biff’s day of fever into a quick morning of writing.
No no–it was the teaching. Yeah, the final projects from my University students were once again a big drain on time, but those at least I knew how to manage. The subbing among six different school districts, however, was constantly unpredictable. A small agreement of a three-hour stint would change into a six-hour haul among several different grades. I’d show up expecting to work with a special needs kid only to find out I’m actually teaching 1st grade math to kids more eager to stab each other in the eye with pencils than to just sit the Godfrey Daniel down. (You can decipher that bold phrase if you channel your inner WC Fields.) This doesn’t even include the 5am phone calls of, “Can you come in today? All day. There are notes here for your duties, I think. We’ll look when you get here.”
It was a busy month. Busy, and rough. I’d be rushing from hours spent with a kid who refused to use kleenex and therefore had a steady stream of mucus running from his nose into his mouth while eating his snack and then coming up to hug every single adult and myself and to give us high fives with those same boogery hands and I had to prevent myself from gagging all over this kid OLD ENOUGH TO USE A FRICKETY FRACKIN’ TISSUE and then get my own kids, NOT let them hug me so I wouldn’t spread whatever germs are smeared in green on my person, and grade finals.
And the typical bits of motherhood don’t vanish,do they? Blondie needed to work on her piano. Biff and Bash needed to do their homework, and they needed to attend their occupational therapy. All three needed to be fed with actual food, not just, you know, dog bowls on the floor. (Though that would be SOOOO much easier.)
At the beginning of November, I was certain I could use the same tactics I had in previous years to write while parenting and teaching. And if my life’s course was still just motherhood and teaching online for the university. it could have worked.
But this fall, the course of my life changed when I added the substitute jobs. The river no longer flowed in the way I understood it. It went from this…
I missed writing so much.
I wanted life to continue its typical course with my writing floating atop. I might row for ten miles one day, just around the bend the next. But at least I’d be writing again.
Yet at least two weeks of November passed with no writing at all.
I had failed.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
That failure hung on me like twin boys determined to make me a tree. It hung on me like the face my daughter used to make when I’d say time and time again, “Not now.” It hung on me like the words my husband couldn’t say because I had to work. I had to do more. There was always more to do.
And that, Dear Friends, is when it’s time to stop.
You may think you can walk upon the river’s stones. You may think you can continue on your course your way because you are you.
That’s what I thought. I put on my sensible shoes and figured I could portage my writing across the rapids without *too* much trouble.
I was so bloody determined to carry my writing through these unpredictable waters that I failed to look on what I had done as any sort of accomplishment.
I had written 12,000 words of a new story and shared share every one of those words with you.
It’s so easy to get caught up in what we fail to do, isn’t it? We get daily notifications of a gazillion new authors all hot’n’fancy with readers we’d LOVE to have for ourselves. We check out the new best-seller brew-ha-ha and wonder what on EARTH inspires people to spend money on such’n’such garbage when there’s *our* stuff ready and waiting. We hear of yet another remake/re-imagining/reboot/re-whatever and wonder why no one notices the bounty of fresh fiction we create.
We look so longingly at the accomplishments of others that we forget what we ourselves have accomplished. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did work to help keep Blondie in music and Biff and Bash with their therapy. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did inspire my daughter to start her own. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did get to split my sides laughing while Biff and Bash shared their favorite quotes from a Captain Underpants read-a-thon (Seriously, Biff sat and read an entire novel out loud with Bash silently listening. It was AMAZING.)
So Friends, please don’t dwell on what wasn’t finished. There will always be a course to travel, and it will always be a mystery beyond the bend. What matters is that you take a step, then another, then another. One day you may take one hundred steps, the next one thousand, the next, just one. Every single step–every single word–is something to be proud of.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
I’m going to start posting on Sundays instead of Thursdays, so now you have to wait until next Sunday for some awesome writing music, updates from Blondie, and perhaps some writing craft study on an old holiday favorite. More author interviews are underway as well, so be sure to stop by and see who’s on the hot-seat in the coming weeks!