Friday, January 27, 2012

What's your life philosophy? (Or, at least, favorite flavor of ice cream?)

Here's a fun writing exercise, which I stole from my sister's friend (who uses it in real life, on her friends' prospective boyfriends, not her characters as far as I know):

Ask your main character: “What is your life philosophy?” (And then ask, “Why?”)

This may be harder to answer than you'd think. And it says a whole lot about your character. For example, the first time my sister's friend asked it of her friend's boyfriend (is the degree of separation confusing you yet??), he answered, “Live hard, die young.” (This says, I am simultaneously shallow and cliché and I lack the confidence to think for myself...)

There were only two good responses to that. The first was, “Get away from my friend, you loser.” The second was what was actually said: “Um...okay. What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?”

(Incidentally, another great character-revealing question.)

For the record, my own life philosophy (at the moment) is, “Live as if you were to die today. Learn as if you were to live forever.” (Because I might die today, after all, and I want to do all I can and show as much love as I can and pray and write and, well, live all I can in this life. But I also firmly believe that I will live forever—in heaven. So I'd be doing an injustice and undervaluing myself as a creation of God if I didn't learn and better myself with every chance I have.)

And my favorite flavor of ice cream...peppermint stick. I wish they sold it all year long. (Because it's amazing, obviously.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Feast Day!

Happy feast of Saint Francis de Sales, one of the patron saints of writers!
I'll leave you with a few things that he wrote to inspire or encourage you in your own writing:

“True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as true strength.”

“Have patience with all things, but first of all with yourself.”

“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The blind leading the lame

Lucy, our four-year-old, is endeavoring to teach her two-year-old sister Zoe to “talk right.” The results are pretty humorous:

Zoe: (looking at the green monster “Mike Wazowski” in a Monsters Incorporated picture book) This Mike Asky-Asky.
Lucy: No, Zoe. That's Mike Tchaikovsky.


Zoe: Hi, Annie-Ann!
Lucy: No, say Raggy Ann. Like this: Rag.
Zoe: Rag.
Lucy: Gee.
Zoe: Gee.
Lucy: Ann.
Zoe: Ann.
Lucy: See, Raggy Ann!
Mama: Actually, Lucy, her name is Raggedy Ann.
Lucy: What? Is that her name in the book?
Mama: Yep.
Lucy: (annoyed) Well, we're calling her Raggy Ann, cuz that other name is too hard to say.

I laughed (afterward, in private).

But then I had to consider: how often do I do the same thing? I've probably given my children the wrong answer a few times (my explanation of the wind, for example, was severely lacking—thank goodness their Papa is more scientifically-minded than I...), and they haven't even started in on the really tricky questions.

And as a writer, I know I've felt just like Lucy must have: I had all the answers—about somebody else's writing. Maybe I couldn't do it myself—but I could tell someone else where they had messed up. I know now, that in some of the early critiques I gave, I was over-eager to come up with a solution for every problem. I cringe to think how many times this may have confused or misled rather than helped.
Nowadays, I try to be very careful and very thoughtful. I do point out problems, but I'm reluctant to suggest solutions unless I'm very sure of them—and if I feel they fit with the author's intention for their story.
And I'm very grateful for my wonderful critique partners, who have always helped me this way, and who helped me learn through their example how to assist them.

Of course, sometimes things seem like obvious problems that need to be fixed, and even they are actually perfect little moments of the voice that brings the story to life. Which is why I'm off to play with Mike Tchaikovsky and Raggy Ann now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Primarily Secondary

Every so often it's a good idea to take a step back and do some serious analysis. (Actually, it's a good idea to do this regularly...) This week's victim subject: secondary characters.

 In fact, I started off by analyzing my very favorite books in an attempt to figure out why I love them as I do. Main characters, of course, were high on the list, as was plot and setting and prose quality. Yet I was surprised by the fifth top 5 characteristic: secondary characters. Honestly, I couldn't rank these things in order. Because, yes, Anne of Green Gables wouldn't be Anne of Green Gables without, well, Anne or Green Gables—but what would it be without Gilbert Blythe? What would Harry Potter be without the Weasleys? What would Pride and Prejudice be without Mr. Collins?
They'd be soulless, robot-ish creatures, in my opinion, something like the literary equivalent of zombies. (Hmm, if only they knew all they had to do to achieve Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was take out a few secondary characters? ;)
Right now I'm at the point in my new WIP where I'm creating a bunch of secondaries. It's a daunting task—1st, because I know how important it is, and 2nd, because the plot forces about eight people onto the stage/page at the same time. I was grinding my teeth over it last night, but I've realized it's a good thing. Whereas with slow intros, there's a temptation to under-develop secondaries, it's impossible when a lot appear at once. They have to be unique, or the reader will drop the book and run while they can.

Onward, then, to my completely intuited (fancy for made-up) list of secondary-character-creating essentials:

1. Make them unique. Furthermore, make them unique on the surface. Readers don't have time to figure out that Jane prefers chocolate ice cream while Jill prefers cake, but they'll notice if Jane carries a jump rope around with her and Jill overindulges in her use of the word “like.” (Similarly, don't ever give them names that sound as alike as Jane and Jill if you can help it!)

2. Know what they look like, then only tell the important details. Particularly, be careful not to spend too much time on eye color unless it's important...because noticing eye color makes a statement. Most people won't make direct eye contact with everyone in a group. (Conversely, if you're writing YA and want to subtly convey that a MC is attracted to someone, go ahead and dwell on the eyes.)

3.Think carefully about speech patterns. Also, speech tendencies. In real life, some people will do most of the talking and some are content to fade into the background.

4. Ask yourself: can I group any characters together to make them less confusing? (The reason there are so many twins in literature.)

5. Be careful of being too random. I know this seems to counteract everything I just said, but do remember that if every character has a different eye color, ethnicity, etc. it will seem terribly contrived.

6. Finally, remember that every secondary character is the hero of his or her own story. Even though most of it won't come into your book, you should know all those stories. Take the time to create these characters as you would your main character, and it will always show.

I'll finish up with a list of my favorite secondaries (in no particular order—and these are just the recently analyzed ones), and you can tell me who yours are in the comments!

Zero, from Holes
Gilbert, Diana, Matthew, Mrs. Lynde, Phillipa, Davy, Walter, and Faith, from various Anne books
Ilse, from Emily of New Moon
Every secondary character Austen or Rowling or Dickens ever wrote
Merry and Pippin, from The Lord of the Rings
Puddleglum and Reepicheep, from The Chronicles of Narnia
Pellinore, from The Once and Future King
Spiller, from The Borrowers series
Toots, from The Faerie Ring
Razo, from The Goose Girl
Piper, from Al Capone Does My Shirts
Mr. and Mrs. Owens, from The Graveyard Book

Friday, January 13, 2012

On Double Pointed Things

(In which, once again, I attempt to relate random things to writing...)

I just stared my first knitting project on the fearsome double pointed needles. As you can see from the picture, it involves using four needles at once. Sound scary?
It is.
Until you get started.
Once you try knitting in the round with double-pointed needles, you'll find that it's perfectly easy, makes sense, and is in fact very useful. As I've been delving into, oh, intermediate knitting the past few months, I've realized that almost everything about knitting works that way. Anyone else remember Rilla Blythe's griping about the Kitchener stitch in Rilla of Ingleside? Well, I learned it last week. It's easy. Rilla was whining. (Did I just complain about something written by L. M. Montgomery? I don't believe it. But my honesty has been proven.)
Likewise, the more I write, the more I realize it's all about the way you approach it. Aspects of writing will look scary, until you look closely, analyze the details, and just try them. Queries used to make my head spin. Now I enjoy writing them. When I finish my outlines, I always have the thought: This is too big for me. Can I do it? But once I'm a few chapters in, I realize I have all the skills I need to keep going.
To me, pulling off a successful scene is like knitting with double-pointed needles. There's too much going on at once! How will I remember good dialogue when I have to worry about pacing? Will my descriptions suffer because I'm focusing about character development? Well, the “secret” to knitting on double-points is this: you're really just knitting like normal, with two needles. (And two things to think of at once isn't bad, right?) Those other two? They just hang there, waiting until they're needed. When you're writing a scene, it's essential to focus on the task at hand, be it dialogue, description, etc., and to keep the other aspects tucked away in the back of your mind, ready to jump out when they're needed. Just don't forget they're hanging back there, and you'll be fine.
Not that you don't have to work at writing. Keeping the knitting simile going, I knit dozens of simple projects—hats, scarves, washcloths—before I tried my hand at the trickier ones. You have to get the exercise and learning in.
But after that, you have to trust yourself.
And, after that, you have to fix things. The techniques that made me most confident in knitting were those of learning to repair mistakes. And the techniques that will make you a great writer will be the ability to see flaws in your writing and fix them.

Note to real knitters: Forgive me for making something very simple seem complicated. Am I really the only one who got jitters over those dpns? And, if you're interested, the pattern I'm knitting is called “Tree of Life Wristlets,” and I'm using Road to China SilkenJewels Yarn ( soft). I just finished the first one, and it's super cute. :)

Monday, January 9, 2012

10 Cultural Practices that should stay buried forever

Since I already spouted my opinion about things that shouldn't have died, I thought I'd make you all two cents richer today by sharing the things I'm glad are gone. (It was going to be another “Top 10,” until I realized it's hard to prioritize bad things like that.... these are just off the top of my head and meant to amuse. :)

1. Muumuus. Really?

2. Powdered hair. I can't help thinking a lot more sneezing went on.

3. 13-inch waists. During the reign of Catherine de' Medici in the 16th century, it was considered an abomination for any female courtier to have a waist that she could not span with her two hands. Ribs were removed; lung diseases flourished; lots of women suffered and died. And, not that it's really relevant, they looked even funnier than muumuus.

4. Rabatos. All I can say in their favor is that at least they weren't in style simultaneously with muumuus.

Elizabeth is probably suffering from both the above styles, which may be why she was so grumpy.

5. Ratcatchers. Actually ratcatchers themselves were probably decent, upstanding people, and I'm grateful that terminators still exist. I refer more to the lack of hygiene (can you say Bubonic Plague?) that necessitated their flourishing career in the Middle Ages. With all my griping about modern culture, I still name Lister and Pasteur as personal heroes and am thankful I was born after they were. 

6. Blood-letting. And leeches. (I don't care if modern science has proved leeches actually weren't as bad an idea as we once thought. They're still disgusting.)

7. Polygamy.

8. Giving babies cocaine to pacify them. Victorian housewives once kept a jar of the stuff in their kitchens.

9. Nero's Circus and Gladiatior fights. As I'm sure you noticed, these were a major influence on The Hunger Games. But Nero was even worse than President Snow. In addition to the games themselves, he once had a line of Christians doused with oil and lit as human torches illuminating the arena. The rabble of Rome was much pleased.

10. Almost every style from the 1980's.

Chime in--what practices/fashions do you think should stay dead forever?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top 10 Cultural Practices in Need of Resurrection

 As I was deploring our culture's lack of sufficient Christmas celebration the other day, I began to consider some other extinct (or at least endangered) cultural practices that ought to be renewed for the good and fun of all:

1. Saying “How do you do?” My girls do say this, much to the amusement of adults, mostly because I read plenty of old books to them. And, well, it is pretty cute to see their chubby hands held out in introduction, to hear the slurred English accents... Honestly, though, what an excellent greeting this was. It encourages you to stop and think about the person you're meeting, to care about them as an individual. And it sounds much better than “Hey, how are ya?”

2. The term “macaroni,” not referring to the little c-shaped pasta. Someone please comment and tell me I'm not the only person who would enjoy it if this was used as a fashion adjective again, as in: “Colin Firth made an appearance at the premiere, looking absolutely macaroni in a new Prada suit.”

3. More feast days. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate veterans and past presidents and fallen heroes as much as the next American—actually, probably a lot more than the average American—but the holidays in the U.S. just can't hold a candle to medieval Europe. Processions! Fairs! Meat on Fridays! Pancakes! Mardi Gras should totally be a National Holiday, followed by a National Forty Days of Fasting and the biggest party ever on Easter. With a procession.

4. Courtship. With all our modern dating practices, we've practically made impossible the kind of spontaneous proposals you find in Pride and Prejudice or Anne of the Island. What girl doesn't want spontaneous moonlight proposals? Not to mention passionate hand-kissing when the chaperone's back is turned, burning gazes across a crowded dance floor and other scandalous, wonderful things like that. And just the word “beau.”

5. Speaking of crowded dance floors...Real dances. Starting with contra dancing (think Jane Austen again) and continuing on with a mastery of the waltz, minuet, and hey, a little tango and swing for good measure. My husband and I have turned a few eyes when we ballroom dance to modern pop songs at weddings, but it should be the norm. (Also, a little more evidence of my nerdiness: I was one of the founding members of the completely awesome Contra Dance Society at my college. We regularly had at least fifteen girls and three guys attend. Yup.)

6. Certain exclamations, such as “Drat!” “Blast!” and “Goodness gracious!” In fact, we could even abbreviate them for texting ease: “u saw him? GG!”

7. Hats. I want to wear something on my head that I can call a “darling concoction” like Betsy Ray.

8. Illustrated magazine covers, billboards and advertisements. So the Norman Rockwells and Alphonse Muchas of today don't have to live on Ramen.

9. Breeches. I have a feeling I'm not going to get enthusiastic male support on this one, but guys—just like you can acknowledge that we ladies look better in cute skirts than in sweatpants, I'd like to put forward for the record that breeches are a lot more flattering to the male form than long pants. Also, trousers were brought into style by a group called the sans-culottes (this translates to without breeches) may remember them as the anti-government, anti-God, nobility-killing terrorists behind the French Revolution. Does wearing pants make you a terrorist? No. But I still say breeches would be quite a statement.

10. Musical performance as a social activity. As in, “Goodness gracious! Look at the new sheet music in the bookstore window! I'm going to buy a copy and learn it so we can all gather around the piano and sing on Friday night.”

Oh, well (and blast!). I suppose these days are past. Anyone wonder why I write historical fiction? ;)
What are your favorite extinct/endangered cultural practices?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's still Christmas!

Allow me a mild rant against modern culture. (You know by now that I need to get these out of my system at least biannually...) Why does the radio stop playing Christmas music on December 26th? Why are there dozens of trees at the curb and no more twinkling lights greeting me as I drive by at night?
I can't really understand why anyone would want to eschew the chance for more parties, celebrating, cookies, caroling and so forth, and in years past, Christmas Eve was just the beginning of the fun. Twelve days of Christmas, they had then. Almost two weeks of festivities, culminating in the glorious feast of Epiphany, or Kings' Day, as some in England called it. Two weeks of celebrating that we could be enjoying, too--hint, hint.
And, no, this is not just an excuse for posting Christmas pictures a week late. (Though I have used that excuse for the after-Christmas cookies...) Anyway, here's a little glimpse into how we are still celebrating the season of Christmas:

This ornament has a special place in our hearts and on our tree. Isn't he cute?

Santons on the mantle...

On the first and second and third....days of Christmas, my true love gave to me: this beautiful portrait of Lucy he is in the process of painting. Best present ever.