Thursday, September 20, 2012

The terror by night

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break.” 

Today I wrote a scene that made me cry.

A simple statement, one that might not mean much to those of you who have been writing for far longer than I.  But for me, today, this was something new.  I've dabbled in joy, in fear, in quiet happiness, in hilarity and humor.  I've written sad bits before.  I've written words that hurt part of me with each keystroke... words that were true, that dealt with a sorrow or loss in real life.  But until today, I'd never created someone else's pain. I'd never written something truly gut-wrenching, something that would tear out the heart of another person and take away something she loved.

I'd never before cried for the sake of someone I'd made.

In a way, it made me feel almost guilty.  Ashamed that I'd been so cruel to a fictional character, to a girl who exists solely in my imagination and is mine to do with as I will.  I am solely responsible for her, and today I broke her heart.

The worst of it is that something in me almost enjoyed doing it, knowing that what I'd written had touched me deeply and might someday (far down the road) touch someone else.   There was a certain sense of satisfaction as I laid down my pen, stretched my cramped fingers and surveyed the tear-dimpled pages of my rather battered notebook.  Winston Churchill's words ran through my head-- "Before you can inspire emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow.  To convince them, you must first yourself believe."

As I wrote this scene, I believed.  I was Margot, curled in the corner of a humid and stuffy tent, watching a mother comfort her baby and all the time struggling with a lurching sense of dread.  I felt everything she felt, and her tears became my tears.   I forgot to be concerned with sentimentality or over-the-top slogginess-- instead, I just forgot my surroundings and wrote everything Margot felt and saw, because it was what I was feeling and seeing.

"Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night," [Mareta] whispered, bending down to kiss Zacharias' wet and matted hair. "Nor for the arrow that flieth by day."

Bernard laid his hand over Mareta's, covering it entirely and cupping his son's head with greater gentleness than Margot had ever seen before.  His other arm slipped around Mareta's shoulders.  "Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation..."

Mareta's voice joined his, quivering a little now.  "There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh... come nigh..."  She swallowed hard, but it was no use-- her voice was damp now, thick with tears.  "...come nigh thy dwelling."

~The Color of the Sky

"There is a sacredness in tears," wrote Washington Irving nearly two centuries ago.  "They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are messengers of overwhelming grief... and unspeakable love."

My own tears flowed in the writing of this scene.  And that satisfied me.  Ironically enough, it made me happy.  Sure, the scene isn't perfect-- in fact, it's very far from that.  It needs work and revision.  It needs a firmer hand.  But for now, for the first draft, it's making me happy.  It's a drippy, sad kind of happy, but I'm happy nonetheless.  Happy with what I've written.

That's a big deal, you know.

And as I was writing it, I found myself doing something totally new.  I was writing a scene of pain and heartbreak, a scene that gripped me and gave my tear ducts a workout, an emotionally draining scene.  My very first.  And as I wrote it, I didn't waste time worrying if it was good enough.  I didn't fret over whether it might sound stupid or cliched.  I didn't brood over the possibility of it making someone (oh horrors!) laugh someday.  I didn't bother myself with any of that, because I was being swamped with the emotion of this piece, and it ended up being just what I wanted it to be.

Grief and love are so tightly intertwined in this story that I can't write about one without the other.  And they're hard to write about.  I don't mean that putting the words together is necessarily a difficult task.  I mean that making these bad things happen is hard.  At first I wasn't even sure I wanted to write this part.

But I did it.  I couldn't avoid it.  It had to be done, and I will have to do it again, for one tragic scene isn't enough for this book.  There's more to come, more that may be even worse.   And for some odd reason, I'm almost looking forward to that part yet to come.   It will be hard to write.  It will be hard to read, to change, to edit.

Yet there's a hope behind it all, the overarching presence of the One who is going to give this story a happy ending.  (Because hello.   I do not write stories without happy endings.)  Even through the tragedy and pain that socks the middle of this book, the grace of God is constant, and there is a theme that never dies.

I can't wait to explore it further.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Unsound Politics and Unaccompanied Bridesmaids

(I've taken to casting Important Articles of Clothing in my stories... in
case anyone's interested, these are the bridesmaid dresses from The Rochesters)

... in other words, Snippets again!

She knew them as soon as she saw them, even though she’d never seen pictures nor had any idea of how they looked. But there was only one group under the station roof that contained four girls of various sizes sporting matching hats, two hatless boys industriously pummeling each other, a book-toting father wearing a winter fedora and a fervently wagging golden retriever with no hat whatsoever.
~The Rochesters

Timmy scrambled into the front seat next to Alice. “What’s an ink wisition?”
“It’s when the government kills you if you aren’t Catholic.” Mark jammed Pumblechook around Francie’s feet, squeezed into what was left of the back seat and slammed the car door.
“Is the government going to kill us because we’re Baptists?” Instead of looking frightened, Timmy seemed merely intrigued.
“Of course not,” said Uncle Gregory, finally sitting down and turning the key in the ignition. “Government neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters.”
“There must be murder, and the government cares not how much,” replied Alice quite gravely as the car lurched out of the parking lot, and she and Francie and Celia and Uncle Gregory all laughed.
Sylvia had heard quite a bit about Communists in her social studies class, and she began to wonder if perhaps Uncle Gregory had rather unsound ideas about politics.
~The Rochesters

“What difference does it make if you don’t have a groomsman?” Celia inquired. “Mark was probably going to end up walking with me anyways because I’m not as tall as you are. You’ll get George’s cousin just like you were supposed to.”
“Then you’ll be all by yourself,” Francie pointed out.
“I don’t care. Then I don’t have to worry about Mark stepping on me.”
“You aren’t dancing; you’re just walking, for Pete’s sake.”
“Mark steps on people no matter what.”
“He wouldn’t step on you if you didn’t have such big feet—”
“Hush up, can’t you?”
“Ladies!” Alice smacked both hands down on the quilt. “You’re acting like a pair of toddlers. Look, the issue at stake is not that a bridesmaid will walk unaccompanied. Celia can take Pumblechook for all I care.”
“Hey,” complained Celia, miffed.
~The Rochesters

Patsy was poring over a rather blurry picture in the middle section of the newspaper. It depicted a person in a monkey suit of doubtful origin, raising his arms over his head at what was presumably a football game but might have been a Ladies’ Auxiliary Meeting, for all Sylvia could see. The background rather resembled a mishmash of black and white shapes.
“That’s the President,” Patsy remarked, startling Sylvia, who thought Patsy had not noticed her presence.

~The Rochesters

“I’ll give you a leg up.” Bernard clasped his hands to form a stirrup. “Fina, you and Mareta stay here while I take Margot out and teach her Ezekiel’s tricks, and then you can have a turn.”
Doubt threatened to smother Fina’s smile, but she took Mareta’s hand obligingly and stepped aside. Margot was inclined to follow. She had no desire to ride a mule, nor to learn anything about the “tricks” he might possess. Cooking over a spattering fire began to sound far more appealing than it had this morning, and she was tempted to refuse Bernard and flee back to Magali.

~The Color of the Sky

Mareta’s gaze shifted to Fina, on the ground not far away, holding little Zacharias on her lap. The two seemed equally enamored of each other: Zacharias charmed by the attention showered upon him and Fina satisfied with this child who saw nothing different in her, no inadequacy or deficiency. Mareta smiled as she watched them together and Margot found herself smiling too.
How long has it been since I’ve smiled thus?
~The Color of the Sky

It was the girl’s near lack of eyebrows, Margot decided, that brought her eyes into such focus.   You could not help but look at them, without the distraction of the dark lines above that most people had.  

~The Color of the Sky

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I'm not quiet. I'm PLOTTING.

When I was younger and would write stories in notebooks and single-spaced Microsoft Word documents, I always felt that a premise was enough.  Surely an idea for a story (a girl in WWII England rescuing people from bombed-out buildings or the daughter of a laundress in the White House during the Civil War) and a handful of character ideas was enough to base a novel on.  Right? Right?

Uh, kinda right.

Sure, it was enough to base a novel on.  The problem was that I had nothing to build with.  Without plot, my poor stories collapsed and were left for dead before many days had passed. I can't count how many times I set out to write the novel of the century, only to abandon the premise after a week or so and start on something else (which, in its turn, would soon be neglected by its easily-distracted mama).

Since then, I've begun to learn a shocking truth-- namely, that a story really cannot go anywhere with a plot.  Remarkable, no?  Oh, certainly there have been plenty of books that stemmed only from the barest wisp of an idea, but the truly good ones were then built upon that wisp of an idea.  Plots grew from those ideas, and characters from the plots (sometimes vice versa) and thus a story was born.

And no matter how much writing I may want to do, no matter how many elusive dragonfly-ideas flit through my mind when I'm trying to sleep at night, no matter how many characters pop into my brain, I can really do nothing with them unless I know what I want to do with them.

Profound, I know.

In all seriousness, however, this concept has taken me quite a while to grasp.  I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer in general-- I tend to write haphazardly and fecklessly, spinning out whatever flows into my head with all the reckless abandon of a baby with a Magic Marker and a fresh white wall.  And though free-spirit writing has its time and place and is certainly commendable, I'm finding that for me at least, it's really best to have an outline, to know where I'm going.

You wouldn't take a road trip without a road map, now would you?  (Er, that is, a GPS?  I keep forgetting that road maps are obsolete.)

So I'm making a road map for Sky, and it's taking a great deal longer than I'd thought.  (So what if I don't call it a GPS?  I've always been a bit old-fashioned.)  I had an idea for this story that's morphed into something much bigger (and yes, I'll say it, better).  The whole story shifted back 100 years, to begin with, and the Albigensian Crusade wormed its way in.  (I'll wait while you go look that one up.)  I realized overnight the overwhelming power of Actual Research (that is, not just reading Wikipedia articles all afternoon) and the stack of Middle Ages history books on hold for me at the library is... well, it's not allowed to exceed five at a time.  But as soon as I return one, I can get another.

I've been dreaming about this story, thinking about it while brushing my teeth, scribbling down ideas like crazy.  I haven't been doing Beautiful People or writing much dialogue or even writing character studies in my notebook.  Yet my characters are coming alive to me as I'm creating the walls and doorways of their story.  Finding out how each one is going to deal with the problems I'm throwing their way is, for me, even better than deciding if they prefer tea or coffee.  I still plan to do Beautiful People, to save any and all inspirational pictures to my computer, to do character tags and think about how they'd respond to a wacky situation.  But it's their story that makes them who they are.

Man, I sound like a refrigerator magnet again.  I'm getting good at that.  Maybe I should go into the refrigerator magnet business.  Does anyone know how much that kind of a job pays?

At any rate, everything I said in this post could be easily summed up in a picture (worth a thousand words and all that):

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Flecks of gold were swallowed up

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~Anton Chekhov

The Penslayer has challenged, and I'm up for it.

Description, as I said in my last post, is hard for me.  Hardest of all is that elusive thing called describing your characters.  Sure, it can be done easily enough.  "Margot was sixteen years old.  She was tallish and had long dark brown hair, dark brown eyes and a pointy kind of chin.  You are now getting verrrrrry sleeeeeeepy..." (Or at least you will be quite soon if I continued on in such a fashion.)

If I wanted to read flat, flavorless here's-what-she-looked-like description, I'd go back to first grade and re-read Peter and Jane literature.  It's description, yes.  It serves the purpose, yes.  But it's not done well.  And though I'm not the one to pass judgment on what has been done well, I can read--as can all of you--and I can see for myself--as can all of you--when something has not been done well.

This is where I should stick in the disclaimer about how I don't think my description is very good and blah-de-blah, but the thing is-- I actually think the following descriptions are pretty good and I'll tell you why in a moment.  (Um, I will disclaim that everything's subject to lots and lots of editing and this is only the first draft and more blah-de-blahs that you aren't interested in.)  The serious ones from Sky come first and then at the end I couldn't resist sticking in a tidbit from The Butterwick Boardinghouse Detectives.

Philippe wasn’t any taller. His face was just as it had always been—a little more lined and thin, perhaps—and he still had the tiny, smooth scar on his chin from that mock duel with his friend Pierre when he was fourteen. His voice was the same, his hair had kept its curl—though the color seemed closer to dirt than sand at present—and he still squinted much longer than necessary when he came inside after bright sun. And yet something was different, something Margot couldn’t put into words for Fina and wouldn't have wanted to.

In this paragraph that begins Sky's second chapter, I introduced Philippe through Margot's perspective.  Her brother has been away for nearly a year, and so she naturally looks at him with an almost critical gaze, hoping that he'll be exactly the same.  (Of course he isn't--no one is after eleven months--but that doesn't stop Margot from hoping that he might be unchanged.)  In this paragraph, you learn that Philippe has blond but rather dirty hair with a bit of curl to it, that his face is thin with crinkles around his eyes and he has a scar on his chin.  Yet it's more interesting to read about in the snippet than in that boring sentence.

It had taken Margot far too long to reconcile herself to the emptiness in her sister’s eyes. Amber had turned to mud, radiance to shadows. Flecks of gold had been swallowed up in a mist that never faded under the sun—because it could not see the sun.

I've told you before that Fina is blind, but in that sense you have an advantage over the someday-reader of Sky.  Because I haven't yet told the reader in so many words that Fina can't see.  I've chosen instead to hint at it (later there will be a flashback in which Margot remembers the fever that took Fina's eyesight) and for now I only refer to her blindness sparingly.  But in this case, I used it to tell the reader what color Fina's eyes are--how they used to be, and how they are now.

Mareta’s hand found Margot’s, and her chin trembled like an arrow in the hand of a frightened archer. Sweat slipped from her palm and clung to Margot’s. “I need more water,” she said, quite clearly and without the slightest touch of anxiety. Her voice, after all, was what soothed the baby’s tears and comforted him during the fever-dreams. She could not allow it to slip and let in fear or alarm.

Mareta is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful character in my story, yet I've been hesitant to tell the reader how she looks.  (If you're curious, take a gander at the picture on the top left.)  Mareta is the kind of woman who radiates beauty from the inside out, however, and it's that shining inner loveliness that I've tried to communicate through the way she moves and speaks.  Even in the snippet above, where she's dealing with a desperately sick child, she keeps her composure and manages to appear calm when she does not feel so.

And then just because writing nonsense is fun (and fun is good)...

Then came the day when Jack was clunked on the head by that all-knowing specter called Realization, who informed him that Deirdre was a very beautiful person and then proceeded to follow up the clunk with several not-so-gentle whunks and thunks to punish him for not being clunked at an earlier date. The whunks and thunks also served to remind poor battered Jack of the exact shade of dark brown manifested in Deirdre’s eyes and the precise filter of light that made itself known through her hair when she wore it down. However, he was so busy apologizing to Realization for being such a knobble-head that he didn’t bother to think about what nice cheekbones she had until three AM when he was trying to go to sleep and it was too late to ring her up and tell her so.