#writingtips from #reading #DonaldMaass to cope with #showdonttell, and a call to #vote for my #fantasy #shortstory!

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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.

Please click here to vote for my story to be selected for publication!

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 to excite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Those daggers 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. 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Lifeathome with #children during #SelfQuarantine: #revising #homeschool expectations so a #parent can #workathome and #write

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Thank goodness the weekend is here! I’m allowing the kids to wreak havoc around Bo so I can tuck myself away for a few hours to think over the past week and map out my writing goals.

So while Bo referees our very own reincarnated Marx Brothers

–let’s you and I convalesce a little over some coffee and reconsider how a weekday should go for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

Originally, I wanted the kids to have full school days; around here, that means roughly 8am until 3pm. From Monday to Wednesday, we succeeded in filling those hours with a balance of worksheets, reading, videos, crafting, and games. Blondie commented that she rather liked our setup, which felt like a start. Biff and Bash…well, they didn’t hate it. Some things they loved, like Science experiments and Art, while they bucked me on Writing of all things. Yes, Writing. All my hopes and dreams with prompts crashed hard. It’s not that they hated telling stories so much as they hated being told to write them after already copying down a few facts for handwriting practice. Their tuckered little hands were in no mood to write any longer than necessary. Looks like I better redefine my expectations a bit.

Another concern was having three kids in two very different grades. I feared I’d over-challenge the boys or talk down to Blondie. We avoided this–huzzah! Allowing the kids to work on their own creations during subjects like Geography, Art, and Writing balanced out with working together on things like Science, Bible Study, and Reading. When it comes to school time, it makes a HUGE difference when one can hold a single class for a subject instead of two or three.

But now that Wisconsin is going to keep its schools closed for the next four weeks (at minimum), the kids’ teachers will be sending more materials home for them to complete both online and on paper. Each teacher has different expectations–yes, even Biff and Bash’s teachers, while both teaching 1st grade at the same school, email us completely different things for the boys to do. And there’s still that old problem of not having enough screens to go around–three kids and two computers. Who’s going to get what done and when?

Throw my own needs as a teacher and writer into the mix, and…yeah.

So I tried a little change-up on Thursday and Friday: I condensed the school-day down to a half-day so I could get my own grading done. By dedicating roughly half an hour per class, I managed to cover all the major items along with a few rotating specials with a break in the middle of the morning to throw everyone outside for playtime.

Success! I graded, the kids learned…something, I think, and no one felt the need to strangle anyone else.

The weird thing is, part of me doesn’t like it. I feel like there needs to be a full school day in order for the day to be “proper.” Am I alone in this? Probably. But like millions of other parents, I have to accept the fact that NOTHING is proper right now. Our world’s in crisis mode, and everyone’s just got to do what they can to keep moving forward. No one’s going to have a normal workday. No one’s going to have a normal school day. It just ain’t happenin’ this spring.

I also have to keep in mind that my kids need time to complete what their own teachers are asking for; it’s awfully hard for them to swing this if I’m saddling them with oodles of other stuff. So, this coming week I’m only going to stick with the half-day schedule. After lunch I can help the boys take turns online with whatever their teachers send them while Blondie locks herself away in her room to with her own homework. Then, Lord-willing, I can tackle MY course work. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a system that has time for everyone to move forward.

That just leaves the writing.

This week I FINALLY did some storytelling–just a bit of microfiction, but something’s better than nil, right? I’ve also got a couple short stories I’ve been working on that I’d love to get out to some online mags. Yes, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen is still on the editing table, but it’s bloody hard focusing on a five-book arc with the kids CONSTANTLY at home. Perhaps Camp NaNoWriMo can help me re-discover my Writing Self! Granted, this new schedule only frees up maybe half an hour to an hour of writing time a day, but that’s still more than I’ve had aaaaaaall bloody winter.

And how about you, my friends? What are you reading? Don’t forget that there’s some great FREE stories to read through my old publisher, Aionios Books! What are you writing? What are you doing to stay sane with your children? Pass the coffee and the cookies. Time I take a quiet sip and let you do the talking.

STAY TUNED! I’ll share a few successful homeschool lessons, another lovely indie author interview, hopefully some music, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand a chance to betaread one of those short stories.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Lifeathome with #children during #SelfQuarantine: #creating a #Homeschool #Routine

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Good evening, my friends! It’s been a day. Not a good day, not a bad day, just…a day.

I made off with several volumes of this series from the library before it was shuttered. The series has a good balance of text and illustration–a little easy for Blondie, a little challenging for the boys. If you have kids in single digits, give Dragonbreath a go!

“Mo-om, Biff whined at me!”

“Mo-om, Bash pulled my hair!”

“Mo-om, Blondie won’t let me watch her play Sonic!”

Insert a few quiet moments here and there thanks to The Lego Movie and books, and that was my day.

As I promised yesterday, I sat down with the kids at breakfast and built a schedule based on their typical school days. Since Blondie’s the most flexible of the three, I primarily used the boys’ order of the day: Reading and Writing in the morning, Math in the afternoon. Because churches are also closed because gatherings cannot exceed ten people, we’ll also have time reading Bible stories every day. Considering Blondie’s love for science–and how often schools ax science for weeks at a time–we’re going to make sure there’s some science/nature time every day, too.

But what about art? Bash loves to draw. I gotta have that.

But what about geography? Biff loves to study maps. I gotta have that.

But what about fun stories? I finally have a captive audience here. Now they’ll have no choice but to experience Diana Wynne Jones! Mwa ha ha ha!

Well who wouldn’t want to imagine life in a moving castle?

And don’t they have to have playtime somewhere in there?

Once again: Uffdah.

On the one hand, I hate overwhelming the kiddos. HOWEVER, there are certain skills we have got to maintain, like math, and others that need to stay stimulated, like writing. And I don’t want these three laying around like sloths just waiting for a movie to come on. No. There is so, so much out there to discover in our yards and on our bookshelves. We just need to be inspired to look!

So I haggled and scribbled and arrowed and switcherooed things until finally, I think, I may have a schedule for us to follow.

6:30-7:00am: Wake up

7:00-8:00am: Breakfast, get dressed

8:00-8:10am: Morning meeting–a review of what the day will hold

8:10-8:30am: Bible study

8:30-9:00am: Quiet reading time

9:00am-9:20am: Reading reflection–draw a picture, write about a favorite scene/character, etc.

9:20-9:50am: Play time

9:50-10:30am: Writing time–use prompts from school and/or encourage them to write about their favorite things. Make sure to practice some penmanship by copying neato things like Weird but True Facts

10:30-11:00am: Art–drawing, coloring, building. Gotta be creative!

11:00am-12:00pm: Lunch & Read Aloud–I’ll read aloud to the kids while we eat together

12:00-12:30pm: Playtime

12:30-1:10pm: Math–work on worksheets from school & math games online

1:10-2:00pm: CLEANING–tackle one part of the house every day

2:00-3:00pm: Outside time–park, drawing on the sidewalk, hiking, something!

3:00-3:30pm: Geography–learn a little about Wisconsin, or a part of the world that sparks their curiosity!

3:30-4:00pm: Odds’n’ends, like piano practice

4:00-5:00pm: Let’em have some screen time while I cook dinner

Bo’s usually home by this point, so all will likely turn chaotic until bedtime at 8:30. 🙂

Basically, it’s like living with a bunch of Curlys every night.

You are more than welcome to make a face at how minute-by-minute this is, but believe me, when it comes to Sensory kids who thrive on routine, having a breakdown like this can make a big difference! A time limit also helps them stay on track, a crucial skill for surviving a school day. Time limits also help me plan out enough activities to realistically fill the periods, whether it’s making a slide show of wolves, drawing Transformers planting flowers, or building spaceships to visit IO. I can’t afford to let the school structure crumble just because the kids are home, especially because there is no certainty as to whether or not schools will re-open.

In other words, we American parents have inadvertently been drafted into homeschooling.

Those who already homeschool, if you have any tips to share, PLEASE share! In the meantime, I’m going to work on compiling creative activities, books, and videos that can/will appeal to kiddos…and then maybe figure out when I’m going to get my own teaching’n’writing done…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Lifeathome with #children during #SelfQuarantine: #parenting and #schooling while the #Coronavirus is in #Wisconsin (Day 1)

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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:

As a Wisconsinite who studied in Minnesota, I have no problem utilizing this phrase.

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.

And tomorrow, I’ll share that plan with you.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writing #music: @maxrichtermusic

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One of his latest albums, which I must find NOW.

Few instruments grip my heart quite like the violin. Piano will always be my first love, yes, but there is something ethereal about the sound of a violin, be it a quiet backdrop or proud melody. Violinist Mari Samuelsen was one of my favorite discoveries of 2019, and now thanks to her I have also encountered a composer I cannot wait to share with you: Max Richter.

German by birth and English by education, Richter’s been considered a master of composition since his debut album Memoryhouse in 2002. He re-imagines classic writers like Vivaldi. He writes cries of pain and hope with added text from Kafka. He captures the cosmos. He writes an opus to sleep. This man finds inspiration everywhere.

Before spring settles itself upon my ice-crusted Wisconsin landscape, let’s begin our sampling of Max Richter with a quiet walk backward into the raw, green-less lands of “November.”

A beloved track from Memoryhouse, “November” is both timeless and frozen in time: listeners may close their eyes and feel the world grow chill with winter’s promise. Frost adorns the wild grasses. A deer exhales white swirls about its nostrils. The air’s cold purifies. The morning sun strikes the frost, and for a moment all the world is a field of light.

“On the Nature of Daylight” is another beauty, one a soul could listen to while watching the sun climb horizon’s edge. As you can see, I couldn’t help but share the version that includes Mari Samuelsen.

Even though I can imagine both songs playing with the dawn, each feels a different season. Can’t you just see the sun awaken as birds shake night’s melted frost from their feathers? There’s a distinct warmth here in the unity of sound, the orchestra’s rhythmic rise and fall not unlike the wind drying out the grass for birds to gather for a new nest, a new generation.

Not afraid to experiment, Richter finds the creative possibilities not only in the music, but in the presentation of the music. In 2016 he performed an eight-hour opus entitled Sleep complete with the audience literally sleeping over in the Welcome Library in London. I love this venture beyond convention, something I’m sure helps make his scores for television and film so memorable, too. This track from Taboo shows how the man takes all that warmth and magic of the violin and twists it, burns it, drags it into the ground where dark things breed.

Restraint is the name of the game here. There’s that subtle foreshadowing of synth percussion every ten seconds until it starts rat-a-tap tapping at :45, slow, slow as clawed steps. Brass call out a low harmony over and over, like a beast hunting in the darkness.

Oh, 2020, you promise to be an exciting year for music. Not only do old favorites like Daniel Pemberton and Mychael Danna have new soundtracks out this year, but I’ve a whole new catalog to explore in the hall of Max Richter. Here is a man who has found the heart strings that play human nature to their joy and sorrow. Let his music inspire your storytelling of the human condition both real and imagined, and help you find your own unique story in this “great big world” of writers:

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m keen to share some of my own writing! Yes, fiction with characters and setting and all that jazz. We also need to discuss the damage done when a writer alters characters mid-stream through a story arc. Oh, Last Jedi, you never had a chance…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#AuthorInterview: #indie #poets David Ellis and Cendrine Marrouat discuss #reading #inspiration, #writing #poetry, and #submissions for the @abpoetryjournal

Happy March, everyone! Spring is coming slow and steady to the Midwest. Let’s celebrate a new month with two amazing indie authors who’ve founded a literary journal currently open to submissions.

Let’s begin with the niceties. Tell us a little about yourselves, please!

Cendrine: My name is Cendrine Marrouat. I was born and raised in Toulouse, France, and now live in Winnipeg, Canada.

I am a photographer, poet and the author of 15 books in different genres: poetry, photography, theatre, and social media. In my career, I have worked in quite a few other fields, including translation, teaching, social media coaching, and journalism. I was a content curator and creator, as well as an art critic for a while too.

David and I launched Auroras & Blossoms Poetry Journal and the Poetry Really Matters show in 2019. I am also the co-founder of a photography collective called FPoint Collective. Finally, I created the Sixku (a poetry form) and the Reminigram (a type of digital photography).

My website can be found at www.cendrinemedia.com.

David: Hello, my name is David Ellis. I am a British born and raised, I live in the South-East of England.

I am the author of several collections of poetry (my debut collection won an international award in the Readers Favorite Book Award Inspirational Poetry Category). I also have authored a short story collection, co-authored several books with Cendrine and co-founded Auroras & Blossoms Poetry Journal with Cendrine too.

I have interviewed hundreds of authors about their creative drives and what has inspired the writing in their lives.

My website can be found at www.toofulltowrite.com.

What was an early experience where you each learned that language had power?

Cendrine: My mother was a teacher. She was adamant that I learn to read, write and count before the end of kindergarten. My father is an avid reader, like she was. As I discovered the world around me, I realized that words mattered, that the way a person spoke or wrote had an impact on people’s perception of them. Then I studied English and (some) Spanish in school and at university. My understanding of the power of language increased tremendously as a result. 

David: I think for me, my epiphany with the power residing in language started with and will always be indebted to the late author Terry Pratchett. I remember when I first started reading his books that I needed a dictionary to keep up with some of his turns of phrase. What I believe was happening was that he was planting seeds that were evolving into the more humourous aspects of my writing. My English grades actually went up higher than any other subject at the time, due to Pratchett forging a love of language inside of me, as I devoured his fantasy Discworld series.

Furthermore, it has been through the act of writing poetry for many years that I have discovered my passion for crafting inspirational and motivational verse. The reactions from people regarding how I have encouraged them over the years with my words have given me even more respect for the magical power that language can have, along with how words can heal people and bring them closer together.

Who are your favorite under-appreciated writers/photographers? Let’s spread the word on them, here and now!

Cendrine: My favorite poets: Kahlil Gibran and Alphonse de Lamartine. The Prophet is loved worldwide. But very few people actually know that Gibran wrote many other stories. His drawings are also beautiful.

Lamartine was a French writer, poet and politician whose most famous piece, The Lake, also contains his most famous words:

“Oh, Time, stop your flight!  Hours, don’t run away!

Allow us to savor this delight, the best of life’s brief day!”

My friend Isabel Nolasco, the other co-founder of FPoint Collective, is a very talented photographer. She hails from Portugal and the world is starting to discover her images.

David: If we are talking poets, I would definitely have to go with Edgar Allan Poe, since I wrote an entire book of poetry inspired by all of his poetry! I would say that Poe is remembered more for his short stories but probably less well known for some of the unique gems in his poetry collection. Leonard Cohen is another hero of mine, who I think gets more focus on his music than his poetry, which I find to be really sensual and compelling.

I have a few favourite indie writers who could always do with more reader love any day of the week. Christie Stratos (www.christiestratos.com), who has her own podcast interview show and writes really unique fiction books (check out her Dark Victoriana collection). JD Estrada is another amazing author who has a ton of brilliant books covering fiction and lots of incredible poetry, you can find him at https://jdestradawriter.blogspot.com/. Finally, I would also like to put out a quick shout out to Anais Chartschenko, who is a fabulous musician, poet, author and fellow lover of tea! She can be found at https://anaischartschenko.weebly.com/. All of them are extremely friendly, multi-talented and very inspirational to me in many different ways. They are definitely very groovy people, so go check out their wares soon!

Cendrine, you also regularly update your growing collection of photography. How does visual expression differ from written expression? What does a composition need to contain before you feel ready to hold your camera up for the shot?

Cendrine: Photography and poetry are the same to me. Whether I pen a piece or take a photo, it is all about telling a story but in the “show don’t tell” fashion.

Composition is in the mind before it ends in an image or a poem.

David, you find inspiration in the classic writers of the past, including Edgar Allen Poe and William Shakespeare. What is it about such writers that brings the poetry out of you?

David: I’m fascinated with the poetic language that they employ in their writing works. I remember at school being overwhelmed by having to work out what every sentence of Shakespeare’s plays meant, line by line, I actually ended up feeling it was quite a tedious process. It wasn’t until years later that I developed a real fondness for the bard (I’m glad my school years didn’t completely put me off!) when I discovered how he was playing with the language he was using and inventing many idioms that we commonly use to this very day.

I’ve felt that Edgar Allan Poe combines the art of storytelling with his poems magnificently. ‘The Raven’ stirs up such vivid imagery and emotions in me, when I read it and listen to it being read aloud.

There is so much inspiration in the past, providing that you have unique ways of navigating it, appreciating its splendor and inherent beauty. I draw a lot of energy and writing experience from these authors because of what they are describing and the filters they interpret the world through in their own eyes. I find it a privilege to be reading the classics of the past, absorbing them and reinterpreting them for an appreciative future audience.

For me, I’ve actually reached a point where I’ve realised that I can literally find infinite inspirational material from the past and that is an incredible feeling to have in your life. Now, I just have to find the time to keep writing and publishing all of the ideas that I have!

Together you two have created a poetry journal, Auroras and Blossoms. Are you currently accepting submissions? What does it take for a piece of writing to be featured in your journal?

Cendrine: We accept submissions all year long. Our magazine promotes inspirational and uplifting poetry and poetry-related content, no matter the topic. We accept everyone (adults and teenagers alike), as long as they have something positive to say.

Auroras & Blossoms Poetry Journal is family-friendly, which means that the poetry has to be clean. No swearwords and no erotica / political pieces. The poems we select come from people who understand two things: the meaning of the word “positive” and the essence of poetry as an art form. They have a great message to share, a message that can help readers see the world in a different way.

David: Cendrine and I joined forces together on Auroras & Blossoms Poetry Journal because we both have a vision to share more inspirational poetry with the world, written by very talented people from all around the world. This specific type of poetry is the main reason why we both started writing and publishing books.

We encourage people to submit to us from all walks of life, we do not judge people on whether they have been published in previous journals. We prefer to instead look at the quality of the poetry a person writes and whether it could deliver an inspirational theme and message to our readers.

We don’t really have a specific type of poetry style that we are looking for, we will accept short and long pieces. As long as you take us on an inspirational journey with your writing and give us reasons to believe that your poem was written to be positive, uplifting, and/or motivating then you have an excellent chance of being published with us.

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better poet/photographer as an adult, what would you do?

Cendrine: I would not do anything differently. I had a difficult childhood followed by challenging teenage years. I learnt a lot from my experiences and that is what makes me the artist I am today.

David: As a child, I think I ignored my literary instincts for quite some time, until it became apparent that I was excelling at English Language and English Literature more than any other subjects I was studying. I also developed a passion for song lyrics, in addition to poetry but I refrained from attempting to make music for many years. So, my advice to my younger self would be to start writing and refining your craft as soon as possible because it will take you many years to discover what you are truly good at and what motivates you to write every single day. That’s when the really exciting part of your life begins!

What is the most difficult part of your artistic processes?

Cendrine: Nothing, really. I am just a slow writer. But I have improved over the years.

David: I think for me it is having too many ideas to deal with at once and engaging in the necessary discipline to sit down and list out all of these ideas. This can extend to listing down ideas that I have about the project itself. When I find my focus, I can keep going for hours, often at the expense of not noticing where the time has gone. So yes, focus is the most difficult part for me in the artistic process, once you nail it down and commit to a project, that’s when you can ignore all other distractions and get on with completing a project to the best of your ability.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Cendrine: It energizes me greatly!

David: I used to find writing exhausted me when I worked on many different aspects of it at the same time. Take National Poetry Writing Month for example. When I participate, I tend to write and edit poems every day for a month, make a professional looking blog post and share many other poems that I find too and then attempt to read them all as well. When you are looking at tens, possibly even a hundred posts at a time, in addition to trying to write your own polished post, it is easy to get burnt out.

I’ve therefore learnt to be more considerate of my own time and not to try to cram too many things into one day. Writing has become a lot more fun for me as a result and I can do much more of it, when I appreciate and reflect on how much I have achieved in a single day.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Cendrine: Strongly? I’m not sure. But you cannot be a writer if you are afraid of sharing your voice and emotions (even indirectly) with the world. Because every word you leave on a page bears your mark one way or the other.

David: I think it is imperative for writers to be empathetic and to feel emotions strongly because they can then act in ways that people would do in real life. They can get under the skin of a character or subject matter and write in a way that emotionally connects with the reader.

All I know is that I write deeply, emotionally stimulating poetry and it creates a magnetism that helps me connect with like-minded people. When this is lacking in writing, whether it be the passion, focus or drive from the writer, if this emotional distance is conveyed to me as a reader, I am not going to be compelled to read more of their work, plain and simple.

What are common traps for aspiring writers and photographers, and how do they avoid them? (My young daughter is quite keen on both photography and writing, so I’d love to share your advice with her!)

Cendrine: Most of the aspiring artists I have met lack self-confidence and compare themselves to others way too much. How do you avoid those traps? Do NOT listen to naysayers.

Just know that you cannot please everybody. Do not take negative criticism personally. But pay attention to constructive feedback. Compare yourself to others only to understand your own style.   

David: Read the kind of books that you would like to write. Think of the kind of things that you would like to see written but can’t find and then go write them yourself.

Take advice from “How To Guides” as a means to enhance your own creativity but just take what things work for you and discard the rest. Don’t buy many guides and spend all your time reading them as an excuse to neglect your writing.

By all means be prepared but only do enough research to get yourself started. Starting is always the most difficult part in any endeavour. Find a theme, think a bit about it, do your research and get writing as soon as you possibly can. The rest will follow soon enough. If you need guidance, write a short outline of what you want to achieve and then work through all of those points but don’t spend all your time planning and get writing!

Try to write every day, even if it is only a few lines. I have been told constantly in any artistic profession that anyone, no matter how busy they are, can spend at least ten minutes a day indulging in their own creative expression. You will make more time as your passion grows. Diligently find the time to fuel your creative passions, watch an hour less TV a day, shut yourself away for small periods of time, turn off the computer or put aside your mobile phone if you have to and make time in your life to create, your soul will thank you for it.

Be sure to share your work with friends and other writers. Be willing to take constructive (not negative) feedback for your work. Write until you have so much good material that you simply have to publish, then work to get it published!

Just one of the amazing photos from FPoint Collective!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

It’s high time for some powerful music, especially since it was such a joy to use music to welcome spring last year. I am finally, FINALLY working on a bit of short fiction, and would like to share it with you! We also need to consider the dangers of altering characters mid-story, and how those changes cause disconnect among fans…not to mention plot points.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Celebrating #5years #blogging, #writing, and #parenting! Taking a moment to #givethanks and be a #proudmom.

Pardon all the -ing words, but one look at the calendar and I realized: I’ve been at this for five years.

Five may not sound like a really big number to you, but here…well. In that time my family’s faced

When I think of how far this family’s come, five years translates into a saga of potties, doodles, and early-morning snuggles, of anxieties, holes, and well-loved stuffies.

And you, all the while, reading along, experiencing this writing mom’s life with me.You’ve shared my love of craft and music. You’ve met with me to speak of your own stories written and read. You’ve encouraged me through my own publishing adventures and continue to give me input on whatever fiction I’m able to create.

For this, “thank you” will never be enough. You are my community. You are my tribe. You are the stars in my night when depression’s clouds roll in.

You are wondrous, each and every one of you.

I am proud of my own stories developed these five years, to be sure…

…but what truly thrills me more than anything is the creativity I’ve seen blossom in my kids over the years.

Bash’s love for the robot Wall-E is as vast as the universe. He’s made stories with Wall-E meeting the Transformers, Santa Claus, My Little Ponies, Thomas the Tank Engine, and even the old Hanna-Barbara superhero Blue Falcon. This is a boy eternally creating, finding characters and conflicts where no one else does. My son, who fears failure so much, is one of the most fearless storytellers I’ve ever met.

To see Biff willing to write his own stories at all lifts my heart. This is a boy who finds what he loves and sticks with it, such as stories from the Island of Sodor, only here with the buses he rides to school: “Once upon a time in the busing company of L__, the buses were working hard…” His teacher tells me they’ll be working on “Expert Stories” soon–stories where the kids can write about things they know well. Biff is so thrilled to write about Star Trek he literally hops up and down when talking about it. We’ll see if the Sodor Style comes to Starfleet this spring!

And now, last but never least, comes Blondie, who’s written her own moment for this post. Allow me to bow and give the stage to my daughter, my heart’s smile, my Blondie.

Hello everyone!

She did, too!

I have been reading the Adventurer’s Guild book series. It is filled with unsuspecting (and sometimes a little terrifying) surprises. I am right now working on a 300-piece puzzle of the constellations. I hope I finish it today.

You know Thunder Kidz, my company? Well, it is 1 year old this year. (pull out the disco ball, get the giant speakers, turn it up, and let’s party!!!!!)

I would like to recommend some books and authors. You should read Endling: The Last and Endling: The First by Katherine Applegate because it is full of fun and exciting (and sad) parts in it. my favorite character is Byx the darine because she’s a girl and darines have things that I like, like soft, silky fur and looks like a dog, and I absolutely love dogs. It is my most favorite book series. Katherine Applegate did lots of other good books such as Wishtree, which when a tree named Red is the wishtree, and I really like the baby animals in it, and I haven’t read Crenshaw yet, but I will, and more.

Also, there’s Allan Zullo, who has done Bad Pets, Bad Pets on the Loose, and more. The Bad Pets series is about wacky and zany pets do crazy stuff, like a dog drove a garbage truck into a lake! More recommendations will be made when I write here again. I will be writing more on Alley Heroes in the future. It right now has 12 chapters ,I think, and is supposed to have 14 chapters, but I’ll probably go over 14. I would like to add that I love writing on this website to you and writing stories and drawing comics. Happy writing, y’all!

Best writing wishes to you,

Blondie (aka: Firewing) 🙂

Best writing wishes indeed! From my family to yours, may Heaven smile on your creative souls and inspire you to continue spreading the friendship and hope you have so graciously given us. What adventures await in the next five years? With companions like you and my family, I can’t wait to find out. x

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I think it’s high time for an interview, don’t you think? Plus I’ve more music to share, and maybe, JUST maybe, a little new fiction. Fingers crossed and turn thrice widdershins for me!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Anxiety is not just a #parentproblem. It is a #writerproblem, too.

“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.

Click here for more on the Unthinkables, a unique approach for kids to overcome behavioral/social issues.

“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.”

Yup, there’s a whole Rogues Gallery of these guys.

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.

Bash and Hoppy almost gave me bunny ears for this pic, the goofs 🙂

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.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Shall we try a little music by Max Richter? Or an interview from yet another lovely indie author, mayhaps? There’s always the difficult discussion of character traits and thrusting abnormal changes upon established characters for the sake of corporate whimsy. Or maybe, just maybe, Blondie will finally get off her duff and WRITE SOMETHING!

Oh, I kid the kid. She’s been working very hard at school and on the piano. Considering she has a few days off coming up, though, I may very likely put her to work here. Mwa ha ha ha!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 4: #sidelining strong #villains of the #story for the sake of #razzledazzle #cliché.

Happy Monday, one and all! Yes, I know I’m a day late, but I’ve got the best of reasons: I got to spend ALL of Friday with Blondie at her Parent Visitation Day. No calls from the boys’ principal this time. Just me sharing hugs and silly faces with Blondie during her classes and scribbling “Captain Poop” on the name slot of her Spelling Test because I’m mature like that.

It was worth putting off the pile of grading and my interactions with you all because when you’ve got little loves in your life, you’ve got to make every hug count.

So, now that the brunt of grading has been completed and I’ve successfully ignored all calls to substitute teach in this county, let’s wrap up our look at The Force Awakens and prepare for our shift into The Last Jedi with a little talk about villains.

As far as Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy is concerned, I consider the villains to be at their strongest in The Force Awakens because they had the most potential here. Each villain has a unique look, sense of purpose in body language, and dialogue that consistently carries the story along. Each had a strong mix of elements that could leave lasting impressions on readers.

THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

Robert McKee

A big reason Episodes I-VI are still loved today is the cast of antagonists. Darth Vader was other-worldly with his powers and costume, yet impossibly human when he tells Luke he’s his father. The Emperor, a specter of white skin beneath a black hood, didn’t just carry power in his Force lightning, but in his voice, his speeches chipping away at Luke’s hope until the final showdown when Vader finds redemption in saving his son. The prequels take those two villains and re-cast them as protagonists, revealing the roads taken that transform Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine into…well okay, Palpatine was also evil in the prequels, but he wore the good-guy disguise. We were still watching that transformation of shedding the good-guy pretense and becoming the Emperor.

In both trilogies, there were transformations at work. The heroes were growing, yes, but so were the villains, and THAT is just as important if not moreso.

Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the positive dimensions.

Robert McKee

In any story, there must be a clear sense of cause and effect: if the hero does something, that’ll ripple over to the villain in X way. If the villain does something, it’s going to impact hero like Y. Audiences are quickly bored with a villain that simply twirls his mustaches and goes right on with the same schemes that tried and failed before.

Much as we all love Snidely Whiplash’s mustaches, the whole take-the-girl-to-the-tracks-thing gets real old real fast.

Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.

Captain Phasma

A female storm trooper of authority–something audiences had not yet seen in Star Wars. Phasma had a cold-blooded voice and towering presence that could make anyone run for cover. The actress’ screen time in Game of Thrones proved she was capable of combat and other feats of bad-assery, so audiences expected to see some wicked work done by this daunting leader of First Order troops.

But it’s awfully hard to effectively show how bad-ass you are when you’re not even in the story for two whole minutes.

No joke. These are all her scenes in the first film.

For a character that looks like she should have plenty of conflict potential with Finn, the Storm Trooper Turned Good, we get practically nothing. The character is relegated to a few snippets of dialogue and a bit of fan service with the “trash compactor.”

Supreme Leader Snoke

Ah, the character that bred a thousand fan theories… Snoke’s hardly in the film–like Emperor Palpatine, Snoke only appears in hologram communication in this first film. Like Phasma, Snoke looks good. The towering projection of him dominates not only the villains of the film showing who’s in charge, but looms over audiences, too, freaking them out with his deformities twisted by shadows and ghostly light. Kylo Ren and General Hux are both eager for his approval, which adds an extra layer of conflict among the antagonists.

Not bad, right? A bunch of yes-men in uniforms quickly makes for dull viewing. Intrigue in the ranks is a great way to sneak in extra plot twists, shifts in power, etc. Mystery never hurts, either. This Snoke guy must be pretty powerful if he heads The First Order (wherever they came from), and if he’s trained Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side, he’s got to be a powerful Force user, too. As much as I hate seeing too many Mystery Boxes in one film, JJ Abrams knew what he was doing in planting just enough information about Snoke to intrigue audiences and keep them talking about a character who’s only on screen for a few minutes.

General Hux

Just as Vader had a very old Peter Cushing (I mean, Grand Moff Tarkin. Look, I only knew him as Peter Cushing even as a kid, okay? Peter Cushing was AWESOME and don’t let anyone tell you different.), Kylo Ren had a military counterpart that worked with him as much as he worked against him. The General Hux character of Force Awakens is sharp, curt, quick to please his Supreme Leader as he is to put down anyone beneath him. Ambition oozes from his body language and dialogue, especially in his speech to the troops.

The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized…story must become.

Robert McKee

Again, there is potential here. This is a character that feeds on power, thrives on stepping over the masses groveling at his feet. General Hux is no Force user, but he has forces of thousands at his command. Should a character like he choose to clash with one like Kylo Ren and/or even Snoke, there could be some fascinating political theater here. He’s a powerful speaker, for instance–he could persuade legions to follow him. Trick troops into thinking they’re carrying out Snoke’s commands. Pit lower-ranked commanders against one another. This general looked and sounded capable of all of this. Had the movies followed through on these established traits, they would have had some mischievously tricky plot threads to bind audiences to future stories.

Kylo Ren

For those who don’t know, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In The Force Awakens, Ren is seen not to revere not his parents, but his grandfather, Darth Vader. For him, the temptation is from The Light, not Dark Side. He led other Padawans to become The Knights of Ren and destroy Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple and almost killed Luke Skywalker in the process. Some of this echoes the character arc of the now non-canonical Jacen Solo of several Star Wars novels, son of Han and Leia, TWIN BROTHER of sister Jaina who starts as his ally and ends his enemy.

Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity.

Robert McKee

So, so many of us have fought against that “which is in our blood,” have struggled to be anything BUT our parents, yearned to be something bigger than ourselves. More than any other character, it is Kylo Ren with whom audiences connect. No one condones his determination to remain on the Dark Side, but audiences fight for his redemption, even here, because they know who his parents are. Even after Kylo Ren kills his own father, audiences know there is “good in him” like Luke knew there was good in Vader. Audiences want to see this character succeed–not as a villain, but as a villain-turned-good.

So.

What went wrong?

Death Star 3.0, for starters.

Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels.

Robert McKee

The dissonance is subtle at first, but it swells quickly. For all the hype over Captain Phasma, it occurs to us in her last scene with Finn that she’s hardly done anything throughout the story. For all the booming threats from Hux, he becomes inept when he himself is faced with a threat. For all the “Ye GODS” Force-wielding moments Kylo Ren has early in the film, by movie’s end he can barely duel Rey, who’s never held a lightsaber in her life.

But the worst offender by far is that Starkiller Base. You and I know it as Death Star 3.0 because that is PRECISELY what it f’ing is.

What Abrams and/or Disney thought could be pulled with this stunt, I do not know. George Lucas succeeded with his reveal in the first Star Wars because it hadn’t been done before.

Thus begins the required “I have a bad feeling about this” line to be uttered in many, many, MANY more movies to come…

Even the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi feels redundant, but because Emperor Palpatine is on board, audiences are willing to set aside the déjà vu and see how this new conflict unfolds.

“But look!” Disney seems to say. “This time it’s a whoooole planet and it can blow up a bunch of planets at once! It’s bigger, better, more blastier than ever!”

Yuh huh. No it’s not.

Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media… The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.

Robert McKee

All four villains in The Force Awakens had the potential to become something special in the Star Wars universe. Each had characteristics and made choices that affected a protagonist, creating promising conflict for the upcoming films. Had Disney’s “creative team” followed the antagonists’ choices to the logical next step, they could have given audiences thrilling adventures with minimal cases of déjà vu.

But Disney wasn’t about making something new, at least not with The Force Awakens. They wanted something that would ignite the nostalgia in my generation and engage my generation’s children to invest their time, money, and Christmas lists in whatever Disney slapped the Star Wars seal on. I have no doubt that JJ Abrams and any other director involved with Star Wars sincerely enjoys the classic adventures in the galaxy far, far away. But the potential of their Mystery Boxes, villains, and heroes was crushed beneath the demands of The Mouse’s Committee.

Heed this, writers, and heed it well. When a writer doesn’t take time to explore the potential of his own story-world, instead choosing to depend on what is considered “a sure thing” in the publishing industry, a writer ends up no only disappointing audiences but his own storytelling spirit. Never is this clearer when an antagonist’s traits are altered, choices limited, or ambitions doused for the sake of a trend or gimmick. As author Michael Scott once told me:

I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal…I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.

Do not damage the potential of your own story’s villain for the sake of pleasing some committee. Know your story. Know what drives the Dark so that you may better create its counterpart in the Light. If you ignore one, the other’s arc will burn to inconsequential ash.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ll see if I can get Blondie to say what she’s been up to, Miss “I want to write book reviews on my own website!” xxxxx I’ve also got some choice words about the state of literacy in Wisconsin, few of them good.

Or we might just talk about mental health. Or music. Frankly my mind’s so fried from grading I’m amazed this post got written.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

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 Arcanist is 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 Name trilogy 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.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

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