Monday, November 17, 2014

A Literary Buffet

How do you decide what project to work on next?

I’m still plugging away at a revision that’s had me in its grip for a couple years now, but I’ve been starving without the joy of plunging into the messy creation of a story--the bread and water to any fiction writer.

So I’m dabbling, like a kid at a buffet, to see where I should focus my energy.

Should it be the humorous Gilded Age cross-class romance?

Or the World War II ghost story?

Or the Civil War Shakespeare retelling?

Or one of the magazine stories I have planned?

Or the funny stories of saints, told for young readers?


One thing I know, I need a full plate of SOMETHING, or I will waste away to my writing skin and bones. Would you mind saying a prayer that I find direction and a wee bit of inspiration to get me beyond “Page 1”?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fall is for Fantasy: The Paper Magician, by Charlie Holmberg

Something about the bare branches and sweet, cool winds of mid to late fall make me want nothing more than a cup of tea, some cookies, and a nice fantasy novel. Here was my latest, much enjoyed, fantasy read:

Ceony Twill, much to her chagrin, has been apprenticed to a Paper Magician. Even though he has immense skill, a fine reputation, and mysterious smiling eyes, Ceony still wishes she could have done something more useful with her magical abilities; paper, she thinks, is all but useless. Soon, however, she gains an appreciation for both the medium and the magician--but is it in time to save him from an old enemy bent on revenge?

And...that's all the description you're gonna get, because...spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. There's a very interesting plot device used halfway through the book. I've never seen anything like it before, and I absolutely loved it.

The Paper Magician is Charlie Holmberg's debut (the sequel, The Glass Magician, just released), but it shows a remarkably mature skill at GETTING THE STORY ACROSS. Sorry for yelling at you there. But if I have one pet peeve with many adult fantasy novels, it's the descriptions that, albeit beautiful, go on forever and ever and detract from the story. If I have a second, it's that I'm afraid to pick up half of them because they're too sexual for my tastes. The Paper Magician was beautiful without being wordy, and romantic without being overly sexual. I'm impressed.

If you've already read The Paper Magician and are still hanging around waiting for me to recommend some fall fantasy reads, here are a few I love:

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. (If you haven't read it, here's a hint: it's okay to speed-read those hours in the mountains the first time. I know they take forever.)

The Ascendance Trilogy, by Jennifer Neilsen. (Fast, fun, gorgeous upper middle grade fantasy that I promise you will enjoy unless you absolutely hate both fantasy and middle grade. The fantasy elements are light and the plotting is heavy without you noticing.)

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (Let's just say it's the fantasy that inspired all the greats from Lewis and Tolkien to L'Engle.)

Speaking of Lewis... The Space Trilogy, by C. S. Lewis. (I've only read the first two, but they're amazing. And I think one of these cool nights might call for a dive into Book 3.)

And speaking of L'Engle... A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. (It's even set in autumn, so that makes it even better.)

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. (This is a love-it-or-hate-it title, I've found. White does fall into the on-and-on description category, no doubt. But if you like his wry, British sense of humor, you'll enjoy it anyway. What makes the book stand apart, however, is his pinpoint accuracy of describing human nature at its worst and best. He shows what sin does to you, and it makes you cringe. He shows what love does to you, and it makes you cry. And it's still funny. How did he manage that?)

What are your fantasy favorites? Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What We're Reading Wednesday: the beauty of simple family life

1. Right now, my CD player alarm clock plays this every morning:

I also listen to it while I fold laundry. I also bribed persuaded my 7-year-old to help me fold laundry by letting her listen to the fun parts at the beginning before everything gets all "Help, I need a tissue now before I get tears and snot over everything because I'm crying so hard."

There are not many books that can make me do that and still be counted among my very favorites. Wilson Rawls is an absolute master at description, at characterization and believable dialogue, at setting and at boosting Kleenex's annual sales.

But what strikes me most during this read/listen (I have read it at least three times before...maybe more) is the very real and very beautiful family relationships Rawls creates. Billy has what we now see as an old-fashioned respect for his parents and grandfather, a deep love for his three little sisters, excitement and joy to learn that yet another sibling is expected. All this without limiting the tension of the story one iota.

I want so badly to write a book like this one, that I could almost cry just from that.

2. I found this gem at a used book store this past weekend:

It's the only Deep Valley book (Deep Valley, of Betsy-Tacy fame) that I haven't read. I did one of those, "Oh, I'll just crack it open to see how it starts..." only to find myself an hour later 50 pages in and completely caught up in the character's life.

While this one takes the easier tension-creating path of an orphaned main character, family life is still the star of the show. Emily lives with her 80-something grandfather, a veteran of the Civil War, and while she struggles with disappointment at missing out on the fun college experience that her high school classmates take for granted, she doesn't hesitate to choose the simple life of daily meal preparation, housekeeping, and listening to her grandfather's stories over and over--because he needs her, and family members take care of each other. That kind of selflessness and maturity isn't even believed if it crops up in contemporary YA manuscripts. (I'm speaking partly from the experience of a critique partner who had a beautiful manuscript rejected because it ends in a similar selfless decision.)

3. On the picture book side of things:

I had to laugh at certain Goodreads reviews that rate this poorly because "it's too old-fashioned and kids today just won't be interested in that old-timey stuff." Of course, nothing could so highly recommend a book to me. My girls think it's lovely and totally normal, but then they also use phrases like, "Do my ears deceive me?" and "I'm very fond of pumpkins." So maybe I can't judge accurately. (For the record, "pumpkin moonshine" is an old New England term for a jack-o-lantern. It has nothing to do with alcohol made from pumpkins. Sorry to disappoint.)

4. Finally, in the non-fiction corner:

After reading Emily Freeman's A Million Little Ways, I had to read her sister's book, The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful. Speaking of the beauty of simple family life...

This book provides plenty of good advice on decorating your home, but I'd argue that its deeper purpose is to remind us of what home should be in the first place. Some of us have become so caught up in the idea of a perfect house that we're hesitant to let our homes be the havens and sanctuaries and beacons of joy that they're meant to be. I needed the verbal smack on the cheek to remind me that my home can offer guests comfort and happiness and hospitality even if every floor isn't vacuumed--or maybe, in my case, even if every floor isn't even finished. I am so prideful and I have got to. Get. Over. It.

On that happy, honest note....I'll close. What are you reading this week? What are your favorite literary beacons of simple, joyful family life?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life's an Art

Mid-September provided me with a nice, long “time away from it all” while visiting my big sister in Western New York State. While surrounded by her fourteen acres of gardens and springs and forests, or on walks along the shore of nearby Lake Erie,  I had the chance to press the “reset” button on the lazy habits I’d fallen into: of focusing on everything that had to get done more than what I had in front of me; of ignoring God’s gifts of things like sunsets or stars or the cute way chickens wipe their beaks on the grass because I was too short-sighted to see past that darn stain on my wall that I just couldn’t get off; of thinking again about the submissions and rejections in writing rather than the joy that creating stories gives me.

It’s important to re-establish priorities every so often. I must admit, I was helped along by spending my napping/nursing times there reading Emily Freeman’s A Million Little Ways; Uncovering the Art You Were Made to Live.
A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live

Such a lovely little book--full of the warm enthusiasm and inspiration I expected, but also of a depth of wisdom and common sense that surprised me. To be honest, effusive inspiration-speak only does so much for me. I think all cheerleaders should calmly, rationally point out the facts that back up their wild emotions.

And that’s what Emily Freeman ultimately did. Behind the seemingly carefree cheerleading is a call to accept a deep responsibility: You are God’s art. You are called to reflect Him through yours. And don’t get cocky--if you refuse to try something because you’re afraid to fail, you’re getting too full of yourself and forgetting who’s the real artist behind your work.

I had a minor epiphany while reading. See, this talk of art: making art, living art, reflecting God’s art and being His art--that’s a big part of who I am. If you’ve had a real life conversation with me, you probably know that. It comes up, ahem, occasionally. Like, every day. So I’m going to start discussing it more here on this blog.

Prepare yourself for the “waxing philosophical.” :)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

10 Random Thoughts to Celebrate Tolkien Week

In honor of Tolkien Week, I bring to you some random thoughts on/relating to/mildly inspired by one of my favorite authors and men!

1. My nephew is a hobbit. He's about three feet high (granted, he's also three years old), his birthday is September 22 (just like Bilbo and Frodo), and he's quite comfortable walking barefoot in the woods. The clincher, though, is that he has a hobbit's stomach. Second breakfasts, elevensies, luncheon, tea... he's a fan of them all, down to the midnight snack.

2. My first email address, acquired with no little excitement at age 13, was (except with a real server and all). After about two hours of trying every name of my favorite characters and being told they were taken, my mom suggested I channel that obvious obsession into my own, obvious address. The problem was, the movies hadn't been made yet. So none of my friends could actually SPELL Tolkien. Probably some uneducated kid who put the "e" before the "i" got all my mail.

3. Tolkien had a daughter-in-law named Faith. Cool coincidence, huh?

4. Despite proclaiming my fan-status in my email address, I didn't finish reading the LOTR until after the first movie came out. This is because my sweet brother convinced me that Pippin died and I decided I just couldn't go on reading, let alone living, after that.

5. My only nickname besides "Faithy" is "Lady of Rohan." I was so dubbed by this really cute guy I had a crush on as a teenager. I nicknamed him "Steward of Gondor." We were really nerdy that way. I can even hunt up a few Tolkien-related poems we wrote for each other. This, by the Steward himself, was possibly my favorite:

We likes tasty fishes, my precious, we do.
We munch on their boneses, we gnaw and we chew.
We beats on their headses 'till they all be deadses.
Gollum! Fish skins taste just like glue.

With wooing skills of that calibre, of course I had to marry him. How many guys out there write you poetry anymore?

6. On Fairy Stories is one of the most important books on writing that I've ever read. (You can--and must--find it in the collection Tree and Leaf.)

7. I know how to write Futhork--the dwarvish (actually Viking) runes you see in The Hobbit and elsewhere. Many a love letter was penned in that rather unromantic script.

8. I also know a bit of Elvish, and once wrote a poem in it. Alas, I typed it out only to have my computer crash the next day. But it was way too much work to recreate. You'll just have to take my word for it that it was amazing.

9. I'm sure you know that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and influential in his dear friend C. S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity. But he was also a defender of Judaism. A random favorite bit of his writing is a letter he wrote to his German publishers when they asked if he was Aryan. He told them off with all the polite wrath of an English gentleman and etymologist, in a few succinct paragraphs including the line: "But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people." You can read more about the letter here.

10. According to some writing-procrastination tools, the Tolkien character I am most like is Thorin Oakenshield. According to others, I am Gandalf. One pinned me as Galadriel. I must have an old, old soul.