Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name

John 1: 10-12

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Comic Relief

Dickens, Lloyd Alexander, and Terry Pratchett have spoiled me.   They all take the time to make their comic relief likable.  Now whenever I come across a grating `comic relief' I grit my teeth and wonder why the heroes don't find a way to get rid of the jerk -maybe put a sleeping potion in his venison and sneak away during the night. 

Gail Carson Levine mentions here that one way to make your audience enjoy a character is to show that other characters like them.  I love it when an author gives me some solid reasons why the heroes want to hang around with the comic relief.  In Dicken's The Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller is sarcastic and far too mouthy to be a conventional servant, but he's also clever and fiercely loyal to his friends.  At one point he deliberately get himself arrested so he can follow Mr. Pickwick into debtor's prison.  You gotta love a guy like that. 

The best comic characters have a wider emotional range than just cracking a joke -then cracking another one- repeat into infinity.  Moist Von Lipwig from Terry Pratchett's Going Postal may not admit that he feels anything beyond enjoyment at outwitting the next mark, but with his slowly growing desire not to let his friends down, and the discovery that he has something to fight for, he becomes a very endearing -and well rounded- character.

 I guess what I object to is people who don't treat their comic relief like real characters.  But then, I've never appreciated slapstick humor, either.  To me, pies in the face are just mean, and if they're always thrown at the same person, that's bullying.  

Maybe I should start a Comic Relief Union?


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hero Types

I've been watching a lot of the nineties TV show Andromeda.  My favorite character is Seamus Zelanzy Harper, the ship's engineer and designated comic relief.  I've known plenty of people who handle stress with jokes, snark, or sarcasm.  I don't know anyone who deals by vowing to right all wrongs, or becoming a cynical mercenary for hire. 

Harper's not a coward, but he's not a fighter either.  He's very much a talker.  Whenever he's in a rough situation he tries to get out of it by cutting a deal.  He's a contrast to the shows hero, Dylan Hunt, who is skilled with weapons and doesn't really do compromise.  

It seems there are two different types of heroes.  If the villain gives your hero the sadistic choice between saving his beloved Aunt Em or keeping an inhabited planet from being blown to smithereens, the one type of hero says `it's not like I knew anyone on that planet' and picks Aunt Em, while the other type says `Sorry Aunt Em.  Been nice knowing you.' and saves the planet. 

It's the difference between leading with the head and leading with the heart.  Someone who leads with their head is going to take a `needs of the many outweigh the need of one' approach.  Sometimes they'll be right, but other times they'll be too practical.  They might be unintentionally cruel if it fits their agenda.  They might sacrifice people who are loyal to them if they feel it's for the greater good.

The people who lead with their heart have just as many strengths -and just as many problems.  They may betray their country to save their friend, or make compromises they shouldn't make.  They're less likely to have well laid plans -or any plan at all.

Of course, in a perfect world you'd have both types of hero working together, one who leads with the heart to rush in and save the day, and one who leads with his head to pick up the scattered pieces and groan `why me?'

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I've just done a marathon housecleaning job, and tomorrow it's cooking, so while I've fallen down on any kind of on-line presence, at least I've got something to show for it.  I hope you all have a terrific holiday. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Happened to Thanksgiving?

I stopped at the mall a few days ago and noticed something peculiar.  The retailers have gone strait from Halloween decoration to Christmas lights.  They've skipped Thanksgiving!  The grocery stores are still marking down turkeys and frozen cranberries are on sale, but that's pretty much it.  No paper napkins decorated with fall leaves, no wicker cornucopias, no wreaths made of broom.  We've misplaced a holiday.  Perhaps I should check lost and found.

Thanksgiving reminds people to give to those who need it.  With jobs scarce and so many people just scraping by we need that reminder -and a celebration of the blessings we do have.  Life gets depressing if you don't stop and think about the good bits once in awhile.

People will (fortunately) continue to celebrate Thanksgiving, whether or not the stores put out the trappings, but I'm not sure what it says about our country that Thanksgiving is the holiday our retailers are willing to shove in a forgotten corner like the poor Velveteen Rabbit. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Masked Mouse

It's been awhile since I've posted any pictures here.  I thought it would be fun to show a before/after of shading.  Here's a sketch of a masked mouse that I made to get an idea down.  (What can I say?  Sometimes drawing is quicker than outlining.)

And here is the same picture after I decided that shading was a great way to pass the time while I waited for my computer to load a bunch of updates.

Yeah, not quite what I was supposed to be doing this morning, but at least I got my nice drawing finished.  So how about you guys?  Any favorite distractions you indulge in?

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Obsessions

Anyone who knows me well knows my tendency toward obsessions.  When I find an author or TV show I like I'll read or watch everything I can get my hands by that person- at least until I figure out exactly what it is I'm trying to figure out. 

When I was maybe fourteen or so, I was crazy about the Redwall series.  I had whole sections of Mossflower practically memorized.  The Redwall books taught me that just because your characters are fuzzy little rodents doesn't mean you have to play down things like death or injury.

With Dickens I learned two things.  One: if you try to strike up a conversation about Dickens you'll get weird, panicky looks followed by some mumbling about A Christmas Carol.  Two: when you mix comedy with suspense, you get some really powerful writing.  

I've never had an obsession that I haven't learned from.  Some of my obsessions (like Dickens and Shakespeare) turned out to be pretty handy when I started college.  I've also never had an obsession that didn't get me some weird looks, and `can we change the subject please?'  Maybe you can't win them all.  Or maybe my next obsession should be learning to be a better conversationalist.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


When I was a kid, a couple friends and I got together to write a circle story.  It was a lot of fun.  One of the characters had a bowler hat that he always wore.  There was a really suspenseful moment in the story where he lost it.  One of the other writers in our circle quickly made sure the hat was found.

Its funny how an object can help define a character.  Fflewder Fflan's harp, from the Prydain Chronicles, comes to mind.  The strings always break when he tells a lie, but since most of his lies are to hide how soft hearted he is, the reader loves him every time he's caught out.  In Ella Enchanted, Ella is given a cup shaped like a howling wolf.  The cup only appears briefly, but it's presence drives home how trapped Ella feels by her obedience curse.  

Imagining objects for a character is a bit like Christmas shopping in the real world.  When you really know the person you're shopping for, the perfect gift jumps out at you.  It's so them that you can't resist buying it.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Lately fantasy series have gotten a bit of a bad reputation.  Too many writers drag them out, volume after volume with no resolution in sight, until the audience gives up.  Maybe that's why trilogies are so popular.  With a trilogy, you at least know an ending is going to happen. 

Me, I've always felt the strongest series form is five books.  There's plenty of room to deepen characters and explore themes, but the ending still happens before the audience has time to get board and leave.  Best of all, there's less chance of falling into `middle book' syndrome, where the middle book feels as if it only exists to hold the beginning and ending apart.

The strength of the series is its interconnected nature.  In the Prydain Chronicles, some of the individual books are a little weak.  In book one, for example, the hero is knocked out for the climax.  Later, as the books build on each other, you realize that this ending is actually good in the thematic sense.  Taran has to be humbled before he can become a hero.  If he'd been part of that early battle his pride would have been harder to overcome.  The theme of heroism through humility is examined over and over in ways that would never be possible if Lloyd Alexander had only written a single volume.

A series also allows for amazing plot twists because the author can lay the groundwork for them through several volumes.  Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest books are a lovely example of this.  She slowly introduces allies and possible enemies over several volumes.  Actions constantly need reinterpreted from book to book.  Her main characters go from almost strangers to a close-knit team in a very believable fashion because you can see the gradual change as it happens.  This is another case where one book just wouldn't have the depth that a series is able to display.

A series is a tricky thing.  The length means there's more room for mistakes, but with careful handling, the series gives a sense of depth that no single volume will ever be able to match.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mid-grade Allegory

The other day while I was checking my e-mail a thing popped up saying that several people, whose names I didn't recognize, wanted to connect to my yahoo account so we could chat.  I took the `no' option but it occurred to me that those people might have found me through this blog.  If someone wants to contact me please either leave a message in the blog comments, or mention blogger in the tag-line of any e-mails you send.  I'm too paranoid about computer viruses to answer if I don't know where you're coming from.

And now on to a real topic.

I've had my eye on Lian Tanner's Museum of Thieves for some time now, so when I saw a copy at my local Border's going out of busyness sale I snatched it up.  The book is wonderfully inventive.  The author take an abstract idea -that modern parents are overprotective- and makes it concrete.  In the city of Jewel, children are chained by the wrist to their parents or guardian until they come of age. 

The book reminded me of Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember.  Both take an abstract idea and turn it into something that can be seen and touched.  In other words- allegory.  I started a mental list of mid-grade allegories that I've read over the years.  There's Norton Juster's Phantom Tollbooth, Carol Kendall's Gammage Cup, David Ive's Monsieur Eek.  It's almost enough, I think, to count as its own sub-genre.

There's always a danger of making allegories so obvious that they become anvilicious (to use a TV. Tropes term) but when done right, a touch of allegory can make some really innovative fantasy.  

Because the author is trying to turn the abstract concrete, he or she can use surreal situations and have them fit the context of the story.  (Remember the spooky faceless man in Phantom Tollbooth?  Or the staircase to infinity?)  Everything in an allegory is literal.  Juster's watchdog is a dog with a watch in his back.  Tanner's children are literally chained to their parents.  DuPrau's city is very much in the dark. 

Another power of allegory is that the author builds their story around a theme.  He or she can explore an idea from every possible angle and in that way bring new perspective to the reader's attention.  For example, in Museum of Thieves, everyone is overprotective because if their child gets hurt they get thrown in jail for being bad parents.  The adult in Jewel have also grown up chained to a parent or guardian so they are overly willing to look to authority for protection and easily give way to fear.  

Different angles.

I've been enjoying the (slight, nearly unnoticed) rise of allegories in mid-grade fiction.  They're so different from everything else, and that I find incredibly refreshing.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A head's up

As you may have noticed, my posting has become irregular.  A little thing called life keeps getting in the way of the whole `regularly scheduled'.  So... while I'll continue to try and post once a week, I no longer have a set day, at least not until things become a little less hectic (Whenever that happens.)  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Storm Coming On

It's been a weird week, with hurricane warnings coming so close after the earthquake.  I guess this is one of those times I should be thankful I don't have oceanfront property?  The sky's been cloud-dark all day.  At 11:00 AM it was still as dark out as it had been at 7:00.  It's like the sun just decided not to bother today.  

We have battered down the hatches, so to speak.  We've filled several five-gallon buckets with water just in case the electric goes off.  People are speculating that we could be out of electric for a few days.  Or not at all.  You never know ahead of time.  That's the whole point behind preparation.  I guess I ought to dig my flashlight out of my suitcase so I'll be able to find it if everything suddenly goes black.  

I'm not actually too concerned.  we've had nasty storms before (one or two that sent us scurrying to the basement just in case) and the worst that's happened has been the occasional fallen tree.  My past experience has been `not that big a deal' so that's what I expect from the future.  Overconfident? Yep.  But I don't think people believe in a worst that could happen without some experience to draw on.  You can't fear what you can't wrap your head around.  That's a good thing.  Keeps us sane.

This is supposed to be a literary blog.  It somehow morphed into a writing blog, and now my last two posts have been about the weather.  (Well, if you count earthquakes as weather.)  What can I say?  Really interesting weather we've been having lately.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Earthquake

We had an earthquake here on the east coast yesterday.  That's pretty rare.  Fortunately, it wasn't bad in my area.  At first I thought someone was just stomping really hard while coming up the steps (which I guess says something about the floor of my bedroom.)  

There was no wild crashing, no roof caving in on me or floor giving way.  My teacup collection rattled and my bed, which I was sitting on, trembled a bit and that was it.  

Apparently the earthquake did some property damage in Washington.  The news warned that there might be aftershocks but so far if there have been, I haven't felt them.  Facebook is full of comments on the earthquake (including mine.)  I kind of wonder, if I lived someplace like California where earthquakes are more frequent, would ours have been worth all the notice?  

I remember a few years ago we got some really nasty snowstorms and my college classes let out early.  One of my professors commented that where he'd come from, up north, people wouldn't have canceled the class, but there everyone knew how to drive safely in that kind of condition.  They get snow more often and less ice.  My mother is a nurse and has to deal with life and death situations -not every day, but certainly more often than I've ever had to.  I think I'd go crazy from the stress if I was her, but I'm not a trained professional.  

So much of what a person considers dangerous depends on where they are and what they're used to dealing with.  I'm really thankful that I'm not used to earthquakes, or blizzards, or life-and-death decisions.  I hope I never will be.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Sorry I didn't get a post written.  I spent the day canning peaches with my mother, and it slipped my mind.  I'll try to get an extra post in sometime mid-week to make up for it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


I've been working on a drawing this week that has me thinking some more on the topic of back-story.  I"d decided to draw my background and my characters on separate sheets, then overlap them.  Of course once the overlap happened, a lot of details disappeared.  Some of them were favorite details.  I'd spent a long time getting them perfect, and in the final picture, no one will know they ever existed. 

Backstory is a lot like that drawing.  You spend a long time inventing a mythic past, or figuring out the floorplan of a castle, and then the story takes a differnt twist and the castle never appears, or the myth just bogs everything down and has to be cut.

When that happens its easy to feel like you wasted a lot of time, but you haven't, any more than it was a waste to lay out my picture on two different sheets of paper.  The bits that don't show are still affecting what's around them.  The shape of the room is different because of the stove that's almost hidden by my figure's dress.  The shape of my invented society is different because of that myth that never actually made it into the story.  Sure, it's a lot of work, but the effort shows -even when it feels invisible.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A link

First, I wanted to let everyone know I'm not going to be posting next Saturday. I'll be without internet connection all next week.

Second, I have a link for you. Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars series, has been critiquing snippets of people's writing on Saturdays, and today she's posted some comments on mine. So, just in case you happen to be interested, the link is:
The Other Side of the Story: Real Life Diagnostics: Quirky Characters: Can You Relate?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wire Dancers

It's been awhile since I've had to say sorry, I'm not doing a long post today.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what I'm going to say.  I was out dancing all night last night (well, technically until midnight, just like Cinderella) and I'm just zonked.  Meanwhile, here's a picture of a wire sculpture I did in art class of -tada- dancers!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

They'd never do that

Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, talked about figuring out what a  character would never do, then putting them in a situation where they have to do that exact thing.  Breaking through your character's inhibitions can create some powerful scenes.  For example, going back to Darkwing Duck (what can I say?  I love those Disney cartoons.) in the two part pilot episode, Darkly Dawns the Duck, Darkwing tells us that he never works with anyone, and he never takes off his mask.  By the end of the pilot he's accepted a sidekick, adopted a daughter, and taken off his mask -at least during the daytime.  He's a stronger character for having moved past his self-imposed isolation.  

It reveals what a character is made of when you show why they'd change their mind about doing things they insisted they'd never do.  

My problem is that when I set down to list things my hero would never do, it's easy for me to come up with extremes.  Things like, My Character Would Never: A) blow up his home planet.  B) assassinate the president.  C) steal candy from babies.  Then I stare at my list and trying to think what would make my hero suddenly decide to blow up planets and steal candy from babies... and wonder if my hero even qualifies a hero anymore, and if maybe I'd better forget this whole `reveal what your character is really made of' thing since I'm obviously doing it wrong.

It's the same problem I ran into when I tried Maass's exercise of thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen to my character, and then making it happen.  I'd heard a few too many stories from Fox's Book of Martyrs in Sunday School as a kid, so no matter what character I used for the `worst thing' question, the answer always involved whips, brands, and possibly the rack.  

To do the exercises right, I finally had to tailor the questions to eliminate the extremes.  `What's the one thing my character would never do besides blowing up planets?'  `What's the worst that could happen that doesn't involve torture?'  It's easy to think of things that no one is likely to do, or that anyone would consider awful.  It takes a lot more work to invent the kind of character who would never work in a knitting factory and to whom the worst thing that could happen would be public speaking.  Once I figured out the trick to it, those exercises were a great way to build characters.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Animal stories

All the mice I've been drawing recently got me thinking about how much I love talking animal stories.  The great thing about casting a few animals is that you get an instant short-cut to certain character types.  Aesop didn't have to waste words describing his plodding protagonist and the flashy rival.  He just jumped in with `One day the tortoise and the hare...' 

Sometimes you can surprise your audience by playing with the expectations that come with animals.  Take Miss Piggy from the Muppets.  Pigs have a reputation for being selfish, and Miss Piggy is- but glamorous and skilled at karate?  Those aren't pig traits!  They make Miss Piggy unique.

Richard Adams cast rabbits as the wondering band of heroes in Watership Down.  Rabbits are constantly on the jump from predators, so he had plenty of built-in suspense right from the start.  The cliche of rabbits as easily frightened creatures makes the scene where Bigwig takes a stand and defends the burrow even more awesome.

Whether you're using animals to highlight a characteristic or to play against an archetype, animal characters have a way of illuminating a story.  Plus, they're lots of fun.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I love Disney's new movie, Tangled.  the graphics are gorgeous, the running jokes are actually funny, there's plenty of action, and the main characters are easy to relate to.  

The hero's back-story got me thinking about a certain element of writing, though.  You see, his back-story is mostly implied.  First he refused to give a back-story at all, and then when he finally did divulge his past, he still managed to gloss over it.  

The scene kind of reminded me of Dmitri in the animated Anastasia who's back-story is a) he once worked as a ragged kitchen boy and b) when asked if he'd miss his home he said, `St. Petersburg is just a place I once lived.  End of story.'   In other words, the movie makers were content to imply back-story rather than lay it out for their audience.

Implied back-story can be really effective.  It invites the audience to take part in the story by allowing them to invent all sorts of details for themselves.  It can also frustrating.  You're left never knowing for sure where the characters are coming from.  They had a whole life that you never get to hear about. 

On the other hand, you have the writers like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo who want to tell you everything.  Not only will they give you the life story of the main characters from the time of their great-grandparents, they'll also tell you about the great-grandparents of everyone said character comes into contact with.  (Victor Hugo is especially prone to this, which is why his novels are longer than the Telephone directory.)  

The result can be a world that feels very real.  Minor characters aren't just walk-on parts.  They have a whole life beyond the story.  On the down side, the main story can easily get lost among all the side characters.

I don't think there's really a right or wrong when it comes to how much back-story is good.  It's a matter of what fits the story you're telling.  Me, I like the lengthy back-stories.  (If I didn't, I'd steer clear of Victorian literature.)  What about you all?  Do you prefer when authors go into the character's life stories, or would you rather have the past life of the characters implied?  Or do you like a nice balance of the two?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mice in nice dresses

I've been drawing mice again.  This picture makes me think of Asop's The Country Mouse and the City Mouse, though the fable has nothing to do with the characters I drew. 

It's amazing how much one can tell about a character by their clothes.  You probably know a lot about my mice already just from how they're dressed.  The story of Cinderella hinges on clothes -shoes in particular.  Puss in Boots is all about getting ahead by dressing right.  I don't know if clothes make the mouse, but the outfits sure can be fun to come up with.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A nifty link

I've been talking a lot about plot twists lately , then I discovered that Shanna Swendson, author of the lovely Enchanted Inc. series did a post on the subject.  She managed to put a lot of things into words that I'd been thinking, but hadn't figured out how to say.  The post is here.  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Overlooking the Ordinary

One of life's great lessons: don't pick raspberries in clothes you care about.  I'm covered in scratches and purple stains.  The berries are worth it, though; sweet and tart at the same time, with tiny little seeds that always get caught in your teeth.  

And what, you ask, do raspberries have to do with literature?  (Unless, of course, you're too polite to ask, or maybe you're too distracted by thoughts of raspberries with shortcake and milk to care whether I have a pertinent topic.)  

When writing descriptions it's easy to overlook the ordinary moments that make a world seem real and lived in.  Right now I'm thinking about the smell of sunlight and sweat, the tug of thorns on my skirt and the end of my braid, the moment when I lean too far over the brambles to snatch a handful of berries and stumble a little to keep my footing.  

Every June I pick raspberries.  I'm downright experienced -but I've never written a story where the main character goes berry-picking.  Or shells peas.  Or pits cherries and accidentally spritzes themselves in the eye.  Those things are all so ordinary that I don't think of them when I set down to type.  

There is nothing wrong with writing about what you find exotic: in my case, princesses, and dragons, and swashbuckling heroes in cool hats.  But you shouldn't discount everyday details either.  They just might be exotic to someone else.  After all, not everyone is lucky enough to go raspberry picking.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Plot Twists

Boy, last post I talk about unreliable narrators, and this week I prove unreliable.  Sorry about the two day delay. 

The subject of unreliable narrators got me thinking about plot twists in general.  One of the best plot twists ever (in my opinion) is the ending of Rob Thurman's science fiction/suspense novel Chimera.  The twist was completely unexpected because the narrator himself didn't know he was unreliable.  

Agitha Christie manages to bend her plots into pretzel shapes, partly, I think, because it's the nature of mysteries to keep the narrator in the dark until the very last chapter.  It's the same logic that Holmes used in The Case of the Dying Detective.  When a person (or narrator)  doesn't know something, he's less likely to let it slip. 

If the readers identify strongly enough with the narrator they'll feel the shock of the twist, even if they happen to be one of those very genre savvy people who (unlike me) can see a twist coming while it's still juggling bananas two miles up the road. 

The most important thing isn't taking the reader by surprise, it's finding out how this character reacts when everything he thought turns out to be wrong. 

That's the story.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Unreliable Narrators

This picture is my excuse for skipping last Saturday's blog.  The orange stole, in case you're curious, is for being in Phi Theta Kappa, the cords are for academic achievements, and the metal is for blowing up the Death Star.  (I wish.  Actually it has to do with taking Honors classes and writing decent papers, but blowing up the Death Star sounds cooler.)

Speaking of people who -ahem- color the facts, today I wanted to talk about unreliable narrators.  Unfortunately for me, my favorite example is lost due to a remodeling project, so I'll have to try to explain why the book is awesome without the help of quotes.  (Sigh.)  

`The Complete Brigadier Gerrard' by Sir Arthur Connan Doyle, which can be found here on Amazon, is a book of short stories set during the Napoleonic wars.  Etienne Gerrard is a French Hussar who firmly believes he's the bravest hero to ever live.  Years after the wars end he's hanging around cafes telling his adventures to anyone who will listen -including the nameless person who writes down his stories.

Gerrard's adventures are pretty unbelievable and he often comes across as more buffoon than hero (in one story he escapes from a Dartmoor prison and gets chased all over the English countryside.  When he's finally recaptured, he discovers that the message he accidentally intercepted and was too honorable to open was, in fact, an order for his release).  On the whole, Gerrard comes across as a naive man who thinks he's suave.  His overly idealistic notions of honor get him into trouble and prove exactly how worldly-wise he... isn't.  

As the stories progress, though, you stop seeing him as this poor bumpkin and start rooting for him.  You realize you want to believe he's as heroic as he makes himself out to be.  Doyle makes chivalry and heroism something worth striving for, and the fact that Gerrard so often falls short only makes him all the more lovable.  

Doyle is always a master of style and he gets his readers right where he wants them.  By making Gerrard so over-the-top with his ego Doyle invites us to suspend our disbelief.  Then, while you're chuckling at his humor and completely off guard, he hits you with scenes of chivalry and courage that leave you with your throat tight, desperately blinking to get the blurry wetness out of your eyes.

Pretty devious for a nineteenth century writer.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Out and About

Hi, this is just a heads-up to let you all know I'm not posting this Saturday.  I'm going to be in Virginia, attending my brother's graduation. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Nothing to Fear...

Fear of change.  

I'll be graduating from community collage in a few weeks, so I can say first hand that change is downright scary.  You're life's been going along all normal when suddenly you see a turn up ahead and realize anything at all could be on the other side.  Yikes!

A lot of story characters yearn for change, for adventure.  They're desperate to know what's around the next bend.  It's easy to see why those people make for great heroes.  You don't have to prod them at all.  They're raring to go.  Just point them at the plot and stand back!  (Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles is one such character.)  But there are plenty of protagonists who don't like change at all.  

One of my favorites is Muggles from Carol Kendall's The Gammage Cup.  Muggles rarely ventures an opinion because she hates to make waves.  All she wants is for everyone around her to be safe and content, and as the story progresses, we see that she's willing to go to great lengths -even face banishment!- in order to protect her quiet little village.    

People who wait for problems to come to them can be wonderfully interesting heroes. The stakes have to be high to push them into heroism, but once those quiet, unassuming character decide to act, you know they mean busyness.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter everyone!

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by his stripes we are healed. - Isaiah 53:4&5.

Hope you all have a terrific Easter.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Phantom of the Opera

Last week I mentioned going to see a local high-school performance of `Phantom of the Opera.'  I was a bit too worn down to write about the experience that evening (so worn down that I now have a cold that makes me sound like Daffy Duck) but I thought now would be a good time to talk a little about the experience.

First of all, I went with a great group of friend and family.  There's something about company to a theater that magnifies the experience.  When a particularly funny or dramatic moment happens on stage you can glance over at the people you're with to catch their expression.  

Second, seeing things live allows you to experience the story in a way you just can't  when listening to a CD.  I never got the full impact of the song `Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again' until last Saturday.  It is a truly awesome, showstopping song -and I never knew.  In fact, it's one of the songs I've always had a tendency to press skip-track for.

Third -is it just me, or are highschool students getting younger?  I admit, it's hard to properly appreciate the tragedy and horror of the story when you keep thinking, "aww, those kids are so cute up there on stage." 

There's something about a live performance that connects the audience with the story in a way that no other art form does.  Plays have been around in one form or another since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and no matter how technologically advanced society becomes, I doubt that's going to change.  People like hanging out with people sharing the experience, showing their appreciation directly, clapping until their hands are tired to make the kids on stage take just one more bow.

What can I say?  I love theater.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A little swamped

I just wanted to let everyone know the reason I didn't post today is that I got a little over-busy juggling homework, and didn't have time.  (Well that, and I just went to see an excellent High-school performance of Phantom of the Opera.)  Sorry to leave you all post-less this week.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scrooge in Blue

A rather grumpy looking still life I did a few years back.  The attitude of this resin fake-rock head tickles my funny-bone.  I call him `Scrooge in Blue'.  I wasn't going to upload another picture so soon (I'm worried that my constant art may be getting monotonous) but I've been working on a school project all day, and just didn't have the energy to come up with a decent blog subject.  Hope you all have a great week!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Contrasting Colors

In my Elements of Style II class, we're learning all about opposites on the color wheel, how colors are made more vibrant by strong contrast.  The same is true of characters.  Maybe a really high-strung character makes everything his laid-back friend says sound like an understatement, or a really cautious person makes his adrenaline-junkie pal out to be insane.  They can drive each other crazy -which is fun to watch.  They can also balance each other out.  

Charles Dickens loves balancing his characters this way.  Bookish but naive Mr. Pickwick is balanced by his friendship with the streetwise but illiterate Sam Weller.  Robert Louis Stevenson shows the cultural difference between the lowland and highland Scots of the time by pairing Alan Breck Stewart with Davie Balfour.  A strong contrast shows who a character is by revealing who they aren't.  Not a bad trick -in print or paint.   

On a completely different subject, I am thinking about changing the name of my blog to `Lit Geek' since I haven't been rambling much about fairy-tales recently.  What do you think?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rediscovering Shakespeare

I first fell in love with Shakespeare back in high-school.  My family all came down with chicken-pox so mom decided to read `The Merchant of Venice' to us.  `The Merchant of Venice' has everything a great story needs; deadly peril, disguises, a fairy-tale trial to win the lady.  (Am I the only one who thought of Portia's casks while watching the end of `Indian Jones and the Last Crusade'?)  I was so enamored by the story that I read all Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, and even typed up my own `Shakespearean style' tragedy and forced my siblings to help act it out. 

After all this time, I can come at Shakespeare from a different angle.  I've taken Classical Mythology, so now I actually understand his references to Greek and Roman myths.  I have some idea who those people getting married in the background of `A Midsummer Night's Dream' are (though I still don't have a clue why a bunch of Greeks are tangling with English fairies.)  The same thing happened to me when re-reading first and second Kings in the Bible.  After my Survey of Art classes, I actually understood the descriptions of Solomon's temple.

It is interesting how new knowledge and experiences can change the way you read.  They add context and texture.  Sometimes they open up what used to be obscure, so you find yourself saying `oh yeah, I get it now.'  This spring I'm getting my AA in English Lit and in Art.  I'm glad to be graduating, but I've got to say, I've really enjoyed the classes, and the way my studies have shaded the way I look at life.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Dragon

Sorry for the late post.  I was a little under the weather today.  I thought you all might like a picture that's a little less black-and-white so I decided to upload... da-da-dun... monochrome!  (Exciting, huh?)  

I love dragons, and not just because they're fun to draw.  Dragons add a sense of uncertainty to a story. They're untamed and unpredictable.  That makes them a lot of fun.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Less than Fatal Flaws

I've been watching a lot of the old Disney Afternoon TV shows lately (ah, nostalgia, they name is `lets see how long I can put off doing my collage homework.') and I've noticed quite a few characters fall under what TV tropes calls Mr Vice Guy .  Scrooge McDuck turns stinginess into an art form.  Baloo of TaleSpin puts most of his energy into trying to get out of work.  Darkwing Duck can barely reign in his ego (and usually doesn't try).  

You'd think such obviously flawed characters wouldn't be so completely lovable, but despite their failings, these guys are portrayed as heroes.  Scrooge may love money, but he'll always stick to honest labor to get it -and will thoroughly trounce those who prefer dishonest means.  Baloo may try to get out of work, but he's never too lazy to rescue his friends when they're in trouble.  Darkwing Duck may grumble and glower when the media once again fails to notice his heroism, but that doesn't stop him from being a terrific father, or from saving the city.

I think there's something empowering about reading or watching characters who have to struggle against themselves in order to save the day.  After all, don't we have to do the same?  Maybe we don't face down super villains or air pirates, but we often have to fight our own egos, or laziness, or greed.  Seeing heroes who have to go through the same man against self (or bear or duck against self) is reassuring that we're not the only ones whose better natures have to wage war in order to come out on top.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Some More Thoughts on Writing Schedules.

This is a portrait I did a few years ago of Fortunato Hobbs (Nato for short) from my Blanche and Nato story.

After some careful thought about my last post, I've decided to give myself some leeway on the `every Saturday' thing.  If I feel like the commitment is bound in stone I'm less likely to be able to think of anything to say.  Also, I have a feeling that my blogging might slide a little during midterms and finals, and I don't want to feel guilty if that happens. 

I still think it's important to commit to writing, but I also think it's easy to let the commitment frighten you off from putting down words.   

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's Saturday again

I have nothing to say, which by rights would mean not putting my words out in the world.  However, a few months ago I decided I would try to post something every Saturday, so here I am on Blogger.  It's amazing how a schedule can motivate a person to sit down and write.  The words become part of your routine, and you get antsy if you don't tap them out.  It's tempting to let something (like a blog post) go undone when the week's been long but as soon as you let it slide you've opened the door to future excuses.  So here is a short post to remind myself that this is Saturday, and to keep my routine intact.

How about you guys?  Do you like to schedule writing, or do you just let the whim take you when it will?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy (late) Valentine's day, everyone.  Just think, only two more weeks until March.  Today's picture is titled Cecy meeting Count Carlos on the Castle Stairs.  (Yeah, I'm really imaginative when it comes to titles.)  This is the first big drawing I did on my own initiative after I'd had a couple art classes and learned how to do decent shading.  I'm still really proud of it, even though I never did get the stairs quite right.  (Sigh.) 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Words, Words, Words.

One of my favorite writing books, Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck, has a chapter about using objects to help build characters.  What a person owns says a lot about them, and can also remind the reader of important past events without the author having to do a recap.  

A huge moment in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is when Indiana's famous hat rolls out in the dirt.  You know Indian has arrived and some serious adventure is about to start -after all, if his hat's on the scene he's got to be nearby.  Sometimes a certain word or phrase can take on the same importance as an object.  For example, "All for one and one for all" instantly makes a person think of The Three Musketeers.  

The power, I think, of catchphrases, is that they remind you how well you know these characters.  You feel a little shiver of familiarity and you grin in expectation, or maybe you start to seriously worry, depending on what usually follows that phrase.  Perhaps a character says "nothing can go wrong now," and you want to reach right into the story and slam your hand over their mouth because you know that something really bad is about to happen.  

Catchphrases can be like movie music.  The battle-cry that makes you catch your breath the same way a sudden musical swell does.  The jinx words that make you shift uneasily -just as if creepy music had begun to play across the page.

Of course, a person doesn't want to overdo it with the catchwords and catchphrases or your characters become flat, but the power of catchphrases shouldn't be ignored, either.  In Through the Looking Glass Humpty-Dumpty suggests that the speaker (or writer) controls the meaning of the words he uses.  Catchphrases are one more trick for taming those words.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chicory Relaxing

This is a picture of the real Chicory -a mouse I started writing about back when I was a teenager.  I've found, since, that the tougher life is the more likely I am to write fluff.  The teenage years are about as rough as life gets, so naturally Chicory is a very fluffy character.  After all this time I'm still fond of her, and she's still one of my favorite things to draw.   

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Have you ever noticed that when you read a book that has `whimsical' in the description, the story is often disturbing?  As I kid, I found Louis Carrol's Alice stories morbidly fascinating.  The landscape shifts and changes like those in a dream.  People morph into animals and back without warning.  The story is mind-bending as a Dali painting, and I read it over and over trying to figure out what was going on!  I like the Alice books now.  I get the puns, and the unfamiliar landscape has become comfortable with associated memories.  But when I see advertisements for Burton's interpretation, I'm not surprised that they look a bit chilling.  It is, after all, a disturbing story.

There are several whimsical books that I just adore.  Jame Thurber's `The 13 Clocks' is high on the list.  The pictures are almost all night scenes, the epilogue, in which we discover the fate of the evil duke, is chilling.  But the story has such lovely language.  My favorite line is about the Golux, an odd little man with "a describable beard and and indescribable hat." The line is: "The Golux did not seem wonderful to him now, and even his indescribable hat was suddenly describable."  Thurber frolics with words.  The result has the feel of a fairy-tale -not what people think of when one says fairy-tale, but an actual fairy-tail, where danger is close, and every night is ridden with storms.

What makes a story whimsical seems to be a certain mood, a willingness to play with language.  The worlds are as fluid as the words, and there's a habit of turning expressions into reality, or just looking at things sideways, that shifts perception in the reader.  It's unsettling, but it's also fascinating.  And that makes whimsical books worth reading.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A picture of Princess Blanche

I decided to see if I could upload a picture on my blog, and it turns out that I can.  This is a drawing of Princess Blanchefleur Alicorn.  It's not a perfect likeness (I originally imagined her with scads of curly hair, mainly due to K. Y. Craft's lovely picture book of the `Twelve Dancing Princesses') But I am still rather proud of how my picture came out. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Love in Adaptions

I've just discovered the new BBC `Sherlock' which puts Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in a modern setting.  I've only actually seen two episodes- the un-aired pilot, called A Study in Pink (A play on Holme's first case, A Study in Scarlet) and the episode The Great Game - but I was impressed.  The producers really cared about Sir. Arthur Connan Doyle's amazing consulting detective, and it showed.  They remembered that Watson is a young army doctor, discharged after he was wounded in battle -and that he carries his gun into dangerous cases.  Also, Sherlock isn't a celebrity until Watson starts writing about him.  

It got me thinking about another screen adaption of a series I love: namely The Chronicles of Narnia.    The producers could have left the background creatures as just that -background- but they chose, instead, to try and make their mythic creatures as `real' and detailed as possible.  I think my favorite moment in the movies is where the father Centaur helps his little girl straiten her sword.  The Centaurs are usually so stern and warlike, that seeing a soft family moment gives me the warm fuzzies in a big way.

Love and respect is evident all over BBC's Sherlock and the new Chronicles movies, and that love and respect makes it easy for the audience to love the movies too.  In writing, you hear a lot about the importance of getting details right.  I guess what it comes down to is respect.  If you respect the world you're creating it shines through, and that makes it easy for your audience to care too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This week I read Gerald Morris's latest book, `Legend of the King,' the final installment in his humorous  `Squire's Tales' series.  In the series, Morris retells stories about the knights of King Arthur.  The books are funny and engaging whether or not one is familiar with the stories they're based on, but for people who have read some of the original stories, the humor takes on added layers.  There's a hilarious passage in the second book describing a shield that always has me in stitches -not just because of the way its written but also because I recognize the passage it's based on -the only dull section in an otherwise gripping 14th century poem called `Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.  

So much power in a retelling comes from the audience's knowledge of the source material.  You can twist a familiar story to surprise your audience.  You can create suspense just by mentioning a character the audience knows is going to play a nasty role.  (The BBC TV show Merlin is fond of that tactic.)  Often the original fairy tales or legends are just the bare bones of a story.   The fun is in the telling, and sometimes the audience forgets that they know the outcome.  Shannon Hale's `Goose Girl' and Gail Carson Levine's `Ella Enchanted' are both that way.  They make you forget you know the story, so the end is comes as a surprise. Sometimes the original story just serves as a backdrop to the author's real story, so what happens to the characters is not predetermined by the tale after all, like Tia Nevitt's `The Sevenfold Spell' (the only story I mentioned here that isn't mid-grade or young adult.)  

What are your favorite retelling, and why?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thinking about the Saga of the Volsung

This week I discovered the answer to what has long been (to me) one of the great literary mysteries: why did Siegfried, the hero of Wagner's Ring Cycle, kill his mentor on the word of a couple birds?  I mean, can you picture what would happen in modern times if Siegfried tried to get off a murder charge with `But your honor, some birds said he was plotting to kill me and steal my dragon gold.  It was self defense!'  

Okay, I know that one cannot understand an ancient epic if one tries to read it with a modern mindset, but every time I came across that particular part in the story, my mind would start shouting `hold it Siegfried!  Who're you going to believe?  The guy who raised you, or a bunch of flighty birds?'  And every time, Siegfried picked the birds.  

This week, I finally read The Saga of the Volsung (translated by Jesse Byock.) which is the story on which Wagner's Ring Cycle was based. There the birds say one line that gave Siegfried a genuine motive for killing his mentor:  "He is not as wise as I thought if he spares Regin after having killed his brother."  

Now, in The Saga of the Volsung, the poet has just finished giving numerous examples of how vitally important avenging blood-kin is to the Nordic people.  It's a matter of honor.  Regin is lamenting the fact that he sent our hero (called Sigurd in this version) to kill his brother, the dragon Fafnir.  Suddenly the Siegfried/Sigurd's actions make sense.  Regin really is a threat, and if Sigurd had thought about it two seconds, he'd have realized that without the birds even telling him so.  Since in Wagner's version, Siegfried's mentor is no relation to the dragon, that motivation gets lost. 

All of this got me thinking about myths, and legends, and fairy tales.  So often when you're reading a fairy-tale there will be a piece that just doesn't work.  Someone will toss their comb over their shoulder and it'll transform into an impenetrable forest or something, and you'll be left scratching your head, wondering how the hero knew to toss his comb in the first place.  Likely it all made sense to the original audience -just as Sigurd killing Regin makes sense once you know that Regin is the dragon's brother and would be honor-bound to try to kill Sigurd.  People's attitudes change over time, and when stories don't change with them, well, that's where you get a lot of weirdness.  

One thing I love to do when writing is invent myths, legends, and fairy-tales for my story culture.  Thinking about what people used to believe gives you a wonderful foundation for deciding what people believe currently.  Even when attitudes shift, something of the old often lingers.  

So what about you guys?  Anyone else who uses invented myths and fairy-tales as an important building block in writing?  Anyone have a favorite fairy-tale or legends with pieces that just don't make sense?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A bit unwell

Well, once again I am blogging to say I'm not blogging.  I managed to catch whatever is going around, and all I'm good for today is reading, sipping hot tea, and (ahem) eating medicial chocolate.  (In movies people are always passing someone a bottle for medicial purposes.  The teetotallers among us need a medicial pick-me-up once in awhile too.)  I hope you all are doing well, despite the flue season being hard upon us.  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

The New Year has me thinking about one of my Christmas presents.  My sister got me a DVD of `Nim's Island.'  The movie is about courage.  At one point Nim's father says that courage is made up of hundreds of smaller choices.  That struck me a very true and profound.  So much of a person's life is little decisions that snowball to form them into who they are.  And sometimes you don't know what sort of person you are until you've passed through a difficult situation and can see what choices you made.

I know I've surprised myself a time or two.  I've done things I never thought I'd do, but when the time came to make a choice I found out I wasn't exactly who I thought I was, after all.  They weren't earth-shattering decisions, but a choice doesn't have to be big to someone watching -and might even seem stupid or cowardly- and still be the bravest thing you've ever done.  

One of the exercises in Donald Maast's `Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook' is to have your character do something they would never do, while still acting completely in character.  When you think about it, that exercise is all about getting past who your characters think they are to find out who they are in truth.  

So, what are your thoughts on courage?  Is it just rushing into burning buildings, or fighting monsters, or can it be small things, too, like taking your kid to kindergarten and walking away, or visiting someone who's grieving, even though you don't feel like you're any good at comforting people? Or is courage something else entirely?