Tag Archives: literature

#FlashFictionFriday: Reflections on the Water

A rough, log bench at water’s edge

Pictured in mind’s eye,

Reflections on the water

Of an evening long gone by.

I see us as we were that night,

Grandmother, lake, and me.

Flannel shirt over frayed housedress

Beside denims worn with style,

Philosophies and grand ideas

Beside wisdom without guile.

 

She told me why the stars were hung

In the inky sea above.

A brilliant ebb and flowing dance

A ballet of starry love

To cricket song and bullfrog drum.

But I was bored with country life

And lured by rattle and hum.

“What you seek you’ll never find

In neon glow and city block.”

I longed to leave that place behind

New paths I yearned to walk.

 

And now I stand on memory’s shore

With Grandma once again.

The lake, and shore, and skies above,

Have gone, and gone again.

And simple wisdom I have gained,

Reflecting on the lake,

Grandma’s wisdom still remains

In who I came to be

Though different paths I take.


Credits and Attributions

Reflections on the Water by Connie J. Jasperson © 2017 All Rights Reserved

Moonrise, by Stanisław Masłowski   PD 100 yrs [[File:MaslowskiStanislaw.WschodKsiezyca.1884.ws.jpg|MaslowskiStanislaw.WschodKsiezyca.1884.ws]]

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The Stranded Novel #amwriting

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. For that reason, first lines and the opening chapters frequently become all that is ever written of a would-be author’s novel. Yet the authors of those few chapters have the entire book locked in their head.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors to write the entire book before they begin editing.

In your first draft, DON’T OBSESS over the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener. Write the entire story as quickly as you can, let it sit for a month or two while you do something completely different, THEN come back to it and focus on shaping the prose. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

So, let’s assume the rough draft has been completed, and you are pleased with the way it ends. But you are looking at your early chapters, and they feel lackluster. Now is the time to shape the words, to write them so they are the words you would want to read if you were looking for a book to purchase.  The second draft is when you should obsess about your first lines.

One of the best first lines ever: George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes one want to know Miss Brooke and the reader wonders who the observer is who chronicles this. It is a novel, but if it had been a short story, it would still have hooked the reader.

Good first lines make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great one-liners, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Or, take the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

Should your first lines be required to introduce your main character? I think not.

Dickens introduced an era in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, etc…” 

In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating the foes whom Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

All of the above books were begun as great ideas and the manuscripts were finished, which is why they were published. Admittedly, Robert Jordan did pass away before the final books were completed, but he wrote 12 of the 15 books and left a complete story arc with enough notes that Brandon Sanderson could finish the job. Jordan left behind a complete story, not just a first chapter.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors have completed their work. Of course, you must read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You don’t have to spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Most importantly–published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job. If you want to lay claim to being an author, write the ENTIRE novel! Get that story arc down on paper before you begin rewriting the first chapter! If all you have ever written is the first chapter, over and over, and over… perhaps you need to set that idea aside and begin one that interests you enough to inspire you to write a complete novel.

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#amwriting: the paragraph

A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea.

In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea.

While I do edit for people who are pursuing literary degrees, that is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.

This post pertains to the paragraphs in a literary narrative, whether the genre is contemporary, sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance—or any kind of writing that is fiction. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

Wrong:

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”

That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”

Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He spat, “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed, which sometimes makes for long paragraphs.

With that said, some considerations must be taken into account in the modern world of eBooks. EBooks versions of novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as an unbroken wall of words. The reader can be daunted by this and may decide to move on to a different book. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

Thus, for a genre-fiction manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to keep your paragraphs shorter, dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea.

In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.

No matter what, you must have an amazing opening paragraph. One of the greatest hooks in literature is the following one by French author, Albert Camus, which opens the 1942 novel, The Stranger.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.

This is where the artistry of the author comes into play: he takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.

Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.


Credits and Attributions

Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)

Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).

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#amwriting: Literature and Language: Gormenghast and Lyonesse

Two series of fantasy novels that had a profound effect on me as a reader are the Gormenghast series of novels, written by Mervyn Peake, and The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance. Both series are literary, yet still fantastic,

They are both considered a fantasy of manners, yet they are wildly different from each other. Both combine the comedy of manners with the hero’s journey of traditional high fantasy. Gormenghast is dark and gothic, while Lyonesse is set in an alternate Arthurian world.

The Washington Post Book World had this to say about the Gormenghast series:  “This extravagant epic about a labyrinthine castle populated with conniving Dickensian grotesques is the true fantasy classic of our time.”

The immense, labyrinthine Hayholt, featured in Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, seemed reminiscent of castle Gormenghast to a certain extent when I first read that series. I don’t know if Williams is a Gormenghast fan–I’ve never asked him, although I should. I do know he is not afraid to write great literary fantasy.

Vance’s vision of Lyonesse has influenced fantasy literature in the most subtle of ways, creating a canon for those who write alternate Arthurian history that is nearly set in stone.

Wikipedia says, Vance builds the history of his world using layers of facts, names and religions taken from various European cultures — Greeks, Romans, Celts, pre-Carolingian French and Spanish “kingdoms” etc., and adding in places and peoples imagined by those same cultures — Atlantis, Ys, Avalon, Formor and so on. This fantastical/factual mix is used to ground his tale in “history.” It also seems to give some of the same depth that a longer series of books might develop where place, relationships, and plot are built up over time (as in Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” or Trollope’s “Barsetshire”). It seems to provide the believability that develops where a story is set in a well-known, well-defined historical setting as if the reader holds merely a hitherto untold story.

These complicated, convoluted books are not for everyone. They are beautifully written, but the less perceptive, more impatient type of reader will find Gormenghast confusing and plot-less. Despite being a dark, Gothic fantasy, the prose is literary.

For some casual readers, both Gormenghast and Lyonesse will be considered too heavy on the descriptions.

But for those readers like me, readers who adore beautiful prose, deep, involving books, and darkly baroque settings peopled with unforgettable characters, these two watershed works strike a chord deep within the soul.

These books must be savored, experienced in the fullest sense of the word. The focus is on the breathtaking visual descriptions, and while I am thrilled by it, the verbal beauty of Mervyn Peake and Jack Vance’s prose is what will leave many impatient modern readers cold.

When you are reading these novels, the journey itself is more important than the destination. While Gormenghast is often compared to Tolkien’s work, there is little similarity between the two, other than they are both extremely well written fantasy, written by authors with a good command of the English language and all its nuances.

Literature drives changes in language and is in turn driven by changes in language. For me, Gormenghast is a surreal, visual painting, created of beautifully crafted words.  The prose of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is equally beautiful, describing a time and place that never was but could have been.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Lyonesse Trilogy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lyonesse_Trilogy&oldid=782651719 (accessed June 4, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Titus Groan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessedJune 4, 2017).

Cover illustration of the 1983 trade paperback edition of Lyonesse by Jack Vance. Low-res scan for fair use purpose. Illustration by James C. Christensen. via Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vance-Lyonesse.jpg

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake, cover art also by Mervyn Peake, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1946 https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessed June 4, 2017).

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#FlashFictionFriday: Talisman

Talisman

 

The evening sun lingers,

Red, golden,

Unwilling to set.

 

Time seems to stop.

This moment

Will be a talisman,

 

Hanging in my heart.

Warming me

When winter’s fist is closed.


Talisman, Copyright © 2017 Connie J Jasperson, All rights reserved

Puget Sound Sunset, By Vladimir Menkov (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: theme

ofmiceandmenTheme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.

Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.

But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.

Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?

Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

allegoryScience Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.


Credits:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).

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#bookreview: The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

the-couple-next-doorJust before Christmas, I finished reading a wonderful mystery/thriller, The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena. This was a book that was impossible to put down, but with one thing and another, I’m only now getting around to reviewing it.

But first, THE BLURB:

It all started at a dinner party. . .
A domestic suspense debut about a young couple and their apparently friendly neighbors—a twisty, rollercoaster ride of lies, betrayal, and the secrets between husbands and wives. . .

.Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

.
Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco  soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years.

.
What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

MY REVIEW:

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena is a tale of love, fear, greed, and secrets. Nothing is what it seems, except for the central plot point: A baby is missing from her crib.

Anne and her husband, Marco Conti have gone to a dinner party in the house next door. The sitter has cancelled at the last minute, and the hostess has insisted on an adults only party, as she doesn’t like children. Since they share a wall with these neighbors, they have brought the baby monitor with them, leaving their baby home in the row house next door.

The baby, Cora, disappears during the dinner party.

No one is free of secrets.

Rasbach is the detective, Jennings is his assistant. As the case unfolds they discover that Anne Conti’s family is more than merely rich. They are old money, and secure in their sense of privilege, and her parents are quick to offer a ransom. At every step of the way, Anne’s parents are interfering, shielding Anne and Marco.

Little by little, evidence emerges about each character, none of it flattering. Anne herself is not without secrets.

Anne is a well-drawn character, with a mysterious history she has never fully told to her husband. She is portrayed realistically, flaws and all. Marco is also a flawed protagonist, which makes him intriguing.

I liked how well the story flows. With many twists and turns, it never stalls or halts. This is a gripping mystery, with an ending that took me by surprise, despite the fact the clues were there all along.

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#MerryChristmas: Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol”

achristmascarol1999coverCharles Dickens was a master at creating marvelous hooks and using heavy foreshadowing. Let’s take the first line of my favorite Christmas story of all time,  A Christmas Carol. I love each and every version of it, will watch any movie version I can get my hands on:

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

I hear a great deal of argument about how modern 21st century genre-fiction is nothing but sixty-second soundbites and bursts of action jammed together in dumbed-down prose.  I hate to say this, but that has been true of popular fiction for centuries–and if you look at this tale, you will see what I mean. The popular prose, at the time it was written, was more descriptive and leisurely than we enjoy nowadays, but even so, the really popular tales leaped straight to the action.

In that first paragraph, Dickens tosses out the bait, sinking the hook, and landing the fish (the reader) by foreshadowing the first plot point of the story–the visitation by Marley’s ghost. We want to know why Marley’s definite state of decay was so important that the conversation between you the reader, and Dickens, the author, was launched with that topic.

He picks it up and does it again several pages later, with the little scene involving the door-knocker: “Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large.  It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including — which is a bold word — the corporation, aldermen, and livery.  Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner that afternoon.  And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face. 

Faux Marley Door Knocker“Marley’s face.  It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.  It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead.  The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless.  That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part or its own expression.

“As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.”

You have to admit, it’s a huge thing for a man of as limited an imagination as Scrooge was known to have, to suddenly see his dead friend staring back at him.

This is also the second foreshadowing of the events that will follow and makes the reader want to know what will happen next.

At this point, we’ve followed Scrooge through several scenes introducing the subplots. We have met the man who, as yet, is named only as ‘the clerk’ in the original manuscript, but whom we will later know to be Bob Cratchit, and we’ve met Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. These subplots are critical, as our man Scrooge’s redemption revolves around the ultimate resolution of these two separate mini-stories–he must witness the joy and love in Cratchit’s family, who are suffering but happy in the midst of grinding poverty for which Scrooge bears responsibility.

We see that his nephew, Fred, though orphaned is well enough off in his own right, but craves a relationship with his uncle with no thought or care of what he might gain from it financially.

All the characters are in place. We’ve seen the city, cold and dark, with danger lurking in the shadows. We’ve observed the way Scrooge interacts with everyone around him, strangers and acquaintances alike.

Now we come to the first plot point–Marley’s visitation. This is where the set-up ends and the story takes off.

Dickens raises the tension. The bells begin ringing for no apparent reason and “The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

Scrooge, of course, is dismayed and tries to deny the strange happenings. He desperately clings to his view of reality.”It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge.  “I won’t believe it.”

However, he can’t deny this phenomenon forever and refusing to recognize it won’t make it go away. “Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before: he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

1999-xmas-present Desmond BarritThis is the turning point, the place where Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with a situation in which he will either succeed or fail and what will happen to him, the reader can’t guess. A deep sense of mystery now surrounds this miserly old man–what could possibly be so important about him that a man he cared so little for in life would go to such trouble as to return from the grave to save him?

In 1843 Charles Dickens showed us how to write a compelling tale that would last for generations. We start with the hook, use foreshadowing, introduce the subplots that ultimately support the structure of the tale, and arrive at the first plot point–these are the things that make up the first quarter of this timeless tale. Get these properly in line, and your story will intrigue the reader, involving them to the point they don’t want to set the book down.


Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” was first published by Connie J. Jasperson here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, Dec. 15, 2014 under the title, A Christmas Carol–what I’ve learned from Charles Dickens. It was true then, and it’s true today!

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#amwriting: trust your readers

Stardust, Neil GaimanSome hard-core fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion.

Among the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud.

According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire. 

OMG!  He did he really write “There once was” in a genre fantasy novel?  Passive Voice! Passive Voice!

Well, guess what? Neil Gaiman knows what he is doing when he sits down to tell a story, and his rabid fans and best-selling novels are a testament to that.

Those megalomaniacal gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, limited talent of their own, and who believe themselves the fount of writerly knowledge really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:

  1. He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
  2. He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.

I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a TELLING, PASSIVE sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.

To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic, and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.

stardust_promo_posterIf you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book, you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie is excellent but bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.

Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.

There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.

When we write, we are writing because we have a story to tell. (Yes, I said tell.) To that end, every word must count, every idea must be conveyed with meaningful words, and sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the attitudes, mores, and personalities of Tristam’s village are conveyed with humor, and the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.

True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you.

Let their works show you how to use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot.

Learn from the masters how to show the true character of a protagonist, or the smell of an alley by the wharves, painting pictures with words.

Read widely, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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#amwriting:  therapy to get you writing through the block

We’ve all had moments where our creativity failed us. We had an idea, but couldn’t make it real—the words wouldn’t come, or when they did they felt stilted, awful. We felt incredibly alone and isolated in this because we are writers; the words are supposed to fall from our fingers like water down Niagara Falls.

I have learned to write my way through the block. Yes, the work I produce at that moment is awful, and no, I wouldn’t show it to the dog. But the act of writing every day keeps you fit and in the habit of writing. This job requires us to practice, as if it were dancing or ice-skating. And, just like any sport, doing well at it requires discipline. When we stop writing for any reason, we lose our momentum and our purpose.

We lose our passion.

When you have come to a place where you believe you can’t write, save the file, close it, and walk away from that manuscript. Delete nothing. You will come back to this later and will be able to use some or all of it, so file it properly.

Sometimes, the problem is that your mind has seen a shiny thing, a different project that wants to be written. If that is the case, my advice is this: work on the project that is on your mind. Let that creative energy flow, and you will eventually be able to become reconnected with the first project.

writers-block-smallBut what about those times when you need to write, you have to write, but the words won’t come? I think of it like having a sports injury: Dr. Jasperson has diagnosed you with a sprained-brain. (Did she really write that? Insert groans here.)

Seriously, I have some physical therapy for your bruised writing-muscles.

First, we have the fear factor to overcome. You need to be able to prove to yourself that you can write. This is a small exercise, very short, and I got the idea for this while in a seminar on the craft of writing essays offered by the bestselling author of Blackbird, Jennifer Lauck. As I was sitting in her class and embarking on the writing drills for structuring your essay, I had one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, a tangent to nowhere, as it didn’t pertain to essays, but it seemed important so I wrote it down.

What had happened was, Jennifer gave us prompts and asked us to write to them. I have never been good at writing to someone else’s prompts. My ideas don’t flow that way. To make it worse, we were going to have to share them with someone else in the class.

I never share work that hasn’t been revised. it might not seem as perfect to you as believe it is, but it has been revised and is the best I could offer. I felt panicky, terrified I wouldn’t be able to write, and would embarrass myself. My mind was blank.

But then, I saw what Jennifer’s prompt was, and it occurred to me that I could do that.

When I read the prompt and had that “I can do this” moment, I realized that most of the time, writer’s block is a result of not being able to visualize what you want to write about, and if you can’t visualize it, you can’t describe it. Once you have experienced that moment of complete inability, fear of not being able to write magnifies the problem until it paralyzes us.

So, I am offering you the same writing prompt Jennifer Lauck used as the first exercise in her class:

  1. Open a new document. At the top of this document type: Where I Am Today:

This is going to be a literal interpretation and description of your surroundings. Look around you, and see the place where you are. Briefly describe the environment you are sitting in, what you see, and then describe how you feel sitting in that place. Just give it two or three paragraphs.

For me, sitting here at this moment on a Sunday morning and writing this post, it runs like this:

I sit in the small, third bedroom of my home. It’s technically my office, but is, in reality, a cluttered storeroom, known here as the Room of Shame. A glass of water sits beside my elbow, as does my cell phone. My desk holds numerous books on the craft of writing and my computer.  

Two clear plastic bins containing books and paraphernalia organized to take to book signings are stacked beside the door. I prop my feet on a large bookshelf stuffed with books, so full the shelves have bowed. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with things that were, at one time, deemed important to keep, surround me. Filing cabinets full of legal papers, tax forms, and research also take up space, all stuffed with the debris of our business life.

The desk is not my friend. The sliding keyboard shelf is broken on the left side, hanging at a slight angle. I work with a broken desk, despite the large box which contains my new desk, which leans against the closet behind me. That dusty box has been there for six months or more, unopened.

I could easily clean this space, and set up my desk. It would take no time at all, perhaps a day at most. It’s a mountain I put off climbing.

See? At the end of this exercise, you have written a drabble, a small short story. But, more importantly, you have written the setting for a scene. Those paragraphs are around 216 words and are nothing special. Nor were the words I wrote in the seminar, but I felt good about writing them because I had been given a task that had at first left me feeling helpless and unable to do it: writing to a prompt. However, in that class, because it was a simple, non-threatening thing, I was able to accomplish it, and I felt empowered.

So, now we are going to gently rebuild our damaged writing muscles.

  1. For your next exercise, go somewhere else and take your notebook. Write three more paragraphs detailing what you are looking at, and how you fit into it, and how it makes you feel.

You could do this at the mall, sitting in a coffee shop, or the parking lot at the supermarket.  Or you can do what I am doing: sit on your porch and write a few paragraphs about the space you are in, what you see, and what you sense.

My back porch is quiet, and the day is gray. Rain is falling softly. Just beyond the auto repair shop’s parking lot, and the coffee stand, glimpsed between the conical cypress trees, the sounds of the highway are muted. One of the neighbors has let their dog out without a leash, and the free-range cats are disturbed by it. The scent of sodden vegetation is fresh and speaks of autumn.

The third exercise is more abstract:

  1. Where do you want to be? Visualize it, and describe it the same way as you described the places you could see. For me, that runs like this:

I want to be on a foggy beach, walking along the high-tide mark. I want to hear the gulls and sh-shing of the waves. I want to feel at peace again.

gear-brain-clip-art-smallIf you do these three exercises at the same time every day, describing the environments and your perceptions in a different space each time, even when you have nothing to say that is worth reading, you are writing. With perseverance, you will be writing your other work again. The important thing is to write even if it is only a few paragraphs. This is the physical therapy I recommend for overcoming writer’s block.

Just like an athlete recovering from an injury, you must gradually rebuild your confidence, strengthen your writing muscles, and regain your writing work ethic.  You need to empower your creativity for it to flow.

As I said, this how my mind works. If you are suffering a dry spell, give these exercises try, as you have nothing to lose. I hope that when these exercises are no longer painful, you will be able to write again.

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