Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

If you’re a writer who loves to read, you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say good books take you along on wild rides. You love the vicarious experience, don’t you? Especially if, like me, you’ve grown too “dignified” for rope swings, skates, or skis!

Loving to read so much, I read fast, mostly too fast on the first pass to read like a writer. But since I’ve been writing regularly, I notice a lot more in a first pass than I used to.

A particularly good book might get a second reading, but even a second reading doesn’t take the place of analysis. I wish it did. I enjoy the effects a good writer achieves, and pinpointing how he or she achieved it takes away the mystery… spoils it in the same way that learning how a magician works destroys the fun of his trick.

I’m therefore a reluctant analyst. I do it because I have to learn the craft. It hurts in a weird sort of way.

I hate, for instance, that Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli wound up like a corpse on my table. I very messily dissected that book years ago before I knew much about technique. Mostly, I sawed up the plot, looking for clues. Recently, on a first reading of Spinelli’s Stargirl, I realized without analysis that she was less successful than Maniac and so I left her well enough alone.

Except for the first paragraph. Amazing how much good writers pack into small spaces. In Stargirl, for example, Spinelli does this (at least) in five sentences: He introduces Nick, the first person narrator; establishes Nick’s relative age; delivers the “hook”; hints at his quirky character; gives visual and tactile exposition; delivers brief backstory; foreshadows the theme.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is another book currently awaiting my knife. I’m amazed at the intricacy of this one. Every seeming detail is integral. So many threads, so expertly woven. Although I hate to dispel Stead’s magic, I need to know how she did it so that maybe someday I can.

I’m new at this and not very good. If you have favorite ways of analyzing fiction, I’d love to hear them. What questions do you ask? How do you proceed? Are you a writer who feels the push/pull of analysis? Please leave me a comment or send me an email.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Passing It On

I have two favorite memories of my youngest daughter Kate’s childhood.

One is of me singing to her as I rocked her. I’m not much of a singer, but it didn’t seem to matter to Kate. “Sing it again,” she’d say whenever I’d stop.

The other memory is of Kate, her daddy, and me sitting in the den after supper, all reading silently.

These domestic scenes are misleading; Kate was not a sedentary kind of girl—which is probably why these —rather than other memories that might include scissors and bedskirts or markers and carpets—linger.

Kate learned to read early, just a few months short of five years old. She was writing stories before she knew to put space between words. (Seriously. Written artifacts survive as proof.) Don’t ask me how she managed to learn to read without noticing the spacing.

At six years old, she could write better sentences than many college students. I know because I taught two semesters of freshman composition. (sic)

She was an early user of metaphor. “You’re pulling my leg,” she’d say, and then, “That’s just an expression,” in case the other party to the conversation was a literalist.

By age seven Kate had taught herself enough HTML code to build her own website. She visited other people’s sites, copied their code, and tweaked it to get the effect she wanted. She designed and wrote her own newsletter, organized her own club, put together a neighborhood canned food drive, and donated the food to a local church’s pantry. All on her own initiative and enthusiasm.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that Kate now has her own blog, The Wayfarer Chronicles:
It’s all about reading, writing, music—and travel.

Bon voyage, Kate!

Saturday, June 23, 2012


If I were to give awards to the celestial phenomena most like poetry, I would give obliquity the gold medal. Obliquity, the angle of Earth’s tilt (about 23.4⁰), is responsible for seasonal change. One hemisphere, and then the other, slants nearer the sun for half the year. [Venus, in case you wondered, orbits with its north pole down; Uranus, north pole sideways. See Obliquity, Wikipedia.]

This is mysterious to me, why a seeming celestial anomaly—earth’s tilt—should give rise to seasonal regularity. It’s one of those counter-intuitive things that, to my mind at least, belongs in the same category as why babies are soothed by jostling, jiggling, and white noise. What? Junior is screaming? No problem! Just turn on the vacuum cleaner and toss him around a bit. Works every time!

But I digress.

Since midsummer has just passed, you can perhaps see why I would be thinking about obliquity. We in the northern hemisphere have begun the turn that culminates at the winter solstice in December. It’s a good time to pause and assess.

How am I doing with those goals I set in January? Have I met any of them? Do I need to make a course correction? Should I modify or eliminate some goals due to changing circumstances? I thought I’d share part of my assessment with you.

The good news is that I met one annual goal in February, and that was to find a market for my “Change Ringing” article. The bad news is that I’ve fallen short on almost every other goal I set for myself. Daily and weekly word counts went out the window in February, about the same time I signed the contract with The Old Schoolhouse magazine. I had only a few days’ notice to edit and submit the article I had already drafted, thank goodness, in the event my query letter hit home. After that, my disciplined routine gave way to a little celebration and maybe just a little smugness. In other words, I got distracted. What I learned is not what you’d expect to learn from success: it can become an obstacle if you let it.

Another goal I set for myself was to disallow all excuses for not writing. This is the Just-Do-It philosophy, to which I no longer subscribe. I’ve since allowed for the obvious difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes health, personal problems, family, church, or employment make legitimate claims on my time, state of mind, and energy level. 

I don’t have a prescription for eliminating such interruptions. I only know that I can’t allow them to become extended or permanent disruptions. I do the best I can. If that is a lame, halting pace, so be it. I go on. Besides, such interruptions are my life, my personal obliquity. And it is probable that collectively they comprise some inscrutable effect that makes my work unique and my voice distinct.

One thing that wasn’t on my goal-setting list for the year was coming up with a mission statement, which, due to serendipity, I did anyway. It’s taken almost word-for-word from an article by Aaron D. Wolf celebrating the Christian influences of J. R. R. Tolkien ( “To inspire someone to see the real, enchanted world behind the sterile, imagined one of modernity.” I printed it out and put it on my desk as a reminder.

The world truly is enchanted. It isn’t black and white. It isn’t the way you’d expect it to be. True, we live in a world of cause and effect, but every cause has unintended, and unforeseeable, consequences, and every effect is but another cause. This demands humility. We are not in control. 

I find this to be cause for great celebration. We are not in control! To move the world, we have no celestial body near enough to stand upon and no lever long enough to reach. Christ Himself, as a good friend has to remind me regularly, has already sifted the results of all possible world-changing combinations, and the only numbers that come up are the ones He allows.

Despite the human tendency to see time as linear, we live in a cyclical world. Despite appearances to the contrary, human paths dont stretch out in a straight line to infinity. We have, instead, finite, but regularly recurring chancesas well as the responsiblityto start over. 

To repent, to change our minds, and to begin again. I need that—desperately. 

Thank God for obliquity.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel . . . .

           . . . We shall not cease from exploration                  
          And the end of all our exploring
          Will be to arrive where we started
          And know the place for the first time. 
               (from “Little Gidding,” by T. S. Eliot)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What a Great Surprise!

I've just been contacted by SCBWI that The Old Schoolhouse magazine, publisher of my first article for the children's market, has been approved and added to the SCBWI Market Surveys List. 

This means that I qualify for P.A.L membership--published and listed--a small step up from Associate membership. Whoo hoo!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Slog On

I usually allow a 15 to 20 minute writing slot just before I go to bed. This is the time I write about writing. Sometimes I assess the progress of my current project, or complain about how tough some aspect of writing is (usually plot), or make excuses for not writing more, better, or more often. But sometimes, like last night, I admit to myself I'm afraid of failing. 

I’ve recently begun a new project, the first three chapters of a first novel, and chapter one is done. It’s a decent start if I do say so. My fear was that I’d be unable to advance the plot beyond chapter one. I’ve been here before, you see. It’s the recurring nightmare of my writer’s psyche.

I don’t know why my ego is so invested in writing successfully except that it is one of maybe two talents I’ve been given. I do these two things better than I do most anything else, however well or ill other people might do them. These are fun things I do that don't require company. Lately, however, writing has been anything but fun.

So, having admitted my fear, this morning I whispered a prayer and started in on chapter two. In no time I had introduced a new character, setting, and dropped in a little backstory. (Hands-in-the-air hallelujahs—and hold on while I escort the proverbial monkey to the door!)

Now, I’d like to go back and clarify what I said about writing being fun. Sometimes it's fun and sometimes it isn't. And that's probably to be expected, no matter what type of creator you are. I’ve decided that I’m an Interpreter, one of several designations Carol Lloyd assigns to creative people in Creating a Life Worth Living. 

Lloyd asserts that although each creative type (Leader, Teacher, Realizer, Healer, Interpreter, Generator, Inventor, Maker, Mystic, Thinker) is capable “of working through all stages of creativity, most people prefer a certain moment in the creative process.” (p.65)

An Interpreter, according to Lloyd, is someone who prefers the final stages of creative production. Interpreters supposedly make good editors.This squares with my experience. Once I get a project near to completion and can see how my tweaks or major revisions create a believable alternate reality—now that’s Art! And for me it’s the fun part! 

The downside is that Interpreters may have to slog through the beginning stages of a project. This also squares with my experience. I sure hope it gets easier with practice. 

Whichever type of creator you are, you are likely to find that part of the process will be difficult (if not drudgery) and part will be fun. That's the bad news. I understand and sympathize.

The good news is that some of your fear of failure may be the result of being stuck in the slog-through parts; if you keep at it, sooner or later you'll be having fun again.

So slog on!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Not to Write

Three-Toed Sloth
Maybe you noticed my absence from Blogworld recently. If so, I’d like to say it was because I got really inspired, holed up in front of a keyboard for two weeks, and hammered out three chapters of a novel (which also happens to be my final ICL assignment).

I’d like to say that. I’d also like to say that on a recent business trip to Florida, I stumbled upon the legendary Fountain of Youth, the waters of which not only restored the body of my twenties, but also removed my deficit of wisdom.

I’d like to say that. But you know it ain’t so.

Truth is I have more excuses than a D.C. politician why I haven’t blogged, but at least I’m not blaming it on a former president. Truth is I’m as stuck as a burr on Velcro. 

That final ICL assignment? The months of planning and prewriting, of interviewing characters and agonizing over plot points? Except for the lesson, “How Not to Write,” it was all wasted, like trying to circumnavigate a city by following only the dead-end streets. I kept telling myself it would work out. Here’s a great quiz question: which is easier to fool? a) yourself; b) a three-toed sloth? If you said “b,” I have some miracle water I’d like to sell you.

From now on I think I’ll recognize a story vehicle that just isn’t going anywhere. No use tinkering around under the hood trying to get it started when it’s wheel-less and perched on blocks.

I’m starting over. Without miracle water, I’m afraid.

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