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The Art of Storytelling – Creating My Compass

(Thanks to Bella for her title suggestion!  I was truly stuck.)

NOTE: I initially published this back in January, but decided to tweak the style and post it again.  This isn’t a guide for How To Write the Perfect Story; but the principles that have worked well for me.  😊

I once had no idea how to keep my stories focused.  I had good ideas, but I had a lot of ideas and couldn’t discern which ones truly belonged in my work-in-progress.  Was this phrase a better explanation of the theme?—or that paragraph a couple pages later?—or that note on my digital sticky notes?  Cue the pile-up of 172 pages of notes.  And I inevitably got overwhelmed.  Even more frustrating, after I sorted through those notes and reworded ideas (again), the story pieces added up—to the wrong picture.  Finally, through trial and error and through analyzing books and films, I created this list of points that help me build my story more easily and to keep it focused.

Articulate the Story Concept.  Or the general idea behind the story.  It could be a question to explore, such as “Where to draw the line in giving loyalty?”  It could be a character or situation: “A girl who was never taught to discern properly,” or a simple plot: “A girl takes up multiple hobbies to find her passion and talent.”  Or it could be a general theme, such as “different kinds of power (social, legal, abusive, and others) and what they can and cannot accomplish.”

Actually, I know the concept from the get-go; whenever I say, “Well, I have an idea for a story about…” that’s the concept.  But it could be narrowed a little–a general idea can become many different stories (which cleverly disguise themselves as plot bunnies).  So here’s a question that narrows the field: What draws me to this idea?  What do I love about it?  This not only helps keeps my story focused, it also explains what’s original about the idea, and it articulates my own passion for the subject.

As an example from my writing, one story idea is about two families whose children marry for mutual social and financial benefit.  This is the general idea.  The more specific idea is how these characters respond to the various social and familial expectations of them.  And what I like about the idea is the mindsets, values, and relationships of the characters as they handle situations in which they do not have a lot of control.  All very general, but it tells me at once that my idea about the fight between Enlightenment vs. Romanticism doesn’t belong in this story.

And then I tinker with the wording of the concept until it expresses exactly what I have in mind.  My ultimate goal is to understand what story I’m telling.  Not just the genre, but what I’m personally trying to say.  (More on that later.)

Specify the Story Conflict.  This definitely helps me discern which ideas (and subplots and side characters) belong in the plot.  And when I fail to specify the conflict, my story becomes crowded and confusing.  (*stares sadly at mountain of unfinished drafts*)  So do other writers’ stories—I may offend people with this example, but the film God’s Not Dead had a plot thread completely separate from the main conflict.  The conflict of the film is ultimately between skeptics attacking faith in the God of the Bible and Christians defending that faith.  While this is going on, a liberal feminist news reporter learns that she has cancer, and she eventually gets saved.  (Whoops, spoilers.)  But she does not meet or influence any of the other characters.  And since she gets saved near the end of the story, she doesn’t have time to contribute to the main point by defending her newfound faith.

I get why this plot was included: so that a character (and by extent the audience) could hear the Gospel.  But that character and her story does not enhance or contribute to the ultimate conflict.  That detour simply uses screen time that could have been spent on the main characters.  And on that note, a better way to include the Gospel would be to have the ex-Muslim girl remember the Gospel to strengthen herself in the face of persecution or perhaps try to share the Gospel with her family.  That would have contributed to the conflict, and it would have been an awesome addition.  (Seriously, the writers should have explored that character and her situation further!)

So, defining the story’s conflict will thin down those plot bunnies.  But here’s a catch: conflict often has two layers: surface conflict, and then what I call “root conflict.”

Surface conflict is a clash that fits the story’s concept, but that happens apart from—or because of—the root conflict.  The root conflict is the ultimate battle of the story, the clash that explains what’s really at stake.  It’s often internal conflict (but not always).  A good example of these two layers is the film Inception.  The “surface conflict” is the attempt to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams.  This is something that had never been successfully done—oh, and there’s a deadline for this attempt.  But the root conflict is Cobb battling his own guilt and fear and grief.  He cannot let go of the past, and at first refuses to confront his problems.  His stubbornness and his burden endanger his goal and the safety of his team.

So I write down the obvious conflict in my story and then ask how that conflict came to be, which helps identify the root conflict.  (Or vice-versa, and I think about what action might be prompted by the root conflict.)

Make the Setting Influence the Action or Affect the Characters.  Years ago, I entered a short story contest with several guidelines: the required setting was the Titanic, and the contest theme was “Women and Children First.” I wrote the story of a couple who met on the ship; and though they weren’t close friends, the man stepped back so the woman could get into a lifeboat and escape.  Measured by the contest guidelines, the story and setting worked.  But when I looked at that story a few years later, I asked: how does the Titanic enhance the plot?  Sure, the event is a classic example of chivalry, but without the contest parameters, my characters could do what they liked and could be moved to a different setting with no big change to the plot.  Red flag that the setting was just painted scenery, and not a place with impact.

In my story Empty Clockwork, however, the setting is a late-Victorian world with strict social norms and tradition but with a steampunk twist:  scientific dabbling is a popular hobby for the rich.  And “secret” labs in the basement are an essential part of any grand house.  This setting creates conflict for Lord Fredericks, a brilliant, self-taught scientist, who can’t capitalize on his skills because he is also an aristocrat and not supposed to do manual or tradesman’s work.  The setting also affects Henry*, a doctor who is passionate for his work, but who can’t get the wealthy hobby scientists interested enough in his ideas to fund his experiments.  The third character affected is Lennox, a young man who teaches classics at Cambridge and therefore can’t get anyone to take him seriously as a scientist.  Because art and science don’t mix, y’know.  And Susan, heiress and Lord Fredericks’ ward, can’t find an endeavor she thinks worthy to support with her money because of the complacent attitudes in society.  The setting directly affects the main characters, creates conflict, and points to my theme (which I will not reveal here because spoilers).

*inspired by Henry Jekyll from the 1994 concept album of Jekyll & Hyde.  As such, I might eventually change his Christian name so as not to be sued by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Discover why the Story Matters to the Characters—and to Me.  Goal, stakes, conflict…those can be found anywhere.  A character could set the goal of opening his own business, with the stakes of providing for his family, and face obstacles in the lack of money and an affordable building to rent.  But why doesn’t he go another route to provide for his family?  Why does he choose this hill, the hill of the story, to fight and possibly die on?

This point is a cross between the character’s motivation and the stakes of the conflict–it’s why the goal matters to the character.  Not just the external repercussions of failure, but the internal consequences.  The more personal the story conflict and stakes, the more the readers will care about the characters and their struggles.  For example, Inception deals with complex concepts: the actions of the subconscious, the unique nature of dreams, and how each can be manipulated.  Truly engaging stuff—but the principles matter because of how personal they are to Cobb.  If he can complete the inception attempt, he can go home to his kids—but ironically, experimenting with dream manipulation and inception is what tore him from his family in the first place and created the guilt that plagues him throughout the story.

The author also needs personal motivation, and a second question I ask is: why does this story matter so much to me?  What are my own personal stakes?  This is partly practical; I’m more likely to finish the story if I’m passionate about it.  But understanding the personal stakes is another tool that narrows the focus of the story.  Suppose a writer believes that it’s ridiculous for 18-year-olds to choose their life passions before college.  They only just got out of school; they haven’t observed and experienced life to the degree that a 30-year-old has; how on earth can teens be expected to know what they want to do with their lives?  With that question, that drive behind the story, the writer can quickly discern that his other story idea about how the elderly are ignored doesn’t fit in the plot of this story.

Work Backwards from the Conclusion.  Articles and tutorials say “figure out your ending first.  Write toward your ending.”  I never understood this.  Doesn’t the outcome depend on what the main characters choose?  Won’t choice A create one outcome and choice B create another?  Should I just make up events regardless of what the characters chose to do?

Not necessarily.  The ending is more than the final dramatic events.  It’s also the conclusion of what the story says.  Which is an extension of what the author is trying to say.

Oh, please.  There’s no need to ask “What am I trying to say?”  Stories are just to entertain, right?

Right.  And wrong, because every story, even the fluffiest, feel-good novel makes some statement.  Even as untrue as “everything will turn out okay if you dream hard enough.”  Or whatever.  Continuing to offend people with my examples, The Battle of Five Armies film had no idea what it was ultimately saying.  Fight Ye Olde Evil?  All Gold is Evil?  Something Vague About True Love?  Reclaiming the Characters’ Ancestral Homes?  Hobbits Are the Saviors of the World?  (Epic fail on that last point, as Bilbo was demoted.)

By contrast, the Lord of the Rings (book and film) made a clear statement with its ending: sacrifice is the price of freedom.  When Frodo leaves Middle Earth, it highlights the price that warriors and defenders pay so that others may live in their homes in peace.  This theme is shown throughout the story.  Didn’t Frodo leave the Shire in the first place to protect it?  Didn’t Sam help Frodo no matter the cost to himself?  Didn’t Aragorn conceal his lineage and walk in humility for years and protect the Shire unseen? Didn’t Tolkien lament the fallen defenders all through his story?  Sacrifice is the conclusion—sacrifice for the land and peoples of Middle Earth.

Once I recognize what I’m saying with my story, it’s easier to work backwards from that and figure out what events and final conflicts would fit the story.  (And I often have an inkling of how everything will turn out, even if it’s cliche and obvious.)  Then I ask: where do the characters need to be, emotionally, physically, and mentally to drive the final events?  Then I create conflict and events that push the characters to that stage of readiness.

What’s ultimately important is that I understand what story I want to tell.  This means more than the genre.  It’s the big picture: the concept of the story, the tone, the stakes, what I’m trying to say, and what I want the story to accomplish.  Do I want it to be lighthearted or a cautionary tale?  Is it just a practice project or something I’m passionate about?  Do I want it to amuse or criticize or inspire?  If I don’t know what story I want to tell, it will end up dissonant.  It will read as though it tried to say one thing, but ended up saying something something very different.  It has happened in the past–and I’ve seen it happen to too many other storytellers.  The makers of the Hobbit films clearly did not know what kind of story they were telling.  In a film trilogy called The Hobbit, Bilbo is almost a side character, and the story focuses on the other races of Middle Earth.  The franchise tried to be dark and epic, but the slapstick humor and roller coaster chase-and-battle sequences undermined that tone (not to mention that when Smaug’s fire doesn’t burn rotting tapestries, tension vanishes anyway).  The main plot was the quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain, but the subplots didn’t really enhance that—Thranduil’s white gems, for example, and the romance between Kili and Tauriel, and Tauriel as a character in the first place.  *ducks volley of rotten avocados*  The result is three films with some good aspects, but with so many conflicts, characters, and plot threads that the story feels stuffed.  *ducks more flying vegetables*  And the root problem is that screenwriters didn’t seem to know what story they wanted to tell.

Now, confession time: I don’t have every one of these points articulated for every one of my stories.  Several are missing the ending.  A couple are missing the general concept.  One does not have specified conflict.  And that’s okay.  Stories take time to develop.  Some take more time to grow than others.  And these points are just general guidelines to help me build a strong foundation for my story.

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The Writer’s Tag – A Sort of Resume

I love tags and memes.  Have I mentioned that?  So when I came across Lana’s post, and saw that she tagged any reader who wanted to do it, I was immediately interested.

The tag covers all kinds of subjects, which is why it feels like a unique writer’s resume–but a fun resume.  🙂

What genres, styles, and topics do you write about?

Genres – Mostly Crossover!

Half the stories I write or plan to write are genre crossovers.  The story set in the tropics in the year 1781 looks at face value like a high-seas and island adventure with the necessary pirates.  But it’s actually a mystery, one with an island setting (and therefore called “Island Mystery” at the moment.  Aren’t I clever? 🙂 )  The semi-western story has the trappings of a typical pioneer story–but it’s actually a fantasy-of-manners set in the 1820s–30s west/southwest.  And with an emphasis on politics.  My British political novel looks like…well, a political novel–and it is, but it’s technically alternate history and social critique.  And my steampunk story looks like any number of genres, but is a solid combo of steampunk, social sci-fi, hard sci-fic, and social critique.

Now that I think about it, a lot of my stories could be listed under “social critique” as well.

The funny thing is, I didn’t plan on writing genre crossovers–I just thought, “Hey, what if X historical event happened differently?  And I’m annoyed by Y, so let’s make that a plot point as well.”  Or whatever.

The only problem is how to market these stories.  I read an article that recommended putting it like this: “It’s a (particular genre), but folks who like (other genre) might also enjoy it.”  Except that my crossovers thus far have been so solidly blended that to market one genre would ignore another key foundation of the story.  I’ll figure it out, hopefully before I publish anything.

Styles – It Varies

Really, this varies with the story setting and time period.  If the story is set in 1830s America, I try to match the general style of language in letters and diaries from the time.  If the story is set in the 1890s (such as my steampunk story), I try to match the style of novels written during the turn of the century.  I read a lot of period fiction written during the same decade of my story to get an idea of the style of the day.

However, the writing styles I aspire to generally are Dickens, Bronte, and Tolkien.

Topics – Rather Obscure

If any of you readers know of stories with these kinds of topics, feel free to say so!

Settings in the 1820s–30s

British, American, Irish, you name it–a lot of my stories are set in these decades. I think it’s my tendency to explore the ignored questions/aspects of history; compared to the more popular Regency, Victorian, and Wild West eras, the 1820s–30s are slightly obscure.  Which baffles me, because interesting things were happening socially and politically in both England and America!  On the other hand, I have a taste for social mechanisms and political complexities, so this could be a personal preference thing.  Speaking of…

Politics

I cannot keep politics out of my stories.  I’ve tried.  It keeps slipping in.  Of the 10 novels I’m planning/writing, only 3 don’t feature politics…and even then one of those three might make political statements in the subtext.

Tejanos (Mexican Texians)

This began after I watched the 2004 film The Alamo and re-read the American Girl Josefina stories.  Now, at least five stories feature Mexican characters!

Multitudinous Character Casts

Blame Dickens and Tolkien for this one.  I’m not afraid to cut characters who end up being superfluous (though they often reappear in a different story), but I definitely start with a large cast.

Couples who marry long before the story ends

This happens in nearly every story!  It’s just more interesting to see how the couple pursues their goals with a significant other.  Anyway, romance in my stories often contributes to the main plot–usually as a further exploration of a character’s values, goals, and motives–but at the same time isn’t the ultimate point.

As such, I’ve wondered whether to keep who-ends-up-with-whom a secret.  One the one hand, it’s almost pointless if the couple gets together before the end.  On the other, I do like to be careful about spoilers.  What do you readers think?


How long have you been writing?

Officially since I was 12 or 13; un-officially all my life.  I’ve been making up stories as long as I can remember, usually adventures with the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings characters.  One of my favorite stories to play was having these characters stumble into our world around the time the movies were released, and me and my other friends having to keep them hidden–otherwise, fans of the movies would freak out and mob them, or blackmail them, or try to turn them into celebrities.

When I was little, I did write and illustrate a six-book series (in the style of the American Girls books) starring me and my 100-Acre Wood friends.  These stories were published by School Scissors & Stapler, Inc., despite having no plot whatsoever, only vignettes that somehow connected in my six-year-old-mind.  🙂

Then at age 12, I got a idea about a some kids who stumble into another world (so original!) and journey across the mountains with grown-up comrades.  It seemed like the best idea ever, so I began to write it down, and never looked back.  Even though that story never panned out, it gave me the discipline and momentum to write more stories!


Why do you write?

Because I have stories in my imagination that I want to read someday!  I also love exploring my own thoughts and ideas and intriguing concepts through writing (one of many reasons why I cannot write a short story–simply not enough time to flesh out a concept!).

I also love creating and playing with characters.  They provide a good mirror of reality, and often help me see life in a new way.


When is the best time to write?

I grab any time available.  I prefer to write in the early morning (don’t laugh; I do prefer this even if my habits are night-owlish) and definitely prefer silence and solitude.  However, I’ve learned to tune out my surroundings–closing my eyes helps and helps me focus on my mental image–and stick earbuds in to block noise.  🙂


What parts of writing do you love, and what parts do you hate?

Love:

  • That flash of inspiration for a character idea/story idea I know is good
  • On a similar note, the thrill of a new idea
  • Ideas coming together, especially after a struggle to get them there
  • Creating and developing characters
  • Writing a scene I know is awesome!
  • Writing more than I thought I would during the allotted time
  • Getting other people interested in my ideas and getting great feedback
  • Exploring my own ideas, clarifying my thinking through writing, and inspiring myself by it!
  • Writing characters I absolutely love
  • Writing fun or fluffy scenes as a break from dark or dangerous plot threads

Hate:

  • Short stories.  Not enough to work with, people; come on, give me concepts to flesh out!
  • Having to write scenes that are boring, but necessary to the plot
  • Having to cut a plot or character I like (though I often re-use them in another story)
  • When the characters won’t talk to me and explain what they want to do in the story!
  • Non-writers assuming that (a) I’ll have a book finished fairly soon and (b) I’ll definitely get it published
  • Repeated questions about when the book will be finished and published
  • Consistently having to say “no, not finished yet” to the above questions
  • Knowing people are judging/confused about this
  • No, I’m not annoyed by that; why do you ask?
  • Having a whole day/hour/block of time to write and NO IDEAS
  • Writing slower than I expected to

How do you overcome writer’s block?

One of two ways: muscle through it, or take a break.

I  start with the first and often ask, “Okay, what is the problem?  Why is writing this character so hard/planning this segment so difficult?”  After a little thinking, I’m usually able to realize that I’m forcing the character into a box rather than letting him do his own thing, or that I don’t know the character well enough, or that there isn’t enough conflict in this part of the story, or that a plot thread doesn’t contribute to the point.  Identifying the problem shows me what to focus on instead, e.g. I need to get to know this character better, or to remove those ideas that don’t contribute.

If I’ve tried all that and remain stuck, I take a break.  I’ll get unstuck eventually.   🙂


Are you working on something at this moment?

Yes, the semi-western (with a working title of Gentle Fire).  I also jot ideas for other stories as they come!


What are your writing goals this year?

Well, I intended to finish a draft of Gentle Fire  by the end of the year…but the year is half over and I’ve barely started.  Not sure whether to keep that ambition and get as close as possible to the goal, or to drop it in favor of something more attainable.  Beyond that, I’m really not sure; new health problems have cropped up, and I need to manage the symptoms and work around difficult nights/days.  So I generally take it day by day, e.g. today, I’ll do a little character development and draft the rest of that scene, and then we’ll see.

Okay, I tag Julia and Bella, if they’re interested!

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Artwork Wednesday – Back to Watercolor!

Before my watercolor painting frenzy began, I drew a couple of pictures with dry media.

I drew this in the car.  The highway was a long smooth stretch, and so I was able to sketch without worrying about bumps in the road.  And without getting car-sick, which is the real miracle.  🙂

This is my character, Mary, (from the semi-western story) and half of a quote from Pinterest.  The full quote says:

“Typical MBTI Description: INTJs are the cool-headed geniuses of the 16 types.  With their love of objective reasoning and  uncanny intuition, no one can fool this intellectual mastermind.  Actual INTJs: Where are my socks?”

Which is definitely Mary, so here she is, a bit confused.  Although she does use objective reasoning and generally points out the principle or detail that everyone else missed.

I started this one weeks ago, got extremely close to finishing, and therefore, didn’t bother finishing until now.  *headdesk*  Yet another victim falls prey to the “Oh-there’s-plenty-of-time” mindset.  Anyway, I absolutely loved painting all that mist in watercolor–it was difficult keeping an eye on the paint to make sure it didn’t drift into an area where it shouldn’t–but the work paid off!

A tulip tree blossom.

Some daffodils that didn’t turn out quite as detailed as I’d hoped.

But while painting the daffodils, I watched The Fellowship of the Ring–and got a sudden urge to paint a Shire landscape.

So I did.  This is a very small painting, maybe 3″x5″, but that may have actually helped me not go overboard with detail.

That’s all for now!

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T-Swift Book Tag!

Bella tagged me the other day for this really creative tag—one using titles of various Taylor Swift songs.  And I’m a sucker for blog tags, so this is going to be fun!

1. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

(Pick a book or series that you were pretty sure you were in love with, but then wanted to break up with)

This was a fantasy series, and a fantasy series written by a Christian.  So the stories wouldn’t have demonic magic and other fantasy elements I objected to, right?

Well…no, there weren’t any of those elements.  But the writing style was hard to read; there was so much description (repeat: so much description) in the prologue that I actually lost my mental image of the scene.  A form of sensory overload, I guess.  The writing style continued flowery and redundant through the rest of the story, and it read as an attempted mimicry of Tolkien’s simple grandeur.  (Spoiler alert: it failed.)  The writing was so bad in some parts, that I took a pencil and actually struck through phrases and rewrote them in the margins.  That soothed my tortured editor’s soul.

And out of the 15+ characters, I half-liked only one and truly liked only two—and one of those two characters was a really minor one.  I did enjoy this series reading it for the first time while the twists of the story were new.  But when I read it a second time, I could barely get through the first ten chapters.  Definitely never getting back together, and if I read this series again, it will be only to review it.

2. Red

(Pick a book with a RED cover)

REEED!  THE BLOOD OF ANGRY MEEEEEN!  BL–oh, wait.  Although that’s not too far off the mark…

I never thought I would like The Hunger Games series.  But though Suzanne Collins wrote some pretty dark and depressing twists, they serve a purpose in the story—they make a point about humanity.  Nobody decent ever wins the Games because in a gladiator style fight-to-the-death contest, nobody really can.  She’s brutally honest about how each Victor bought his or her freedom at a dear price, and were often haunted the rest of their lives by what happened during their fight in each Hunger Games.  She did not create a world that a young, feisty teen heroine could escape with nary a scratch, physical or moral.  If anything, her characters are struggling to survive in a world that makes beasts of them all—and fighting for survival more than anything else.

But the story isn’t nonstop darkness either.  The exception to all the points above is Peeta Mellark.  Peeta chooses not stoop to the level of the shallow Capitol citizens or the Tributes and Victors so desperate for survival.  And his actions show the other characters that they can do the right thing regardless of circumstances, that they can choose another path.  Most of them don’t, but Peeta’s example is still there, as a silent contrast to the mistakes everyone else makes.

3. The Best Day

(Pick a book that makes you feel nostalgic)

Long before The Lord of the Rings hit the bookshelves, Professor Tolkien made up a wondrous world for his children: the world of the North Pole, home of Father Christmas.  Letters were left by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, written in shaky old handwriting, that related the anecdotes of Father Christmas, his assistant the North Polar Bear, the Red and Green Elves, and various other characters.

I love this book because of those funny anecdotes, Tolkien’s style of writing, and the pictures that accompany the letters.  I read this book every Christmas, and I often read parts of it to my brothers as well—they laugh heartily at some of the rhymes at the end!

4. Love Story

(Pick a book with forbidden love)

Can I skip this one?  Stories built around romance aren’t my thing, and forbidden romance strikes me as awfully melodramatic.  I would rather read about a couple who marries early in the story and learns to love each other and put up with each other on a daily basis (and not as a comedy either.)

Which is why I’m writing such a story.  🙂

5. I Knew You Were Trouble

(Pick a book with a bad character you couldn’t help but love)

Heh.  Bad behavior in fictional characters instantly severs my respect.  (Same thing happens with real people.)  But one character I’m fascinated by (though certainly don’t love) is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff is rotten to the core, but intelligent, cunning, forceful, and charismatic enough to get away with it.  He’s often described as “gipsy” brown, but nobody really knows his ethnicity.  Which adds to the mystery of who he is—and on that note, nobody knows who his parents were.  (People have speculated that Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw’s illegitimate son, but given the way the Emily Bronte portrayed Heathclif’s character and influence, I think she purposefully kept his parentage a mystery for the sake of mystery.  Anyway, if Heathcliff was Mr. Earnshaw’s son, even illegitimately, that revelation could have been a game-changer for the plot—for instance, the romance would become near-incest.  The Brontes were messed up, but not that messed up.)

So Heathcliff is intriguing because of the mysteries surrounding him and because of the forcefulness of his character and cunning.  Being passionately in love does not dull this man’s wits; rather, it sharpens them.  Unfortunately for the rest of the characters.  Ladies, do you really want to crush on a guy who nearly bashed in the head of a five-year-old as revenge on the kid’s father?  You might want to change the caption of your Pinterest pins from “Heathcliff my Love” to “get this guy a restraining order, pronto.”  Although odds are, he would ignore that piece of paper.  Heathcliff is a fascinating character, but a terrifying one.  It’s almost like watching a tornado—you want to get out of there, yet you can’t look away.

6. Innocent

(Pick a book that someone ruined the ending for)

Actually, I tend to spoil the books myself.  If I’m not sure a book will be worth my time, I look up reviews before buying it (therefore running into multiple spoilers).  Or if I don’t really care about the story, but kinda want to know what happens, I’ll skip ahead and read a bit.  (So naughty.)

A book that fell into the first category, was The Ale Boy’s Feast.

That cover art, though…

I loved the first book in the series, skipped the second because I disagreed with some plot elements, liked the third book, but wasn’t sure this last would be worth my time.  So I tracked down enough reviews to get a basic idea of what happens .  I finally decided to take the risk—and boy, was it worth it!  And the story still revealed twists that I hadn’t anticipated.

A book in the second category (don’t care enough to finish; curious enough to peek ahead) was Two Crosses.  I really didn’t care about the characters but vaguely wanted to know what happened.  So I skipped ahead a bit to read.  And got freaked out by one of the story twists, and then lost interest and never finished the book.

7. Everything Has Changed

(Pick a character from a book who goes through extensive character development)

You knew this was coming–Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney first appears in such a slovenly state that he looks almost debauched.  Second impressions don’t change this image; he’s drunk, rude, and apathetic about his work and his life.  Or rather, he seems to be apathetic.  Early on, Dickens shows us flashes of remorse, humanity, and lost hope that keeps readers from writing Sydney off as a hopeless case.  (And unlike Heathcliff, there is nothing charismatic about him either.)  Through hints dropped through the story, we learn that Sydney was once a bright young student, but lost hope or lost purpose, and came to hate himself, to drink because of it, and to despise himself further.

But through Charles Darnay’s silent example, and Lucie Manett’s compassion and kindness, Sydney begins to see himself in a newer light: to see himself for what he is, but also to see what he could be.  Neither Charles nor Lucie writes him off as hopeless; they treat him as a normal human being while not glossing over his faults either; this creates a very clear mirror for Sydney to appraise himself.  Lucie’s compassion and kindness touch him in particular; and he begins to hope again.

He makes little efforts never to appear drunk before the Darnay family, but he does not actually change his habits and behavior until near the end of the story.  When conflict is at its hardest for the Darnays and their friends, Sydney sets in motion a selfless plot, sticks to it like steel, and remembers Scripture for the first time in years while wandering the streets of Paris.  I really can’t describe his transformation with justice; read the book yourself.

8. You Belong With Me

(Pick your most anticipated book release)

My own novels.  🙂

Hoho, sorry, couldn’t resist.  Only that won’t be for another 17 years.

One book I anticipated before its release was Rachel Starr Thomson’s Coming Day, the final book in her Seventh World Trilogy.

I’ll probably always have nostalgic and grateful feelings for this series because I read it while writing my first trilogy.  Reading these books and keeping up with Rachel’s blog gave 17-year-old novice writer me the encouragement to keep plugging away.

9. Forever and Always

(Pick your favorite book couple)

I have to say Jane and Rochester from Jane Eyre.  What I like about this pairing is that they fall in love, not because of their looks (she was plain, he was “ugly” according to the male beauty standards of the day), but because of their intelligence, and because of their personalities.  Falling in love also happens overtime and in very mundane ways.  And they must go through trials before they can be together.  While these difficulties are indeed external, they reflect the important need for internal change.  Jane has to fix her priorities (she confesses that she’d made an idol of Rochester), and Rochester must be humbled before they can be together.

I complained about melodramatic forbidden love earlier, even though, to a degree, the romance in Jane Eyre is exactly that.  But Bronte got away with it because she made me care about both characters, and because Jane’s and Rochester’s actions grow organically, out of the circumstances and personalities already established.

BONUS QUESTIONS! (Added by Bella)

10. Never Grow Up

(A book you read when you’re feeling sad/emotional)

This book is hilarious, guys.  A series of personal anecdotes by the authors (cousins, who were both home schooled) shows just how funny mishaps, accidents, and family quirks can be if you look at them with the right attitude.  The authors describe their crazy, fun, hectic life with good humor and a wise outlook on life.  When I first read this book, I laughed out loud at every other paragraph!

11. Begin Again

(A book you’ve read multiple times but always go back to it because it’s that good)

The Chronicles of Narnia, and…

The Lord of the Rings!  I grew up with these books, and I’ve been reading them for 17 years (in the case of the Narnia books) and 13 years (in the case of LotR).  And every time I reread them, I notice something new, either about the characters, the story themes, the writing style, the symbolism, or…I could go on, but I’d like to keep these descriptions short.  🙂

12. Starlight

(A book you hid in bed with/fell asleep reading)

This one, but only because I just wanted to finish and be done with it.  No offense to the author, but 3/4 of the way through, I still didn’t understand what the point was.

13. I Know Places

(The number one book you would take on a long trip away from home)

Going to borrow one of Bella’s answers and say The Hobbit.  Maybe because journeying is a prime theme of the book?  Or maybe because, like Bilbo, I would rather be home than abroad.  Unless the destination was San Antonio, Texas, in which case, I’m off like a shot from an 18-pounder.

Look at this gorgeous edition my grandmother bought me!

14. Change

(A book you’ve never read but want and plan to)

I want to read this one only because it looks like an interesting social critique/commentary, as well as a remark on human nature.

I also want to read Watership Down someday; Julia recommended it, and it’s her favorite book.  (I would showcase a picture, but our copy seems to have disappeared.)

BONUS QUESTIONS 2!  (Added by Christine)

15. Long Live

(A modern book you think should be a classic or a classic that should be more widely read today)

First category:

Part adventure and part mystery, this story is about four children recruited as secret agents by kindly Mr. Benedict.  He suspects that the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened is hiding a dreadful secret, and since it is an academy for children, child agents are the only ones who have a chance.  That, and children are so easily overlooked by adults that his team should be able to find critical information before it’s too late.

The mystery grows darker and deeper as the story goes on–and though the book was written for children, and children are the heroes, adults will find this story very deep and thought-provoking.  Particularly how the students and staff on the island are manipulated by very cunning mind control.  When I first read this story, I couldn’t put it down, and I think it deserves to become a classic.

Second category (classic that should be more widely read):

This is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.  (You can’t tell by cover; this edition is from 1944.)  It’s one of the most confounding mysteries I’ve ever read, with false clues and red herrings galore.  The whole reason the mystery of the stolen diamond arose is pretty mundane—but the red herrings, and misleading clues are what make it so fascinating.  Also the fact that each part of the story has a different narrator, and, just as in real life, you kinda have to sift motives and figure out just how colored everyone’s perspective is.  And even the most biased narrations reveal new story layers and clues that carry over into the next bit.

I think this one should be more widely read because of the unique narrative style and the twists and turns the mystery takes.

16. Mean

(A book you have a personal vendetta against for whatever reason)

Hoo boy.  I actually have a long list of books that annoy/anger me.  But the top series for this category would be the Elsie Dinsmore books (the Life of Faith reboots, that is; I’ve never read the originals).

Elsie annoys me because she’s too perfect at age eight for me to relate to.  I get that the writers are trying to set an example, but come on.  That amount of perfection in an eight-year-old is bound to make us hate her.  Because unlike Elsie, the rest of us have a sin nature.

Okay, I’m being snarky.  But Elsie never really messes up or makes serious mistakes that she has to learn from—her struggles are usually inflicted upon her by the other characters.  And she’s so spiritually mature at age eight that there’s no room for growth or improvement.  That, I think, is the fatal flaw of the series.  In real life, sanctification and growing more like Christ is a process, learned through studying the Bible, observing others, making mistakes, going through trials, and so on.  Stories intended to enlighten and encourage should reflect that, should show that growth process rather than portray near-perfection at the start.  And yes, there’s a place for setting an example via a noble character (Frodo Baggins from LotR is one of my favorite characters of all time), but here on this earth, nobody is going to attain perfection.  And I think stories should reflect that, but should also show characters striving to be more like Christ.

17.  Safe & Sound

(A “comfort book”)

Definitely the American Girl Josefina series!  I love Josefina’s character: sweet, but determined; shy, but with a spine of steel and high hopes.  She has such close, loving relationships with her sisters and her father, and the rancho where they live is a setting both unique and familiar–it’s pretty much a farm, just set in the Spanish West world.  I love the descriptions of weaving blankets, celebrating Christmas, trading in Santa Fe, the New Mexico summers and fandangos.

I had so much fun with this tag!  Thanks to Bella for tagging me!

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Writers’ Camp: Day 5

Bring Out the Books! Everyone will share certain Authors and series that are their personal favorite and explain why they like them, how they were inspired by them, and how others might be inspired.

I touched on this subject in previous Writers’ Camp posts, so I’ll keep it brief here.  C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have been two favorite authors ever since I read their stories (at age 7 and 9), and lately, I’ve added Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte to the list.  Of course, I have other favorite authors, and I love individual stories of less-favored authors, but these four are my primary inspirations.

C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories inspired me to write in the first place.  His world and its parallels to ours made so much sense and was so exciting, that it was just natural to create my own.  My first story actually featured four children entering another world through a portal.  It wasn’t plagiarism, however, because instead of a wardrobe, they went through a closet.  🙂

Lewis understood children very well, understood not only how they behave, but how they think, and that is probably one reason his stories appealed to me–they felt real.  (The fact that the kids were often the heroes helped.)  He also understood theology well enough to make it simple yet deep for his young audience.

He did it, however, without shoving his point down your throat.  I read The Magician’s Nephew late last year and marveled at how powerful it was.  I wondered: how did he do it?  How did he make such an impact without using literary neon signs denoting SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND PARALLEL TO CHRISTIANITY GET IT??  And I think the answer is: he wrote about what he believed.  Pure and simple.  Not defensively, not necessarily to persuade.  What he believed true, he treated as truth in his stories.

Tolkien inspires me because of his epic tale and how deeply it resounds with reality as well.  In fact, Tolkien too wrote about what he believed (not allegorically, as Lewis did); what he thought right, noble, virtuous (or, conversely, bad) his characters enacted.  Pride, for instance, is always the fatal flaw in Tolkien’s world, from Melkor, to Feanor, to Turin, to Boromir.  Always, always, always.  Conversely, humility is the greatest virtue: the only reason Sam resists the Ring is because of his humility and his love for his master.

And on that note, let me address a pet peeve: everyone holds Eowyn up as a strong woman–and she is–but they cite the wrong action to support this.  Fighting like a man and defeating the Witch-King do not make her strong.  In the Houses of Healing, Gandalf tells Eomer:

“…she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours.  Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.

Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Theoden’s ears?  Dotard!  What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?  Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue.  Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning.”

Aragorn adds that Eowyn loved him only as an ideal, as a hope of glory and renown.  Thus, pride prompted Eowyn to seek Aragorn’s favor; and pride caused her to desire a brave death in battle when this first wish was denied.  Her true valor in defeating the Witch-King was not being able to fight like a man, but defending her uncle and king.

In fact, Eowyn’s true strengths get overlooked.  She is dutiful–she tended King Theoden in his sickness, and she does so without complaint, self-controlled to the point that Eomer had no idea what was going on in her mind.  Aragorn tells Eomer that if her love for her brother and her uncle had not restrained her, she might have uttered words similar to Wormtongue’s.  She is described by Hama the guard as “fearless and high hearted” and was loved by all the people of Rohan.  She is competent enough in leadership and politics to take command of Rohan while Theoden is at Helm’s deep.  And she cares deeply about both her brother and her uncle, as seen by her actions to care for and protect them.  And later, once she understands the truth about her heart, she renounces her pride and her high desires and seeks to be a healer, not a queen.

Oh, and I ripped off Tolkien too, as a young writer, with no idea how he made all his ideas and plot threads and descriptions work.  Now that I’m older, I love examining his work and finding out how he pulled off all these techniques that are no longer popular in the writing world.  For instance, Tolkien is famous for inserting long songs and poetry in LotR, but I noticed he doesn’t start with reams of poetry.  The first few poems and songs are relatively short, and once you’ve gotten interested in the world and the characters, he puts in longer songs.

I’m not going to elaborate about Dickens and Bronte here.  For one thing, I gave Bronte a lengthy paragraph in my Day 3 post.  For another, I will definitely talk more about Dickens later.  🙂

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Quote of the Week

“I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me.  Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree.  Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.  The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there.  Far away I knew there were the Horselords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure.  I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor.  Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”

– J. R. R. Tolkien