In Search of a Giant

Some days, you think your morning is going to be yet another ordinary experience, and then–from the blue, bam!–a sentence rocks your world.

Today before breakfast I was reading the October issue of English Home Magazine because
1) They still have content, unlike all too many American magazines;
2) They still serve up huge, luscious photography instead of tiny, thumb-print sized pics increasingly prevalent in American magazines;
3) They still seem to believe their readers possess intelligence and education;
4) They are MAGAZINES, not imitators of blogs;
5) They usually ignite my imagination in some unexpected, serendipitous way.

While reading the Mrs. Minerva column–one of my favorite features within English Home, incidentally–I came across a nugget of sheer creative gold. It was a sentence casually suggesting that parents take their children to see St. Michael’s Mount. There, the author mentioned, you pause on the heart-shaped stone in the causeway to listen to the giant’s heart beating beneath the sea.

Whoosh! My imagination caught fire. I gobbled my breakfast, raced to work on my usual commute, fired off my usual pre-lecture emails faster than usual, and as soon as my first class ended, I switched on Google to run a search.

St. Michael’s Mount is located in Cornwall. The National Trust’s Website calls it “the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.” The Mount is a hill rising out of the sea just off the shoreline. The castle atop it dates back to the 14th century, although the site was an important port as long ago as the Iron Age and a chapel was built on the Mount in the 11th century. Also in the 11th century, a tsunami flooded the Cornish shore with the sea engulfing woodlands and creating the present-day configuration of the island.

History is always fascinating to me, and although normally that alone would set my heart beating a little quicker, today it was the giant I wanted, the legend. Not tsunamis or granite outcroppings.

Turns out, this is where the legend of Jack the Giant Killer started. A giant named Cormoran lived on the Mount. Every day or so, when the tide ran out, Cormoran would wade ashore from the island and steal cows and sheep from the local fields. One night, while Cormoran slept, a boy named Jack rowed out to the island and dug a deep pit on one side of the Mount. At dawn, he blew his horn and woke up Cormoran. As the giant ran down the hillside, the rising sun dazzled him. He failed to see Jack or the pit and fell in or was bludgeoned in, never to trouble the village again. In gratitude, the village gave Jack a sword and belt, the latter embroidered with
“This is the valiant Cornishman
Who slew the Giant Cormoran”

When people ask me how I develop ideas into plots, this kind of thing is often how I start. A snippet, a fragment, a phrase comes my way and ignites my imagination.

Now, having spent my spare moments today reading the ancient nursery rhyme about Jack the Giant Killer and gleaning through several variations of the legend I summarized above, I have no intention of recreating the legend in some fantasy novel. Nor do I want to write it as a deconstructed fairy tale. Charles de Lint has already done a wonderful job of that with his Canadian story of a girl called Jack and boggarts who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

I’m less interested in the actual legend now that I’ve read it, and more intrigued by that image of a child pausing partway to the castle and listening to the shifting restless waves for a giant’s heartbeat.

The online site Ancestry.com says there’s a stone shaped like a heart lying on the path above the well. Generations of children have been told to put their hand on their heart so they can feel the giant’s heart beating. Uh, duh, I guess they will.

Somehow, I like the image of the child pausing on the causeway better.

Where will I go with that? I don’t know as yet.

Do I have a plot? Not yet. None of this is even a premise.

What grabs me is the innocence and wonder within a young child–one not yet spoiled by electronic toys and the endless pulses, beats, and yammer of our modern age. Modern parents cram young children’s lives with gadgets that fill in colors on a screen as the little one simply pushes buttons. No matter what the experts and toy designers may say, I think that such widgets and whizzbang boopity-boop on batteries succeed only in suppressing imagination.

But here is a little girl or a little boy, not yet caught by the ennui of modern childhood. A child clutching an adult hand, stopping obediently to listen. Can’t you see her face, eyes slightly unfocused in concentration before they suddenly flare in wonder? The child has heard it, whether that “it” is an actual sound or one born of sheer imagination. It doesn’t matter because in that instant, the child believes. And that, my fellow writers, is the enchantment.

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Lost in Portents

Much like the ancient Romans, I tend to believe in signs and oracles. Not, mind you, to the point of throwing sacred grain to the sacred chickens and deciding whether I should proceed based on whether said chickens peck at the grain or refuse to eat. Nor have I studied the entrails of a sacrificed lamb in order to determine my destiny.

But some days are filled with so much frustration and some tasks meet so many obstacles and interruptions that I do wonder, Should I step back and rethink this?

This afternoon I finally typed my way to the ending of a plot synopsis despite phone interruptions and the arrival of the lawn guy. Of course, there are times when I’m on a deadline. Then I don’t answer the phone and I ignore the lawn guy. This, however, was not such a day.

Despite everything, though, I finished the synopsis on time. I was pleased. Still, my aging computer is wobbling enough to concern me. I debated whether to print out the synopsis and sample chapters or save a backup somewhere. I was tired. It was the end of a long day. Although I consider a hard copy the safest means of backing up, I didn’t want to wait for the equally elderly printer to wheeze out 47 pages. And I didn’t want to walk to the opposite end of the house and back to fetch a thumb drive. (Because why would I keep a backup thumb drive sitting next to my computer?) And before you start firing suggestions my way, let me state that I don’t use The Cloud nor did I want to email this manuscript to my day-job computer in this particular instance.

A few months ago, I yielded to the urging of well-intentioned friends and purchased an external hard drive. This afternoon, I thought, why not grab it and back everything up? I’ve been meaning to do this anyway. How long could it take?

Five hours later, I have yielded by copying the file to my thumb drive. I just finished printing out a hard copy from the slow but still faithful printer.

The hard drive–useless, mysterious thing that it is–has been returned to the shelf near my desk. I failed to back up anything onto this sleek black box. I may or may not have installed it. There’s a new icon on my desktop screen, which makes me believe it might be there. But having found myself in some kind of endless Groundhog Day loop of installing, waiting, installing, waiting, choosing my installation language, waiting, installing, waiting, choosing my installation language, waiting, etc., I’m not sure what, if anything, was accomplished. Restarting the computer to finish installation locked up the old machine. Which meant crawling beneath my desk and systematically unplugging each cord from the battery backup until I finally turned off the desktop.

During these sorts of rescue missions, I always feel like someone trying to perform brain surgery with a paring knife.

With the computer unlocked and operational again, I searched around for instructions. A file titled “Quick Reference Guide” seemed to be the ticket. When in doubt, read directions. Right? Yes!

Except that in this case, the Quick Reference Guide spent three pages in English informing me that the hard drive has a warranty that expires in two years. End of information. The rest of the guide repeats this message in perhaps a dozen other languages. Clearly the reference guide will never assist me in figuring out how to transfer a file from my Word document to this particular external hard drive, let alone open anything.

At that point, I gave up. I started printing out my file. And I fetched the thumb drive, copying the file onto it in a few seconds. Easy-peasy. Had I gone ahead at the end of my writing session, I would have enjoyed peace of mind all evening with the task done quickly and efficiently instead of tearing out my hair attempting to work an unworkable piece of equipment clearly not designed for non-androidbrain users such as myself.

Of course, other hindrances slowed the process. Other programs were lurking in cyberspace, waiting to pounce on anyone trying to install something new. Adobe had a new version of Flash for me. Then Java wanted to download its 71st update. Don’t you think there’s something a bit alarming about that number?

Now, as I’m typing this post, the computer cursor is moving like sludge. I’m typing blind with the letters crawling across my screen in a three-second lag. Either all this installation/updating has done something harmful like infect my computer with a virus, or a new problem has arisen.

At times like these, as much as I appreciate how modern technology has made my job as a writer easier in so many ways, I’m ready to throw in the towel and go back to writing manuscripts by hand.

But then I guess writer’s cramp and tendonitis would plague me.

(The lag has increased to maybe ten seconds or more. All the signs and portents are shouting, “Stop writing. Put all technology away. Shut down and give up for the day.”)

Some days, writing in stone with a hammer and chisel has to seem easier.

As the Brits would say, I’m having a bit of a moan. And I suppose I will have to give up, give in, and give my credit card yet more usage as I go purchase the different brand of external hard drive that I should have bought in the first place.

P.S. I just found an obscure button that took me back to “classic mode” in Word Press. Lo and behold, no more sludge typing! The problem in the typing lag belongs to Word Press and not my creaking computer equipment.

It’s a relief to remember that occasionally the fault does not lie with this operator.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that come tomorrow the portents for writing will be more favorable.

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Cold Characters, Dead Copy

How do you entice readers to care about your protagonist? To care enough to sit down and read your story? To take time away from other activities or tasks to read your story to its ending?

Readers have innumerable alternatives to occupy their leisure time, even if it’s just checking their phones for new text messages. There’s no incentive for them to read fiction unless they’re intrigued by a story’s premise or they bond with a protagonist.

Which brings me back to my opening question:  how is that bond established and how is it maintained?

Several elements factor into successful character design, but the detail that functions best in bringing a character alive and thereby catching reader attention is that character’s feelings.

Emotions make all the difference.

Consider this example:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke sized him up, taking note of the crazed desperation in the man’s eyes. Luke hesitated a moment, then smiled. “Dude, you should be careful with that.”

Luke may be smiling, but a reader won’t know if he’s baring his teeth in nervous fear or if he’s even crazier than Purple Hoodie. His emotional reaction is odd, incomprehensible, and on the surface. We experience no perceptions or internalizations from Luke’s viewpoint. It’s hard, if not impossible, to care about him.

Let’s try again:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke’s breath stilled in his throat. He knew better than to freeze, much less show any fear, but time seemed to slow around him. He noticed everything, from the tremors in Purple Hoodie’s hands to the twitching of the man’s mouth. Luke shifted his weight imperceptibly to the balls of his feet, gauging his chances of survival if the guy went berserk and attacked. Over and over, Luke told himself to stay calm, to keep thinking, to ignore the strangling sensation knotting his windpipe. His palms were sweating, and the air seemed to have left the room.

“Dude,” he whispered, trying without success to sound confident, “you should be careful with that.”

In Version 2, we don’t know much about Luke beyond his fear and how he’s trying not to panic. But his emotion has put some life into him. Version 2 is more interesting than Version 1.

Here’s another example:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Swearing, Jeff dropped to the ground, then pushed himself back onto his feet. He kicked at his assailant’s shins, but with a laugh the attacker spun around and ran into the dark alley.

Gee, Jeff just received a blow that knocked him off his feet, but it doesn’t slow him down a moment. Does Jeff have super-human powers? Why doesn’t he feel any pain? A writer of this kind of superficial copy might believe readers will imagine what’s left out. Instead, readers will feel indifference and very little sympathy.

Let’s try again:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Agony flared from his wrist to his shoulder. Jeff cried out, even as he lost his balance and fell. Hitting the ground jolted his arm, bringing another wave of pain that sent chills through his body. His forehead beaded with sweat. Gasping for breath, he curled himself around his injured arm and tried not to whimper. Another blow thudded into his shoulder, then his hip.

Jeff swore under his breath, feeling like he might throw up. His arm had to be broken. But if he continued lying here, he would probably be beaten to a pulp. As soon as he could catch his breath, he rolled over and pushed himself to his knees. He slapped the next blow aside, deflecting it, although the smack of wood against his palm stung hard.

Version 2 is running much longer, isn’t it? I haven’t even gotten Jeff back on his feet, much less fighting back enough to send the assailant running into the shadows.

But do you see how the internalized reactions, emotions, and physical sensations have brought Jeff to life? In Version 1, he’s a cartoon figure. His lack of reaction to a forceful blow creates a sense of unreality. The disconnection between being struck and feeling anything from it overrides any potential excitement in the action.

Without Jeff’s feelings, readers are detached from what’s happening. And if they’re detached, how can they care?

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Chapter Structure

Long ago in the far away of my writer’s training, I was taught to focus on my plot, write it according to valid story principles, and relax in the knowledge that chapters would take care of themselves.

But although this Zen approach works for me, I’m asked about chapters enough to realize that not everyone understands what chapters are, what they do, why they’re structured as they are, and what their purpose is.

Now I haven’t bothered to research the history of chapters or when they first came about in the musty tomes of past literature, but my guess is that they were devised to aid readability, just as the Bible was divided into chapters and verses at some point. If the family gathered around the light of a candle in the evening and listened to someone reading aloud, chapter breaks were useful in providing a stopping point so that weary folks could go to bed.

Modern authors have put a different spin on this by building in hooks and plot twists to make it difficult for a reader to stop at the end of a chapter. We want readers to remain enthralled, unable to put the book down.

So what, then, is the structure?

I might as well say now that there are no particular rules about what makes up a chapter, much less how long it should be. For example, my favorite chapter of all time occurs in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It consists of one sentence:  “And nothing else happened for the rest of the night.”

Most chapters, though, run longer than that. If you’ve read a LOT, then you should have a pretty good idea of how material is grouped together. Some writers make a chapter of each scene. That worked pretty well a couple of decades ago, when scenes were long and thorough, running perhaps 10-12 manuscript pages. But today, scenes tend to be shorter and tighter. We have authors who specialize in what I call scene fragments, where they hit the heart of the conflict and break away quickly to some other portion of the plot. (John Sandford is a master of the scene fragment, although he doesn’t write all of his Prey thrillers that way.)

These days, scenes and chapters alike are growing shorter. Why? We live at a faster clip. We are inundated with more and more information–valid and useful, or not–and much of what we encounter is telegraphic to fit tweets and sound bytes.

This reduction within chapters has happened gradually during the 21st century. Although I’ve known about the trend, I hadn’t really noticed the difference until I recently started converting some of my backlist titles to digital versions for Kindle’s platform. (Then I saw how long my scenes used to be, and how my book chapters usually featured at least two scenes bridged by a sequel.)

Feeling confused yet?

Okay. Let’s simplify the topic. Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.

Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion.

The chapter’s content should span a single event that’s written as a scene of conflict. Or it should span a series of incidents related in narrative summary where the protagonist is pursuing some objective.

For example:  Let’s say Paul Protagonist wants his mother to loan him her house in the Hamptons so he can throw a big party.

He calls her. No answer. He texts her. No answer. He drops by her Park Avenue apartment, but she’s not at home. The manservant tells him that she’s at her favorite spa, getting a facial. So he goes there and finally tracks her down. Coated in mud and up to her neck in a boiling hot tub, Mom peels the cucumber slice off one eye and glares at him.

“Are you nuts?” she asks. “Of course you can’t borrow my house to throw a party. The last time your friends were in there, you let an elephant knock down the kitchen walls.”

“I didn’t bring the elephant,” Paul assures her. “I won’t invite the guy who did.”

“Absolutely not,” Mom replies, sticking the cucumber slice back in place. “Go hire a house if you want a party.”

“Hire one? Hire one? It will cost me a fortune, and I have to pay for caterers and booze.”

“The people next door are renting their place for events. Cheaply, I understand. Try them.”

“But they’re Russian vampires.”

“I know, darling. Such tacky people. How they ever got into our gated community, I don’t know. They keep trying to join the country club. So tiresome, but try them anyway. Now leave me alone.”

Okay, this is admittedly a very silly example, but it demonstrates how Paul has pursued his objective in several ways through scene and narrative clustered around the common goal of finding his mother.

Now, because she won’t cooperate, he must form a new objective and decide whether he’s going to approach the vampire neighbors or do something else. But that should fall into a new chapter.

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Goin’ Steady

Ever wonder how some novelists are so darned prolific? HOW do they write book after book after book? HOW do they write so fast? What is their secret? Are they paying pixies to do it while they sleep? Are they taking daily doses of the vitamin “Fizzywrite?” Are they just geniuses?

Various writers have various methods. For example, Jim Butcher uses the BIC (butt-in-chair) approach. Brandon Sanderson claims it’s all about consistent writing, day in and day out. Stephen King writes daily, taking off only his birthday and Christmas. Jack Bickham assigned himself a 50-page per week quota. Mel Odom writes between a dozen and twenty books a year. Somerset Maugham sat down to work at 9 a.m. every day.

Do you see a pattern here?

Among these admittedly different authors, there’s a steady methodology of consistent work habits–writing daily, writing weekly, writing habitually. None of these writers admits to the binge method of procrastinating for weeks and then typing furiously around the clock like the Mad Hatter on deadline.

You don’t get books written by just sitting and thinking about them. You don’t achieve a substantial body of work through dreaming it. You don’t succeed in typing “The End” by wishing it.

You can only accomplish it by writing steadily on a regular schedule that works realistically for you. Set a daily time and keep it as you would an appointment. Set an achievable page quota–a minimum that you must hit before you can leave the keyboard. One page a day isn’t so intimidating. And even at your least inspired, surely you can type one page of character dialogue or a passage of description when your protagonist Irmentrude enters the ballroom. Anything you write beyond your minimum quota deserves a reward.

For example, Jack Bickham attempted to write ten pages daily so he could take the weekend off. If he failed to create his self-assigned fifty pages by Friday, then he wrote on the weekends to stay on track.

One of the worst things you can do for your story is to write irregularly. If you only write when you can find the time, you won’t be consistent. Your story will suffer more from distractions. You’ll tend to forget important details that you meant to include but didn’t. You’ll lose touch with your protagonist’s emotions and motivations. Sadly, you may even lose heart and interest in what probably would have been a solid plotline.

And when you’ve given up and abandoned the story because it isn’t working, why not be honest and answer the question: is it the story that’s not working, or is it you that’s not working?

If you’re stuck and can’t get your story out of a corner, spend your writing time sketching out a thorough character dossier. Do you really know what makes your protagonist tick? Have you ever considered your antagonist’s motivations? Or maybe you should think about that plot hole you’ve been avoiding. Then write that minimum one page of copy, even if you hate every word of it.

It doesn’t take long to form good writing habits, once you put in the effort to establish them. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that your imagination is automatically clicking on at the designated time. You’ve trained it, and by golly it’s starting to cooperate!

Writing rituals can also help establish habitual working methods. What works for you? A certain type of music playing in the background? Making a cup of tea before you get started? Putting two cookies on a plate next to your keyboard … but you can’t eat them until you’ve written your quota? Turning off your cell phone or leaving the phone in another room?

Just sitting down and powering up your computer can be a sufficient ritual. My dog–the one I call The Spook–spent this summer making it his job to stare at me every morning at 10 a.m. before heading off into my office and curling up under the desk next to the computer tower. If I dawdled, just the sight of him faithfully curled up, waiting to “help” me work, was enough to make me feel guilty. And it would be BIC for me.

A ritual I don’t recommend, however, is checking your email before you start writing. You may possess the discipline of steel to take a quick glance before you open that Word file, but I doubt it. Instead, deal with your mail after you finish writing for the day. It will keep your priorities in the right order, and you won’t be distracted from writing an epic love scene by thoughts of the car insurance reminder floating in your computer’s inbox.

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Creative Gold

I always think of October as “the golden month,” probably because of the quality of sunlight. It changes to a mellow radiance that, combined with the wide blue skies of the prairie, makes me very happy. Some of you are lucky enough to live where the trees are turning color. Here, where we probably won’t have a frost for another month, when a tree turns yellow in October we have to wonder, is it turning … or dying from heat and drought?

I grew up in a southern state with bounteous rainfall. I had woods to play in as a child, and my favorite trees in autumn were hickories because they turned bright yellow and white oaks because their leaves turned scarlet. Then there were the little pops of orange from sassafras saplings–how I loved to snap off a twig and chew on the flavorful bark–and the bright red of sumac.
Tennessee river

fall landscape3

Around here, I get my fall tree fix from driving through some of the older neighborhoods where folks have planted non-indigenous trees and nourished/pampered them through sometimes brutal climate into stately monarchs of the boulevard. Instead of hickory trees, there are ginkos to provide bright yellow. Instead of white oaks, there are the massive, spreading shumard oaks that offer a dark, rich crimson. Good enough!

My biggest regret about October is that I miss so many days outdoors due to being locked inside at work. (And, no, my boss doesn’t incarcerate me. It just feels that way!) Still, there are evenings and weekends to savor as much of the glory as I can.

The cooler temps bring on the last big flush from the roses and raise my energy level. I can’t help but see my surroundings with fresh eyes.

Jefferson rose

front rose

The weather change also starts my creative juices flowing. My brain is teeming with book ideas–at least six on the burner right now, ready for me to choose one and start developing a plot from it.

I’m also fired up about landscaping. There’s the barren spot left behind by my beloved Linda Campbell rose bush. I want to plant spring bulbs, but it’s too early here. November is the best time for me to plant tulips since at present the ground is still too warm. (It’s always a gray day in late November, when the wind is howling at near-gale force, my nose is frozen, and I ask myself with every jab of my trowel what was I thinking to order an extra bag of daffodils.)

Still, while I wait for colder weather, I can’t resist doing something in the dirt. Yesterday I bought pansies and coneflowers. Anything at this point to take the space away from the milkweed and dock that persist in claiming Linda C’s spot.

pansies

Beyond my ideas for gardening and decorating the front porch–yes, I’m searching for a grand but cheap pumpkin–I’m thinking ahead to Christmas. It’s time to pull out the tubs containing all the stuff I bought last year at 90 percent off and create those garlands I saw in a magazine. Yesterday I found white wreaths at Michael’s, which means I don’t have to buy a green one and spray paint it white. Hurray! I want it to make a 4th of July wreath for next summer. As for Halloween, which is fast approaching, somewhere I’ve stashed a handful of craft paint bottles–their colors carefully chosen for painting a plaster skull in hues of mold and decay. Granted, I could have spent $5 and purchased a Styrofoam skull already looking grungy and creepy, but it’s not as much fun as painting one myself. If only I could find the paint! And where is that dratted skull? Probably tucked away in a box in the guest room.

skull craft

About three years ago, I stumbled upon a vast architectural table at a garage sale, managed to drag it home in a borrowed pickup, and installed it in my garage to use as a work table for sewing and creative projects. Of course, in my home any horizontal surface becomes piled with all sorts of objects–including stacks and heaps of books. At the moment, there isn’t even a corner of this table clear for use. But I need it, which means either holding a garage sale of my own or scrounging boxes and filling them up. Because, besides painting, scattering glitter, and sniping florist wire, I need to make curtain valances for several of my windows and this surface is large enough for cutting out fabric.

How many years have I now lived in this house, and the windows still aren’t dressed beyond utilitarian blinds?

If all of this sounds deranged, it’s only the way creative minds work. The process of making something is so appealing that it’s easy to forget a simpler, quicker solution is waiting in a store to be purchased, slapped in place, and done.

But what’s the fun in that?

However, by the time I tackle even a fourth of all these projects–realistically perhaps only an eighth of them–when will there be time to write?

Ah … but you see, these wonderful projects–from landscaping to sewing–are simply ways to allow my imagination free rein. It needs to play so that it will willingly serve up good ideas for the manuscript page. I know writers who make collages or dabble in mixed-media art for the same purpose. When creative juices are flowing elsewhere than the computer keyboard, the imagination blossoms. And then you can channel it productively once more toward plot ideas and lively characters.

Which means there’s a good chance that the plastic tubs holding my Christmas garland-making supplies will probably stay where they are for yet another year. But ssh! We won’t let my imagination know that yet.

roses morning glories

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I’m Back!

Greetings, all!
Thanks for your patience as I wrapped up the fantasy textbook and did, indeed, meet deadline.

Whew!

There were a few frustrating moments as I struggled to make Excel obey me in creating some illustrative charts. And it looked like my elderly computer might crash during submission, but although wheezing the machine held together.

All I can tell you at this point is that the book will cover nuts and bolts writing techniques used principally in fantasy novels, with some amendments for short stories. So if you’ve been wanting to experience my novel-writing course but can’t attend the University of Oklahoma, this will be the next best thing.

Now the manuscript enters the production process with Manchester University Press. If all goes smoothly, it should be published in late fall 2015. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking on the challenge of learning how to make a book index.

The working title is THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA.

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