Description—The Good the Bad and the Just Please STOP

Great post from Kristen Lamb about making your descriptions work for you.

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Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat Odin The Ridiculously Handsome Cat

In the last post, we talked about revisions and how often when we are making those next passes through we need to flesh, cut or refine our description. Can we be really honest about our description? Is it truly remarkable or just filling space? Are we weaving a spell that captures readers or are we boring them into a coma?

Okay, okay, do you have a point?

For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice.

But obviously all writers will use some kind of description. We have to in order to draw readers into the world we are creating. If we don’t give them anything to sink their teeth into, they will wander off in search of something else.

So whether you are heavy or light on the description, here are…

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The Ghost Stories that Haunt Me

Hi all,
Thought you might like this post by Nzumel at Multoghost. I want to head to the library right now and revisit these classic authors!

Multo (Ghost)

Fulk nerra assailed by the phantoms of his victims jpg Blog

I joined a “Classic Ghost Stories” interest group recently (It’s called “The Classic Ghost Story Tradition” on Facebook, if you’re interested); the group focuses on “classic” ghost stories, those from the mostly British tradition written around the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Authors from this tradition include M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Aickman. Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a few of these, too.

I’ve enjoyed the discussions, and gotten a few good recommendations. But I realized that while I very much like the authors and the stories that tend to come up, they aren’t the stories that have struck me the most, in my reading.

It’s got me thinking about what I like in a good ghost story.

They don’t have to be scary (though a little frisson is nice: just one scene, or even just a single image that makes me gasp…

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The Writer’s Guide to a Meaningful Reference Library

For all you writers out there, check out Kristen Lamb’s resource list (as well as the comments). Happy reading, everyone!

Kristen Lamb's Blog

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Whether you are just now entertaining the idea of writing a book or have been writing for a while, all authors need certain tools if our goal is to publish and make money with our work. Now, if your goal is to simply create a piece of literature that “says something deep and probing” about society or life or is esoteric and selling the book doesn’t matter? Then that is a noble goal and I wish you the very best.

There are works that have broken all the rules and come to be known (usually much later) as classics. I will, however, respectfully point out that the majority of those who follow this blog want to write commercially and make a decent living, so my list is geared toward a certain group of authors.

What this means is that anything can go in writing. Rules are not to be a…

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Once Upon a Time Challenge: Messenger by Lois Lowry

Once Upon a TimeThis is my second post for the 2013 Once Upon a Time challenge over at Stainless Steel Droppings. (The first was Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.) As I mentioned, I’m doing Quest the Second, which calls for the reading of one mythology, folktale, fairy tale, and fantasy book.

Messenger (The Giver, #3)After reading Messenger by Lois Lowry, I dithered over classifications and finally decided to put this novel in the fairy tale category. I think the forest was the tipping point. Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Hansel and Grettel” all feature a forest in which magical phenomena occur.

The forest figures prominently in Messenger, the third book in The Giver series.  In addition to the forest, the setting comprises a once utopian village and the cottage on the other side of the forest where Kira (the protagonist from Gathering Blue) lives.

The protagonist Matt has been living in Village since he was a youngster and has been more or less adopted by Kira’s father, a blind seer. Speaking of seer, everyone receives a name corresponding to his/her unique gift such as Leader, Seer, Mentor, and names can change—another reason I’m putting this into the fairy tale category. (Thanks, Carl, for that insight.) Matt is waiting for his name and is angling for Messenger as he is the conduit for missives between Village and other communities; hence, the eponymous title. However, Matt soon learns that he possesses another gift, the ability to heal. This gift takes center stage as his village is deteriorating and sorely in need of healing.

The once welcoming villagers are succumbing to intolerance and greed and lust, purchasing beauty and video games (how’s that for an authorial commentary?) and fencing in their community. Meanwhile, the forest becomes a character that reflects the villagers’ sins, metaphorically degenerating, reminiscent of the closeted picture of Dorian Gray. So we’re back to the forest, and this is where the rising tension and climax occur. Ironically, this is where I began to lose interest. The forest-as-metaphor-for-evil motif became repetitive.

The premise of the novel is good, and as long as we were with the villagers, I was fully engaged. The question is: Can the novel maintain your interest? Can Matt heal the villagers and the forest, and receive his name? (Okay, that was two questions.) Unless you possess Seer’s gift, you’ll have to read to find out.

I classified this novel as fairy tale, but Messenger could also fit nicely into mythology. I know some people are prickly about this word mythology when it comes to matters religious, but if you acknowledge entry #4 of Webster’s College Dictionary, which defines mythology as “a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs that have accrued around a particular person, event, or institution” there should be no problem. At any rate, Matt the protagonist is a clear Christ figure. There are many clues—you already have the gift of healing—and no, I’m not going to tell you all of them and spoil the fun of discovery. But email me once you read, and we can compare notes.

Having read the first three books in this tetralogy—The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger—I would rank them in exactly that order: Excellent, Very Good, Good.

The final book, Son, is now available, Have you read it? What did you think? How would you rate the others?

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Students with Peanut Allergies: What Should the Schools Do?

Cigar-smoking salesman offers peanut butter to man in grave.

(photo credit)

I’m an easygoing kind of person. Most of the time. Sometimes I get a little testy. Today is one of those days.

We’ve been focusing on ghost novels and writing experiences here. As you know, I wrote a ghost novel, read ghost novels, and review ghost novels. I want to be the go-to girl (okay, not exactly a girl) when it comes to ghost fiction of all types—literary, mainstream, romance, suspense, horror. (But not too much horror.)

I’ve read far more ghost fiction than I can review, and I want you to feel free to contact me about any ghost novel that interests you. If I don’t know about it, haven’t read it, I’ll try to find out.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I am also writing a young adult novel about a teen in high school with a severe peanut allergy. She uses a service dog, and attends class in designated peanut-free rooms, which presents all kinds of conflict. So it was with great interest that I read a news clipping that daughter Manda sent me.

Here you can read the CBS News article. In essence, University of Washington student Kelsey Hough withdrew from school because the university would no longer enforce peanut-free classrooms. Kelsey Hough’s allergy is particularly acute; exposure to peanut products could kill her.

I read this article. And then I got mad–not because of the article, but because of the comments. The funny thing is, the person on whose behalf (aside from Kelsey’s) I grew angry doesn’t exist. Except in my mind.

Here is my response:

When did we become a nation of me-me’s? When did we become a people inured to the difficulties of those less fortunate?

It is inconvenient to be forced to alter one’s habits to exclude peanut butter, an inexpensive, nutritious meal. But when did our inconvenience outweigh someone else’s life and happiness? Perhaps George Washington found it inconvenient to cross the Delaware when he could have been enjoying Christmas dinner with his family. Maybe Harriet Tubman was a fool to cross enemy lines 19 times to free slaves. After all, she only needed to travel the first time to free herself.

Yes, Ms. Hough could continue her education online. But why stop there? Let’s eliminate those pesky blue placards and make all parking first come-first serve. The disabled could simply employ someone to do their grocery shopping. Let’s decide, as a nation, to no longer offer subway seats to elderly passengers. After all, we work hard. We’re tired, too.

As for me, I would not hesitate to leave my peanut products at home so that someone else could enjoy a full life. And when did it become polite to eat in class while a professor is lecturing anyhow? And yes, I understand it’s disappointing when Junior cannot bring his favorite peanut butter squares to class on his birthday. But there is a bright side to Junior’s inconvenience. We can mitigate the jaded me-ism endemic to this country as Junior learns a little compassion, a little empathy, along with his multiplication tables. That is, until he enters college.

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Once Upon a Time Challenge: Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Once Upon a Time

I’m a little late to the party, but I’m catching up fast. My goal is to achieve Quest the Second status in the Once Upon a Time Challenge over at Stainless Steel Droppings. Check it out!

For this category, you must read 4 books: 1 folklore, 1 fairy tale, 1 fantasy, 1 mythology. On my list are Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler, for folklore; Messenger by Lois Lowry, for fairy tale; and Practical Magic or Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman, for fantasy. Today we’ll discuss Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, my mythology selection.prgrsvimg

In Le Guin’s novel, Vergilius (aka Vergil) visits Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas, who is a character in his epic poem The Aeneid. Vergil appears in the guise of a ghost and acknowledges he dismissively depicted her as “ripe to wed” and described her wedding procession but not her reign as queen.

Le Guin then expands the story of The Aeneid, Book 7 from Lavinia’s viewpoint. Interesting construct: Lavinia narrates her life in the present as Vergil visits her as a ghost from the future, even though to us Vergil is a figure from antiquity. You just have to imagine it, I guess. It helps that we have that other ghost from the future, the one Dickens gave us.

Lavinia creates her own destiny and the future of her progeny in ancient Italy, a society stratified by birth and gender. The author juxtaposes symbols—an engraved shield that Lavinia interprets for Aeneas and his warriors paired with soft wool thread that wraps the women in their lives. Within this framework, Lavinia must shape her world. As she says, “my mind returns as the shuttle returns always to the starting place, finding the pattern…I was a spinner, not a weaver, but I have learned to weave” (141).

With great skill, Le Guin weaves details from Vergil’s epic into Lavinia’s life as princess, priestess, power wielder. I must confess I had never read The Aeneid (and Le Guin laments this very lapse in the education of recent generations), but when I perused Vergil’s Book 7 for glimpses of Lavinia, I found these details—the prophecy of oracles, the flame of her hair, the omen of the bees—and I admired the way Le Guin used these moments to the advantage of the novel and the protagonist.

Lavinia is politically astute. She functions as central priestess in religious rites and figures prominently (albeit behind the scenes) to influence history through diplomacy and, at times, subterfuge. In fact, she manages to arrange her own marriage, undermine antagonistic forces, and determine a future monarch. I love Le Guin’s feminist stance, how Vergil must apologize, for, as Lavinia explains, “He didn’t let me say a word. I had to take the word from him” (4). The power of women in times of patriarchy is a favorite theme of mine and one I endeavored to convey in my own novel.

Lavinia is a masterful and engaging work I never would have read were it not for the Once Upon a Time challenge. And, of course, I chose it in part because it included a ghost. That being said, this is not my favorite Le Guin book. Some years ago I listened to The Left Side of Darkness, and I was stunned by the beauty, pathos, and creativity in that novel. One day I intend to read it again, and I would suggest The Left Hand of Darkness as an addition to anyone seeking a book for that Once Upon a Time.

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Appreciate Your Teacher May 7!

photo by Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra

photo by Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra

Teacher: Can anyone tell me what the Dog Star is?

Pupil: Lassie!

Cute, huh? Okay, corny. I found that joke on the website St. Aiden’s Homeschool Resources. Check it out. You’ll find many other cute (or corny) teacher jokes there.

I dedicate this Teacher Appreciation Day to:

Mrs. W, the elementary school teacher who first encouraged me to write.

High School Teachers Miss Hansen and Mr. Zook who pushed me to probe books for meaning and made me think about audience.

Phyllis Taylor Pianka whose stellar writing group kept me writing and whose delectable desserts gave me the energy.

Sara McCaulay who encouraged me to pursue my MFA and who gave the best writing prompts ever, especially the Stranger in a Strange Land exercise that wound up in Natural Bridge.

Sandra Grayson who taught me to link theory to literature and showed me how to foster questioning in others.

Six is my lucky number, and these six fabulous teachers (in order of appearance) nudged me along my writing path. I can’t thank you enough, but I’ll try.


And to all teachers everywhere past, present, future: Happy Teacher Appreciation Day!

A final thought from education reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: “A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others” (qtd in The Quote Garden).

Who is your favorite teacher? Please share! I’d love to hear.

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