You can read my article, “The Interdependent Language of Tarot,” in this month’s Newsletter issue #77 of the Association for Tarot Studies.
You can read my article, “The Interdependent Language of Tarot,” in this month’s Newsletter issue #77 of the Association for Tarot Studies.
It doesn’t seem possible that we can already be one month and six days into 2009. I’ve been posting so infrequently that the blog barely has a pulse. But it is alive I assure you. It’s just been sleeping, dreaming if you will.
It’s raining and stormy today and I’m grateful for that. I think this is only our fourth big rain of the season so far. My cat Tara had a bath a few days ago on a warm, sunny, dry day that got to 80 degrees and seems to have become typical weather this winter. At least it’s been easy on the heating bill. Not so easy on the water bill or my sinuses.
I’ve been away from blogs except to post my ramblings about Tarot at Spirit Blooms. I’ve worked off-line at my other computer on artwork, read or posted on a couple of favorite Internet forums (more than I should), and searched out alternatives on- and off-line to spending money that I don’t have on books that I dearly want. I started out reading about Carl Gustav Jung; now I’m reading the writings of Jung himself, beginning with his autobiography written late in life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Still deep in my J. R. R. Tolkien adventure, I recently finished reading The Annotated Hobbit, and now I’m savoring The Lord of the Rings. I’m a little shocked by how much watching the movies in the interim has botched my memory of the original story. Still they’re excellent movies. One should appreciate each on its own merits, the novel and the movies as separate creative entities. To do the written story complete justice there would’ve had to be nine or more movies instead of three. Not that I would complain, but not everyone is the Tolkien fiend that I am. Up ahead I plan to continue with The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin. Perhaps others, who knows? I’m taking my time, reading mostly late in the evening before sleep, if I’m not too tired by then.
Eric Mayer mentioned, in his comment on my earlier post about rereading favorites, that he almost never rereads books. I’ve been the same way most of my adult life. I reread a lot when I was a teen and young adult, but at some point I realized there was plenty in print to read the first time around, and life was short. I felt that I’d miss out on too many other things if I spent my time rereading favorites.
I’ve changed my attitude about that again only recently. This has to do partly with some of the newer fiction that I’ve been dissatisfied with, partly with my budget, and partly with the tiny library here in town where the tastes of the librarians don’t seem to mesh with my own — or I’m just quirky in my reading tastes. I’m sure they have some Tolkien and maybe some Jung, but I’ve come to prefer to take my time and not feel constrained by a return date anyway. I tried writing reviews here for a while, and I found that if the book was a library book I had to return it too quickly, and if I tried to write a review after that, I kept wanting to refer to the book. If I like it, I want it to stay around for a while. I also tried our library’s on-line interconnection with an ebook download system, but that didn’t work for me. Old computer or aging human brain inside user? Either way it didn’t work and I didn’t want to waste time fussing with it. I wanted to read the book. You know, just open a cover and start reading. If something is going to slow me down I want it to be the savor of words.
That brings me to the fourth reason I’ve gotten back into rereading. Mostly it has to do with wanting to read slowly. I’ve given up on reading everything out there. I’ve finally accepted that’s impossible. I’ve decided to hone down my reading list and read what I love — slowly, and as many times as I want.
When I reread an old favorite I don’t have to be in such a hurry to get to the end. I already know how it ends. There is something to the first bloom of a new story, that first time through when it’s a path of discovery, recognition, and suspense. But this time I can pause and enjoy the language along the way, let the suspense build again slowly. My old favorites have language worth pausing for. The more commercial books today tend to be heavy on suspense and bizarre plots and twists, while they seem too often short on the kind of writing I savor. Many feel to me as if they’re written in too much of a hurry, or as if the writer didn’t even like the story he was writing. The secret to great writing, I think, is for the writer to so love the story that he’s reluctant to leave it. Chances are the reader won’t want to leave it either.
But then I’m not a hurrier, never have been. I think it’s too easy to get into an “I’ll miss something if I slow down” mindset in our day and age, though it’s a valid concern to some degree. In the work world, one must hurry enough to show up when needed, and if one slows down one is in danger of not getting important work done, of missing opportunities, or of not being able to do one’s job anymore because one hasn’t kept up with hyperactive technology. There are sometimes valid reasons to hurry. I don’t want the emergency room team to dawdle, or firefighters to take their time arriving at a fire. For readers who want to keep up, there’s such a huge amount being published, in spite of aspiring writers’ concerns that no one is publishing what they write, that it’s easy to think one has no time to reread or to read slowly the first time. There are also such a great number of people who want to be writers that it doesn’t appear we’ll ever have a shortage of reading material, even very good reading material leaving out the bad. It’s a crowded world full of people with something to say, many of them excellent writers.
Still I think we miss out on too much by trying to do or read everything. I’m not well-read, mainly because I’m a slow reader. Maybe that’s why I appreciate books that take a long time to produce. I can sense the love and time that was put into them. I can linger, relish, and wonder why. I can spend a relatively equal time enjoying them, and feel gratitude that the authors took the time to do it right.
Tolkien took something like 13 years to write The Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. He took longer, when one considers all the thought prior to beginning it that he put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, from the time he was a boy, and the time between 1949 and 1954 that he worked with his publisher to get everything just right. That time shows. And it’s not as if by taking that long he missed out on sales, which seem these days so unforgiving of anyone lagging behind. The only time any of his books went out of print was during Word War II and the after-war years, when paper was rationed in England. Oh, and there was the problem of some proofs being destroyed in a bombing or a fire (I don’t remember which) that caused further delay in getting one edition of The Hobbit back into print. Of course one important factor in his print longevity was in being Tolkien. There have been many imitators and, as Eric seemed to hint in his comment, most imitations have not held up very well. Time is, I think, one reason.
I’m certain that the biggest problems with many books is that they’re devised and written in too much of a hurry, and because they aren’t true to the writer’s own creative promptings. I can see some publisher urging a writer to create something like Tolkien wrote, but to do it right now. Imitation done in a hurry can rarely hold up to the proper process of creation. Sometimes, but not usually. Imitation as a whole is an iffy and questionable practice. Readers may say they want another story like The Lord of the Rings, but they’re not saying they want an imitation. They want more Tolkien, and that’s simply the best possible compliment to the original creator, not to any would-be imitator. Perhaps we sometimes, as readers, make the mistake of confusing the two ideas ourselves and go looking for another Tolkien when we should be looking for something else that’s new and fresh, and over which someone labored long and lovingly.
It’s been said that most of a writer’s work doesn’t take place at the typewriter or keyboard, or even necessarily with paper in hand. It happens inside the mind of the writer. I personally think every writer’s workspace needs a comfy couch, or a bed, and a window with a view of a natural setting or garden, as well as an immense library. I also think it’s safe to say that most great fiction writers have lived what they write. By that I don’t mean they’ve experienced it in physical reality. I mean they have a fertile and active imagination, an ability to visualize the experiences they haven’t actually lived. A relentless imagination at that. We use our imaginations to read, but the writer uses his imagination far more, over and over again, actively reliving the scenes he writes in his mind, working them out until they feel right, until he’s ready to translate them into written language. They get to know their own unconscious realms and facets of their own characters, as well as the archetypes of the collective unconscious, even more than we do ordinarily when we dream at night.
Now I know that some writers create at the keyboard on the fly. I’ve done that too. But the stories I’ve written that I felt best about were usually those that I had in mind for a long time before I dared to put any words down. They were an integrated collection of many things that occurred to me, including some fantasies, day dreams, things I wondered about, and even whole scenes, characters, or settings that occupied my mind well before I realized they’d formed anything close to a story worth sharing or writing down. Some were ideas I couldn’t put away because they begged to be told.
Fast writing may be part of the problem. I once rewrote a novel (Snow Angels) in the course of a few weeks, retyped the whole thing from scratch, from my head. But that story had been in my mind for a long time, in various forms, and even on paper in a few forms, before I did that. I’ve never taken part in NaNoWriMo, but I think it is possible for it to produce something of value, provided there’s something already percolating in the writer’s mind before they begin, perhaps for years before they begin typing it out. I’ve done fast writing exercises, and I know they have their value. But I wonder if the trend in fast writing is the reason so many new books I read leave me flat these days.
There is fast writing that’s great, and there have been many great prolific writers. But if we make the mistake of thinking their greatness lay in their proliferation, we do them a disservice. The secret to great writing also doesn’t lie in taking forever to produce something. I’m sure there are plenty of slowly written pieces of rubbish passing for fiction. But prolific writers are the exceptions to the slow writing rule, I think, and like Mozart’s music, great fast writing is great for other reasons than its speed of production or lack of revision. Of course everyone should write at their own speed, but fast writing of a single draft usually requires slow thinking up front, and long, slow revisions afterward. If one doesn’t take the time to do it right, to follow through, to consider it worth some effort, then even that smaller portion of fast writing time is wasted, not to mention the time anyone else takes to read the result. If it’s not worth spending lots of time writing, then maybe it’s not worth reading either.
In spite of how long Tolkien’s work has remained in print, it’s still possible that work of this kind is best done for oneself, with any idea or intent of publishing as a mere afterthought. One should, after all, consider oneself worth writing well and respectfully for. From what I understand of Tolkien, he only shared what he created with a few colleagues, friends, and his children, until the friend of a friend mentioned the possibility of publishing The Hobbit. Maybe that’s why it’s so good. He took time to shape and polish it to be what he wanted for himself and those he loved. Only after that did he shape and polish it for publication. Surely that provided him a great deal of satisfaction in what he wrote, regardless of whether strangers in his own land or across the pond liked it later on. He was also a real-life expert regarding myths of a world similar to the one he created and regarding the language he used to create it. But was he an expert who happened to come up with a story he was best suited to write, or was he a writer in the making, even as a child, who lived in his head creating a world first and who worked all his life to become expert at just what he needed to recreate that world on paper? Either way, he took his loving time about it, and that’s a good thing for all of us. After all, what’s the rush?
I received a link to this news article in an email:
Melbourne writer jailed for insulting Thai royals
“FOR writing three ill-conceived sentences in a novel that sold fewer than 10 copies, Melbourne man Harry Nicolaides was yesterday sentenced to three years in a Thai prison.” (click to read entire news story)
Consider what would result in the world if everyone reacted to a perceived insult in this manner.
Imagine the silencing effect.
Even more disturbing, in another article on this topic — Thailand sentences writer for insults — it seems clear that this is probably a case of a writer getting caught in the middle of political maneuvering that has nothing much to do with insulting the royal family or with three sentences in the writer’s self-published work of fiction that only sold 10 copies. It has much more to do with someone else’s power play, or their fears about what will happen when the current Thai monarch dies.
Still it’s enough to make every writer in the world think hard about what freedom is and how much freedom of expression he or she really has. And on the Internet, we’re all writers.
I’m rereading a favorite book in a new form, and watching some old TV shows I’d forgotten were so good, so it’s been a week of favorites for me and I thought I’d share.
I’m also a little desperate for something to blog about, and I must be growing jaded, because my favorites are old, and sadly far too few.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m currently reading The Annotated Hobbit, an edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. I’m loving it, though I think most of the annotations will be something to enjoy on my second reading of this edition. It’s been so long since I read the story, that I find myself just sticking to the story and not reading footnotes (marginal notes in this case). But I did read the introduction, and immersed myself in some fascinating biographical and publishing history. Now and then my gaze veers into the margins and my curiosity is piqued.
I decided to read this story again because I’ve read that Peter Jackson is finally involved in a film adaptation of it, which I’ve looked forward to ever since the LOTR trilogy that he produced and directed. This time I want to view the film adaptation fresh from the written story, rather than from the perspective of more than a decade of fogging over of my memory as I did with the trilogy. Which means I’m reading it now and likely will read it at least once more before the film is released.
I’m also rereading this, and plan to reread LOTR, because the film trilogy has become a mini-obsession of mine and yet every time I watch the movies I keep thinking how much I want to read the books again.
Tolkien is easily my most favorite author, ever. I’d be hard pressed to name a second favorite who comes anywhere close. Maybe it was his relationship to language, as a philologist. He also had a deep, abiding love of the fairy story and ancient poems and songs. (Many of his dwarves’ names are borrowed from the Elder Edda.) I like that he was unapologetic about his errors. He didn’t try to hide them and, if it made sense he fixed them in later editions. If fixing them didn’t make sense, he lived with them without shame or excuse. He was still a teen when he began to create his own language, that of the elves that he used in his stories, incorporated so elegantly into the film version of LOTR a few years ago. Tolkien wrote circles around anyone else, and almost singlehandedly invented the modern fantasy genre. He seems to have recalled something both childlike and ancient, and filled it with something else profoundly basic to humanity, all of which make him seem himself to have been a wizard — of storytelling. Stories are his version of Gandalf’s fireworks, and even of Gandalf’s defeat of the Balrog and death. Tolkien is pretty much at the top of the mountain and well beyond compare, in my opinion. All the rest, even my other favorite authors, are still down there in base camp, wondering about the weather up there on high. Keeping in mind that when climbing the highest mountains in the world, just getting to base camp is something, nothing to sneeze at. Most of my favorite books that even come close to Tolkien’s, though, are older, the authors also long dead.
This makes me wonder if we’re ripe for a literary renaissance. And when I say literary, I mean a STORY renaissance. Preparatory to that, if Tolkien’s work isn’t now required reading in school, I think it should be. I would love to see a new generation fall in love with language and with story.
Favorite TV series:
Star Trek The Next Generation. There’s no comparison, and even viewing old dilapidated recordings of it compares favorably, in fact stunningly so, to most of what I see on TV today.
I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Majel Barrett, and I felt as if her death marked the end of an era (started by her husband, Gene Roddenberry) in science fiction and in television.
While watching old Star Trek TNG episodes, I can’t believe how often I have to reach for tissues because a story line touched me deeply, or I’m still amused by the always tasteful humor some 20 years later, or I’m struck dumb by a profound insight or bit of ageless wisdom. At the same time it’s immensely entertaining, and frequently filled with suspense. There’s nothing like it.
I have a second favorite TV series — actually two sister ones: Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Still, Star Trek the Next Generation is another top of the mountain favorite that is difficult to compare to anything. Who knows, Tolkien himself might even have loved it.
I like The Closer, mainly because the female lead is a character, someone I can relate to. She’s over thirty and still attractive, but it’s not in-your-face plasticized starlet attractiveness. Kyra Sedgwick is beautiful in a way that goes beyond starlet appeal, and you get the impression this is a woman who’s actually honest-to-god aging and struggling to maintain, rather than magically stopping time until the powers that be disappear her from TV as soon as she shows signs of (horrors!) appearing to be over forty. She holds her own in a man’s world without needing to act like a tough chick. She’s spunky and vulnerable, and she doesn’t have to show us the inside of the body as the bullet passes through it for cheap thrills, or make us help examine the vomit under a microscope or eat bugs (honestly, some TV cannot be viewed while enjoying dinner), or be right there for the bloodiest new surgical procedure of the century, spurting arteries and all. I need some mystique left in my mysteries, some characters I can relate to, and not to feel as if I have to learn how not to be squeamish along with the interns in my medical shows. I also wonder why there are so interminably many “realistic” detective and medical shows. Isn’t there anything else to write about, guys? Is the sitcom dead? I guess so.
I like Ghost Whisperer, though I’ve discovered it only recently, so we’ll see how that works out.
I liked Dead Zone, until they killed off Walt the sheriff. I thought he provided an important obstacle between Johnny and his former love, Sarah. Conflict in the form of strong romantic and other obstacles is critical to good series fiction, even a paranormal series that has a new problem to solve each episode. Without the core conflicts and tension to fall back on, a series falls flat because no one seems to be trying very hard, day to day. They’re just biding time until the next psychic flash, murder, ghost, mystery disease, or demon appears. A good series has several backup sources of tension. In Star Trek TNG, nearly every character has a known source of personal conflict that’s always simmering just under the surface, and the series as a whole is full of those tensions sometimes rising, and frequently interacting with others’ conflicts. Killing Walt off, in The Dead Zone, was like letting Marshall Dillon marry Miss Kitty, or letting The Fugitive catch the one-armed man. You just don’t do that, until the very last episode ever. The End.
All that said, I would be hard pressed to come up with new series or episodes from season to season and week to week as the best TV writers do.
Maybe we need a television renaissance as well as a literary one.
Barring that, we may need to let all the Marshall Dillons marry all the Miss Kittys in a big Sun Myung Moon style wedding — and then give TV one big funeral service and be done with it. Most of the shows are so lame, and the commercial breaks are so long these days, that I frequently leave the room to finish the dishes, make a snack, or check my email, and then lose interest and forget to return to see how the show ends. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and television, as a whole, seems to be trying awfully hard to prove it.
Do you have any new/old favorites to share? What entertains you these days?
Mystery author Eric Mayer* mentioned in a recent blog post that his blog journaling hasn’t been very habitual of late. He went on to write about habits, and that got me to thinking about my habits, and how they’ve changed in the past year or so. Obviously, for me, blogging has taken a back seat to other things. So has my fiction writing, other than attempting to sell my latest finished manuscript, a mystery about a tarot reader whose awakening ability as a medium gets her involved in a murder investigation. (Interested agents or publishers are welcome to inquire here.)
Habits can be good or bad, and I’m sure everyone has some bad ones they’d like to unload. But one new habit I’m happy to have taken on this year is gardening.
Gardening is indeed a habit, one that gets into your blood in a way I didn’t anticipate when I started out this year. I’d done a tiny bit of gardening as a kid, when I remember planting one rose bush of my own but mostly helping my grandmother with her strawberries and vegetables on the embankment behind my parents’ house. Later, in my first apartment, I nurtured a few houseplants, and throughout my work life I’ve usually kept a potted plant on my desk. I kept African Violets in a north facing window in the last house we rented, until a cat took over that window sill. Still, my husband did most of the outdoor gardening, with a little weeding here and there on my part, until March of this year.
It started this spring with tending a few vegetable and flower seeds until they sprouted, and then the seedlings until they went into the ground. From there I progressed to caring for plants in the ground and preparing the soil for more of them. It’s rapidly expanding to a succession of all of these things, in the hopes of keeping some fresh produce in our salad and veggie bowls through this summer, as well as brightening a corner of the front yard, where my ultimate goal is to keep flowers blooming in a little cottage style bed year round. I’m a ways from that goal yet.
I’m still new at this, and I got a late start this year, but I get help and advice from various sources, and gardening is now a firm habit that I won’t easily give up. It’s one of the first things I think about in the morning and one of the last I think about before the sun goes down.
The plants seem happy about my gardening habit, when they can figure out what season it is. Our weather this spring switched back and forth for a couple of months from one extreme to the other, first dry Santa Anas with temperatures in the 90s, and then thick cloud cover and a shifting Jet Stream chilled the air to the 50s. This went back and forth for weeks, with little pleasant weather in between, and it kept our plants confused. In the past two weeks the weather has leveled off, and the plants are loving it.
They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I’ve recently realized there’s little more beautiful to me than a tiny plant bursting out of its seed container. Call me crazy, but I think baby plants can be almost as cute as a kitten, and they, like the kitten, draw out my mothering tendencies.
(I’ll bet you expected a photo of a seedling, but I couldn’t help the obligatory kitten shot.)
To some this pleasure might seem like taking joy in watching paint dry, but to me it’s more like watching a sunset at the end of a heat wave.
We celebrated our first avocado blooms a few months ago.
Now some fruit has set, which we hope will grow to maturity.
Avocados, according to my resident expert Ken who’s read something like 200 online agricultural reports about them, tend to drop a good portion of their fruit early, which can be disappointing to home gardeners. It will be disappointing to me, if it happens, because Reeds are my absolute favorite avocado variety.
Two days ago I celebrated my first squash blossom.
Zucchini may seem an ordinary thing to seasoned gardeners. It’s one of the easiest things to grow and the butt of gardening jokes, usually in reference to an overabundance of it. But I like zucchini, I love my resplendent squash plants with their huge green leaves, and those yellow-orange blossoms are gold to me.
I’m learning more about the various weeds that grow in the garden, some of which are edible. For instance, purslane and dandelion make delicious salad greens. Note, if you decide to try eating weeds from your garden, be careful that you know what you’re eating. Ensure that the plants haven’t been subjected to herbicides or pesticides and that they aren’t in fact toxic weeds.
Even some semi-edible weeds, like the sour grass we all discovered as kids, can be a problem if eaten in quantity, I’m told, and purslane looks very similar to a toxic type of spurge that often grows right alongside it. Have an expert show you how to identify edible weeds, and examine carefully whatever you pick to eat. This point was driven home to me when I found spurge, with its milky sap, growing in my own little purslane patch.
Yesterday Ken pointed me to a Los Angeles Times article about Guerrilla Gardeners, which linked to a slide show on how to make “seed bombs” as well as two blogs, here and here, about guerrilla gardening.
Gardening has not only revolutionized my daily routine. It’s apparently a revolution that’s spreading once again, as Victory Gardens did in the last century, with people today gardening to save money on local food and working on a clandestine volunteer basis to re-green the land.
_ _ _
* In case you aren’t aware, Eric Mayer and Mary Reed’s latest John the Eunuch Byzantine mystery, Seven For A Secret, was released in April by Poisoned Pen Press. If you haven’t kept up with their historical mystery series, it’s not too late to start. The earlier books in the series are still in print, and some are now available as Kindle editions.
A few days ago the New York Times ran a story headlined Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction, about Margaret Seltzer, alias Margaret B. Jones, and her memoir that wasn’t a memoir at all. She has admitted it was fiction. Today Alternet reports on yet another memoir writer who lied, in Literary Frauds Strike Again … and Again.
So, let’s see if I understand this. We’re supposed to sell our fiction as memoir now? Is that what I’ve been doing wrong? Is this what they mean by creative nonfiction? I’m confused.
I guess the little hand slap mainstream media gave James Frey, not to mention his second book contract, weren’t very good deterrents to the hot new trend in books — memoir fraud.
Readers expect a memoir to be true, if from a limited perspective of the writer’s personal experience and memory of events, which can of course be slightly skewed. We don’t all remember events that happened when we were growing up the same way our siblings or parents remember them. Obviously a lot of other nonfiction is opinion, or facts mingled with theories, presented from a single biased viewpoint. But a memoir isn’t supposed to be deliberately made up and then presented as the author’s own story. That’s called fiction.
These so-called memoir authors sold what they wrote as their own life stories, when they knew the stories either weren’t true or weren’t their experiences. They could’ve called their stories novels, or fictionalized accounts, but they didn’t. They called them memoirs. Some of them (Frey, at least) made a lot of money.
I don’t know about you, but when I spend hard-earned money on a book, my expectations are still pretty high. Those expectations are being fulfilled by books less and less often these days. I’m starting to think it’s no wonder people are reading fewer books, and I think the problem boils down to simple greed.
We all need to make a living. But most of us try to work hard and put in an honest effort at something for our living. We don’t resort to cheating, theft, fraud, and sloppy ethics. So who’s to blame here? Are these people just laughing at all us dummies who bother to actually be honest about our work? Laughing all the way to the bank?
The LA Times has published another opinion on why this type of thing happens in Why we fall for the fakes, an editorial that blames not just the writers, but the publishers, and finally the readers who keep purchasing these books.
What do readers think about this? If you pick up a memoir to read, do you want to know the person is at least attempting to be honest and accurate? Do you want to believe the publisher did their part in making sure they weren’t helping to perpetrate a fraud, or even instigating it? Do you think the writer is making a promise he or she is responsible to keep? Or when you pick up a memoir do you expect a certain amount of fiction?
What do you consider getting your money’s worth from a book? What are your expectations of authors and publishers as far as honesty? Are consumers partly to blame when we keep buying and don’t demand quality and integrity from the companies selling us products? Are we the readers to blame for books that fall below standards in either quality or integrity? Are we voting with our dollar for dishonesty? Or is that just an easy excuse for those who knowingly sell us shoddy or misrepresented products? Isn’t that blaming the victims, something like the purse snatcher saying, “Well she was just walking along the sidewalk. What was she doing there if she didn’t want it stolen?”
Perhaps most important of all, how does this make you feel about telling young people they should read more books?
We’ve had a few more days of rain, enough to soak the ground, and this storm came before the ground dried out from the last rain, which is good — and unfortunately unusual for us in our past few drought years. So I really shouldn’t complain about the weather, but . . . it’s awfully dark out there.
I balk at turning on lights in the middle of the day, but that’s what I’ve had to do the past two days in order to get any work done. I’m sorting through files, which is a bit scary, especially in the dark. I’ve also hibernated through these dark days to some extent because I’ve been under the weather. We both had the flu over the Solstice and Christmas, and though we’ve recovered, it tried to come back on me a few days ago, sending me once again in search of my vitamin bottles and throat lozenges, and whining about an earache.
It’s a good, wet winter, good for staying indoors and drinking hot beverages, celebrating the fact that we’re actually having winter, even if it is most people’s idea of spring or fall. The more wet winters we have, the less likely we are to have such horrible fire seasons.
Meanwhile, because I’ve decided to keep politics mostly off this blog, whenever I get the urge to wax political I post my views at my other blog, Spirit Blooms. I am putting my political blogging efforts into support of Dennis Kucinich for President.
Don’t worry, I haven’t given up this blog, and I don’t intend to. I’m still somewhat of a mystery to me, and I intend to keep writing, even if not mystery novels. I’m also still opinionated and have lots to say about writing, books, and lots of other stuff you might find interesting. Mystery of a Shrinking Violet will live on until the bitter end of my blogging adventure, whenever that is, sometime in the far future. I’ll be back in a day or two, hopefully with more to write about than the weather — or politics, which I honestly hate but can’t avoid in good conscience these days.
I was thrilled a few weeks ago to be asked to contribute some of my thoughts about blogging to a project called, Blog Your Book to the Top. It’s an ebook published by CyberBookBuzz to help authors use blogs to promote their work.
What little I know about that apparently went over well, so I’m one of the 15 authors whose blogs and tips are featured in the book. You might want to take a look, if only for tips from others who know far more than I do about using a blog to promote their work. Nancy Hendrickson, who asked me to take part, is a freelance writer in San Diego and creator of Blogging Authors and Book Talk Radio. She’s included dozens of great tips about author blogging, and blogging in general, in Blog Your Book to the Top.
One of my particular thrills resulting from this project is to see my name on the summary page for the book — on the same page as a blurb by Jessica Macbeth, author of The Faeries Oracle. Her excellent book accompanies Brian Froud’s Faeries Oracle cards, which I love so much that after I lost my first deck last year I immediately bought a second one.
How cool is that?
Bruce at Wordswimmer writes about story endings in his post, Where the River Ends, and that got me to thinking about some of the problems I’ve encountered in ending mysteries.
With a mystery, the question of how to end the story begins with which character did the crime. I no longer start with a specific villain in mind. The story often changes so much in the writing that a pre-planned ending has no choice but to change as well, or it wouldn’t make much sense.
In the last couple of mysteries I’ve written, I was as surprised as anyone by who the villain turned out to be once I got to the second draft or later. That’s okay, and it has a lot to do with how I develop characters. If I know who the villain is too early, I’m in danger of giving it away, offering hints I’m not even aware of because of my judgments about that character.
If I start out thinking the villain isn’t a villain, I can get to the heart of that character sooner in my own mind. I can get to know him, let him grow and round out on the page. I’m an idealist, and I really like to see the best in people, so there needs to be that spark of sympathy first, without letting on even to myself that he or she is a killer in the making. I guess in that regard my characterization is as organic as raising a child. What mother imagines her infant would harm anyone?
This process forces me to explore the shadows, my characters’ shadows as well as my own, to see possible motivations, both conscious and unconscious.
I first encountered the shadow, as a human concept, in stories I read. I confess that I didn’t understand the concept very well when I was young and still in denial that I had a shadow or that any good person did. But one encounters this idea many times, if one reads at all widely, and the reason for that is it’s a universal truth about human nature.
In exploring the shadows, I’ve come to see that a fully rounded character, even if he’s the good guy, has a shadow, whether that shadow is clear on the page or not, whether that shadow is negative or positive. I want to know each major character’s background as well as possible, so I start with the positives and work my way into the negatives. Though it hurts me to watch a character I’ve come to like or sympathize with cross the line into murder, at least the biggest puzzle of the mystery isn’t lost on me, and I’m not giving the killer away up front. If I decide the murderer needs to be someone else, not the person I thought it was going to be, I don’t have to cast about too far for someone else who could have done it. In truth, any one of the characters might be capable of killing, given the right circumstances and motivation. They all have their shadows. By the time I get to my final draft, I usually have a few characters that, with nudges into poor choices and flawed rationalization, could become much darker individuals. That’s usually a key to how I end the story. Which character, which nudges, and which choices? Which fits this need best? What motivates the villain to do the awful deed and also causes him or her to get caught in the end? How will the reader be surprised and at the same time see that this person and the clues leading there were present all along? (Foreshadowing will have to wait for another post.)
My exploration of the shadows has made me think a lot about the choices we make in life, and how important each one is, especially when we stack one choice on top of another in the way that we sometimes come to think of as inevitable. We don’t have a choice in everything, certainly, but sometimes when we look back over our lives or a course of events, we can see the turnings we’ve made, and many of them were choices, that brought each of us to be who, where, and what we are today. When we’re accountable for those choices, I think we improve our ability to move forward and make better ones.
If there’s one positive effect fiction can have, perhaps it’s to get us to take a look at the cause and effect of choices. What are we capable of? What would we do in the same situation, and where might that take us or what might it make of us, and our world with us? The stories that get me to think in those terms are the stories that stay with me.