#lessons learned from #NationalPoetryMonth: every prose #writer should feel the power & #inspiration of #poetry.

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Poetry requires a deftness with space and language, a skill akin to lacing. Lacing needs sure fingertips, careful measurements, knowledge of the spaces as well as the threads, their knots, their weaves, none of which I’ve fully understood.

Oh, I’m not putting down prose–a great book requires all these things, too. But there’s something about the poetic line, that tight little collection of words that must balance just-so with the empty space surrounding it, that is needed more in poetry than prose. Studying such rich handfuls of language can only better the prose writer, inside and out.

I can still remember the first poem that shook me. Not a hymn, not Scripture–pshaw, I grew up around that stuff. For the first couple decades of life, that stuff  sat next to the peanut butter, mixed into the pile of bills on the kitchen table, hung on the hook in the hall. Just another part of the day.

College: changes.

For the first time, I was in a place where no one else knew my family. I wasn’t being judged by the actions of my parents or brothers. I was me.  I finally embraced my passion to write and yes, I dared choose story-telling over music. I worked to understand that which mattered inside me.

That which hurt.

For the first time, I spoke to an adult, the college chaplain, about The Monster. His hands. My despair.

Later that same day I was trapped in a poetry unit of a lit class. I didn’t get any of it: meaning, syntax, meter. Hell, I was barely listening. Blah, blah, sentence fragments words, blah, blah. I just wanted to leave, and deal.

Next in our anthology was Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Every line. Word. Space. Stuck.

Never had words burrowed into me, gripped the pit of me and twisted, fucking hurt as they twisted and pulled–because they were trying to right me. I took that poem to the dorm, and bawled for a long, long time. I still cry every time I read it.

Of course all writers want to grip readers. But there are those, like Hughes, who do far more than entertain, or inspire. They transform us. That transformation may be one of the bloodiest experiences in our souls, but we are, yes we are, the stronger for it.

~*~

College: changes.

I studied literature for a summer at University College Cork. I didn’t really fit in with those who spent every lecture drinking alcohol in soda containers and flying to London on weekends to go clubbing. Nor did I fit with the academics who’ve read Ulysses and/or Finnegan’s Wake twice and sat on the dormitory’s stoop to pontificate nature, economy, philosophy. I spent much of the off-hours alone, wandering Cork, reading Seamus Heaney, doing my damndest not to be a dunce.

I can’t tell you which poem fell upon me me first. “Blackberry-Picking,” I think.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Pardon me for being evil, and breaking his stanza. I want to pause it here, because I can feel the call-back of the memory in these lines.
The title seemed simple to me. I should be able to understand a basic description, right? And being the Midwest girl that I am, raised in a farming town before getting shuffled to Milwaukee because God said so, I felt like I could even–gasp–write almost-intelligently about it. Harvest. Rural life. Childhood innocence. Yay, I understood something!

Then something else happened, something that for all my writing aspirations, I had never really considered:

Language.
The first two lines form a smooth sentence, a prosey sentence. But line 3 comes along and says: “glossy purple clot.” Suddenly I am holding something, vivid and bright. Yet “clot.” Why “clot”? Who associates “clot” with delicious fruit? We want blood to clot, I suppose. And there you have it, lines 5 and 6, describing sweet “flesh” and “summer’s blood.” Line 7 builds to “lust” and–hey! The sentence is broken! The space urges me to line 8 where capitalized, separated by the rest of the line with a period, comes the act, the want, the purpose: “Picking.”

Every word Heaney shares connects with one or more senses:

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
The “briars scratched.” The “wet grass bleached our boots.” I read these lines out loud on the sidewalk outside a bookstore, the buzz over the latest Harry Potter deaf on my ears. The way “briars,” “bleached,” “boots,” roll in the mouth, berries all their own. “Like a Plate of eyes”–a return to the flesh imagery! Emphasized with the association to the murderer Bluebeard, who hoarded wives as the young characters do berries:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Gah! Not just “grey,” or “silver,” or “fuzzy,” but “rat-grey.” Immediately, we think of pestilence, unwanted, toxic growth. More of such vivid sounds that we can taste against the roofs of our mouths and yet see, all at once: “fresh berries/byre” or “fungus, glutting.” Action moves quickly with the imagery: “fruit fermented”…”sweet flesh would turn sour.” Three words transform what is loved to what is lost.

And the ending of the poem…we have this sort of short “o” sound three times in the last four lines: “sour,” “rot,” not.” “Sour” creates tension on two fronts: that growling “r” carries on in “fair,” the positive, the hopeful, only “It wasn’t fair,” was it? And the short “o” of “sour” echoes in the harsh monosyllabic phrase, “smelt of rot.” Damn, such a slamming there. A child, stomping his boots at the unfairness, the inevitability despite the hope the narrator knows is in vain, yet holds in his jars and cans every year: “knew they would not.” The whole last line is monosyllabic, too, words falling like so many spoiled berries one tips from the can onto the ground.

I carried Heaney and all these thoughts back with me to the dorm. No, no tears today, but another epiphany, yes. For the first time, I wasn’t looking at words for what they achieve as a whole. Of course, “Blackberry-Picking” is a story in its own right, complete with characters, conflict, climax. But so much is accomplished in the little things here, too.

Every word written carries a rhythm. Listen with every sense. Capture what you can.

Repeat.

 

 

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#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.

Repeat.

How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

34043886Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.

No.

We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.

 

#Writers, Discover Portals to #Fantasy in the Beauty of #NaturePhotography.

Winter’s a curious time in Wisconsin. As I mentioned in my post “War Against Writer’s Butt,” we can go from fifty degrees and mud to twenty below and ice-roads in a couple of days.

Capturing this transition is all the more difficult. Fortunately, good friend and professional photographer Emily Ebeling gave me permission to share some of her photos from a trip to Cedarburg Bridge.

 

 

 

 

Winter trees have such a sadness about them. Once I referred to them as “gravestones over their summer-selves.” The way their fingers bleed into the ice below turns the river into a portal, an other-world that I so often sense on solitary walks in my homeland.

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The way they huddle together as if caught, and freeze, waiting for you to turn away.

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The way a river calls to you, promising safe passage through nature’s spectral giants and their clawing bones.

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The way a bridge impresses safety, dominance over nature. Sure, walk on water, I won’t let anything happen to you, for I was made by man.

As far as you know.

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The way you stand at water’s edge, and peer down. Rocks both tall and flat, a mix of mashed teeth. Nothing stirs at the water’s surface, nothing peeks from the depths. Do you dare kneel, and cross the boundary?

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Some winters will barricade you in your home, forcing you to find new worlds in “the solar system of the mind,” as Blondie once put it. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, but look at what curiosities await out there, like this covered bridge.

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Where will this bridge take you at the break of dawn? At the dead of night? If you’re the tenth daughter walking on the tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year?

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Moments like this make me both envious and thankful for a friend like Emily; one who’s able to get out and document such beautiful portals, and does so with both the skill and equipment necessary to do these portals justice.

This is why I’ve always been a sucker for photography that captures both the intimate and epic scopes of landscape. I may never get back to Ireland. I may never return to the Dakotas, let alone travel farther west. Heck, I may never find this covered bridge right here in my state. We each of us live surrounded by beautiful portals to other worlds, many of which we may never get to find. But someone, like Emily, may stumble upon the portal before winter breathes the portal shut. She may steal it away in her camera, and share her findings with you. Then, when you are alone with your jumbled words and these borrowed photos, the magics may spark all on their own. Those sparks may burn open a new portal, and that portal may beckon to you, and you alone.

Don’t return without a tale worth telling.

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Many thanks to Emily for giving me permission to share her work. I’m so blessed to have her as a friend! She has a special gift in capturing special moments like weddings, such as the nuptials of dear friends like Rachel, my comrade at Polish Fest. You may even see Bo and me in the wedding party!

http://emilyebelingphotography.blogspot.com/2017/06/introducing-mr-and-mrs-w-appleton-area.html

#writerproblems: The War Against #Writer Butt

“Who wants to dance with Mommy?”20180214_155933Sigh.

Finding time to move is a right bugger these days. When one’s jobs of editing your novel and teaching both require hours upon hours before a computer, physical activity doesn’t get to be a priority. Sure, there’s the movement of motherhood: chores, keeping kids from wrestling each other off of the bunk beds, etc. But these aren’t steady, challenging movements one’s body needs to lose the writer’s butt that’s been developing since the holidays.

For the record, I do know something of how diets work. I gained almost 100 pounds during Blondie’s pregnancy, lost a small chunk, but then gained that chunk back during the boys’ pregnancy. The latter pregnancy threw my entire diet off-balance, as so many foods made me sick. When we finally evicted Biff and Bash (aka, induced birth), I reveled in dairy and all the other foods that would never stay down long with boys in utero.

But when the boys started toddling off in different directions, I realized: I have to be able to keep up with them. I have to be able to run, to move. I can’t be wheezing on stairs with them.

So I joined Weight Watchers, and lost 85 pounds over the course of a year.

YAY!

But then, I just stopped keeping tally of what I ate. And for the life of me I can’t seem to jump back into that groove. I’ve tried other methods like the FitBit to tally calories, but I kept forgetting to type it in with Biff shaking the yogurt off his hand and sending it all over the Legos on the floor, or with Bash hugging his bunny Hoppy and smearing Nutella all over its body. There’s always something that needs attention.

And, to be selflishly honest, I stare at screens enough as it is. I don’t want yet another reason to stare at a screen and type.

But I know I need to do something. My workload ain’t goin’ anywhere. My kids’ craziness ain’t goin’ anywhere. Wisconsin winter ain’t goin’ anywhere for at least…three to six months. (Hey, we’ve had blizzards in May. I assume NOTHING about Wisconsin weather.)

At first I thought I could take a cue from Blondie’s teacher. With three grades in her classroom, she knows it’s important to give little kids physical breaks from those desks. So, she has these five-minute “brain breaks” scattered throughout the school day: She puts on kid-friendly dance videos and lets the kids go nuts next to their desks until the dance is done. Cool idea, right? Especially in winter, when Wisconsin can have cold snaps resulting in frostbite with just a few minutes’ exposure, or a big melt turning the entire landscape into a muddy, cold mess.

 

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Monday…

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…and Thursday.

I know my sons behave better when they can burn energy. Let’em dance!

Well, you saw the result of that experiment.

So, I let them run their races around the house. Me? I find whatever spare reason I have to move: taking things one at a time down the basement. I pace while I read, or take editing notes. I fidget while I teach. Just. Keep. Moving. Lord knows that once all three kids are in school 8am-3pm, I can carve out a wee window for exercise. Until then, I’ve got to accept the little steps as I can take them.

This starts with diet.

In the quest to find out what foods I can scarf without guilt, I came across Sugar Busters, a breakdown of how much sugar we take in through processed foods and poor food choices. Cut out the processed foods, focus on the fiber-rich produce and protein. Whole grains. Easy peasy!

Only I live in a house where pop tarts, muffins, mac’n’cheese, peanut butter and jelly open-faced sandwiches sliced down the middle with crusts painstakingly removed–(erm, that last one’s Biff)–none of this really caters to the “quinoa berry mash in a slow cooker” kind of cooking.

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“Let’s eat Cars for lunch, Mommy!”

And before you ask, Bo’s soured to the whole “diet” thing. He did Atkins for a year before we met, and now clings to the carbs in his life with a death-grip.

So.

Whatever I do, I do for me.

I did find another diet book in the library: Digest DietLose weight by eating certain foods in just 21 days. Oooo, sounds easy! The first five days consist of nothing but shakes and soup. After that, a slow introduction of meat and veg with just a touch of carb. Lose anywhere from 10-20lbs in this time. Brilliant!

I made Bo find flaxseed meal and the other ingredients for the shakes. This, I could do: after all, I can drink a shake and write at the same time. I can sip a shake while handling laundry or whatever else. This diet fits with myyyy lifestyle, Naive Me thinks.

Here are some more thoughts from Naive Me from the past week:

Day 1: Woohoo, I got my shakes in! What soup do we have? (gasp) Ella’s Deli is closing?! But Blondie and I love it there! We all gotta go one last time so I can say goodbye…and have their chocolate cake, one last time…

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Blondie and her awesome braces

Day 2: Okay, back on track…aw man, this meat’s gonna go bad if we don’t make something with it. Should probably taste it to make sure…with those leftover noodles, and that scrap of cream cheese…don’t forget the veggies, at least….

Day 3: Who dares order pizza when Mommy’s got to have soup?! I demand a slice in sacrifice!

Day 4: BACK ON TRACK. Soup for breakfast this time, we’ll just switch things up, with a shake for dinner. And apple crisp.

Day 5: You think you’re so funny, Biff, wheeling those precious chocolate chip cookies around the table like they’re race cars. Well it ain’t funny! Taunting Mommy is a Thumbs Down Thing!

Yeah, I don’t think this writer’s butt is going to get smaller any time soon.

Oh, I’m not giving up. But I’ve got to be okay with my body as is until time opens for me to change it.

As Hawkeye would write to his father on M.A.S.H.:

“The war goes on.”

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#Writing #Music: Alexandre Desplat

1200x630bb.jpgI know you’re staring at that album image. Hear me out.

I read the Twilight series upon the recommendations of a few friends and countless students, and yes, I saw the movies, too. For all the…debates about this series, I’ll say, I do want to touch on something done right and well by an artist entangled in the franchise: Alexandre Desplat.

I did not know his name before New Moon‘s release, but one look at his IMDB page and you can see this composer’s built an amazing resume of work over the past thirty years. And honestly, if not for Desplat’s score, much of this movie would fall flat.

Like Steve Jablonsky’s scores for the Transformer films, Desplat brings gravitas and power to a story that…well, it wasn’t written for me.

Just take a listen to his theme for the second film. It’s got a hint of melodrama, yes, but that befits the ages of these characters. Desplat uses the simple elegance of the piano a good deal throughout the score, creating a sense of gentle frailty. The strings follow the piano’s lead, heightening the tension. Whenever the oboe plays a faint bitterness comes into the song, befitting New Moon’s premise.

A quick recap: in the first story, a girl falls in love with a sparkly vampire.

In New Moon, the vampire breaks up with the girl in order to protect her from his kind.

Break ups: every romantic arc seems to have one, doesn’t it? Not to mention we’re dealing with a teenage girl. Love is here, now, not twenty years from now. The world is in this moment. To lose what makes this moment bright is to lose the world.

Lord knows such a moment can collapse into a syrupy mess in book and film alike. But of all places, this is where Desplat truly shines in his score. The piano begins with a gentle meeting with the strings; there is a sweetness to the melody, but a sadness, too. When the basses and cellos get involved, the atmosphere itself grows weighted and difficult. You know something’s coming.

And just before the 3:00 minute mark, it comes: heightened strings and trilling winds. A lone trumpet in a minor key with the strings to emphasize the shattering of harmony.

Nothing is as sweet as before. The harmonies are harsh, the rare percussion pounding the finality.

The characters are broken.

And thanks to the music, you know the sound and weight of that heartbreak.

Just because the romantic break-up is a common device doesn’t mean your story has to be common about it. These characters matter to you. Their feelings matter to you. If the plot breaks them apart, your readers must see and know that shattering inside and out. Let Desplat’s music be the device that gently pushes the moment over the edge to fall, to break, and to start again.

 

#writerproblems: Tripping On Plot Holes.

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Nothing irritates readers and writers alike like a plothole.

Take the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When Lupin and Sirius Black confront Harry, Hermione, and Ron, they talk about the Marauder’s Map and how it never lies. This is how they realize traitor Peter Pettigrew is not only alive, but disguised as Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat.

harry-potter-marauder-s-map_a-G-14088189-0.jpgHow do Lupin and Sirius know about the map? Because they made it. Their nicknames—Mooney and Padfoot—are on the front. The book makes this a neat little reveal.

I doubt whether any Hogwarts students ever found out more about the Hogwarts grounds and Hogsmeade than we did….And that’s how we cam to write the Marauder’s Map, and sign it with our nicknames. Sirius is Padfoot. Peter is wormtail… -Remus Lupin, Chapter 18

The movie completely ignores it.

Without this reveal, movie-goers are left to wonder why on earth Lupin and Sirius know how the map never lies, let alone how it works. There was a special trick to opening it Harry had to learn from the Weasley twins. In this film, there’s no reason given why any adult should understand the map.

Such plotholes infuriate because they can be so easily mended with just a line or two. Just look at that excerpt from the book: three sentences provide all the explanation we need in regards to Lupin and the map.

Madam_Rosmerta_Cornelius_Fudge_Minerva_McGonagallTake another bit of the film version. Thanks to the invisibility cloak, Harry overhears Professor McGonagall talking to Madame Rosmerta, owner of The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, about the murder of Peter Pettigrew by Sirius Black. We get two crucial pieces of information: All they found was Peter’s finger, and that Sirius is Harry’s godfather. This scene only lasts a minute or two. There’s maybe half a dozen lines said. But these lines help provide some major plot points to the story: why Sirius seems to be after Harry, and how evil Sirius (supposedly) is. Without this scene, the audience wouldn’t know of any motivation of any kind for Sirius to act as he does. So why on earth couldn’t they take the time to connect Lupin and Sirius and the map?

To ignore a plothole, any sized plothole, is not only a disservice to the story, but careless, too. Why should readers care about a story when the writer can’t be bothered to care her/himself? Especially when so often these little plotholes can be fixed with just a line or two.

I discovered a similar situation in my own novel, Fallen Princeborn. My heroine initially asks a secondary character for her phone to contact a family member. One chapter later, she’s using the alarm on her smart phone. Why on earth is she asking for someone’s phone when she has her own?

It’s a small plothole. I could ignore it. Gosh, I’ve been ignoring that inconsistency in every draft.

13140843But as my favorite author Diana Wynne Jones has said:

You are doing to read [your draft] and admire all the bits you like…but, while you admire, you will come across bits that make you sort of squiggle inside and say, ‘Oh, I suppose that will do.’ That is a sure sign that it won’t do….think hard about these bits, what is wrong with them and how they ought to go to be right.
“Some Hints on Writing”

Lupin only had to say, “The map never lies. I know, because I helped make the map.” Plothole filled. In my case, I’ve only to note the heroine’s phone battery died. Another plothole filled.

When you take your editor’s walk through your draft, don’t just squirm and ignore the plot holes, leaving them for others to trip on later. Don’t be careless. Give your writing the attention it deserves, and every step readers take through your story will be a pleasure.

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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#Inspiration for #Writers Awaits in the #Autumn Sky.

Last year I lamented the fog that ruined my photos of Wisconsin’s autumn. When Bo and I connived–I mean, asked ever so nicely–for his relations to watch the kids for a day, Bo mentioned Holy Hill. “Weather’s supposed to be nice, and no youth festivals.” He eyed my camera.

Woohoo! I didn’t need those pictures of the kids on vacation anyway.

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Because I had already taken several pictures of the basilica itself, I planned to save memory space for the woods surrounding it. All was gold, rich, blinding. Despite the hundreds hiking and picnicking upon the slopes, a peaceful silence remained in the air, so much so that one could listen to the leaves rattle in the breeze and dance as they fell upon the Passion Walk.

Such a set-apart place. One wouldn’t think three minutes in the car would lead to a busy highway, to golf courses and suburbs. When we build our fictional worlds, we so often must condense a universe, grind out the spaces so that things build up up up upon each other so that there’s no chance for an absence of action, let alone finding Holy Water on tap for easy access.

 

 

Passion Walk finished, we wandered past the lower chapel, read upon the history of the shrine, and—The Scenic Tower is open!

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Bo waves at me to join the line. “I had my fill of that twenty years ago.”

I don’t blame him for bowing out. The tower stairs are ridiculously narrow; well, it’s not like they were built with tourists in mind, let alone so many. But the world reaches up and touches at every window. I can’t click fast enough to just, absorb. Breathe. Smile with the sun.

I don’t go up the last stair; tempting as it was, the congestion of people was driving even me into a claustrophobic fit. The plus side of going solo is that you feel no need to move as a group up and down stairs barely a foot wide.

But when I wasn’t thinking of the elderly man on the verge of losing his dentures onto the basilica roof, or the huddle of nuns (congregation of nuns? choir of nuns? pew of nuns?) with fanny packs determined to get group pictures on every landing, I was thinking about the land. The sky. How a world, even this small little bit of world, can seem so very vast with the right point of view.

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Writers don’t need to create entire worlds for a story. We need only a place cradled by the horizon. Look down: there, among the trees and fields, the towns and roads, are countless hiding places where possibilities giggle and whisper in wait. Let’s count to ten.

Ready or not, here we come.