Defenestrating Arachnophobes and other stories

Novel update: After two weeks of hard wrestling with replacements for three long scenes I basically scrapped, I think I've finally come up with a solution that doesn't shake the whole book at its foundation. There's no way to know for sure until it's fully written, but I'm optimistic.

Unfortunately, over those two weeks, I let myself slip into the habit of drifting onto the internet when I got stuck for ideas. To counteract that, I plan to try a new tactic this week and spend an hour writing every day before even pulling up a web browser. No email, no Google Reader, no nothing. Just me and MS Word and my characters. Once I've gotten my mind into the book, I'm a lot more likely to give it full attention later in the day.

We'll see how this goes. I had fun with it this morning.

* * *

After a nearly five-year break from the days when I led worship and belonged to worship team bands, babysat in the nursery and took youth groups whitewater rafting and rock climbing, I've... gotten involved in church work again. And I'd forgotten how much I love it.

* * *

I'm also very pleased at having archived over 800 messages in my gmail, leaving only the messages that require some response in my inbox. My to-do list is more manageable now.

* * *

Stargazing report: Next on the to-find list is the constellation Pegasus, and then Aquarius. I've found Epsilon Pegasi, Enif ("nose"); it makes a nice triangle with Deneb and Altair. But Pegasus is huge and some of the stars are pretty faint for a town-dweller to pick out. Time to draw up a little chart, methinks. And maybe get someplace dark for once. We've got huckleberry picking coming up...

* * *

Pet peeve of the week: Hearing that Bella Swan has no personality. Hey. I identified pretty strongly with her. Just what are people saying? :P

* * *

Writerly link of the week: Dealing with the Top Idea in Your Head. That gave me a lot to think about, as it were. Thanks to @jana_kaye for passing it on.

* * *

Funny line of the week goes to commenter Helen at The Hog's Head, for defining arachnofenestranaut as "people who jump out of windows when they see spiders." I'm still laughing at that.

But I'm not done with the funny yet. George sent me this (okay, the book/movie Fight Club has one of the more disturbing premises I've come across. This is a little disgusting as a result, but it still made me laugh):

* * *

Time to go re-pot my new butternut squash start (also thanks to Jana), spray the aphids off my thyme, vacuum the oregano flowers from the living room carpet and otherwise put my house to rights. Happy weekend, everyone.


Happy Summer

I love summer--and plants. Here are some of my window-herbs, basil and savory:

aloe and rosemary.

My Christmas cactus has decided to take the summer months and grow better than it has in years.

Outside, the tomatoes are ripening...

 ...the first cucumber is growing on its vine

...the potatoes have begun to put on some height

...and we should get a few apples this year.

If all of that weren't enough for cheer, the sky still looks like this.

Good enough for me. :)


Book Review at The Hog's Head: Un Lun Dun

My Currently Reading post for the day is over at The Hog's Head, where I've just reviewed China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. It was a fascinating book that I thought deserved discussion at the Pub. Feel free to check it out.


Tasty Tuesday: Hot Fudge

Tasty Tuesday
When I called family friend Sharyn to ask if I could post the tortellini soup recipe she passed on to us, not only did she say "Absolutely!" but she gave me a hot fudge recipe as well. I've recently had, thanks to warmer weather, a chance to make it for the first time--the first time, yes, but not the last.

It works a little like Magic Shell, if you've ever used that (I love Magic Shell, especially the Twix kind) but has the real chocolate-and-butter homemade flavor.

Hot Fudge

Melt 1 stick of butter with 2 one-ounce squares of bakers' chocolate.

Stir in 1 cup of sugar till it melts.

Heat 1/4 cup milk or cream and stir that into the chocolate mixture until it thickens.

Add a little vanilla, almond or mint extract. (I didn't write down a measurement, and probably didn't bother with a measure... maybe half a teaspoon?)

Serve warm. According to Sharyn, the leftovers work well as frosting between chocolate chip cookies. I'd bet they do. But I made it with family around, and we just didn't have enough left over to try that. :)


Shouts of Earth, Echoes of Eternity

In  response to Mr. Pond, Scrabble in the Wilderness

After several weeks of back-and-forth posting by Mr. Pond and me, we have a winning word: blogalectic. Good enough for me. I'll make a search label out of it, so back posts are easy to find. (There's a list of labels on the sidebar, if you haven't noticed.)

Today's webisode(?) of the blogalectic may get a little too honest. Hang with me, if you will.

Mr. Pond works this week with a question: How to write into our time?:
"I think for Jenna as well as for me—and others like us—we have at once a deep empathy with our own ‘passionate, fleeting time,’ but also a great disconnect."
He goes on to detail some of the problems of our time, things like "In many ways, the postmodern criticism of life has been well and good, but it has left us in a sprawling suburb without a downtown, a community with no center, that incites repressed despair." Likewise, "To speak of things like, say, formality and hierarchy and ritual and confession elicits suspicion at best, hostility at worst."

And yet we are children of our time, as he says:
"I’ve learned with the rest of my generation that men can accessorize too, that, yes, change we can, that authenticity is real, and that helping others helps us. I’ve also learned with them that change inspires hate, that the gears of justice grind slowly or not at all, that authenticity can be little more than triviality, and that Starbucks is not the center of the world."
In those words, however, a few tiny warning bells ring in my mind, reminding me that in some ways I am not actually a child of this time. I was homeschooled. On a farm. In Montana. Over ten years ago (it's nearer fifteen.) My response to the word change is "Well, that's a neutral term; change can be good or bad, or even go from one wrong to another." The words hate and injustice usually first call to mind not actual hate and injustice but angry, sign-waving protesters on a street corner—the sort of people I'd walk or drive blocks out of my way to avoid. And I like Starbucks (hey, Starbucks opened its doors for the first time less than a two hours' drive from my house.)

As for formality, hierarchy, ritual, confession—these are things of life and beauty to me, of hope and peace and sanity in a crazed, confused existence. That's hardly considered normal or healthy nowadays. So what have I got to speak into this world? I could just give up and find another career.

One of the oldest adages around in the authorial community is write what you know. It would be possible to take that in very literal, superficial terms: to write novels about conservative Christian white girls whose friends are all conservative Christian white girls because they live in a rural district where there are more donkeys than Democrats and the boys are all the strong silent type—or at least the silent type—and the only place to go besides the grocery is church. Or I could write about conservative Christian white girls who move to a liberal coastal college town where it's open season year round on conservatives and if she happened to stick out an arm suddenly she'd be as likely to hit a practicing pagan as a Christian.

...but that's not what I take that adage to mean. Not anymore.

A book that really moves hearts does so, in my opinion, on a religious level. Don't get me wrong—I'm not saying that overtly spiritual books are more meaningful, or that atheists can't be really moved by books. I'm saying that the experience of a person touched by a story is spiritual, that something in the tale related to that person's search for salvation and meaning. (Those who have no religion, and many of those who do, search for salvation and meaning in politics or relationship or pleasure or any combination of the above.)

Religion is given only passing mention in Harry Potter, but I consider those books one of the top five reasons I am still a Christian today.

Commenter Donna remarked on this concept of spirituality and story last week, and explained further in a post on her own blog:
"...the crux of my above response to Jenna's post is this: a good story has the ability to transfigure, by God's grace, the fallenness of our world and our selves, from the inside out—made possible because of Christ having done this very same thing for us on the cross. I think this, for me, is the measure of a truly "good" story—one that achieves this great feat.

Is this a tall order for the writers and storytellers out there? Perhaps. But, it's what I'm seeking when I devour book after book after book—a reader's quest, if you will. And of course I have found it (Thank God!), time and time again, and these are the books and stories that get at the core of me. They tell my story of brokenness and redemption back to me."
They tell my story of brokenness and redemption back to me.

That brought tears to my eyes. Here is something I know—and it is something that works inside my time, something I can share with those around me. Because the Harry Potter fans that don't understand my Christianity, that call me a Death Eater for sometimes voting Republican—they grew in love and courage alongside Harry, much like I did. The pre-teen girls reading Twilight and dreaming about the gorgeous vampire boy and the equally gorgeous werewolf boy are longing for the same undying love that I am, even if they have never thought of looking for something a little more eternal than mankind.

Those books, and the other stories that have mattered to any of us, speak of something more than our time. They may, as Mr. Pond explains, unite the strengths of our time to the greater truths they draw from, or they may cut away the lies and weaknesses. He says "To be of tellers is to be—to have an opportunity to be, taken or not—a voice crying in the wilderness, shattering the frivolous moment with the echoes of eternity."

I read in search of spiritual meaning, and I write in search of it as well. My current novel-in-progress contains no religion. It contains politics, but none that parallel American partisanship. There are no direct allegories and no attempts to satisfy salvation-seekers with liberty or sex or the sinner's prayer. If I've done my job right, however, it will take anyone who comes searching along a trajectory of love, with glimpses of glory.

All I've done is write what I know.


Vampire Dates and other stories

Yesterday got by me, and at 10:30 PM I tried to post and gave up. To make up for that, I have two posts for you today: this one, and my review of the movie Eclipse over at The Hog's Head. (Loved it. I grinned my way through pretty much the whole thing.)

Special thanks to my husband, who not only has never complained about taking me to a Twilight film, but treats it like a date and even enjoys the show. He likes the Pacific Northwest scenery—it's hard not to when you live out here.

* * *

This blog has a new web address: jennasthilaire.com. Don't worry, if you've linked to the old blogspot address in the past, the links will still work. But I've been planning, as part of my writing venture, to set up a professional website. Blogger seems to have realized that Wordpress has been beating the socks off it and it is undergoing vast improvements, offering a lot more options, and... we'll see what I come up with.

The beautiful Dark Forest theme that I've used for just over a year will go away soon, which makes me a little sad. I might take a screenshot just to keep for memory's sake. On the other hand, I do love graphic design and should be able to come up with something pretty. Give me time. If the template reverts to one of Blogger's standard offerings for awhile, never fear--that's just temporary while I try to work things out.

* * *

My grandparents left town Sunday, and I am still catching up on things. The house needs cleaning, I have my old computer booted for some work, my novel needs a lot more revision, and I've got a website to design. It's going to be a busy day.

* * *

Writers, here's a set of links for you. Erin Healy has a great two-part guest piece at Rachelle Gardner's, on knowing and loving your reader:

Who is Your Reader: Part 1
Who is Your Reader: Part 2

* * *

Sweet romantic piece of the week: Unwritten Love Notes by Farmer's City Wife. It's an excellent reminder of how to keep love alive.

* * *

Funny line of the week comes from Denise Roper, talking about an experience at Mythcon:

I also loved this particular prayer of petition: “Remember Charles, Clive, John Ronald, and all who have died in the peace of Christ; remember those whose faith is known to you alone; and bring them all into the place of eternal joy and light.” I thought that it was so lovely that we prayed for the Inklings in this way, but I really think Clive would have liked it better if we had called him ”Jack.”

* * *

I've got to get to work. Happy weekend, everyone!


Currently Reading: Wings

"I'll show you," she said, but it sounded more like a question.

"Okay." His voice was tentative too.

She turned her back and fiddled with the knot in the scarf. As she released the enormous petals, she pushed her shirt up in the back so they could slowly rise to their normal position.

David gaped, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. "But how—you can't—they're—what the hell?"

Author: Aprilynne Pike

Synopsis: Adopted teenager Laurel has always wondered why her body is a little different—too perfectly formed, preferring to subsist on a diet of fruit and sugar, a little late on certain parts of adolescence—until the day a giant flower blossoms out of her back. Then she's terrified. With the help of her would-be boyfriend, David, and a familiar stranger in the woods, she finds answers not only to her own differences but to the problem her parents have with the man who wants to buy their home.

Notes: I'd probably pick up a YA fantasy called Wings anyway, but with Stephenie Meyer's recommendation on the front cover, I had to give this one a go. It read easily and quickly, and I was frightened enough by the villain to read straight through till finishing the book at 2 AM.

Some of the mythology was neatly developed and interesting; I liked the scientific details especially. And I wish I could live on Sprite and strawberries, except that I'd miss cheese. Good stuff.

The emotional interest of the tale is mostly in the love triangle, and that is where it fell apart for me. Honestly, I couldn't buy into the concept of a species that mated only for pleasure, having a completely separate means of reproduction (the [superficially] similar concept made sense in Twilight because vampires are transformed humans. Pike's faeries are not.) If such a thing occurs anywhere in nature, I've never heard of it, and it killed both my suspension of disbelief and—in part—my desire to see the main character wind up "with" either of the two boys.

On the other hand, the human boy, David, was well-drawn and lovable, and I wanted happiness for him. It's hard to say where Pike will take the love triangle in the series (this is the first of three, I think.) If I had to place bets I'd go with the faerie boy, I think, but I might be wrong.

As entertainment, it was an enjoyable read; it didn't seem to have a lot of metaphor or symbolism going on, but it's also possible that I missed things, especially since it was late and I was distracted. Will I pick up the sequel? Maybe. All isn't quite well in Avalon yet.


Tasty Tuesday: Orange Salmon

Tasty TuesdayFor whatever reason, salmon does not like to have me cooking it. It always turns out dry and kind of tasteless. But this past Sunday, my grandparents were coming to lunch, and I invited my in-laws over to join us, and I needed something that would cook quickly. Experimental cooking on company? Why not? And who needs a recipe? Bah.

Sometimes I luck out. This turned out wonderfully well, and next time I have every intention of making tartar sauce to go with it (not because it especially needs it, but because I love tartar sauce.)

Orange Salmon (yes, I know salmon is naturally orange. I mean like the fruit, not the color.)

Rinse the salmon steak(s) and lay it out on foil. Shape the foil into enough of a bowl that it will hold liquid.

Douse the salmon well with lemon and/or orange juice (not from concentrate).

Season with garlic salt and pepper.

Layer thin slices of orange, onion and butter across the top of the fish and refrigerate for several hours.

Remove fish from refrigerator and pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle olive oil up and down the length of the salmon and bake for 10-15 minutes or until done.


Rules and Real

[In response to Mr. Pond, Philosopher's Style]

Of all the words either Mr. Pond or I have come up with to describe the long-running blog-based conversation we've engaged in, his latest, webxchange, sounds like one destined to become an actual part of the English language. Maybe that's because when I Google it to see if anyone else has used it, I discover it already exists--and it even has a website, though for an apparently Paypal-like company. Hmpf. Oh well--I like it. Although I also like his other suggestion, blogalectic.

Mr. Pond responds to my vagueness about what good writing actually is with an emphatic "It can be quantified:"
Hamlet is great writing. If you don’t like it, fine. It’s still great writing. No one can argue that. ‘Taste’ simply doesn’t apply.

Because there are rules, and not just fashions. There are histories, and not just markets. There is light and darkness and music and structure and sound and fury—and these coalesce to make great literature.
Fashions come and go and sometimes repeat themselves, but the rules of great writing exist and they can be quantified. Hamlet succeeds--no educated person in their right mind would challenge the Bard, if only because the literary elite would shred them and eat them for breakfast. (Perhaps I should follow that statement with the assurance that I admire Shakespeare's brilliance with the dutiful respect of an English scholar and sometimes the fervor of a nerd who kills time in the shower by reciting Katharina's final speech from The Taming of the Shrew. No munching on me, elites.)

Mr. Pond continues with the following, and I agree completely:
We must judge a text by the fashion of its own time, not ours. We must look endlessly for those texts which transcend time. When we find them, if we care about what great writing is, we read them, submit ourselves to them, to learn why.
True. Very, very true. And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.

That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be.

I think the rules, the real rules of writing, are those which allow us to accomplish that goal. Those rules are most definitely not matters of adverbs and the passive voice. We may follow the laws of fashion to give our stories a chance at getting read and remembered, but the greater laws are just that--greater.

"This funny old writing life," Mr. Pond calls it, and elsewhere, "a wild, mad dream of golden leaves under a golden sky." Amen. It's the life in which we succeed wildly one day and fail the next, then succeed again after staying up half the night fighting a stubborn scene. It's asking for help, getting answers we hate first and love later. It's questioning and hoping, working out ideas, putting the secrets of our hearts out for anyone and everyone to see and critique.

But we don't do this without reason. One of my favorite wrockers has as her Myspace tag line the words "It's real for us." The quote comes from a young Severus Snape, referring to Hogwarts, but I've always been moved by Zoë's use of it. That world of wizards and wands and half-giants and house-elves and courage--it's real for us. The same is true of any world we enter through story, including the ones we write.

When the rules have me struggling with all my might, I know that behind the difficult passage is a world full of people and a quest that matters and magic and love. It's real for me, and that keeps me going.


Happy Weddings and other stories

A wedding, a couple of get-togethers with cousins, five hours of driving each way, sleeping—or not sleeping—in a motel, several trips back and forth to my parents' for time with grandparents, trying to write book in my head in spare moments because I haven't had much time with my computer—and little Jenna is pretty tired out tonight.

It has, of course, been worth every measure of weariness.

* * *

I do love a good wedding. And when I say "good wedding" I mean the real thing, where you know the bride and groom actually mean their vows, where God is respected, where the couple appear to have made it a family event instead of a selfish one, and where they both look honestly happy.

Our cousin's was just such a one—simple and beautiful and cheerful and full of faith and love. It made me happy to witness it.

* * *

That set of Lou's cousins live in the country, and I'm afraid that the country spoiled me for stargazing in the city. I could actually see the Little Dipper, which I've never managed to do from my house because it doesn't get that dark. The band of the Milky Way showed clearly, running through Cygnus and Aquila.

And I got to looking at the stars I thought were Virgo, and thinking... and on the next clear night at home, I spent a very frustrating hour re-trying to trace that constellation. Finding Virgo is easy, everybody says. Just "follow the arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica (Alpha Virginis.)" Well. I beg to differ over the easy part. I've been tracking it wrong for months.

I have, however, figured out the constellation at last. Unfortunately, only the alpha and beta stars are clearly visible from my front yard. Oh well.

* * *

If I read any exceptionally funny lines or sites this week, I've forgotten, so in lieu of that, here's a joke my dad passed to me over Facebook awhile back:

"My computer beat me at chess but it was no match for me at kickboxing."

I'm pretty sure I laughed till I cried at that one.

* * *

As much as I'd like to keep on writing of other things I've thought about this week, my brain is simply done. Lou and I have a quiet day at home tomorrow, and I'm grateful. Sunday we spend a little more time with my grandparents before they leave for Florida, and I'm grateful for that too.

Happy weekend, everyone.


A Picture for a Thousand Words

I have grandparents in town this week, so instead of computer time I have family time. :)

This afternoon was happily summery, and while hanging out with Grandpa and Grandma at my parents', I took some pictures of the beauty around me. (For the sake of privacy, I won't generally post family pictures here... you're stuck with flowers and cute little animals today.)

When my parents bought their new place last year, the place had to have rat dung scrubbed from the inside, and the outside was a tangle of blackberry bushes and ancient cars. In that short time, with no outside contract help, my family has brought about a great deal of loveliness:

...of which that's just a taste. And here's a close-up of the sweet peas in the background:

I am so planting some of these next year.

The chickens decided to look at me while I was out taking pictures:

and here's my current favorite part:

want want want.

Anyway, I hope to have a post tomorrow. I'll do my best to handle that... and get caught up on email and comments here and at The Hog's Head and everywhere else... I'll try. :)


At The Hog's Head: Miéville on Tolkien

Today I've posted over at The Hog's Head, where instead of reviewing China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, I linked to an article he wrote about Tolkien, made a few comments, and asked for discussion.

Feel free to check out his post; it's got a lot of fascinating thoughts. And as a wordsmith, I have to applaud his choices to use a phrase like "the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian" and then refer to something as "totally cool" in the next paragraph. Anybody who can pull that off is awesome.

Review of Un Lun Dun coming another day.


Tasty Tuesday: Irish Soda Bread

Tasty TuesdayOne of the highlights of this past weekend-across-the-mountains was the chance to breakfast and visit with the hostess of Tasty Tuesdays, Farmer's City Wife, and her farmer, who is Lou's cousin. I now really wish they lived closer, because they're a heck of a lot of fun.

The recipe for this week, "Peter's Mum's Soda Bread Recipe", is one I haven't made but intend to try tonight, because I have buttermilk that must be used immediately. I think I'll make the bread as cake (rather than farl) and serve it alongside a shepherd's pie.

Is it good? We'll find out shortly, provided I make it correctly and don't overmix.


The Transmutation of Words

Mr. Pond has come up with new words for our ongoing blogalogue, including blogversation and blogument. If I want to respond in kind, I'll have to resort to a thesaurus or a burst of inspiration, because I can't think of any more talking words to mesh with blog. Hmm. Maybe if I branch out... I could do web + debate = webate, but webate just looks weird.

Oh well.

Whatever you wish to call it, this conversation has a common question running through the posts, working on macro and micro levels, powering the frustration that sparked the post that fired up the diablogue: What is good writing? Or, phrased a little more personally, what does it mean to write well?

Honest-to-goodness bad writing is usually easy to recognize. Any of us can go over to YouTube, click on any popular video, and read a few comments; there are more trolls on that site than anywhere else I've ever found on the internet, and it shouldn't take long to find a stunning example of inelegance. Poorly constructed sentences, misspellings, vitriol and irrelevance, illogic, rambling ideas and the like exemplify, as Dickens might have said, "How not to do it."

Good writing tends to be harder to quantify. Among other things, in the past years of studying writing and literature, I've learned that tastes differ. Half of us at The Hog's Head thought the opening chapter of the first Potter book was hilarity and brilliance and the other half found it difficult to get into. On the publication front, one agent rejects queries for things another appreciates. Some readers and writers like semicolons and others find them awkward.

Then there are the rules of fashion:
  • show, don't tell—broken by Jane Austen
  • keep to a moderate sentence length—broken by Charles Dickens
  • avoid repetition—broken by Stephenie Meyer
  • restrict use of adverbs—broken by J.K. Rowling
  • avoid use of the passive voice—broken by Elizabeth Goudge
  • unify narrative perspective instead of head-hopping—broken by pretty much every writer before 1900 and at least 95 percent since then
  • et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum
(Perhaps I should add: Don't start sentences with conjunctions—broken by me at least four times in every blog-post. But I'm not famous.)

Every industry pro will say, and with good reason, that just because great writers got away with certain things in the past doesn't mean we can today. Likewise, that just because the mega-bestsellers broke a rule doesn't mean someone competing for publication should try. But does failure in any of these areas disqualify someone from being a great writer? Hardly. It just might disqualify someone from publication. The tougher the competition, the more technically flawless any of us has to be to win. So be it.

Mr. Pond, in his last posts, speaks of writing theory. He talks of "the precise, singing balance of words, tension, and music—the fusion of story and sound" and of the "place of passion in the human heart which contains the genesis of the quest for beauty, madness, and grief" that we write from. These are two aspects of great writing, inseparable, and he discusses the relation of rules and medium to the greater theme being conveyed. In the process he answers the question of what it means, for a storyteller, to write well:
"Bringing surface narrative into tension and harmony with deep narrative is the craft of storytelling. The art of writing theory is learning how to tell deep narrative in the way it deserves."
That is as good a definition of those terms as I've ever heard. The difficulty with this is that it still isn't measurable. There is always room for disagreement among critics over who succeeds and who fails and why. For instance, I consider Chesterton one of the greatest English writers in history, yet I've known people who found him unbearably rambly. I poke fun at Hugo for his intra-novel essays, but my husband loved Les Miserables, essays and all. There's no accounting for taste—mine or anyone else's.

But the difficulty hardly matters. So good writing isn't formulaic? Neither is it anarchic. It could rather be called alchemic—a purification process with infusion of grace, accomplished in part through the reconciliation of opposites such as form and freedom, tradition and innovation. True, no one ever made the philosopher's stone—a source of guaranteed immortality and unending riches—any more than any of us have made our souls or our writing perfect. But why shouldn't perfection be our goal?

We work on our talent, writing, reading, practicing, trying to express our thoughts with pen and paper, in essay and lyric and story, wrestling out our own relationship to the rules of the task. We'll know when we've succeeded, because someone will burst out with a warmth of response, something beyond the studied compliment, something drawn from that same place of passion that moved us to write in the beginning.

At that point, we'll have created gold.

Previous conversation:

Mr. Pond: Writing Theory, part 2
Me: Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone
Mr. Pond: Writing Theory, part 1
Me: On Breaking Rules
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


Learning the Stars and other stories

Though apparently Anchorage got 75-degree days before we did, Bellingham has finally decided to give the clouds a week off and we've had sunny days in the high 80s. This is what I've been waiting for—I love it. Sweet summer! How I long to keep it for the next three months.

* * *

One of Lou's cousins is getting married this weekend, so we're leaving for the east side of the mountains in a few hours. I still haven't decided whether or not to take my laptop or just a chunk of my manuscript and a notebook. Either way, I need to write.

But I'm also bringing China Miéville's Un Lun Dun (can't stay out of the kids' lit...) Sometimes it's just nice to read.

* * *

I need to learn to write when other things are on my to-do list. Most of the time I try to get everything else out of the way first, which never works—if I do succeed in clearing the day's list, I'm too tired to focus, or I get good and warmed up to the story at about 10:00 PM when I should be winding down. Next week's goals include getting some serious writing time in early in the day.

* * *

One of my favorite things about summer weather: I can stargaze without having to guess around clouds to trace constellations. This week I've located Aquila and its alpha star, Altair; Cygnus and alpha star Deneb; most of Scorpius including alpha star Antares; part of the constellation Libra, and the star Polaris. I had trouble with Polaris until I learned that a line drawn through Merak and Dubhe of the Big Dipper points straight at it.

Venus has also been shockingly, beautifully bright above the western horizon at sundown. The first time I saw it, I thought it was an airplane and couldn't believe my eyes when it did not move.

I've also learned this week that the zodiac is the ring of constellations along the ecliptic (the path of the sun.) This might be an appalling display of ignorance, but I never knew the term had a scientific meaning. Interesting.

* * *

Learning the stars' often strange and difficult names makes me think of this:

"If you've been assigned to me, I suppose you must be some kind of a Namer, too, even if a primitive one."

"A what?"

"A Namer. For instance, the last time I was with a Teacher—or at school, as you call it—my assignment was to memorize the names of the stars."

"Which stars?"

"All of them."

"You mean all the stars, in all the galaxies?"

"Yes. If he calls for one of them, someone has to know which one he means. Anyhow, they like it;  there aren't many who know them all by name, and if your name isn't known, then it's a very lonely feeling."

—Madeleine L'Engle, A Wind in the Door (Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York: 1973), 78-79

That's one of my absolute favorite moments in fiction, especially in context with the rest of the book. A Wind in the Door is well worth reading and re-reading.

* * *

Lou and I watched the first several episodes of Season 3 of The Office on Monday night. I am still laughing at Jim sending Dwight faxes from Future Dwight, Andy calling Jim "Big Tuna," and Michael's response to a black-lit hotel room.

But then, I'm also still laughing at Dwight's complaints against Jim from an episode in Season 2. That reminds me of several pranksters I've known—and of the time when some other girls and I put all the youth leader's shoelaces in Zip-loc bags of water and froze them, and lay all fourteen of his boxes of Blueberry Morning breakfast cereal (no, I'm not exaggerating) under the sheets in his bed... haha, those were the days. :)

* * *

Twilight fans, I loved this post—recommended to me by fellow Blogengamot member Arabella Figg—about the power of Eclipse and the Saga in general. I think he's on to something.

Unfortunately, if anyone responded sensibly to his question at the end, it got lost in the hundreds of comments by trolls. But here are my two cents: I don't think it is possible to be pro-woman without understanding that what almost every woman wants is to be loved by someone who is stronger than themselves in some quantifiable way, and to propagate the species. Bella's story speaks to those primal desires. Of course it draws the crowds.

* * *

Funny line of the week, thanks to Tyler Stanton: "To whom it may concern: Please start a blog that consists entirely of pictures of people about to sneeze. This is the funniest face a human can make."

With that strange mental picture—Happy weekend, everybody!


Currently Reading: Called out of Darkness

I poured out the darkness and despair of an atheist struggling to establish bonds and hopes in a godless world where anything might, and could, happen, where happiness could be torn away from one in an instant, a world in which the condemned and the despised raised their voices in protest and song.

Author: Anne Rice

Synopsis: Rice, author of a number of acclaimed vampire novels, tells her story about being raised Catholic, becoming an atheist in college, and eventually returning to her faith.

Notes: To my surprise, most of this book actually talks about Rice's childhood (did you know that her original name was Howard Allen? Me neither.) She found reading difficult and experienced the world as very sensory and very beautiful, which obviously affected her writing; there is a strong sense of that beauty in her prose.

I could empathize with a lot of her thought processes and enjoyed the book—right up until the last chapter or two, when she decided to take on the Church's moral teaching. I don't really want to get into that, but will say this much: How people can think the Church is obsessed with sex is beyond me. I go to church at least once a week and can't recall the last time I heard the subject mentioned there. But turning on the car radio, walking through the checkout line at the grocery, seeing a movie or television or reading young adult fiction, there's no escaping it. No, Anne. The Church is not obsessed. The world is obsessed, and doesn't want rules. The Church has rules. That's all there is to it.

But when she talked about the Eucharist, I was right there with her.

The book kind of made me want to go read some of her vampire novels, except... Twilight notwithstanding, vampire anything doesn't do much for me. Twilight is hardly a proper vampire story, with its tortured hero who doesn't want to be a monster. I get the feeling that Lestat is the real deal. Hmm. I might stick with the sparkly one.


Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone

KING: But you will not again write just for yourself?

ROWLING: I will always write just for myself.

—J.K. Rowling, interview with Larry King, 20 October 2000

"There is a fine line, and it’s growing finer, between writing what is true, what is beautiful, what is Art, and writing what can sell, what a voracious market devours. So much of what the market produces leaves those of us questing for truth through beauty nauseated and weary."—Mr. Pond, Core Magic, Art's Caprice

I have one particular publishing industry truism which I do not hesitate to challenge (to be fair, it may not be meant quite as exclusively as it can be taken.) In last week's addition to our diablogue, Mr. Pond reminded me of it with this comment:

"One point on which Jenna and I entirely agree is that there must be a wider aim [in?] writing fiction than simply catering to the existing market."

That thought hadn't put itself into so many words in my mind, but yes, I do agree with that. And it is to wider aims that I look in contradicting the aphorism "Know your market and write for it."

Oh, I think about that. Mr. Pond says, and I concur, that "To a certain extent, if we want to write at all we have to pay attention to what the market is doing." I can reasonably quantify my book into genre and name a primary market.

But while I think my book is marketable to girls ages 14-17, I do not write toward that group as a demographic. What troubles me most about the aphorism is that too much focus on what the members of a target audience (especially that target audience) have in common makes it easy to miss what they have in common with everybody else. As C.S. Lewis said in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story." The same could definitely be said for teenagers' stories.

Most of my understanding of how to write for teenaged girls comes from not from knowing dozens of them—though after having been in youth ministry, they're not exactly unknown to me—nor from having been one, but from the part of me that hasn't changed since I was one of them, that won't change except to grow. And I write to that. I write for myself, for the part of myself that I believe to be universal. I write for my own sense of eucatastrophe, towards the spiritual experience I understand—the sort of thing, in short, that I would like to read.

I think that when we write for that part of ourselves, we write for everyone. Regardless of the number of people who read and love our tales, be it little or great, among them will be teenagers and grandparents, believers and unbelievers, liberals and conservatives, and everyone in between, because there are some things that all of us have in common.

The goal is not to please every person on every point—that's impossible—but to offer comfort, satisfaction and hope to anyone who goes, as Mr. Pond put it, "questing for truth through beauty" with the art we've created. If I've read Mr. Pond rightly, one of the strongest points of agreement between us is that the purpose of good storytelling is to offer things of that nature.

Readers sicken quickly on tales in which beauty is cheapened and truth irrelevant—or vice versa; too often, stories aiming to teach something or make a point wind up cheapening truth and making beauty irrelevant.

Writing and reading are two ways of following the quest, and the quest is a commonality that no demographic can contain. For that reason, I think little more of the market-specific target audience than of any other reader. My target audience, oh friends, is you and me.

P.S. Mr. Pond plans to post another installment today, so be sure to watch his blog.

Previous conversation:

Me: On Breaking Rules
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


Tasty Tuesday: Basic Quiche

Tasty TuesdayNow this--this is summer. Blue sky all the way across and warm enough to wear shorts. I am so grateful.

I think quiche works well in summer; it's relatively easy and light and quite tasty. I made this version on a Friday night, so it is meat-free, but you can fill it with just about anything.

Basic Quiche

1 recipe tart pastry (this looks similar to the one I used... I don't want to break copyright by posting Fannie Farmer's here)
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 bell pepper, any color, diced
A couple of tablespoons of diced onion
1 tbsp butter
about 1/4 cup cooking sherry
Garlic salt
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Parmesan cheese, grated for topping

Saute the vegetables in the butter and sherry; season with garlic salt to taste. Drain for several minutes in a colander.

Press the tart pastry into a pie shell and put the vegetables on the bottom.

Mix the eggs and heavy cream and pour over the vegetables.

Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 300 degrees and bake for half an hour more.

I used the Fannie Farmer cookbook to get the amount of eggs and cream and for the baking times. Fannie Farmer has never let me down yet. :) Enjoy!


On Breaking Rules

Since Mr. Pond and I have been dialoguing, I've seen at least three articles on industry pro blogs challenging some common truisms:

1. One of Jessica Faust's clients, Erin Kellison (book due out this month), shares her experience of sticking to her own vision for the story, not letting even contest judges convince her to change what she believed was the right direction for her book. My favorite line, referencing the tension between her ideas and the suggestions given her: "I think this tug-of-war can be illuminating, but it can also be deadly to a manuscript."

2. Mystery author Clare Langley-Hawthorne talks about a book that broke a lot of major rules and still somehow managed to keep her gripped in the story.

3. Rachelle Gardner tells her readers that while she watches trends, she doesn't put a lot of stock in them. After all, as we know from Professors McGonagall and Firenze, not to mention the average weather report, predicting the future is an imprecise branch of magic. :)

Also, I read a book this week that broke some of the style rules that have been tormenting me, yet managed to get published just last year. It might have helped that its author or publisher somehow got Stephenie Meyer's endorsement on the front cover, but it still made me feel better.

In his last post, Mr Pond says: "As artists and as storytellers, we are called to break the structures of the surrounding world—even of our own industry—to challenge those truisms that everyone in our generation just accepts without thinking." I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, some truisms and structures really need challenging and shattering, and others need building up and strengthening. The trick, for me at least, is in knowing which is which.

However we may differ on the subject, Mr. Pond and I agree that rulebreaking is part of the artistic experience. If for no other reason, this is true because the rules don't always agree amongst themselves, and we writers have to do our best and hope to find agents and editors whose preferences are reasonably aligned with our own.

To add to the conundrum: In art as in life, the rules are layered. Even if we disagree on certain principles, most of us agree that there may be contradiction between the laws of a nation and the greater laws of right and wrong on which the earth and humanity are founded. In art, the laws may not have a moral basis (no one's life, liberty or pursuit of happiness is endangered by sentences that start with conjunctions and end with prepositions) but they are still layered. The publishing industry has rules, and storytelling itself has rules.

Setting aside the literary elite's attempted break with the traditional laws of art, which is another issue, the industry's rules may be—not necessarily arbitrary, but formed of inconsistent things like taste and trend. There's nothing wrong with that; the industry has to sell books to exist, and who knows better what will sell than those who make their living selling? Not usually the new author, whose emotional investment, self-interest, ignorance of the market and sheer closeness to the work can all affect his perceptions.

But art has rules, too, and I'm pretty sure that practically every publishing professional would say that the rules of telling a good story are vastly more important than whether you sometimes use one-sentence paragraphs or whether your book contains vampires. Stephenie Meyer broke rules of plotting, pacing, length and style, but whatever you think about Twilight, a book that sells that many copies is feeding a central human hunger (and probably a spiritual one.) She succeeded at the great end goal of storytelling.

Her success doesn't mean I can get away with breaking all the same rules; it just means that I can read her books and hope that whatever fed me is something that I can grow in myself and my own work, for the sake of feeding others. And if I succeed at that, I might get away with not being of the Hemingway school of sentence structure.

As to what storytelling's key rules are, I'm not sure anyone has explained better than George MacDonald in his short essay The Fantastic Imagination. And I'll quote him, because I am wholly with him in this sentiment: "If any strain of my 'broken music' make a child's eyes flash, or his mother's grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain."

Coming up Wednesday, in response to another part of Mr. Pond's last post: one of my favorite rules to break, and the whys and hows thereof.

Previous conversation:
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


The Mystique of Namelessness and other stories

The third full revision of a novel is fun, but not quite as fun as the second. Most of the good parts get to be typed through without much touch-up, which leaves me spending the majority of my time struggling with all the hard parts. The first three chapters were the worst, I hope. I'm still not quite happy with them.

But I love being close to the story again, knowing the characters and feeling what they feel. Sometimes I just close my eyes and let myself walk through a scene in one character's head, trying to understand what they're sensing.

* * *

I am officially tired of renaming characters. With a couple of very important exceptions, almost everyone in my book has had at least one name change, sometimes two. Today I've wrestled with the fact that in my first drafts, one character didn't have a name--I referred to him as "the head of the council," which proved understandably annoying for the beta readers.

He has a name now, but giving it out too easily takes away from his mystique, the distance and authority of his character, and it doesn't work well with the proper forms of introduction and address. So I'm trying out different titles, and cannot seem to get used to any of the various possibilities. The one I like best causes some first-letter issues (too many capital P's on the page) but I'm tempted to let that slide or make it uncapsed. Hmm. At least it doesn't start with A.

* * *

Mr. Pond doesn't like my new word, but I've got to admit--well, first, that the word blog does sound like a horrible squelching noise in a swamp, but also that diablogue is kind of ugly. It sounds devilish, maybe because it has "diablo" in it. Mr. Pond's brother Eric suggests "blogalogue" for the advantage of assonance, which makes sense although I'm not sure I would have pulled the base word out of that just by looking. Which do you like better?

Either way, I hope to have another installment on Monday and you can read Mr. Pond's latest at the above link. I'm having fun with this; it gives me something to write about. Would you like to have a blog-conversation with A Light Inside? If you respond to one of my posts with a post of your own, and link it in the comments to the post you're responding to, I'll check it out and see if I can respond. Please, no hot-button politics, but anything else goes. I think. :)

* * *

A lot of things have been written about being childless. This is one of the most beautiful I've ever found. I've never been much of a poet, but sometimes there need to be less words, not more, to express something.

* * *

Most awesome line I've read this week: "Instead of drugs I just went to my “happy place,” which is currently the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando."--Jon Acuff. (Note: by drugs, he means novocaine.)

* * *

Other best line, all over Twitter but coming to you courtesy of @theknightshift: "Twilight is like World Cup soccer. They run around for 2 hours, nobody scores, and a billion fans insist that 'you just don't understand.' "

Seriously, people, you just don't understand. :)

* * *

Helpful line for writers: "The second best cure for writer’s block is other creative endeavors. Most writers I know are accomplished in other arts as well. I used to think it was “cheating” to draw or dance when I “should” be writing. Now I understand: The arts all nourish one another."--Jan Underwood

This is true. Music helps me a lot. And I'm not sure anyone can call my dancing "art", but after a long day of writing Thursday, I rocked out to Ministry of Magic for awhile. I'm pretty sure I pulled every muscle in the back of my right leg, but it was fun and it cleared my mind.

* * *

This article, amusingly titled Death by Ham: Playing the odds of getting published, made me feel better about a lot of things.

* * *

I clicked on this video simply because after a couple of weeks of seeing the word everywhere, I wanted to know what a vuvuzela was. Now I know.

* * *

After all my complaining about the weather yesterday, and a morning cold and damp enough that I actually ran the heat, this afternoon the clouds have parted, the sun is out, and I took a walk and am now sitting with the door open. Life is good.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody, and enjoy the rest of the weekend too. America, I love you!



Today I am working on my story. That is all.

Well, that and the usual daily duties... and vacuuming... and complaining about the weather. The first of July, and it's raining? I could be okay with that if we'd had anything in the way of sunshine, but our nicest day this year might have barely scraped 74 degrees. Nothing will dry out, and I still have to sit under a blanket to stay warm in the living room. Please, God. We need summer.

Fortunately, there's always happy music when I need a mental break. Happy music is especially fun combined with a video full of people who dance as dorky as I do.