Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Cure for Literature-Induced Moody Blues

When I had four small children, I swore off the Russians. I think I was reading Dostoevsky at the time, and I found myself getting more and more depressed. Now, the fact that I was getting almost no sleep at night probably accounted for some of it, but the fact remains that as the story devolved my mood devolved with it.

Instead of crying because a child (who we swore would not be allowed to drink out of anything but a sippy cup until she reached the age of thirty-two) spilled her milk for the hundredth time, I was crying because some vodka swilling Russian was most likely going to commit suicide.

So I swore off the Russians, even though a lot of depressing books are amazing opportunities to plumb the depths of the human condition. Finally, a year or so ago, I taught One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn. It went well; I didn’t see the world in shades of muddy gray. So I began making a To-Be-Read list of the Russians. Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment were at the top of the list. I was to start this summer.

In the meantime, I picked up another novel called The Swan Thieves (written by an American, not a Russian). And while the writing is utterly lyrical, the novel is about an artist’s descent into madness. Right now (I’m about a quarter of the way through the novel), the main character Robert is not only covering the rafters of his attic in lurid obsessional painting, he’s also ruining the life of his wife and daughter. And I’m getting cranky—how dare the artist throw away his gift and his family like so much trash?

The bad news is that my husband is also an artist, and, though it’s unlikely that he will begin painting ropey veined hands on the ceiling, I find myself scowling at him.

Of course, all this moodiness is highly unfair to my family. So, I’ve come up with a plan—a literary antibiotic to the bacterial disease of depressing novels. I can read the Russians or any other dismal novel as long as I end my reading period with a couple of PG Wodehouse quotes.

Here’s the treatment plan.

I read twenty minutes of a gloomy novel (usually done while cooking dinner, though this does account for the occasional odd mix of spices), then I read some quotes from a PG Wodehouse novel, for example, The Code of the Woosters.

(Bertie): “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
(Jeeves) "The mood will pass, sir.”


“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Yes, that will surely cure my literature-induced moody blues. Interestingly, I’m fairly certain that Wodehouse may have had the same reaction to the Russians that I have. If not, how could he have written the following…

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Writing, Beware the Thirds

While waiting for my betas to finish Screwing Up Alexandria, I’m editing another book. It was going really well, and then I hit a brick wall. After eight chapters, the book stopped dead. The story was there, but something was very wrong. I pushed ahead to the next chapter. It sucked too.

I got a terrible sinking feeling. I told myself that maybe I was too tired or too spent or maybe my blood sugar was too low. So I came back to it the next day. Both chapters were still bad. Very bad. And I wasn’t sure why. I could taste panic like a metallic flavor on my tongue.

So I put the book aside for a couple of days. On the second day, I realized what was wrong. The voice died. It was completely missing in chapters eight and nine. But I didn’t know why. Did the bad chapters need to be thrown out and completely rewritten? Or had the plot taken a wrong turn in the earlier chapters?

I thought about the plot structure and then I knew what was wrong.

Two weeks before, I’d talked a writing friend down from the same ledge. She was panicking over her novel, trying to decide whether to toss the whole thing. I asked her, “Where are you in the novel? Are you between the first and second third of the novel or the second and final third of the novel?” She said, “Between the second and final third.” I said, “No worries. Your novel is likely just fine. You’re just stuck between thirds.”

That’s where I was stuck too. My two chapters were the transition between the first third of the novel and the second third.

Years ago, I read a book about novels that discussed novels as three act plays. I scoffed. Surely, something as complex as a novel, especially those crafted by seat-of-the-pants novelists, couldn’t be deconstructed into three acts. Then, I got more experience writing. And I saw it in my own work. I saw it in other peoples’ work. I saw it in the novels that I read.

The transitions between thirds of the novels are difficult. Usually, the many of the elements of the story (plot/characters/setting/pace/etc.) take a turn at the thirds. Those turns are complex, interconnected, and very difficult to manage. Just getting them on the page is a huge effort. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the first editing pass I found a mess. Of course, the voice died—you can’t do everything at once. I should have been thankful that I got the elements transitioned without having to rip things apart and start over.

Once I realized what the problem was, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into the text, adding in the texture and rhythms that make up the voice in the novel. And then I moved on to the next chapters and found the voice was there waiting for me.

Now I’m pondering making a placard and putting it on the wall of my office. It will read “Beware the Thirds.” I need to remember this because in the next month or so, I’ll be hitting the transition between the second and final thirds. And I’m likely to find that the voice died, the characters are stilted actors, and panic is making my eyelids twitch.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Moonless Blog Fest (My Top Ten Literary Crushes)

To celebrate the release of Moonless, Crystal Collier’s new book, she asked several writers/bloggers to consider the question :

 If you lived in a society where arranged marriages were a la mode, whom would you beg your parents to set you up with? Why?

 (Make sure to scroll to the end of the post for Moonless’s blurb, a chance to win FREE books, and links to the rest of the blog fest!)

When Crystal asked me to participate in this blog fest, I had to set aside my ideal *waves at my husband Calvin* and try to come up with a second best.

Here’s my top ten in order from “least likely” to “yep, I’ll marry him”:

1. Odysseus (The Odyssey) Tough, clever, and enduring. But I want someone faithful—I’m not sharing my husband with Circe.

2. Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) Witty, wealthy, and a notable solider. But he’s a bit too cocky for my tastes.

3. Westley (The Princess Bride) “As you wish.” Perfect. Except too young for me.

4. Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) Handsome, connected, and a house to kill for. But he’s got no real sense of humor.

5. Peeta (The Hunger Games) Clever, artistic, and single-minded, but also too young.

6. Sir Percival Blakeney (The Scarlet Pimpernel) Money, smarts, and daring-do. But I don’t think I could deal with the foppish part.

7. Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) Brooding, handsome, and someone who shows tremendous character growth. So he's close, but I don’t think I could get over the near-bigamy issue.

8. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) He’s clever, a great dad, and does the right thing no matter what the consequences. He’s so, so close to perfect, but here’s the thing--if Gregory Peck hadn’t played him in the movie version, would anyone swoon over Atticus? Probably not.

9. Faramir (The Lord of the Rings) Handsome, solid, and selfless. I think he’s one of the most hard-working, self-effacing characters in literature. He doesn’t need the glory—he’s content if he can serve. The only thing keeping him from number one is that I don’t see the smoldering passion just below the surface.

10. Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion). Tender, persevering, tough, and passionate. Yep. This is my guy.

In the English society of 1768 where women are bred to marry, unattractive Alexia, just sixteen, believes she will end up alone. But on the county doorstep of a neighbor’s estate, she meets a man straight out of her nightmares, one whose blue eyes threaten to consume her whole world—especially when she discovers him standing over her murdered host in the middle of the night.

Her nightmares become reality: a dead baron, red-eyed wraiths, and forbidden love with a man hunted by these creatures. After an attack close to home, Alexia realizes she cannot keep one foot in her old life and one in this new world. To protect her family she must either be sold into a loveless marriage, or escape with her beloved and risk becoming one of the Soulless.

And while you're at it, enter to win one of these great prizes!

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Find the rest of the hop below!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


I don't have a regular post for today. Sorry. But I am working on the blurb for Screwing Up Alexandria, and I hope to post it soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd post a photo of one of my orchids. Enjoy!