Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Books on the Brain

"A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend." --Author Unknown

Lately I've found that I have books on the brain more so than ever. Along with finishing revisions (I'm this close--yea!), researching for the next project, and trying to make headway with the piles of books around the house yet-to-be-read, I'm excited by the variety of titles that have popped up on some of the family's wish lists for Christmas. Shhhh, don't give it away, but I've already hidden some away that are waiting to be wrapped. I also took a day to sort through groaning shelves for some gently-used books I could bear to part with, and headed  to Half Price Books to resell them (ahem, 65 books and magazines!) to make room for all those books I've put on my list.

And then recently I was entertained by a unique idea that popped up on other blogs--that of making a story out of book titles we find on our shelves. Christina Lee at Write-Brained called it "Titles that Tell a Story." Tahereh at T.H. Mafi called it "A Poem of Novels." And Jen at Unedited worked her magic with "A Story Out of Novels." And so I revisited my shelves and the titled friends that reside there, to try my hand at the exercise. (Thanks, girls, for the idea!)

So, although I'm a little late to the party, I came up with this:


That was fun--want to give it a try? What story do you find in the titles on your book shelf?

"TV. If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they'll have with twenty-six. Open your child's imagination. Open a book." --Author Unknown

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seeking the Simpler Things

"There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy." --Ralph H. Blum

Just taking a quiet moment before the pace speeds up, pies go in the oven, and cranberry bread gets mixed--to add to all the Thanksgiving wishes being offered across the blogging world. Writing voices are on pause while the voice of gratitude is celebrated.

So! May we enjoy this time. May we laugh and share. Care. Hug. Remember. Cherish. Offer help and, yes, words--words of compassion, support, encouragement, thankfulness. The simpler things plumb deepest.

Once back at work, may gratitude and quiet joy give the next round of written words more meaning.

"Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action." --W.J. Cameron

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

If Words Were Peas

The style of an author should be the image of his mind,
but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise. --Edward Gibbon

On a recent visit with my dad, I heard a story I'd never heard before. It seems that his grandfather lost the index finger of his left hand, down to the second knuckle, in an accident on a farm combine (harvesting machine). Not a particularly interesting story, even with the tidbit that this man, my great-grandfather, was left-handed. What did make the story interesting, at least to me, was that Grandpa always ate peas with a knife--using the hand with the missing the finger--and never dropped a pea.

After Dad finished telling his story, I asked, "Did Grandpa eat the peas with honey?" When he looked quizzical at what seemed to be a silly question, I said, "Well, didn't you ever hear the little ditty about the peas?" It was a poem I learned when I was little:
I eat my peas with honey,
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny
but it keeps them on the knife.

I figured with a story like that, maybe my great-grandfather could have written the poem. He sure had enough style for it.

Style. According to David Carroll, A Manual of Writer's Tricks, there are two areas in any written document that cause it to succeed or fail: content (what we say) and style (the way we say it). "Content is the information and message which a writer communicates. Style is the way in which this information is conveyed." Carroll explains: "From a more technical perspective, style is the way in which a writer uses language...a way of combining the standard elements of prose--tone, vocabulary, rhythm, grammar, syntax, emphasis, usage--into a unifed word tapestry which is amusing or lyrical or emotive or profound or fun." Style is "the writer's personality reaching out to the reader from the one-dimensional page."

"With maturity," Jorge Luis Borges says, "the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style."

And from Oakley Hall, The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, "A writer's style is more than his diction--word choice--or his rhetoric--his intention to persuade; it is his use of sentence rhythms, short, long, simple, complex...the use and originality of metaphors, the form of the conditional...in differences of punctuation...in fact, style emerges from all the author's quirks and mannerisms, weaknesses and strengths."

Sounds to me like style, on one hand, is an intangible thing that's hard to get a handle on--personality, tone, rhythm, voice. But it's also a tangible thing, expressed from such things as mastering conventional rules, sitting down--regularly and consistently--at the writer's table, choosing from a good diet of ideas. Maybe it's not so much different than eating peas with a knife, trying to get slippery words on paper and do so with an individual flourish.

Hmmm, but just how to make it all taste good...?

How do you define style?

(Note: for discussions on the origins of the peas-and-honey poem, see Poetry Foundation, Food Reference, or derkeiler.com.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

John Gardner on Mastering the Art of Fiction

Her daddy is teaching her a new skill and she has just about mastered it. Our two-and-a-half year old granddaughter is learning how to get in and out of her car seat by herself. It's is a skill that needs mastered, and pretty soon, since she will have a new little sibling here in less than a month and her parents will need as many free hands as possible.

I remember when little Angelica mastered the skill of jumping. What a hoot to watch her try. She's learning to sing and dance, too, among other skills she's already mastered--like handling a spoon by herself, turning pages in books, and the big one that continues to amaze me, her ability to learn not just one, not two, but three languages. English and Spanish together are her "first" languages, and her mommy has introduced French as well. Without pause she will say "hi" to me and "hola" to her daddy, rattle off a stream of Spanish to him, and turn right around and talk to me in English. I wish I could switch language gears like that.

Then there's the little six-month old grandson out in California. Baby Nicholas is at the beginning stages of mastering skills. He eats bananas from a spoon that is offered to him, but has yet to master the skill of getting a cracker to his mouth by his own hand. We saw a first-hand example of that via Skype this afternoon!

John Gardner, in his The Art of Fiction, speaks of mastering the art of fiction. He says, "The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs...The writer's business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it's by training--by studying great books and by writing--that one learns to present one's fiction, giving them their due. Through the study of technique...one learns the best, most efficient ways of making characters come alive, learns to know the difference between emotion and sentimentality, learns to discern, in the planning stages, the difference between the better dramatic action and the worse. It is this kind of knowledge...that leads to mastery."

He clinches the thought by adding, "Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather."

Or, we might add, like a child's gathering power as she or he moves through time. Looked at that way, we might say that writing can be a hoot, too, as we continue to master it.

Any writing skills, or skills of another kind, that you feel like you've gotten a better handle on lately?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Deus ex Machina

Did you ever study Latin in school? I took two years, and wish I remembered more than I do. But recently I had reason to revisit a Latin term, deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina: "a plot device that usually involves a last  minute appearance by a character who saves the day, or a sudden event that conveniently resolves the plot." The phrase comes from ancient Greek theater, where seemingly insolvable situations were conveniently solved by 'dropping a god' on to the stage--often literally dropping the actor by way of an elaborate crane. Hence the meaning, "god from the machine."

My deus ex machina was a key that seemed to drop from the sky on a recent day when we got locked out of the house. How convenient, huh? Hubby and I had started out on a walk together, a Saturday morning tradition. Usually, since we part ways at a point and I return home while he goes a longer route, he makes sure I have the key. But this time neither of us thought to make the exchange--and he took off with said key in his pocket.

Good thing the day was warm. Once I realized the oversight, I also realized I might have a long wait. So, after checking to see if any door had been mistakenly left unlocked--no such luck--I decided to make the best of the situation. So I sat on my garden bench for a bit, enjoying just being outside. I did deep-breathing exercises. I tried to make myself useful by moving flower pots that need to be stored inside for the winter closer to the house.

Time crawled, so I strolled through the backyard. I peeked through broken windows in the neighbor's old barn next door, a barn that fell into disrepair years ago. I picked stickers off my pant legs that had hitched a ride. I headed back to the bench. That's when I looked down and...found a key, right smackdab in the flower bed, one I had never seen before. Now where did that come from? But then the thought hit me, do you suppose...? I hurried to the door to see if the key would get me in the house.

Of course it didn't. But if it had, it would have been a perfect example of a deus ex machina, an easy resolution to my problem--and obviously an example of what we don't want to do in our stories. Where's the action in a resolution so easy, the conflict, the character's need to resolve his problem?

Some examples of this unwelcome plot device, according to Bright Hub, include:
  • A character waking up and realizing it was "all a dream"
  • A hero turning up just in time to save everyone
  • A sudden discovery of a super power or magical ability that solves all the plot problems
  • A sudden dramatic natural even, such as an earthquake or fire
  • A character who magically returns from the dead.
Interesting stuff here. Other helpful links on the subject include Novel-Writing-Help, and Citizendium.

A key and a bit of Latin illuminated a story problem for me. How about you--any helps lately from Latin? Or any deus ex machinas that you've stumbled upon?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Reality Surprised"

"Fiction is more than a recitation of facts or author embellishments. It is reality surprised. It shakes us up and makes us see familiar in new ways. Fiction is like wrestling with angels--you do not expect to win, but you do expect to come away from the experience changed."--Jane Yolen

The day started out with the surprise of a spectacular dawning sky on what I thought would only be gray reality on my morning walk. Then, in preparation for a day of revision, hoping to come much closer to the final chapter, I picked up one of my favorite books on writing, Jane Yolen's Take Joy, A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, and discovered the above quote. No better inspiration to set the stage for tweaking and tightening--wrestling if you will--with words. A day at the desk, or BIC (a term coined by Jane for "butt-in-chair"), turned out to be a fun experience. I may not have "won"--but I did come away with a number of  improvements when some of what had become familiar flipped around and wanted to be expressed in surprising new ways.

And then imagine my surprise when, in surfing a few writers' blogs, I found word about an interview with Jane Yolen at Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog. Here Alice further links readers to Martha Brockenbrough who offers a great talk with this author of over 300 books and counting (and also the second author ever to join SCBWI back in 1971). On Martha's post is also a video interview, where Jane discusses writing in general and also reads from her book, How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night. It's a real treat--a "reality surprise," of its own. You might want to check it out.

All in all, a good day.

How about you? Any "reality surprised" events happening in your world? I bet there's a lot of that for those who are participating in NaNoWrMo (National November Writing Month), where--from last count--172,000 participants in this "seat-of-the-pants approach to novel writing" have signed up. The goal here is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I didn't sign up but I cheer on those hardy souls who have!

May all your surprises this November be happy ones.