Christmas Greetings

Title: Design for Christmas card, Boston Public Library

Creator/Contributor: Schachinger, Gabriel, 1850-1912 (artist); L. Prang & Co. (publisher)

Date issued: Before 1897

Genre: Chromolithographs; Portrait prints

Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department

The son of a gilder, Gabriel Schachinger studied at the Munich Art Academy and received his artistic training from Hermann Anschütz , Alexander von Wagner and Karl von Piloty . From 1876 to 1878 he was a Bavarian state scholarship holder in Italy. His most important works include a ceiling painting for the Kurhaus Wiesbaden and a curtain for the Hoftheater Munich . Otherwise he mainly created portraits , floral still lifes, and genre pictures.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Design for Christmas card by Boston Public Library.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Design_for_Christmas_card_by_Boston_Public_Library.jpg&oldid=275940112 (accessed December 24, 2019).

Page “Gabriel Schachinger”. In: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Processing status: September 27, 2019, 13:03 UTC. URL: https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gabriel_Schachinger&oldid=192642484 (accessed: December 24, 2019, 13:42 UTC)

 

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Nothing says Christmas like Noah’s Ark #ChristmasMemories

I live in a small quarry town near our state capital. The city maintenance department decorates the main drag through our little town and it always looks amazing.

The efforts of these wonderful people make the long, dark, Northwestern nights feel so much kinder.

Some years the people here go all out decorating their yards, others not so much. This year, the neighbors’ homes are decorated for the season, but not as lavishly as in some years.

Our home is always quite simple in its holiday decorating–a tree, candles, a cute centerpiece for the table. Outside, my hubby puts up small lighted displays,  but nothing too fancy.

We keep it simple because we have to tear it down and put it all away over New Year’s day, and that rapidly becomes a bore. I don’t like anything that falls into the category of labor.

Two lighted wire Christmas trees (there used to be three), a string of ten lighted candy canes, a wreath and a porch ornament–that is the extent of our usual efforts at decorating the outside of Casa del Jasperson.

Unfortunately , this year our lighted display died right after it went up–so as of this writing we have a yard full of broken ornaments. I plan to replace them today or tomorrow with something new.

We’ve had no snow this year, but we have all the mud you could ever wish for.

Two days ago we received 3.3 inches of rain, so maybe we should switch to Noah’s Ark themed Christmas decorations.

One of my favorite Christmas memories is of 2008. My mother was in the final stages of lung cancer and was living with us in her final days. She was 82, and exceedingly independent. It it was a sign of just how ill she was that she allowed me to move her into my home so I could care for her.

My hubby had set up the lighted reindeer  display: three sweet reindeer made of wire and white lights. However, the snow that year was quite deep. All around their little electric feet, the heat of the lights would melt the snow.

But not evenly.

The littlest reindeer, which Mama named Rudolph even though his nose was not red, kept falling over. Our display looked awful as compared to the neighbors.

Every day, first thing in the morning, Mama went to the front window and checked on that reindeer. She grumbled and fidgeted, wanting to get out there and fix it herself. Unfortunately, chemo had taken its toll; she had no strength.

But nothing had stopped her sense of humor. Watching the neighbors negotiate the street in the deep snow offered hours of entertainment for her. She stood on the porch laughing and making ribald comments as she watched my hubby attempting to stand our rickety electric Rudolph back up.

No matter how we tried, our display that year was the lamest one on the street. Our neighbors pointed and laughed at the prone reindeer as they walked to the grocery store.

lighted-reindeerA few days before Christmas, I was in the kitchen making breakfast. Mama was looking out the front window, talking on the phone to my Aunt Lillian. “That littlest reindeer is a terrible influence. Usually he’s the only souse in the lot, but today we have a yard full of drunken reindeer.”

Aunt Lillian said something, and Mama replied, “I’m not joking. The whole herd is passed out in the snow. Either that, or we had a drive-by shooting and the reindeer were the casualties.”

Sure enough, when Greg went out to go to work, all three electric reindeer were laying on their sides.

That was Mama’s last Christmas. Those reindeer have long since gone to broken ornament heaven and the current broken things will join them.

This year my younger brother, who has a chronic illness, is living with us. Having an extra person in the home has been an adjustment, but not too difficult. The tree is up, and the family room is cheery. We will host a Christmas dinner for our friends and a few family members. I will make my usual dishes (vegan) and my friend will accommodate the carnivores.

At Christmas, I can’t help but think about Mama and good old Rickety Rudolph. For most of her life she had suffered from chronic depression, but as she drew toward the end of her life, she developed a positive outlook. She found humor in the smallest things, and when she passed away, I missed her wit and commentary.

I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas, whether it is snowy or the traditional mud-fest we usually have here. May the year ahead be filled with plenty of good things to balance the bad, and may you always find the humor in life.

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#FineArtFriday: Christmas Tree Decoration, artist unknown, 19th century

I finally got around to putting up our Christmas tree here at Casa del Jasperson, and I must say it looks rather gaudy as compared to the one in this painting.

I always dread the ordeal of moving furniture and getting all the decorations out of their hiding place in the garage. But once the tree is up and the work is out of the way, we love having it.

I say I enjoy it–until it’s time to take it down and figure out where to stash the boxes of ornaments in our overstuffed garage.

About this Picture:

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Title: Christmas Tree Decoration
  • Date: second half of the 19th century
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions : Height: 52.5 cm (20.6 ″); Width: 42 cm (16.5 ″)
  • Location: Private Collection (sold through Dorotheum Auction House)

What I love about this painting:

A young man sits on a low bench and decorates a small fir tree. The furnishings, other than the tree, all are painted in the shadows of the room. A doll lies in the basket at his feet, a toy for his daughter perhaps?

In the background is a beautiful white clock. It has been painted and finely crafted. Poor people would not have owned such an expensive clock.

That clock tells me that while this man may not be rich, he isn’t poor. Even the tree has nice glass ornaments along with decorations of cookies and plain paper.

Chains of colored paper, historically an expensive crafting commodity, also decorate it.

Most poor families didn’t have cut trees, or lavish presents. But the children might wake to find their stockings with an apple or nuts in them, special treats for families that were always on the edge of starvation.

Here in America, in less affluent homes during the early decades of the 20th century, paper chains might have been hung on the tree, along with ornaments made of baked salt-dough and cut-paper. A lot of work went into to creating these ornaments every year, which was part of the fun of getting ready for Christmas.

My maternal grandmother, who was born in 1909, always made paper snowflakes and angels, and strung popcorn and cranberries to decorate her tree.

The man in this painting is dressed in traditional well-made craftsman’s clothing—a simple shirt and vest, apron, leather breeches.

There are curtains of a heavy material at the window, and the tree is set on a beautifully carved table. Is he a woodworker or a clock maker? Who knows, but this man earns enough to live comfortably and celebrate modestly.

This is a quintessential image of old-fashioned Christmas in all its homey prosperity.

According to Wikimedia Commons, the artist who painted this picture is unknown. The Dorotheum Website attributes the painting to an unknown Central European artist.

To me, it is an example of the best of 19th Century European romantic art. It’s a perfect example of a subject near and dear to Victorian souls—that simple, romanticized version of Christmas that we still love today.

This painting makes me think of a Christmas card. Whoever the artist was, they were talented and trained in the craft of painting. They had the knack for conveying homey simplicity in their work.

About Dorotheum via Wikipedia:

The Dorotheum (German pronunciation: [ˌdoːʀoˈteːʊm] (listen)), established in 1707, is one of the world’s oldest auction houses.[1] It has its headquarters in Vienna on the Dorotheergasse and is the largest auction house in both Continental and German-speaking Europe.  Besides auctions, the retail sector also plays a major role in Dorotheum’s business.[3] In the Dorotheum, works of art, antiques, furniture, and jewelry from various centuries are put up for auction. The building is constructed in the neo-classical style.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christmas Tree Decoration.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christmas_Tree_Decoration.jpg&oldid=378771434 (accessed December 20, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Dorotheum,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dorotheum&oldid=921309125 (accessed December 20, 2019).

 

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Writing Violence #amwriting

I don’t write horror, but some of my novels contain certain elements of that genre. These shocking, violent scenes were moments that changed my characters’ lives.

Violence is an aspect of depth that is difficult for some authors to write well.

I dislike graphic violence that is there for the shock value. If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

Understanding how to design certain action scenes and where they fit into a narrative is a critical skill we must develop if we want our readers to love our work. When you raise the specter of failure, you also raise the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.

Random carnage has no place in the well-crafted novel, no matter the genre. The key word here is random.

When it comes to writing scenes that involve violence, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Will this event profoundly change my protagonist’s life?
  2. What does this event accomplish that advances my plot?
  3. Why is this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives. Those passages were difficult to read but were the events that changed everything.

When you read Stephen King’s work, you find shocking events and horror. But more importantly, you see a narrative that was carefully thought out. Every event pushes the protagonist’s story to its conclusion.

They were the moments that changed the protagonists for good or ill. These scenes were crafted seamlessly into the narrative.

Violence in the horror novel is all the more frightening when it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. It is not random, not inserted for shock value or just to liven things up.

This means you must plan your horror novel with an eye to ratcheting up the fear and tension in every scene. The threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution held just out of reach.

At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, and often the protagonist believes he can resolve the situation if he can just achieve one thing.

In the process of experiencing these events, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now.

Within the overall story arc, you must insert scenes that illuminate the motives of all the characters, including those of the antagonist. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

These scenes allow the reader to learn things as the protagonist does. They offer clues that the characters don’t know, information that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.

  1. The first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. Because the best stories are about good people solving terrible problems, this incident has a domino effect: more actions ensue that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety.
  2. At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act, and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
  3. Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act. This final event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
  4. Each violent event should be worse than the previous. They begin relatively minor as compared to the final event and grow progressively more difficult. As the narrative moves on, the reader must fear the protagonist will fail.

What are the consequences of failure? Fear is powerful motivator, so raise the stakes and the tension as the story progresses.

Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. What will their long term reaction be?

Also, you must remember to give both the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping and planning.

Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.

Writing violence well requires planning on the part of the author. It requires us to sit back and consider what events will be unavoidable and will change the characters for good or ill.

Then we must insert them into the narrative in the right order, subtly foreshadowed, and all consequences must be both logical and advance the story.

THAT is where writing becomes work, but when done well, you can end up with a great novel.

A novel that I wish I had written is Dean Frank Lappi’s Black Numbers, the first novel in his Aleph Null series. This a deep, violent novel with great characters and intentional plotting, and kicks off a brilliant series. Nothing that happens in that novel is random. Every event serves a purpose, that of pushing the protagonist to his destiny.

We learn from the masters. If you must write violence into your work, you must study the works of other writers. Stephen King’s early work is an excellent place to start and is available in the public library.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post were previously published on the Northwest Independent Writers Association blog as Crafting Violence, © Connie J. Jasperson, October 15, 2017.

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The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

A number of people have asked me about editing programs, and if I use them in my own work. I do–but also, I don’t.

I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do editing programs, which are not as useful as we wish they were.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s

Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

For me, especially in my first draft, some words are like tics—they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

I want to write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.

Often removing an adjective or adverb strengthens the prose. They’re easy to find because these words frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’

You could do a global search for the letters ‘ly,’ and a list will pop up in the left margin of your manuscript.

It’s ridiculous to tell someone to remove all adverbs from a narrative. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

That sort of wrong-headed advice survives because it is based on a writing truth: unnecessary adverbs and adjectives fluff up the prose. Worse, they sometimes fail to tell us something that we need to know.

In other words, use adverbs and adjectives when they are necessary and cut them when they aren’t.

In my own work, I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and “weed words.” I look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.

A good program to help point out when certain passages are passive and need to be “made active” is Pro Writing Aid. I use the professional version for my own work, but they do have a free version that will show you some limited problems in your prose.

The BIG problem for those who don’t understand the basics of grammar is, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing:

“The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.”

Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched.

Pro Writing Aid made the same suggestion.

I have no idea why they make that suggestion, but you can see how a person blindly following mechanical advice could go wildly astray.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.

A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.

This is because these programs operate on algorithms defined by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation.

New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and learn how grammar works. If you don’t understand grammar or how to construct a sentence, a paragraph, or write dialogue, editing programs will just confuse and mislead you.

To get the best out of editing software, you must know the basics of how to write.

Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

You might not agree with the program’s suggestions. You, the author, have control and can disregard suggested changes if, as illustrated above, they make no sense. I regularly reject weird suggestions.

However, when the editing program highlights something, I look at the problem sentence carefully. Just knowing that the way I phrased a sentence tripped the program’s algorithms encourages me to look at that passage with a critical eye.

I may not use the program’s suggestion, but something triggered the algorithm. That means my phrasing might need work. I may need to find a better way to get my idea across.

Even editors must have their work seen by other eyes—my blog posts are proof of this. I am the only one who sees them, and even though I write them in advance and go over them with two editing programs, and then look at them again before each post goes live, I still find silly errors two or three days later.

A good editing program is not cheap, but I feel it is a worthwhile investment. If you don’t have an editing program, you can find these words on your own.

If you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript. I warn you, this is a boring, time-consuming task, but it is a crucial part of the job.

You can’t take shortcuts. If you are too impatient and choose to “Replace All” without carefully thinking things through, you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work. Some weed words are parts of other words, for example:

  • very—every
  • has—hasten, chasten

If you have decided something is a “crutch word,” examine the context. Inadvertent repetitions of certain words are easy to eliminate once we see them with a fresh eye.

Context is everything.

I can’t stress this enough: take the time to look at each example of the offending words individually.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

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#FineArtFriday: The Lacemaker by Nicolaes Maes ca. 1656

The Lacemaker

  • Artist   Nicolaes Maes
  • Year    c. 1656
  • Medium           oil paint, canvas
  • Dimensions     45 cm (18 in) × 53 cm (21 in)

About this image, via Wikipedia:

The Lacemaker (circa 1656) is an oil on canvas painting by the Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes. It is an example of Dutch Golden Age painting and is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This painting is typical of many paintings of women in interiors painted by Maes in the 1650s. The woman is making bobbin lace using a lace pillow that can be seen in other Maes paintings of lacemakers.

The child in a highchair was a popular subject for many Dutch genre painters, and this painting shows how it was used as a safe place to play as well as for eating. The empty bowl of porridge is on the floor along with some other items the boy has let fall. He is wearing a red valhoed or falling cap, which seems to indicate that confinement in the chair is necessary if any lacemaking is going to get done.

baby bumper headguard cap, also known as a falling cap, or pudding hat, is a protective hat worn by children learning to walk, to protect their heads in case of falls.

Known as a pudding or black pudding, a version used during the early 17th century until the late 18th century was usually open at the top and featured a sausage-shaped bumper roll that circled the head like a crown. It was fastened with straps under the chin.

About the Artist via Wikipedia

From Wikipedia: Nicolaes Maes, also known as Nicolaes Maas (January 1634 – November 24, 1693 (buried)) was a Dutch Golden Age painter of genre and portraits. In about 1648 he went to Amsterdam, where he entered Rembrandt‘s studio. Before his return to Dordrecht in 1653 Maes painted a few Rembrandtesque genre pictures, with life-size figures and in a deep glowing scheme of colour, like the Reverie at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Card Players at the National Gallery, and the Children with a Goat Carriage. So closely did his early style resemble that of Rembrandt, that the last-named picture, and other canvases in the Leipzig and Budapest galleries and in the collection of Lord Radnor, were or are still ascribed to Rembrandt.

In his best period, from 1655 to 1665, Maes devoted himself to domestic genre on a smaller scale, retaining to a great extent the magic of colour he had learnt from Rembrandt. Only on rare occasions did he treat scriptural subjects, as in Hagar’s Departure, which has been ascribed to Rembrandt. His favorite subjects were women spinning, or reading the Bible, or preparing a meal. He had a particular fascination with the subject of lacemaking and made almost a dozen versions on this subject.

While he continued to reside in Dordrecht until 1673, when he settled in Amsterdam, he visited or even lived in Antwerp between 1665 and 1667. His Antwerp period coincides with a complete change in style and subject. He devoted himself almost exclusively to portraiture, and abandoned the intimacy and glowing color harmonies of his earlier work for a careless elegance which suggests the influence of Van Dyck. So great indeed was the change, that it gave rise to the theory of the existence of another Maes, of Brussels. His registered pupils were Justus de GelderMargaretha van GodewijkJacob Moelaert, and Johannes Vollevens.[1] Maes died in Amsterdam.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Lacemaker (Maes),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lacemaker_(Maes)&oldid=799625637 (accessed December 12, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Baby bumper headguard cap,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Baby_bumper_headguard_cap&oldid=914539353 (accessed December 12, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Nicolaes Maes,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nicolaes_Maes&oldid=815679835 (accessed July 12, 2018).

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Theme and Depth Through Polarity #amwriting

In writing, theme is the backbone of your story. It is an idea thread that connects disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can appear, creating opportunities for adding depth.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of the word-pond.

For example, a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations. Those subtle tensions and interactions may not look like they are the story, but beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life – a theme that explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death.

Consider the first three installments in the epic film series, “Star Wars.” It’s an ambitious action adventure set in a science fiction universe, and Luke Skywalker must save the world. But fundamentally, it’s the story of a family.

George Lucas conceived the tale by exploring the circle of life in the fractured relationship of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and how each man affected those people whom they came into contact with. Luke was a catalyst—his presence made things happen. Anakin embodied self-deception.

The same is true of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones book. It begins with a family and follows the circle of life and death.

If we learn anything from comparing these two epic series, it is that inside that overarching theme of the circle of life lies many common polarities.

Nowhere do we find more opportunities for conflict than within a family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Sub-themes in the family saga will be:

Good vs. evil

Illusions vs. reality

Jealous vs. trusting

Justice vs. injustice

Love vs. hate

Order vs. chaos

Truth vs. falsehoods

Wealth vs. poverty

Young vs. old

These same themes that we employ in the small story of one family can easily be applied to a larger, more epic saga, such as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the “family” is an entire nation.

Looking beyond the obvious, we find the subtle polarities to instill into our work. Small subliminal conflicts highlight and support the theme. When you add texture to the narrative, you add depth.

Take pain—in my personal experience, the absence of pain was only appreciated once I had experienced true physical pain.

It’s like everything else we take for granted: we don’t think about pain if we have never felt it.

I find inspiration in the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. When I am looking for a way to add a particular emotion to a scene, I look up the word I want to convey and see what the opposites are. This is an affordable resource for the cash-strapped author because it can be purchased in paperback for between $9.00 and $12.00 USD.

Here are some polarities we can apply when fleshing out a character:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Synonyms and Antonyms and look up danger:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

Those are three “D” words that have great opposites. In one dark scene, we can convey peril, and the feeling of hopelessness a character might feel. The light and hope we offer at the end of the story shine brighter when they are contrasted against darkness and despair.

Think of Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom after Gollum and the ring are destroyed. Darkness and sure peril are followed by light and salvation.

Polarity is an essential tool of world building. Small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.

If you can’t afford to buy the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, the internet is your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This is a free resource.

I try to find ways to add depth by employing polarity. Each small polarity creates conflict, pushes my characters a bit further.

If I’m smart with the way I write it, small polarities will support and define my larger theme without beating the reader over the head.

As I say, this requires me to be skillful in the writing process, which is sometimes easier said than done.

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Thoughts on the evolution of prose #amwriting

Our prose and the way we shape it is a fingerprint. It is our recognizable voice.

I follow the careers of several favorite writers, reading everything they publish. I have done so since finding their first novels in the sci-fi section at my local bookstore in my early twenties.

Their debut novels had a kind of shine that captivated me, despite not being technically well written. That spark of genius accompanied their earliest works and carried me, the reader, through the rough patches of their narratives. These authors had a passion for their stories and an innate ability to convey a world and create memorable characters with moving stories. That gift of fire more than made up for the less than stellar moments that sometimes were sprinkled into a piece.

Early 20th Century fantasy was written by people like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were educated in classical literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Tolkien was a Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, and Lewis was chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. They remained working in their chosen fields all through their lives, writing their greatest works while working as academics in the fields of literature and theology.

These two literary authors influenced my generation of genre fantasy writers, who emerged in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In their earliest published works, these (now not so young) authors of speculative fiction were allowed to write literary works filled with thought-provoking plots and characters, featuring strong social and political themes.

However, these authors were frequently journalism majors, instead of literature and fine arts. Their voices and writing styles reflected that journalistic influence, getting rid of the leisurely prose and replacing it with active, verb-centric prose.

And readers wanted that.

So, in spec fic, literary prose evolved away from using descriptors, to show an active style. Journalism shaped genre writing, moving it away from the sometimes passive, heavily descriptive prose of literary fiction and into the action-based prose that is popular now.

However, journalism met and collided with poetic literary writing, resulting in a writer like Patrick Rothfuss. This shows that literary influences continue to shape genre writing, and educated readers want good prose with their action.

Several authors who  first published in those early years of my reading life  turned those early works into popular, long-running series. By reading those books in the order they were published, one can see an evolution toward active prose.

Or in the case of one of my earliest influences, a stagnation. Beloved though her early works remain, I can’t read her work anymore.

I look at my own work and see evolution. Am I growing in the right direction?

I don’t know, but I’m having fun.

I love the ins and outs of the writing process, and I love literature in all its forms. I love the challenge of trying to wrangle my words in such a way that my readers will stick with me, and maybe an editor for a magazine will like something I have produced.

I don’t always succeed, but sometimes I do. Every modest success in finding a home for a short story keeps me writing, keeps me focused on the goal of “selling one more story” or “finishing just one more book.”

The reading public is fickle. Their taste evolves and changes as “new” and different styles of prose capture their imagination. Readers are heavily influenced by what their peers are reading.

Authors don’t always know how to evolve, and their work can become dated. We have to be agile to walk the line between our personal choice of prose style and what we can sell.

But the truth is, if the subject is just past the peak of popularity, it “has been done” and will be rejected. If the subject is too far ahead of the wave or too original, it may be deemed “too out there,” and brilliant prose won’t sell your work.

Readers may discover it after we’re dead, although success after death is a small consolation to look forward to.

I don’t sell as many short stories in an average year as some other members of my writing group do. I tend to write work that is a little bit “out there” and finding the right editor is a crap shoot.

But my writing friends’ successes give me hope and they encourage me to stay in the fight.

I will keep writing short pieces and submitting them and hope my work lands on the editor’s desk on the day he/she was in the mood for something different. With each short piece that is rejected, I get a little bit of feedback that helps me know where to send the next story.

Writing has been my passion and my life. Every day I wake up, glad to go to work. Writing this blog is a joy because here I can talk about the nuts and bolts of writing craft, a subject no one finds interesting unless they are writers.

I’m on a quest to obtain that elusive magic my favorite authors seem to have. In the process, I am reading a lot of great books, many old as well as new. I’m discovering just what works for me as a reader and what fails.

In the process, I’m dismantling some passages of their work, tearing it down sentence by sentence to see what makes it tick.

I hope you will stay with me on this journey. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our companions when it comes to what we consider good literature, but hearing differing viewpoints gives us a more rounded view.

In many ways, I do my “mind wandering” here, and I thank you for the feedback you give me.

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#FineArtFriday: An Out-of-Doors Study by John Singer Sargent

Artist: John Singer Sargent  (1856–1925)

Title: An Out-of-Doors Study

Description: English: Paul César Helleu Sketching with his wife Alice

Signature bottom right: John S. Sargent

Date: 1889

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 65.9 cm (25.9 ″); Width: 80.7 cm (31.7 ″)

Today’s image, An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889, is by expatriate American artist, John Singer Sargent. It depicts fellow artist and great friend, Paul César Helleu sketching with his wife Alice Guérin.

What I love about this painting:

This painting depicts a day in the life of two great artists. The grass looks very like that which grows beside streams in my part of the world. The colors are that mix of green and brown that long grass has when summer is just beginning. The blue sky is reflected in the water. They had taken advantage of a fine day in late May or June perhaps, fortunate to have an outing before high summer turns the meadow grass crisp and brown.

The quality of light that day was perfect for a picnic beside the water. One can imagine the two artists working on their individual projects and chatting, having a relaxing lunch, and then taking a quiet walk. We can even wonder if, later, they might have taken the canoe out.

This is a pleasant scene, brightening up my dark December day.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.

In a time when the art world focused, in turn, on ImpressionismFauvism, and Cubism, Sargent practiced his own form of Realism, which made brilliant references to VelázquezVan Dyck, and Gainsborough.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Sargent – Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Sargent_-_Paul_Helleu_Sketching_with_his_Wife.jpg&oldid=273586527 (accessed December 5, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “John Singer Sargent,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid=927728162 (accessed December 5, 2019).

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Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel Part 2 Word Choices #amwriting

No one writes perfect prose every time. Occasionally, even award-winning authors write an awkward description in the middle of an otherwise gripping passage. Consider this pearl, a quote from one of my favorite books dropped in the middle of an otherwise powerful, well-conceived battle scene:

A screaming black arrow knocks down yet another attacker. [1]

The narrative is written in an unusual mode, one this particular author, L.E. Modesitt Jr., uses in many of his books: Third person present tense. I have read this book several times, and there are several proofing errors, but that line in the final battle has always tripped my eye.

It’s a “first draft” telling line, a signal to the author indicating an intensity of emotion he wanted to convey in a ship-to-ship battle. I suspect he was in the zone and writing as quickly as he could. The many proofing errors in this book, much as I love it, told me that editors, even those working for a publishing giant like Tor, are fallible human beings. When an author is pushed to become a book producing machine, proofing and editing can suffer.

So how could we write a scene about a hazardous inanimate object and convey a sense of imminent danger without resorting to words that don’t quite fit? First, we must understand that these are the places where getting the prose right takes time, and sometimes, many attempts.

In a conversation, it’s easy to convey a sense of fear and peril. Danger seen through a character’s eyes is easily done—describe the shock and gut reactions and move on.

Danger described from an outside view (third person) is more difficult. In a fight or battle, sounds, visuals, and smells must be employed.

And this is where it gets tricky: for me as a reader, the best fight or battle scenes have both personal witness and third person narrative.

Hollywood has been quite good at portraying battle scenes with some degree of accuracy, although not always. In the movies, arrows arc, rain down and sometimes flash. They whiz past, and sometimes they appear in the victim’s back, seemingly out of nowhere. In the movies, they travel slowly.

But, in real life the arrow strikes the target nearly immediately after leaving the bow, even at a longer distance. An arrow is not as fast as a bullet, but they are fast.

My friend Michael, who is an archer, tells me that arrows, both ancient and modern, do make a sound, depending on how they are fletched (the feathers). The hissing sound as it passes the human ear varies from nearly inaudible to soft, depending on who fletched them and what style of fletching they used.

What you will hear is the snapping sound the bow makes when the archer lets the arrow fly, followed closely by the sound the arrow makes when striking a hard target. An arrow striking a soft target like a human or animal would make a sickening sound, but one that is not loud.

In my opinion, screaming is the wrong sound for arrows.

But it is an appropriate sound for the victim that was shot by the arrow.

There must be a certain amount of telling. What is the balance between telling and showing?

In describing, we must choose our words carefully. Examine the logic of your descriptions. How do we both show and tell in a balanced way?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy conveyed the feeling of each cannon ball hitting the ground and exploding, without resorting to clichés and awkward descriptors. Andrew Kaufman is the author of Understanding Tolstoy and Give War And Peace A Chance says:

“You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy’s world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between.” [2]

Good, immersive prose requires showing in such a way that the reader isn’t blown out of the scene. This means a small amount of telling is required. For that, we’ll go to Tolstoy’s War and Peace again. This quote, written in the same third person present tense as Modesitt’s quote, is an observation, a way of both telling and showing the reader what is goes on in the subconscious mind.

“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be.” [3]

In that one sentence, Tolstoy shows us that in Napoleon’s time, soldiers weren’t the only casualties of war. A cavalry is made up of soldiers on horses. This means that living animals went to battle and were killed too.

Tolstoy gives us the visceral experience of witnessing a horse’s death but allows us to contemplate what death means on a human level. He uses powerful words that evoke deep emotion: dying, horror, essence, annihilated.

Witnessing the death of a horse brings us closer to understanding how frail a soldier’s grasp on life is when in the midst of a battle.

Modern writers would cut the words obviously being, but despite having been written 160 years ago, the sentence has power.

Word choices are especially important in action adventures. Strong, powerful words can make or break a sentence. To revise properly, we must step back from the manuscript for several days or even weeks.

Then we come back to the manuscript and consider the visual logic of our descriptions.

We move verbs to the front of sentences, placing them before the nouns so that most sentences lead off with action words.

In the second draft, we eliminate the many insidious forms of was and to be. They’re insidious because they’re signals to the author, saying that something needs to be made active. But they can slide under the radar in the editing process and end up in the final product.

It takes work and perseverance, to find the words that correctly evoke the emotions we want to convey.

But that is what good writing is about.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from The Magic Engineer, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., 1994; A Tor Book, Published by Tom Doherty and Associates, LLC. Fair Use.

[2] Quote from Andrew Kaufman, The Only Classic Needed for Modern Times © 2014 Off the Shelf, Simon and Schuster, Inc. Fair Use.

[3] Quote from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, PD|100. First published by The Russian Messenger (serial).

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