October 31, 2009

A Poem for the Last Day of October

October's Bright Blue Weather
O sun and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather;
When loud the bumble-bees make haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And golden-rod is dying fast
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;
When Gentians roll their fringes tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields, still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;
When springs run low, and on the brooks
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;
When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October's bright blue weather.
O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October's bright blue weather!
~Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 - 1885)

My Writing World Today

These days I’m busier than ever with my writing. I started a new undertaking this semester - teaching creative writing! It has been a new and exciting adventure for me – a little scary, but a lot of fun. God has blessed me with wonderful students, and each one of them has challenged me in a unique way.

I am currently hard at work on my first novel, Son of the Shield (SOTS). Novels are a world unto themselves, I have learned, and SOTS is no exception! Immensely challenging and occasionally very frustrating, SOTS has nonetheless been an amazing journey and a true blessing (albeit a very well-disguised blessing sometimes). SOTS is a high-fantasy epic, and the first in the series, The Adelfian Prophesies. December 31, 2009 is the goal date to have the first draft finished – very lofty, I know, but I’m shooting for it anyway.

I am also the co-author of another novel-in-progress, Daybreak. My friend Heather and I have joined forces for this urban fantasy adventure, and it has been a barrel of fun! We are both having a blast and eager to work on the rest of the trilogy.

Aside from SOTS and Daybreak, I am always in the middle of several smaller projects, usually poems or short stories. Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book of poems, all set in the same fictional town of Applestock. And there are always new poem or story ideas to be considered and jotted down.

In addition, I am a monthly writer for Apricot Pie, a website for home schooled writers. I have been a member for a little over a year, and it has been a delight every step of the way. Our founder/chief/editor, Ben, has put a lot of work into making Apricot Pie a wonderful place for us members to share and comment on each other’s work, and his efforts have made the site a true blessing!

One of the things that I am passionate about is the fight for the truth. In an age and culture where the agenda is everything and truth is optional, I am incredibly burdened to proclaim the real story, the way it really happened. As one way of doing that, I manage Chaqar-Aletheuo, a blog where the truth is diligently sought out and presented without shame after careful and thorough on-the-ground-research. If you are interested in becoming an investigator/writer for C-A, leave me a message in the comment block and I will contact you.

And of course, I have The Writer’s Lair to manage and keep up for all of my friends and guests. My goal is to make the Lair a place where Christian writers feel welcome; a place where they can find helpful resources, advice, and godly encouragement. Writing can be a rough journey, my friend. But you’re not alone. God has given me a burden to encourage and serve other writers – even if writing professionally is not God’s plan for your life, we are all obligated to use God’s gift of the written word to our best ability and for His glory – and I hope that The Lair will be a place where we can do just that.

Write well, my friends!

October 26, 2009

Growing Up Writer

My writing has come a long way since the days of El Nino. It’s been an interesting road, with many interesting steps and stops along the way. There were countless poems and short stories – as L.M. Montgomery would put it, “yards of trash” – and even several works that I had the audacity to call novels. Naturally, I considered all of them to be masterpieces. My poem “Shadow Women” was destined for the Pulitzer Prize, I was sure. I patiently bided my time, waiting for The Long Way Home to be discovered by a director and made into the next blockbuster. Coyote Hill would certainly make the best-seller list as soon as it hit the market.

Then I grew up.

Recently, my friend Heather and I were sharing stories about how we became writers, and how our writing has matured over the years. Heather described how her writing had matured gradually, getting better and better over the years. For me it was a little different: it seemed like one minute I was a kid who liked to write. The next minute, it clicked, and I was a writer. My writing style changed overnight – literally – just as I was ready to begin my first novel … my first real novel.

I lost the ‘to-edit-this-would-be-a-desecration’ attitude (yes, I was one who suffered from that affliction) and buckled down to editing with a vengeance. Within a few months, however, I had discovered that editing-as-you-go is very poorly named, because you don’t actually go anywhere. Editing-as-you-go should actually be called ‘editing-as-you-sit-in-place-and-make-yourself-miserable’. So with that lesson learned, I started a new battle: learning to silence the inner critic.

That, I confess, is a battle that I am still fighting. Just when I think she’s silenced and locked away, I hear her naggy little voice over my shoulder…

In October of 2008 I began a new quest: seeking publication. My novel was still in the first chapters of the first draft, an infant still in need of shelter and nurturing, but I had several poems and short stories filed away in my collection of work. A good bit of the collection consisted of the aforementioned “yards of trash” that, for sentimental reasons, I had not parted with. But there were a few pieces that showed some promise, I was sure of it. So, I selected one and sent it off. Nine days later the rejection came back. I had told myself all along to expect a rejection, but I hadn’t really believed that I would get one. However, after recovering from the three-month-long funk brought on by that first rejection, I sent out another piece. And received another rejection. But this time I fired back the very next day with yet another submission.

And this one was accepted!

The acceptance letter could have been the Pulitzer Prize itself and I would not have been more ecstatic. The $5 check that came in the mail could have been $5 million and I would not have screamed any louder.

But most importantly, the next time I told someone I was a writer and they responded by asking “Have you published anything?” I could say “YES!”

October 21, 2009

How I Became a Writer

I can say with total honesty that I have been writing stories since I learned to read and write. I have a scrapbook containing pages of practice-pad paper on which I scrawled with crayons stories, plays, and the illustrations to match. Not all of my stories made it to paper. Some I merely acted out while running wild on my parents’ farm, accompanied by my co-writer/supporting actress, a Yorkie terrier named Esmerelda. Whether they actually made it to paper or not, I was always writing stories.

Strangely enough, however, I was fourteen before I realized that God wanted me to be a writer.

I was standing in a convenient store staring at a rack of greeting cards when one of them – a painting of a Friesian horse galloping through the fog – sparked a story idea. As the day progressed and I went about my business, the story grew in my imagination. The Friesian horse became El NiƱo, the leader of a wild herd descended from horses that had survived a shipwreck on an uninhabited island many years before. By evening the idea wasn’t just a story idea – it was a book idea!

I started writing it by hand in the back of my journal, but worried that I would run out of pages. I commandeered a blank composition book from the school room and was about to begin copying the beginning of the story into it, until it struck me … I could use the composition book for a different story! I wasn’t limited to just one book.

That was when it dawned on me – I was going to be a writer!

October 20, 2009

Stephen R. Lawhead - Bring it to Life with Description!

Stephen R. Lawhead

About two and a half years ago, I discovered the work of Stephen R. Lawhead. His book Hood (from the King Raven Trilogy) was the first one I read, followed quickly by the Song of Albion Trilogy and the Dragon King Trilogy (while I was waiting eagerly for Scarlet and Tuck to come out).

Mr. Lawhead is a seasoned veteran of the Christian writing industry, so I decided to make him my next subject in my series, Learn from the Pros.

The main thing I’ve learned about writing from reading Mr. Lawhead’s work is that descriptive detail is okay. Most writing experts will tell you to keep description to a necessary minimum and “let the readers fill in the details”. To a person like me, who loves describing the characters, scenery, and architecture in my stories, that advice is far from uplifting. But if we want to succeed, we just have to grin and bear it, right?

Not according to Stephen R. Lawhead.

Read his work and you’ll find it rich with vivid description – towering cities that leave you speechless, sweeping scenery so real that you feel like you’ve been there, monsters that make your stomach turn, and characters you would recognize on the street. From the breathtaking ramparts of Askelon to the ancient forests of Wales, Stephen Lawhead leaves you feeling like you’ve been there. Lived it. Touched it.

How does he do that? He describes it!

Experts tell us to let the readers use their own imagination to fill in the details. But how does that make you feel like you’re really there? When you step off of a plane in New York City, you see exactly what it looks like. You don’t have to use your imagination to “fill in the details”. The details are already there, waiting for you. And when you leave, you feel like you’ve been there, because you have been there! You craned your neck to see the tops of the skyscrapers. You stood on a sidewalk and heard the noise of rush-hour traffic. You smelled the cafes you walked past. You didn’t just see the city, you experienced the city.

Now, granted: you didn’t read every billboard you passed. You didn’t examine the physical appearance and clothing of every pedestrian you met on the sidewalk. You could not possibly take in every detail there was to take in, nor should descriptions in your writing give the reader every possible detail about the subject being described. Your story should not get lost in your descriptions, and the plot and action should still be clearly visible. (i.e. after six pages of solid description, the readers have probably forgotten what the characters are doing and why they’re doing it in the first place) But don’t get the idea that the plot and action are all you’re allowed to have. Plot is the story’s skeleton. Action is the story’s muscle. Don’t leave her at that! Put skin on her; dress her up; maybe even give her some makeup and jewelry.

Writers – especially those in the fantasy genre – don’t throw a bunch of nondescript characters into a blurry, vague world and expect them to act out some excruciatingly detailed plot. Give the characters character! Make them unique and distinct. Don’t leave your readers to wonder where they are. When a reader picks up your book, they’re accepting your invitation to enter your world. Be a good host – don’t leave them to find their own way around. Take them by the hand and show them around.

Read Stephen R. Lawhead’s work and you’ll see: there’s nothing like entering the world of a story and feeling like you really lived it!

Clive Cussler - Rules don't mean anything!

Clive Cussler: Rules don’t mean anything!

Read any book on how to make your writing better, and I guarantee that somewhere in it they’ll tell you to study published work. “Learn from the experts! Watch the pros! Study their technique and see how they do it!” So I’m starting a blog series on techniques and styles that I observe and learn from the pros simply by reading their writing. It promises to be interesting, and I’ll do my best to make it fun!

During a recent go-round with the flu, I spotted one of Clive Cussler’s novels on the dining table; having heard Clive Cussler’s work praised as everything from “riveting” to “spell-binding”, and knowing that he has written several best-sellers, I picked it up.

An amazing amount of reading can be done when you lack the energy to do anything but lay on the sofa. In one day I read the first 150 or so pages. I’ve got to be honest: the action was creative, exciting, and non-stop. It’s a wonder that Sahara is the only movie to have been made out of a Clive Cussler book.

But as far as writing style and technique go, the only thing I have learned from Mr. Cussler so far is: “Rules don’t mean anything.” Here are some examples of what I mean.

Rule: “Don’t use adverbs ending with -ly unless they are absolutely necessary! It’s better to use vivid verbs to describe the action taking place!”

Clive Cussler says: “Trembling with fear, they tenderly carried him to a canoe and gently lowered him inside … Upon reaching the beach they quickly laid him on the sand and paddled furiously back to shore.”

Rule: “Do your research and know what you’re talking about, but don’t bore your readers with unnecessary and dry details.”

Clive Cussler says: “He led a lonely private life since his wife of twenty years died from a heart attack brought on by an iron overload disease known as hemochromatosis.”

Rule: “Study the human mind. Learn how people react to different situations and give your characters realistic reactions in your writing.”

Clive Cussler says: (Setup – the main character is standing in the open doorway of a helicopter piloted by his best friend. The chopper is one of two involved in a low-altitude, low-fuel dog fight over the Peruvian jungle. The main character has only one rifle containing only two bullets. The guys shooting at him from the other chopper have a grenade launcher and twelve rifles. A conveniently beautiful girl in the main character’s chopper ties a rope around his waist “to keep you from falling out!”) As the Peruvian mercenaries position themselves to launch another grenade, the main character smiles at the girl’s thoughtfulness and calmly replies “I don’t deserve you.”

Rule: “If it has moving parts, it’s a magazine, not a clip!”

Clive Cussler says: “The gun spat twice and went silent … Pitt jerked out the clip and saw that it was empty.”

And I haven’t even finished the book yet.

So, to all writers who find themselves crushed under the oppressive weight of thousands of writing “dos” and “don’ts” I say: Take heart! It would seem that the brutal, rigid “musts” and “must nots” we fear so much are actually more like “should considers” and “might wish to avoids”. I’m not saying you should throw the rules to the ducks and let your writing get sloppy – but relax! Loosen up! This is creative writing, not nuclear physics! One little mistake isn’t going to kill anybody.

Yeah – Mr. Cussler breaks a lot of rules. Possibly uses too many adverbs. Perhaps throws in a bit too much technical detail. Made a few errors in terminology. But I have read few stories that were as fast-paced, adventurous and fun as this one. Clive Cussler obviously loves what he does, and I think that the most important lesson we can draw from his writing is … have fun!

James-Style Writing

Yesterday morning my pastor spoke on “Practical Christianity” out of the book of James (one of my favorites). He mentioned the fact that a lot of people see James as rough, even harsh, because he doesn’t water down or sugar coat anything. That’s a turn-off, even offensive to a lot of people. But James’ straight-forward “this-is-the-way-it-is-period” approach is one of the things I like so much about him; even though I’m not writing scripture, I want my writing to have the same hard-fact style as James’.

In our culture today, everyone is scared to death of being blunt, worried that they’ll “offend” somebody. So we dull the edges and blur the lines until the truth is so soft and mushy that people begin to find it palatable.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care whether we offend people or not – if offending someone can be avoided, then avoid it by all means! But as Christians it is our duty to tell people the Truth. If telling the truth offends them, it offends them. That does not excuse us from our duty. I would rather know that a person knew the truth and was offended by it than spend my life wondering whether they knew or not.

Gentleness is as critical to our presentation of the truth as anything else – but it’s a hard skill to practice. We have to be straight-forward and honest, like James was, but we must be gentle. One of my favorite quotes from Paul Tripp says “Truth that is not spoken in love ceases to be truth because it has been tainted by other human agendas.”

It is easy to hammer the truth into someone’s skull and trounce on whatever misguided beliefs they hold. But ripping them apart with a prideful “Thus saith the Lord” attitude is as damaging as it is sinful.

Yes, gentleness is essential. But we cannot get so caught up in being gentle that we go beyond “gentle” to “soft and useless”. “If the salt has lost its savor…it is good for nothing”! If we make the truth so soft and “inoffensive” that it doesn’t mean anything any more, it too is “good for nothing”.

So I’m going for James-style writing. Be gentle, but tell the truth. Don’t sugar-coat it. Don’t water it down. Don’t let the salt lose its savor.

October 7, 2009

Welcome, traveler...

You have come upon my lair ... the place I call home, the place where I house my treasure, the place where my dreams and adventures are born. Please, make yourself comfortable. Search the world of my library if you like, or, if it better suits you, explore the tunnels and passageways of my home.
But if you are truly brave, with a heart for adventure and no fear of danger, come with me. Let me take you on a journey that you will not soon forget.
Enter, and be prepared...

~The Dragoness