Monday, February 28, 2011

Writing Religiously: Most Underrated Book – Many Dimensions

My pick this week for the most underrated book is Many Dimensions by Charles Williams. It’s a heavy read for a novel, and it’s often seen as one of William’s weakest titles, but I continue to find Dimensions engaging. (Before I continue on, I must disclose that some of my comments here come from a now defunct blog. I shouldn’t have to post this disclosure, but after spending nine years in higher education, I have some very warped sensibilities about plagiarism.)

In Many Dimensions a mysterious stone surfaces in England that can transport an individual from one location to another, heal the sick, and travel through time. This “Stone of Solomon” can also be divided infinitely without diminishing the size or quality of the original.

So everyone’s trying to get their hands on them: government officials, airline moguls, hospitals and entire villages! The stone it seems represents the power of God. So when two government-types are trying to avoid distributing this powerful artifact they come up with a plan:

Mr. Garterr Browne smiled slyly. “Ask yourself,” he said, “why people – this
Mayor, for instance – are making such a fuss about the Stone. Why, because they think it does things.”
“So it does,” Lord Birlesmere said.
“Never mind whether it does or not,” Garterr Browne said sharply. “The point is that they believe that it does. Very well. What do we want to do then? Stop them believing it. How do we do that? Tell them, and show them, that it doesn’t.”
“But it does,” Lord Birlesmere said again.
“The first thing I said to myself,” Mr. Garterr Browne went on, “when I realized it, was – people must simply not be allowed to believe in it. The second thing was – thank God it’s stone.”
Lord Birlesmere sat and stared. Mr. Garterr Browne sat and smiled, then he resumed.
“How can one stop them believing in it? As I’ve just said – tell them it doesn’t work; show them it doesn’t work. And if it does, show them something that doesn’t.”

Mr. Garterr Browne had a fake stone that looked similar to the real thing made up, and was able to somewhat successfully dupe people into thinking it was the “Stone of Solomon,” and had no power.

I think this scene is currently playing itself out in our society.

I believe Christianity is true. I think there is a large body of evidence pointing to this conclusion.

In our unbelieving culture (even within churches) there is much doubt to be found, though. I think this has happened partially because of poor theology. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that the “Power of God” in our lives equals “Getting Whatever We Want and Never Suffering.” So as our culture cries at us “it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, Christianity doesn’t work because you don’t have everything promised to you,” we often throw up our hands and say, “you’re right, it doesn’t!”

What has happened here, though, is we’ve been fed a false power, a false stone if you will. Somewhere along the line, people begin to understand that the power of God is nothing more than a genie in a bottle with the “infinite wish” in play. God’s power doesn’t work like that. He is not a man that I should order him around, and he is not my servant. I am His.

So, we look for the wrong sort of power, find nothing, and begin to doubt God. Instead, we need to understand that we human beings are physically flawed, morally flawed, spiritually flawed, and socially flawed. Yet God, in His infinite love regarded us so much that he lower Himself and took on human form, dying the death of a murder, and defeating the grave through His resurrection. He effects all things to work together to bring His children closer to Himself and further away from our flaws.

I don’t know about you, but I think the greater show of power in life is a reformed alcoholic-absentee father, who now loves his wife and children, rather than a Porsche suddenly appearing in my driveway.

I loved Williams’ story, and I love stories with implications that can inspire thought processes like the one I just shared. Every Williams-reader I talk with discounts Many Dimensions as boring and directionless. William’s magical-realism, coupled with the rare glimpse into post “Great War,” pre-World War II world brings Williams’ book up into my highest regards.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How I Learned... #6: About Jealousy



The Worst Monsters Have Green Eyes

In reconnecting with a friend from summer writing camp, back in the day, I come to find out that she's been... how shall I put this? Marginally more successful than I've been. She's also working on her MFA, and she's just finished her first novel for an agent.

It's depressing. I feel nothing but good vibes for this person, and I'm thrilled that she's doing better at what she loves than I am... but still.

I was a prolific writer of original fiction when I was in high school. I even had a few pieces published in semi-professional 'zines here and there. I was all geared up for college and excited about learning how to improve my writing and how to maneuver through the ins and outs of the changing publishing industry.

Then I went to SUNY New Paltz.

Don't get me wrong, I loved my college... the lit department, anyway. The creative writing department... not so much. In fact, the concentration nearly killed my desire to write anything but fan fiction, strictly because I knew it couldn't be published and because it gave me pleasure. It took me a good few years to work through all the bullshit I was taught in New Paltz's CW program, and I've only recently returned to serious original work.

In that time, I've become a far better writer than I was in college, and no thanks to the college, either. But that's eight years of business experience wasted, because I didn't get any. I was too busy trying to keep my sanity in the face of out-dated nonsense and infantile discussions of technique. I mean really, did the sophomore, junior and senior-level creative writing courses need to start with the exact same discussion of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" that the freshman course started with? And then I was trying to finish college and earn a living and then there was the whole fiancé/husband angle and now he's trying to work and go to school and be chronically ill and, as he's been raging, there just isn't enough time.

Excuse me, I need to go beat a punching bag into a pulp.

Okay, I'm back now.

I'm very content with where I am right now, as a writer. And I'm thrilled that Libby is living the life we all wanted when we were seventeen. I just wish I could be experiencing it as well. I feel like I have a disgusting amount of catch-up work to do.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ideas are Everywhere

Judging from authors' FAQs, one of the most common questions people have is where writers get their ideas from. Some readers are just amazed at the ingenuity, and some would-be writers are desperatly searching for something to write about, wondering why they can't find anything.

I never had this question; I always have too much to write about. I'm a little confused by it really, because I think interesting things happen all the time. So I'm going to start an ongoing segment called "Ideas are Everywhere," in which I relate a true event from my life that I think would be good inspiration for a story.

Today's story comes from my time teaching 9th grade. The students were supposed to be working independently when I saw that two of them were making really weird noises. I asked them what on earth they were doing, and they excitedly turned to me and responded:
(xtranormal only allows two characters)

Seriously. Dinosaur sounds. On one had, completely ridiculous and random. On the other hand what sound does a dinosaur make?! We'll never know!

Where do you get ideas from?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing Religiously: Audio Dramas

I finished the first draft of my forthcoming audio drama “Untold Alliances: Those We Serve” yesterday. This will be the second episode in a series of seven. (I still need to send the manuscript to the producer, though!) You can download the first episode for free from the Spirit Blade Underground Alliance.

I’m enjoying writing in the audio drama format. If you’re interested in trying your hand at this genre check out the Audio Market List for a large list of shows accepting submissions. And for help formatting your scripts, check out the free MS Word template here.
Keep writing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How I Learned... #5: How I Learned to Conquer Writer's Block (in theory, anyway)

Not long ago, I dug up a novel I wrote in my 1st and 2nd years of high school. And... wow.

It's awful.

I mean, I knew it was bad the moment I finished it—I remember that distinctly, and I remember fully intending to go back and rework it into something of marginally less suckitude, but in those days I wasn't a big fan of the whole 'editing' thing. In fact, the idea of rewriting a novel I'd just spent two solid years working on intimidated the hell out of me. And I never did get around to editing it. At some point in college I printed it out so I'd have a hard copy, and I'm very glad I did, because shortly afterward I had a computer burnout that wiped seven years worth of work—my lifetime's work, actually, up to that point.

Also, I guess in 9th grade I didn't really fully comprehend the notions of plagiarism and copyright infringement. The novel in question was basically a name-change of a crossover fan fiction written by a friend with whom I've now long since lost touch (a great pity, she was an immense inspiration in those early days), and whose composite world she had very kindly given me permission to play with and continue… on a strictly fanon basis, mind you.

Over the years, the fan fiction and my work of blatant theft the original novel I'd based on it faded from my thoughts. Recently, though, I revisited those initial pieces of fan fiction, both hers and mine, and decided to rewrite some of my stories strictly for my own pleasure. In doing so, two things happened:

-- my revision of my rather simple and silly piece of fanfic suddenly morphed into a commentary on the supplanting of pagan beliefs by Christianity in 5th century Ireland

-- I remembered that the original author and I had traded several emails about some of her characters, and as I was going to be working with those characters again, I decided to check my files to see if I still had the hard-copies of those emails. I don't, but I found the manuscript of my rip-off novel.

No, you can't see it. It's disjointed, derivative, and full of modern speech patterns... The three best scenes in the whole book are only good because they were written jointly with the original author. I mean, I'm seriously shocked. I remembered some problems with story continuity but I had no idea the dialogue had aged so very, very badly. Also, there are a lot of thinly disguised portraits of high school classmates in that book. Very thinly disguised… it reminds me of an exchange from the MTV show Daria:

Mr. O'Neill: "You could read one of your essays! What about the one about being a big misfit whom everybody hates? The other kids'll really relate to that. I know I do…"
Daria: "I don't know if that's such a good idea. That's the one about comparing the sophomore class to barnyard animals? It names names."
Mr. O'Neill: "Oh yeah…"

Not quite that blatant, but yeah. There are people from high school I haven't thought about in YEARS who were suddenly called to mind when I read that stolen book again.

(By the way, the reason I'm not naming the fandoms or the person in question is because A) I am well-aware now that what I was doing in high school was wrong, and I don't want to profit by it; B) the reason I'm rewriting my own fanfic now is for my own pleasure and edification—editing, I've come to realize, is good for the soul. But fan fiction as a discipline all its own is near and dear to my heart, and I should probably do a ramble about it one of these days.)

The point of this long-winded digression is that I wrote this book in my freshman and sophomore years, and it's really quite bad. I spent most of my junior year avoiding trying to edit the thing. And then in senior year, I wrote "Egg of the Damned," which while not spectacular, has a plot that's at least 90% coherent and possesses an undeniably unique setting and cast of characters.

And the crux of that improvement, I believe, is the fact that the story was conceived while I was visiting Great Britain and Ireland for my 17th birthday. I'd spent two years wandering through a high school trying to write a high fantasy, and all I got out of it was an additional year of just trying to forget the book.

It's amazing what a brief trip abroad can do for one's abilities... what a brief trip anywhere can do for the creative mind. I used to be completely unable to write at home or in my dorm room at school; everything I did was done in longhand in class or in the library. All I did at home was type up what I'd written that day. It's become easier now that I spent most of my time working in an office, but I still carry at least three notebooks wherever I go.

So that's my first, best cure for writer's block: wherever you've been spending most of your time writing, get up and go somewhere else. Down the hall, down the block, across the border or the ocean, just change your location. If nothing else, you'll have something different to stare at while you struggle with your plots.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing Religiously: Universal Language

I’m taking a class on preaching narrative literature. It’s absolutely fascinating. Here’s a couple of gems I’ve treasured from the class so far:

1. “God uses story the most to communicate to us.”
About three-quarters of the Bible is written in the genre of story. Throughout history story has been the best means to communicate concepts in a meaningful and memorable way. This leads me to the next point.

2. “Story is the closest thing to a universal language.”
All cultures have stories. All people are formed by their personal stories. All persons relate to stories.

What does this mean for us writers? It means that more than self-help books, articles on psychology, or dissertations on personal development, our stories have the potential to change lives!

Please write responsibly.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine’s Day and the writing blogosphere is full of secret valentines!

My secret valentine is the lovely Yamile Mendez. Happy Valentine's Day, Yamile! I'm sorry this Valentine isn't more fancy, but I hope you like it.

Blog readers, here are some reasons why Yamile is awesome:

1. She’s raising four kids and still finds time to write. She even did NaNoWriMo. I fell like a wuss.

2. English is not her native language, but not only is she fluent in it, she writes in it. Did you hear me? She composes fiction in a non-native language. She’s like the Josef Conrad of Utah.

3. Her favorite sport is the best sport in the world. And I love how she spells it futbol.

4. Some people go cloth napkins. She went cloth diapers. That takes some serious commitment.

Last, here are some recent pictures of Rosario, Argentina, taken by a friend who lives there now.

A street corner on a typical afternoon.

Cantemos la Navidad at the National Flag Monument

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How I Learned... #4: Why Do I Do It

Who Would Wish the Day of the Writer?


In Which I Wonder Why the Hell I Do What I Do

Really, who would be a writer if they didn't absolutely have to be? It's an intensely isolating profession, both physically and mentally—one needs to have certain things in order to write, like quiet or an appropriate background noise, the proper tools (computer, typewriter, pen and paper, cuneiform tablets, papyrus, etc—each to his own), a window and a room of her own... But even more than that, mental privacy. Some slight, temporary freedom from personal attachments, bills, outside distractions... the freedom to think, and plot, and plan. Unfortunately, once I have that, I have to set to work immediately, before the ennui and the crippling loneliness kick in. The only way to beat the shadows back is to keep writing.

Finding that balance between real life and what's going on in my head is intensely difficult. Not in the schizophrenic, "I don't know what's real and what's not" sense, but in the immersive sense. You'll often hear authors talk about their characters telling them what to do, or that the story has taken control, stuff like that. It's not meant literally (at least not usually). It's simply that to tell a good story, with settings and characters that the reader will believe in, the writer has to believe in that world even more than the reader. Example: if you walk up to a painting and stare at it very closely, you'll find that to a painter, the human face is composed of various blobs of purple and green. But when you back up and look at the whole piece, what you see now are no longer the individual colors, but a single cohesive face.

I have a similar way of working. To tell a whole story, I have to look at each person and place in great detail. Before I can write about a small part of their lives or importance, I have to know everything. It's a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. But if my work is good, then this is the reason why. But again, it's an isolating way to work. I can spend so much time with the fictitious people that I instinctively know, in any given situation, how they will react, and then be caught completely off-guard when people in my day-to-day life don't react the way I expected them to. And then, sometimes, to be honestly shaken when someone in real life actually does act as I predicted, simply because I've spent so much time observing this person and unconsciously cataloging how they handle different situations and problems, how they walk, how they dress, their speech patterns.

As I said, it's hard to find a balance. And really, who would willingly chose to go through their life like this?

*snort* Oh, woe is me, the tortured artiste.

Also in connection with this, I am slowly coming to realize that being a writer ill-befits me for discussing books with people who are not writers. I'm developing a reputation for halting book discussions in their tracks because really, all I see anymore is the scaffolding. The colors, if you will. When I read a book, I acknowledge the story with about a quarter of my active brain; the rest is taken up with "Is this character consistent? Is this dialogue appropriate? Why did that MacGuffin just give birth to a herring? Why was the villain just bludgeoned to death with a deus ex machina? Is it a deus ex machina? I have to go back to page 32 to figure it out!"

And then I try to discuss this with people who've clearly not lost sleep over what happened on page 32 (and rightly so), and what they're mainly concerned with is the all-important question of "Was this a good book? And by whose definition?"

Meaning that I am obviously lost in a forest of trees, but I can see it, because there's a giant deus ex machina right in front of me, followed by a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Things I learned from watching TV/movies.

Whenever I use a five-dollar word people automatically assume that I learned it from a book. To be fair, I read a lot. I think people remember this about me because they find it offensive when I’m reading instead of talking to them, even though it’s not my job to keep them entertained.

But though I’ve been known to crack a few spines now and again don’t underestimate the power of cable. We watch a ridiculous amount of TV in my house, so much so that we spent about 5 years saying “I don’t think so, Tim,” have taken to smacking each other on the back of the head and call any one we know with a confusing corporate job a “transponster.”

The key to having a large vocabulary is to be attentive and to look up words you know. After all, you could read through and not pick up any of the SAT words if you don’t stop to look up the words you don’t know. Context clues only get you so far.

So here are some words that I know I learned from television and/or movies:

Machinations—evil schemes. From All My Children. Dr. David Hayward was telling his mother he was sick of her machinations, which is a bit rich considering he once drugged an entire yacht party.

Sycophant—a “yes man” or toady. From Gilmore Girls. Rory worked as an intern for her boyfriend’s father, Mitchum. After Mitchum tells her she hasn’t got what it takes to be a journalist (no specifics on why, and the only criticism he’s told her all semester) she freaks out, quits Yale, steals a boat, moves in with her grandparents and joins the DAR.

So when the boyfriend, Logan, lands in the hospital and his dad refuses to see him, it’s time for Rory to finally stick it to him.

Disinclined, acquiesce—don’t want to, agree. From Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I saw this movie three times and spent the entire summer at camp reenacting it. (FYI: Modern canoes can’t sink, even if you turn them upside down.) Instead of saying no, my fellow counselors and I would say we were “disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”

Line starts 5 mins in:

Sporadic—irregularly. From Clueless. Everyone seems to love Paul Rudd now, but those of us who were tween girls hopped on board that train back in ’96. I feel sorry for all the teachers subjected to endless rounds of “whatever” and “as if,” not to mention the plaid.

In this scene Cher explains to Ty (Brittany Murphy) the importance vocabulary building has to being a well rounded person. Starts at 5:33.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


There is a surprising lack of books featuring mermaids, especially considering just about every other magical creature has been featured in some way. Even anime doesn't meet its quota, and they have some pretty crazy stuff going down.

Well look no further! Ashley L. Knight has written a YA book called Fins, about a teenager who turns out to be a mermaid. I'd check it out just for the newness factor. This week The Innocent Flower is giving away one free, signed copy.

Still, the mystery of all those mermaid-less books may never be solved...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Religiously: Born to Write

If you find yourself over a long period of time possessing the unquenchable urge to write, then I contend that part of your purpose in life is to write.

In a letter to his personal friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development.”

Your writing is not mere vanity (though it can degenerate into it), it is not a grab for fame (though many write for only this purpose), it is not a pointless exercise in personal fulfillment (though it often feels like it is). If you possess that unquenchable urge to write, then your writing is a part of the Grand Design, the Master Plan and the Harmony of the World.

Keep writing.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How I Learned... #3: How My Brain Works

Seeker of the One True Radish


How I Learned to Ignore Things

I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. Have been since I was about, oh, thirteen. And two particular quotations from the stories about him have always been etched into my brain:

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. ... Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order; it is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. ... It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones." (A Study in Scarlet; Chapter Two: The Science of Deduction)

"Do you know, Watson," said he, "that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject." (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches)

My own special subject is, in the main, that of writing, and specifically, writing slightly off-beat speculative fiction. (I used to call it science fiction, but then Science and I had a long talk and we decided it would be better for us to end our relationship before one of us got hurt or time started to dilate.) Therefore, I tend to gravitate towards information and entertainment, and sometimes even people, that I think I'll be able to utilize in my writing. I love libraries, museums of all kinds, antique shops. I also like country fairs, RenFaires, and music festivals. I'm very picky about my choices of books, television programs, movies and music. All this gives my personal tastes an eclectic, but at the same time, a very narrow field.

Which is why the phrases "You don't know who ____ is?!" and "You've never heard of _____?!" tend to annoy me. It's a constant irritant, especially in high school and college. Eventually it got to the point where I was actively cultivating a reputation for living under a rock, so that a quizzical expression was all that was needed for people talking around me to stop and explain, or just say "April doesn't get it," and move on to another topic.

Don't get me wrong, if I want more information, I'll ask for it (and God help you). But when it comes to say, music, the world is not going to end if I don't know every piece of minutia about a particular singer or group. For example, I like Queen and I like their music and I think Freddy Mercury was awesome on toast. Fabulous toast. But I could care less who their drummer is. (I do know who all the Beatles are, but I think that's one of those things you eventually uncover whether you listen to them or not.) There are also a lot of cartoons that I never watched growing up, and as a child of the 80s, I should be ashamed of that, stuff like Transformers, He-Man and/or She-ra, and Thundercats. I just wasn't allowed that much TV time as a kid, and frankly the animation hurt my eyes.

This actually has a lot to do with why I don't watch a lot of comedy. Well, anything, really, but comedy in particular. It's basically because I can't do anything with it. My husband adores Monty Python, but I can only take it in very small bits, because somewhere in the back of my head, I find myself thinking, "Wow, this is such a waste of time. I mean, it's drop-dead funny an' all, but I could be doing something creative right now." Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and I really do enjoy Python, but it's not something I'll actively seek out. Comedic movies are the same; they just don't do it for me. And yet I love stand-up comedy. Go figure.

I also dislike most dramatic movies—partially because of the time factor, but also because I'm a novelist at heart, and I tend to become over-invested in characters and plot, and the simplification needed to wrap up a story in the standard 90-120 minutes of the average dramatic film just doesn't cut it for me. It's one of the reason I'll willingly subject myself to the convolutions of authors like Hugo and Dickens: the payoff takes forever, and I love that.

I will watch certain dramatic shows, but just to prove that it makes no sense inside my head, I prefer dramas with a vein of comedy (NCIS springs to mind), I think because in real life, there's always funny moments. You need that humor to lighten the dark times, and conversely, seriousness makes levity that much more amusing.

Really, what this ramble boils down to is the fact that I have no capacity to relax and just stop thinking about writing for a few hours. And if someone is trying to entice me into watching or listening to something I have no interest in, then no amount of cajoling is going to help them.

I'm with Holmes on this one. There just isn't enough room in my brain.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Things I learned from J1*

Last week I wrote about why I'm not a journalist, or interested in pursuing journalism. That being said, Journalism 1 was one of my favorite college courses, and I earned the crap out of that A. So here are some things I learned, in no particular order.

1. Composing on a keyboard. Some people say the ideas come better on ink but the bottom line is it’s faster, saves recopying time, and comes out neater. I may not always compose like this, but it’s good to have the option.

Besides actual composing, you should learn to type. Definitely one of the most useful things I ever did. I don’t care how fast you hunt and peck you still need to look at the keyboard. Being able to type 55 wpm is a plus in any job.

2. Editing. As soon as you write your little article in class, you’ve got to chop it up and figure out how to do it better. Seeing what you write not as your baby that’s perfect but as a construction that you can fiddle around with and make better is something we all have to learn. In journalism, you learn fast.

3. Caffeine. My J1 class was early in the morning. Actual quote from my professor: "You guys don't know what it's like to sit up here and look at you. It’s like a casualty ward." Needless to say everyone came to class with something caffeinated.

I wish.

4. Just the facts. If you’ve ever paid attention to newspaper articles, you’ve noticed that you can read the first paragraph and get a summary of the whole thing. The rest is just details, with each paragraph become progressively less important. It’s called the inverted pyramid.

We actually spent weeks writing those little one sentence paragraphs, called ledes. Our professor would give us all the facts, details, quotes and names to write an entire article, and we had to sift through and par the story down to one sentence.

It’s a good skill to be able to narrow a story down to the who what where when why. One of my college friends, Rachel, actually took an hour to tell the story of how and why she changed dorms. In one sentence: Her roommate’s boyfriend physically threatened her when she refused to answer his phone calls, after she had repeatedly told him his girlfriend wasn’t there.

Yes. An hour.

5. Shiny=Good. In general, ledes don’t have specific details like names, numbers, ages, times, etc. They always start, “A Hudson resident was mauled by a pit bull yesterday...”

Unless of course, the specific detail is shocking or out of the ordinary. Like a five-year-old getting 45 stitches. Sure you should never lose the forest for the trees, but some trees are pretty freakin interesting.

*Journalism 1. Have I mentioned I’m pretentious, and love to show off my insider knowledge?
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