George Elliot’s MIDDLEMARCH, and Keeping Readers Engaged for the Long Haul

Eight hundred sixty-four pages.

When talented photographer and fellow blogger Arti announced that she would be hosting a “Middlemarch in May” Read-Along, I couldn’t resist.

I’d never read anything by George Elliot, but Middlemarch was ranked as the best English novel of all time. The full list of “best 100” included some of my favorites, and I was excited to read the book that had defeated them.

My excitement dimmed just a little when I saw it waiting for me on the library’s hold shelf- all 836 pages of it.

While I love to lose myself in the winding paths of a good story, the weight of the book made me wonder if I  might have signed on for as much work as pleasure.

Still, I reasoned, there must be something about this hefty tome that made it endure, something to make the story of people living in a provincial town in 1820s and 30s England resonate with readers today.

I dove in

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Photo courtesy of Anastasia Zhenina via. Unsplash.com

When I emerged three weeks later and had reacquainted myself with my family, I felt like, just maybe, I had found what that something is.

Yes, Middlemarch has some slow bits. Some of the obscure medical and historical references bogged me down- thank goodness my book had copious end notes! Also, while I’m sure the issues surrounding the 1832 Reform Act were important, I don’t have much (all right, any) background in 1800s British politics.*

But the characters…the characters kept me coming back.

Middlemarch Rosamond
“Of course she had to finish reading. I’m so pretty, who wouldn’t want to read about me? We should really be richer, though, don’t you think Tertius?”   “Sigh. Yes, dear Rosamond.”

It’s not necessarily that I found Elliot’s characters likeable. Some of them would be the sort of friends who, when their name showed up on your caller id, you might be tempted to ignore.

No, the people of Middlemarch felt too real to be entirely likeable. And because they felt so real, both in their failings and their triumphs, I couldn’t help but finish the journey with them. I had to see where they ended up, because in each of them I could see a little bit of myself.

If Middlemarch were  painting rather than a book, no flat, cartoonish portrayal of characters would do. With words rather than brushstrokes, Elliot shaded in her characters’ personalities: a stroke of light here to show their strengths and successes, offset by the deep shadows of flaws and failings.

With 836 pages to work with, I had ample time to get to know the young heiress, passionately spiritual, who only wanted to dedicate herself to something great, to serve in some profound way. Unfortunately, she was so set on doing this that she didn’t take enough time to consider if she were attaching herself to the right cause.

I watched with pity the ageing scholar, who hoped for happiness, hoped for success in his endeavors, but was warped and bent inward by worry, and caged by self-doubt.

I walked beside the talented young doctor, sure of himself and his abilities, unwilling to sacrifice his ambitions for anything. He was so self-assured, he failed to see that his hasty marriage might threaten it all.

Mary Garth and Fred
“Why doesn’t she talk about us, Mary?” “Well, there are an awful lot of characters, Fred.”

Elliot, the omniscient narrator, sketched her characters through description and observation, then shaded them in using the observations of her other characters, and finally breathed life into them by showing how they reacted to their world.

In the end, it was almost as if the people populating Middlemarch were the ones who took my hand and led me through their story. (Well, maybe sometimes they got behind and pushed me through the rough patches.)

All in all, Middlmarch was not only an excellent example of complex and realistic characters, but it was also an excellent encouragement to continue refining my own characters. After all, they need to be ready and equipped to lead readers on the journey through their world.

Have you read Middlemarch? What did you think of it? Can you think of other stories with striking, detailed characters?

Many thanks for visiting!

 

* If you want a summary of the book, here’s one that includes links for character descriptions etc.

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Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene

wedding photoI do not come from an emotive people.

I’m a Midwesterner by birth. The joke goes that there are three standard responses in our conversations.

#1: “That’s not too bad.” This is suitable for any event from neutral to amazingly super awesome.

#2: “That’s not too good.” This choice works for anything from a minor inconvenience to tragedy.

If choices 1 and 2 just won’t do, the fall back is choice #3: “That’s different.”

Take that and apply it to romance…well, an old Ole and Lena joke comes to mind. (Best read in a thick Minnesota accent.)

Ole comes into the house to find Lena crying.

“Lena, what’s da matter?”

“Oh Ole,” she answers, wiping her eyes. “It’s just…”

“Yes?”

“Ole, you never tell me you love me.”

Ole walks over, and pats her on the shoulder. “Aw, Lena. I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If something had changed…I would’ve let you know.”

Ba doom, Ching!

It’s not that my husband and I are not affectionate, and it’s possible that we might be overheard using the “L” word, but we don’t generally gush poetry as we gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

That much emotion, publicly expressed, is just not comfortable.

In the setting of a novel, I’ll admit it, a bit of romance is “not too bad.” Still, even getting a book out of the library with a cover that clearly indicates that it’s a love story makes me squirmy. Thank goodness for self-checkout…

Unfortunately, the catalyst that gets the murder and mayhem in my novel moving is (you guessed it) a romantic interest. If I wanted to write my book, I had to write convincing romantic-ish scenes. That other people would read.

Riiiiiiiiight.

I steeled myself. It couldn’t be that bad.

The first draft was…ok. I felt like some of it was heavy-handed, but I didn’t know how to make it better, and it sounded kind of like some things I’d read, so I went with it.

After substantial polishing, I entered the novel in a writing contest.

Guess what? I should have followed my instincts. They thought it was heavy-handed too. I got called out on the same bits that I hadn’t been entirely comfortable with in the first place.

Back to the drawing board.

With feedback from the contest and considerable editing, I found a few tricks that helped ease my discomfort, and (hopefully) improved the finished work.

Keep Dialogue Tight

First, I hacked and slashed unnecessary dialogue. Anything that didn’t sound like real life or made me squirm was deleted, and I discovered that the story didn’t lose any clarity for it. Allowing characters emotions etc. to be implied rather than stated strengthened those scenes and helped the story move along.

 

i love you more
“No, I love YOU more!”

 

Pick the Best POV

Second, I changed points of view. Rather than using the ‘love interests’ to narrate, I shifted POV to my antagonist whenever possible. He’s really my most interesting character, and his observations kept things from getting sugary while still letting the reader know the essentials.

spies David Sinclare

It’s All About the Characters

Third, I strengthened the characters. I knew the characters I was writing well enough to know exactly why they would end up together. Based on the contest feedback, I hadn’t conveyed those characteristics clearly.  I believe the phrase was something like “stock characters in main characters’ roles.” Ouch!

Since then, I’ve had a good time getting to know my characters better, developing them, giving them more personality and authentic emotion. It’s been work, but it’s rewarding to see not just the romance but all of the scenes getting stronger.

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So. Have I mastered the dreaded romantic scene?

Nope.

Plenty of authors handle that much better than I. BUT, I think I can safely say that I’ve come up with a story that fits my voice better than my first attempts, and something that I can hand off for others to read with greater confidence.

What do you like to see in a good love scene? Any tips, writers or readers?

Three Questions To Ask When Choosing Your Research Sources

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One of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction is keeping it “historical.”

Since all of my current stories are set in the 30s and 40s, I’m required to know all sorts of minutia, from skirt lengths to cigarette brands to how to simulate silk stockings when there are none to be had. Research takes more time than writing, some days.

Finding sources isn’t particularly difficult. Finding trustworthy ones- that’s the trick.

The internet is full of information, some of it true, some well-meaning but mistaken, and some blatant lies. I enjoy scouring the library’s shelves for texts on my topics, but paper and binding aren’t a guarantee of accuracy, either.

It can be frustrating, but I’ve found that asking a few simple questions eliminates  unreliable sources quickly, and gets me back on track.

1. Who wrote it?

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Photo courtesy of Braydon Anderson via unsplash.com

A quick visit to a site’s “about” page, a scroll to the bottom of the screen, or a peek at the sleeve of a book can reveal a great amount of information.

Is the author a primary source, in other words someone who actually witnessed the events they’re writing about? Are they an expert in their field? Is it a hobbyist who uses reliable sources they’ve uncovered? Are they affiliated with a particular group or philosophy? Or are they just a mysterious voice from some dark corner of the Web?

Personally, I dig for primary sources whenever I can. Diaries, memoirs etc. have the benefit of giving historical information, plus a ‘feel’ for the era. I pair these with books written by experts, especially ones with long lists of primary sources that they used in their research. (I may as well let someone who’s paid to do the research do some of it for me!)

 

2. Why did they write it?

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Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson, via unsplash.com

Most writing can be fit into one of three broader categories: writing to inform, to entertain, or persuade. It’s helpful to discern what an author’s purpose is, because their purpose will affect the way they present their information. Are they going to just list carefully researched facts, or are they going to arrange  them strategically to try to elicit a reaction from their readers?

One key to figuring out an author’s purpose is to look at their use of facts vs. opinions.

A fact is something verifiable, something that can be tested and proven.  An opinion is a conclusion that an individual draws, generally from their perception of facts.

Canned Spam played a role as a food source during World War 2: Fact.

Spam is tasty if you cook it right: Opinion.

It’s almost impossible to write without including opinion statements. However, I ask myself, does the source use facts to strengthen and verify their opinions?

“She was a terrible girlfriend,” is one person’s opinion. However, if you tell me that the terrible girlfriend never silenced her phone during movies, vandalized his apartment, insulted his mother, and kicked his kitten every time she came in the door, I’ll probably agree with your opinion.

Of course, not all facts are created equal.

It’s a pretty clear sign that an author is trying to convince you of their point of view if they fall into using “ad hominem” statements. Meaning “against the person,” these statements use facts that don’t have any bearing on the discussion at hand. The goal is to tarnish the person’s character.

For instance, if “She was a terrible girlfriend” were supported by the facts that she flunked her seventh grade Social Studies exam and once got arrested for jay-walking, first, I’d wonder if anyone actually does get arrested for jay-walking, because I’d better be more careful, and then I’d wonder what those facts have to do with her girlfriendliness, and question the reliability of the author.

3. How does it compare to other sources?

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Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

One day I was researching Rudolf Hess’ bizarre choice to parachute into Scotland, alone, to try to create peace between Nazi Germany and Great Britain. I poked around the internet, and found a site that seemed to have a pretty thorough account.

It didn’t take too long to see that the author was a pretty big fan of Hess. And it was odd that he kept trying to blame Poland for Germany’s invasion…

Oh. It was a neo-Nazi site.

It took me far longer to figure that out that it should have, but there were no swastikas, the site title and footer didn’t tell anything about the writer’s philosophies, and the writing tone was calm and reasonable, even using real quotes to back up his points.

Aha! The quotes!

The quotes were the first thing that gave him away. You see, I’d read the books he was taking the quotes from. He used the words of Churchill and other Allied leaders verbatim, but completely out of context, and in such a way that they supported his bias. Closer examination of the other facts revealed an unreliable source.

It’s essential for accuracy to take time to look at multiple sources, and multiple types of sources. (Don’t get caught by internet sites that just copy and paste from each other!) Not only can a broad base of infomation help us catch errors and false information, but different sources provide varied points of view. They round out our understanding of people and events. They make our stories richer.

Do you have any advice on finding reliable sources, questions you ask, or stories to share?

Happy researching, reading and writing! I’m off to research the effects of my morning coffee on my laundry folding skills.

Many thanks for visitng!

 

 

 

 

 

What If My Writing Stinks, and I Don’t Know It?

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“I was given a manuscript to read, but it was so bad I sent it back/deleted it immediately.”

“A friend asked me to read their writing. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything nice to say, so I just gave it back and said I didn’t have the time.”

“I wrote my first novel and it still sits in my garage- I was so proud of it at the time, but now I realize how awful it is.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve poked around in the world of writing at all, you’ve probably run into stories like these.

These stories speak to the deepest, most neurotic corner of my heart, and they tell me one thing:

“Your writing is possibly, even probably awful, and you’re just too close to see it.”

The temptation to burn the whole mess, (in effigy of course, let’s not get crazy here. I still want my laptop for recipes,) is strong. Just kill the story, move on with non-creative pursuits, stay happy and safe from rejection. I’d sure get more house cleaning done…

Deep breaths. Stay calm.

Writing is an art. Taste is subjective, BUT there are definite markers for good vs. flame-worthy.

The following are a few things I’ve tried, hoping to ensure quality.

  1. Find Safe Readers.

I’ve run into a great deal of professional advice telling me not to lean on people I know as readers- especially not relatives or friends. As a newbie to this whole ‘biz, I’m going to come right out and say I ignored this. I needed readers who were going to leave me unbloodied from my first exposure as an adult author.

I was fortunate to have people who were both very literate, and honest enough to let me know if the overall project should probably be kept ‘just for me.’ After my book passed the eyes of four people I trusted, it was ready for the next step.

  1. Find ‘Scary’ Readers

I entered my novel- a much earlier draft- in the Athanatos Christian Writing Contest. I made the first judging cut, (yay!) but not the finals, (sigh.) Besides the experience of exposing my writing to professional scrutiny, I received a whoooole bunch of feedback.

Warning: Taking professional feedback was hard.

Still, once I got over the initial “But…but…but…” reaction to some of the constructive criticism, I was able to put it to work for me, and come out with a MUCH stronger draft of the story than I started with. The experience was valuable and enlightening.

  1. EDIT.

I’m not sure WHAT draft I’m officially on, and I still find sentences that could be strengthened and errors that I taught students to avoid. I’ve read, reread, taken a break and then read again. Articles by other authors have been invaluable in pointing out common errors- apparently I am very fond of adverbs, and unnecessary speech tags.

  1. Read Aloud

Especially in the case of dialogue, something might look great in type, but once you say the words you realize they sound bad enough to make angels weep.   I hyperbolize, but seriously, reading aloud has helped me pay more attention to word choice and flow. My kids look at me like I’m crazy as I go around talking to myself, but they did that anyway.

  1. Read Other Books

Apparently my female protagonist’s name was an extremely overused one. Who knew?

Avoiding clichés is easier if you know what other authors have written. Also, excellent authors encourage me to rethink word choices, to stretch and to grow.

  1. Don’t give up!

If we give up, we’ll never succeed, or even improve! If one piece doesn’t pan out, the next might be better!

Besides, let’s face reality. If I give up now, the house won’t really get any cleaner- I’ll just be out one more excuse.

Writers, do you have any tips to share that strengthen your writing and allay your fears? I first posted this one a year ago, and I’m on another wild editing spree- I could use them! 😀

Thanks as always for visiting!

The R-Rated Coffee Stand and the Importance of Knowing Your Genre

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Photo courtesy of rawpixel on Unsplash.com. Mmm. I need to refill my coffee cup now…

All I wanted was a nice cup of coffee.

The drive around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula winds and twists beside Lake Crescent, near temperate rainforests populated by all sorts of wildlife: herds of elk, blacktailed deer, even cougars. I needed to be alert.

When we saw a drive-through coffee stand ahead, I decided to give it a try.

Shacks peddling over-priced coffees line Washington’s roads, bearing names like “Bean Me Up” and “Express Espresso.”

This one’s name surprised me- “Bouncing Betty’s.”

My first thought was something like:

“Bouncing Betty” anti-personnel mine circa WW2

Naming a coffee shop after an anti-personnel mine seemed a little…well, tasteless. I reasoned that maybe they were just trying to indicate that their coffee was very powerful.

Whatever. That sixteen ounce non-fat white mocha was calling my name. I pulled up to the window.

I’m not sure if the barrista’s name was Betty. She didn’t have anything to pin a name tag on to.

We don’t need to discuss just how quickly I drove away after she bounced away to help the customer at the other window. We also don’t need to talk about whether I distracted the kids by pretending there was a herd of elk  running past the car on the other side, all the while waiting for one of them to pipe up in that extra audible voice kids save for awkward situations, “Mommy? Where’s her shirt?” 

Nope. The point is, whether due to unclear marketing on the part of the shop, or due to  me being a little clueless, I ended up at a shop for which I was not the target audience.

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Image courtesy of Jamie Taylor on Unsplash.com

Has something similar ever happened to you when picking up a new book?

One of my friends grabbed a book off the library shelf a few years back. The cover featured an intriguing old castle, and the blurb described it as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Then she started reading it, and got to the S and M parts…

Believe me, if you knew my friend, you’d join me in having a good chuckle at her expense (and don’t worry, she’d join in). She was not the author’s target audience.

The desire to avoid this kind of confusion gives authors and booksellers a major incentive to categorize their books by genre. Romances, mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories are neatly grouped for the reader’s convenience.

It’s not a bad system. Unless, of course, you aren’t sure into which genre your book fits.

Personally, I’ve found determining my unpublished book’s exact genre a headache. I can say I’m writing historical fiction, but there are dozens of sub-categories of genre to sift through, each with its own rules. If I’d been a little more forward-thinking I would have been smarter and researched all of these rules BEFORE writing the thing.

Ah well. It’s one of those headaches that I’ll just have to live through.

After all, going back to the coffee shop comparison, I don’t want someone picking my book up expecting a “Natte Latte” and being disappointed with a “Thinking Cup.”

To keep that from happening, it’s important to realize that a thriller, which has world changing stakes and a ticking clock, is different from a suspense novel or crime fiction.

Whatever genre the book fits into will influence the cover art, the blurb on the back, even the title. After all, you don’t expect to pick up a book with a smoking gun on the cover and read on the back, “This heartwarming romantic comedy…”

Now, my ability to explain all of the nuances of book genre off the top of my head are currently equal to my ability to produce a double half-fat frapuccino. I could probably find the directions online and make a passable attempt, but why not let the experts do it?

Following are a couple of excellent and interesting resources:

Blogger Kristen Lamb gives some great (and entertaining) insights on the importance of genre, as well as giving some good genre definitions  here.

Jacqui Murray has been doing an “A-Z” series on different genres, defining them and giving examples. Here is her blog post on genres in the letter “B” as in blog.

Do you have any other sources to share? Have you had any struggles determining the genre of your writing? Have you had any surprises when someone else’s genre was unclear?

Thanks for visiting!

 

Better Beta Readings

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Photo courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla, unsplash.com. No, that’s not my desk. I WISH my workspace was that neat. And that it had coffee… Sorry! Focusing on the blog…

It never fails to surprise me when, in spite of my best efforts, typos slip into my writing.

I proofread my blog posts until my eyes won’t focus. I’ve proofread my longer pieces until I can’t stand to look at them any more.

Perfection still eludes me.

And that is where a good beta reader becomes invaluable.

A beta reader is a second set of eyes- someone who will look over my work and assist in the editing process.

Before I knew what a ‘beta reader’ was, I beta read for a friend’s self-published book. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what I was doing.

The teacher in me knew how to correct a student’s paper.

Critiquing the work of an adult peer, especially without the benefit of a hard copy and my trusty red pen, was a different matter.

Since then I’ve worked with several beta readers on my novel and shorter pieces, and served as beta reader for several friends.

The following are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Cookies Work for Adults, Too. 

The “Oreo Cookie” method of peer critiquing is a trick I gleaned from some-where-or-other and used with elementary school students. (No, it doesn’t involve bribing beta readers with cookies, though that’s really not a bad idea.)

This method gave students a simple framework for their Creative Writing peer critiques.

  1. Tell something that you liked about the piece.
  2. Give a suggestion for improvements. (The cream filling :))
  3. Tell something different that you liked about the piece.

Of course I wouldn’t follow this exact pattern when beta reading for an adult, but I feel that it is important to remember to offer encouragement along with constructive criticism.

The best critiques I’ve received highlighted both the things I did well and the things I needed to work on.

Wait, Which Paragraph on Which Page?

As I mentioned above, my first run as a beta reader was likely not very helpful.

My friend’s book had some punctuation and grammatical errors. I responded with a loooooong email listing page and paragraph numbers.

I can’t imagine how tedious it would have been for her to use that list, if she even did!

My methods have improved. When I receive a document for beta reading, I do all of my editing in the document.  I just use the highlight function to draw the writer’s eye to errors or questions, and make any notes in red.  My friends who read for me do the same.

Everything is clear, everything is easy to find, and corrections are just a few clicks away.

Why make the writing process more complicated?

You Hate It, Don’t You?!

Writing is personal. It is hard not to take criticism, even the very kindest constructive criticism, as a personal slight.

However, if a beta reader doesn’t give any constructive criticism, they also can’t give any help.

I’ve learned to want my beta readers to find something to improve. When I’m the reader, I’ve become bolder in offering suggestions.

Choosing the right wording to offer suggestions can be nerve-wracking. Some of the tips from my Interpersonal Communication class come in handy, for instance using specific “I” statements when I give my thoughts.

Example: I really feel that your protagonist turning out to be an alien disguised as a dog is a bit confusing.”

Versus: “The end of your story makes no sense.”

It’s also worth remembering that a beta reader’s opinion is just that- an opinion. While it can be uncomfortable to have someone’s opinion contradict my own, it allows me to examine the work I’ve done with fresh eyes, and to determine if I want to stand by it, or not.

I Don’t Want to Bother You Again…But I Will.

I don’t like to tell my beta readers too much about my work before having them read. I’d rather they come in with an unbiased eye.

However, there are always things I wonder about. Did this portion make sense? Was that character likeable? What about this word choice?

If my beta reader doesn’t comment on one of my ‘wonders,’ I’ve gotten brave enough to ask specific questions after their initial assessment. After all, it’s difficult to catch everything when sorting through tens of thousands of words!

Mercifully, my readers have been patient with my questions, and I try not to do too many “What do you think about this?!” e-mails.

I’m Thankful for my Beta Readers!

After all, a person who is willing to take time out of his or her busy life to read through thousands of words of a rough draft, to offer critiques and encouragements, and to help me stay a little more sane, is truly worth her weight in gold- or at least cookies, or chocolate, or something nice!

 

Writers, I hope that these suggestions are helpful, but perhaps you thought of them long before I did! Do you have any other thoughts to share on making beta readings as valuable as possible?

Many thanks for visiting!

 

 

Writing Microfiction: The Sometimes Stellar Storyteller Six Word Story Challenge

I won a writing contest today!Six word story, 6 word story, writing challenge, writing promptI had never attempted writing microfiction before this year, but when I started looking around for other writing blogs on WordPress, I found Nicola Auckland’s “Sometimes Stellar Storyteller Six Word Story Challenge.”

A one-word prompt is uploaded to the site every Saturday. The challenge is self-explanatory. Write a story, based on the prompt, using only six words.

Yep. Six words.

The challenge page includes a link on ‘How to write the best Six Word Stories,’ which gives the author’s rationale for the six word story, as well as some helpful tips.

Anyone can enter, and the contest is ‘just for fun,’ but the winner DOES get to post the fabulous picture above on their blog!

While I don’t imagine microfiction will ever be my go-to writing style, I’ve found the contest to be a fun exercise which forces me to be concise.

As to my award-winning story 😉 , this week’s prompt was COMPLICATED.

 

My story entry was : No! Cut yellow wire, THEN red!

 

Just think, you can now say you read an entire story today, in about two seconds!

For more information, visit About the Six Word Story Challenge.

Writers- do you have other contests or sites that provide writing ideas that you’d recommend?

Many thanks for visiting!

 

Gimme Some Agape, Baby!

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Why yes, my Valentine’s Day post is about love!

After all, ’tis the season for love- at least according to all of the florists and chocolatiers.

‘Love’ seems to become very tangible on February 14th. It comes cloaked in gifts and meals, in little cards or wide-eyed stuffed animals.

During the rest of the year ‘love’ becomes more vague- harder to pin down. The word is amorphous enough to apply to the man I’m spending my life with, and also to my favorite purple sneakers.

I do love my native tongue, but I find it interesting how much more clearly ‘love’ is described in other languages.

No, I can’t claim to be multi-lingual. I wish I could. I made it through my two years of Latin and Spanish, but unfortunately I’ve lost so much that I might be able to carry on a conversation with a very quiet three-year-old, provided she wanted to talk about ‘queso’ and practice counting. However, I’m a pastor’s kid, and a smattering of Biblical Greek stuck, in particular some of the various words detailing (you guessed it!) types of love.

Ancient Greek had numerous specific words that all translate to ‘love’ in English. A couple of them are easy to recognize.

For instance, “eros” is the root for ‘erotic.’ Need I say more?

Philadelphia gets its name from the Greek word “philos”, and its nickname is based on the meaning: the City of Brotherly Love. (Just don’t look up the crime rates…or so I’ve heard.)

The third is trickier: “agape.” (Ah-gah-pay, rather than the ‘opened mouth’ pronunciation. I once saw a dentist office called “Agape Dental.” I wonder which pronunciation they were going for?)

Agape love is the love of self-sacrifice. It is love that gives, regardless of whether the object of the love is deserving. It’s love in action. (Going back to my first encounter with the word, it’s used consistently in the New Testament to describe the relationship between God and humankind.)

While the other types of love can be invaluable in stories, including some ‘agape’ can deepen and strengthen the relationships between characters. When they show unselfish love- love that gives rather than takes- it’s so outside the realm of the typical that, when written well, it’s unforgettable.

After all, to take a few examples from varied genres, Sam didn’t have to accompany Frodo into Mordor. Mr. Darcy didn’t stand to gain by secretly aiding the family of a girl who’d as good as spit in his face. Atticus Finch wasn’t forced to risk his reputation and family’s safety to defend an innocent man.

They chose to do it anyway, and those stories hold a place of honor as some of my favorites.

In real life, I think of the nights when my husband, weary from another overtime shift, rejoins the family to be pulled in three different directions by our children. I can tell that he’s longing for quiet, but he puts it aside. He talks to them, plays with them, listens to their exploits. I think of the nights when he sees the crazy in my eyes, and he sends me away for alone time in his place.

That’s love that doesn’t fit into a chocolate box.

 

Do you have any stories of love in action, in self-sacrifice, that you’d like to recommend? I always love new books to read!

Thanks for visiting!

BONUS: Fellas, if you’re celebrating today but can’t figure out what she really wants, Tim Hawkins has the answer. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perks of Rejection Letters

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I have twenty more days.

Twenty days until the month ends. Twenty days until I send out my next round of queries in an attempt to induce an agent to represent my novel.

Twenty more days with no rejection letters in my in-box.

So far, I’ve amassed 13 rejections. Some agents simply didn’t respond to my queries. Others sent out polite form letters, or more personalized notes.

My favorite started out with, “Your writing has merit, but…” It felt like receiving that yellow ‘Participation’ ribbon at track-and-field day – nice of them to offer it, but not something that you’re going to hang on your bulletin board. 

In the grand scheme of querying, 13 isn’t a huge number of rejections. Stories abound of famous authors who had to struggle to get their work on shelves- authors like Dr. Seuss, Stephen King, Kate DiCamillo, and J.K. Rowling.

It’s easy to tell myself that this is all a normal part of the process, but diving back in still leaves me with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

Rather than wallow in nerves, today I’m focusing on the positives! The following are five unexpected benefits I’ve gained from the process of querying and rejection. 

1. No more hiding!

Am I the only one who feels a little goofy admitting that I’m writing- seriously writing? (From the comments of other writers online, I’m guessing the answer is no.)

It took me months to admit to anyone that I was attempting to write a novel. It took even longer for me to allow anyone else to see it.

Creativity is personal. Sharing it leaves you vulnerable. I don’t like vulnerable.

It’s hard to admit that I’m going through this process, that I have the gall to call myself a writer. It’s even harder to admit that I might completely fall on my proverbial backside.

I might fail to sell my novel to an agent. And, as I’ve decided to record this online, I can’t even keep it a secret if I do!

Gulp.

However, now that I’ve been querying, now that I’ve had to refine and define my ideas for strangers to judge, I’ve found that I’m much more comfortable sharing with the people who actually care about me.

I suppose it’s better to break through that barrier now, rather than just showing up one day with my finished product.

2. Skin-Thickening

I’ve failed at many, many things. Most of my failures had to do with ‘character building’ through school sports. I’m about as coordinated as an inebriated gerbil. And the gerbil would still probably have a better throwing arm…

As an adult, I have the power to choose to play to my strengths. I can stay in my comfort zone. I can do things where I’m almost guaranteed sucess.

It’s been a little hard to throw my heart-felt words out to someone I don’t know. (Ha! ‘A little hard’- that’s my Minnesota background talking. Like, when it gets down to 0 degrees, it’s ‘a little chilly.’)

If I wanted to give professional publishing a go, I had to get over it. Deal with rejection. Prepare myself for bring raked over the coals of critique.

It’s time to toughen up- better now than at the first bad review.

3. Confidence in my work

Here’s my process.

-I send out a query.

-I check e-mail compulsively.

-When the rejection comes, either in written form or in echoing silence, I attack my manuscript.

I’ve gone over and over the thing until my eyes blur, and I’ve come to one conclusion.

I like my book.

In spite of rejections, I still want this book to become. Reviewing and editing it so many times has made my confidence grow.

Growing confidence pushes me to put in the time and effort to make it happen.

4. Professionalism

I haven’t had to go to a job interview since…college? I had my degree to prove that I was a professional teacher, and I knew the rules of that profession.

The rules of the publishing world- not so much.

The querying proecess forced me to read up on publishing, on agents, on writing, oh, on so many things. Many of the agents I’ve approached include tips on their sites, cluing in prospective clients on common writing and querying mistakes.

I’ve had to learn what it takes to be a professional in this industry, in hopes of convincing professionals that they want to work with me.

Whether traditional publishing works out for me or not, I’ve got a better grasp of what I’m in for when I finally get that novel in a (fabulous looking!) cover.

5. This blog happened.

“What’s your platform?” “Who will read your book?” “What’s your sphere of influence?” (Does that last one make anyone else think Cold War? No?)

I probably wouldn’t have started consitently blogging without having to answer questions like these on query forms.

No, I didn’t start this blog thinking, “I need to find people who will read my book!” It did seem like agents expected me to be doing something on social media, though, and of the options, blogging seemed the most interesting.

I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I have! Connecting with other writers and learning from them, reading about other people’s insights on history, enjoying stories and poems and fantastic cat pictures- all of these things have changed blogging from something “I guess I should do,” to a pleasure. (Thanks to all of you fellow bloggers and kind commenters!)

As I edit my query letter for the hundreth time (I’m not even sure that’s hyperbole anymore!) and recheck my lists of agents, I’ll try to keep it positive. If you’re in the same boat, I hope you can too!

Maybe this round will include an e-mail that isn’t a rejection. 

Whew, that would be a whole NEW level of scary…

 

 

What benefits have you recieved from rejections and delays?

Thanks for visiting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Get Too Attached

red shirts
Photo courtesy of : https://www.flickr.com/photos/tychay/2244290630

“Here’s to peace at last.” 

Stan grinned and accepted the cigar. “Thanks, Mac. So, how’s it feel to be two days from retirement?”

“Heh. Why d’ya think I sprang for the good cigars? Man, life couldn’t be better.” Mac leaned back and rested his heels on the edge of the consol. His boot blocked the glow of the perimeter warning light as it began to flash.

Stan drew in a lungful of smoke, savoring the flavor. “Gerda looking forward to having you home more?”

“Sure. After risking life and limb out here on the Edge for the past five years, I’m ready for some domesticity. Let me tell ya, Stan. There were days I didn’t think we’d make it…”

Ok, readers, you tell me. What’s going to happen next?

Mac’s retiring, celebrating because they’ve made it this far, confiding in a friend, and a warning light’s going off…

He’s not going to make it.

Like a red-shirted ensign on Captain Kirk’s away team, some characters are so obviously headed for disaster that it’s best not to get attached.

Here are a few common ‘expendables,’ just off the top of my head.

The Mentor. The soon-to be hero of the piece is young and inexperienced. He or she needs guidance. Enter the wise old mentor, who leads, guides, becomes a father figure…and then dies. The hero/heroine is galvanized to become who they were meant to be!!!

The Relationship. Whether it’s a spouse, a child, a best friend, or a pet, if your hard-boiled ex-super- tough-character has settled down for a peaceful life at the beginning of a story,  you know it’s not going to last, don’t you? Someone the character loves will be sacrificed on the altar of storyline so that he/she is galvanized to take up the fight once more.

The Innocent. How can you tell baddies are really bad? When they kill innocent bystanders who are no threat to them, naturally. (What do you mean it’s not very subtle?) Once that kitten ranch is gone, ooooh, we’re all gonna be rooting for the hero to take that kitten killer DOWN.

“I’m Retiring Next Week!” Enough said. He will not be collecting his pension. Sub categories of this include “Getting married tomorrow,” or “Just had a baby.”

Cannon Fodder. If you’ve watched Star Trek, you probably understand what I meant with my reference to “red-shirted ensigns.” The poor guys may as well have painted bull’s eyes on those polyester suits. In the realm of sci-fi, the only worse person to be is a storm trooper. (Sure, the armor looks good, but fuzzy mini-teddy bears can render it useless with sticks! Painful, and embarrassing.) In any story where a core team of main characters takes guards for protection, or travels in a caravan, or interacts with any group that’s not essential to the plot, look out.

This topic has been on my mind because I just caught myself using one of these types of characters.

OOPS. (Photo courtesy of Anna Ogiienko, from Unsplash.com)

I’ve had to stop and take a long look at my story arc.

Every story won’t be the most original and surprising piece of literature ever written- it’s just not possible. (How many books and shows have essentially repeated the same plot?) Still, if my story’s going to include a character’s death, I want it to count. I want it to increase the tension, raise the stakes, make readers care more.

In short, I caught myself in some lazy writing, and that just won’t do. My new goal for this draft is to make my paper people resemble flesh and blood more than cardboard cut-outs just waiting to be knocked down.

Maybe LeRoy (that’s my nice guy/best friend/cannon fodder’s name. Poor, poor LeRoy) needs to live. My, that would throw my plot for a loop! Or maybe he’ll still fall, but in a different way, or in a different time.

Maybe I just need to spend more time on his character so that he is more than a puppet, waiting on stage for his dramatic exit.

 

Can you add any other character types I’ve missed above-  ones you always suspect aren’t going to make it to the story’s end?

Thanks for visiting!