Sunday, February 28, 2010

How Writing is like Playing Handbells

I think the Winter Driving post showed that a raven can be like a writing desk, with the proper exploration. And it was such fun that another set of random thoughts struck me about comparisons while I was at handbell rehearsal comparing that hobby to my writing pursuits.

For those not familiar, a handbell choir is composed of individuals ringers playing bells, and each bell plays one note, like one key on a piano. It's kind of like a belltower or carillon except that the bells are handheld and there is a greater range of flexibility for the depth and complexity of the music because of that. In fact (historical note) this is how handbells originated--they were miniatures of the bells in towers that could be used for practice so that the ringers didn't have to hang out in a drafy tower and bug the neighborhood for hours on end. Those sets were generally only six to twelve handbells--for comparison, our mid-to-large sized choir uses five octaves (eight notes an octave plus their accidentals--usually at least 40 bells being played at a time).

This is the piece we're currently working on, played very well by a church in Taiwan:

So, ravens, writing desks, and bells:

1) Timing is everything. In bells choirs, reading music perfectly isn't that big of a deal. You're following, generally, only a couple of notes, so if you know where your notes are you don't need to pay attention to everyone else's (though it helps as you get more proficient). We have a range of musicianship skills in our choir from graduate students pursuing advanced music degrees to grandmas who haven't checked out sheet music since sitting through piano fifty years ago. What you do have to get is counting. Sounds easy. Actually kind of confusing if you don't have much music training already. Developing an internal metronome is vital; you'll often see beginners mouthing numbers to themselves, which is fine (actually speaking them during performance, less so). You work into a second nature over practice of keeping time so that you're playing the right thing in the right spot. I've found through trial and lots of error how vital this is to plotting, as well. It doesn't matter how lovely your piece of description, how punchy your dialogue, how surprising your plot twist--if it comes at the wrong time, it's like one of those bells at the end of the video above randomly shaking in the middle of the piece. And that is jarring. I've heard it.

2) Don't get too comfortable with your note. Many bell players (not all) get very possessive of their spots. It gets to the point that an experienced bell choir director will probably call or email you before moving you to make sure it's ok. Getting moved is challenging--there are different skills used in different octaves, plus the fact that you get very used to watching for your notes and have to readjust when you move up or down the staff. But it's the best way to grow in your musicianship. You don't get how the other areas work and appreciate what they add to the piece until you've played their parts. The comparison here is easy--if you're good at dialogue, it's easy to rely on dialogue. If you're good at description, you find a lot of it cropping up in your work. But you need to get all the elements to make a really good story, so you have to move outside what you're comfortable with. Yes, it takes more work and you'll make more mistakes at first, but the overall improvement is worth it. Take it even further--try writing in a different genre or voice or style to see what you learn. You might find that you prefer where you were (I moved from my original A and B above middle C spot to middle C for a few months--was glad to move back as I found the music there less interesting and my wrists hated the heavy bells, but I'm glad I tried it) or you might find you're not too shabby (just got moved another octave up--it's fun!).

3) It isn't just you. I'm sure this happens in other kinds of ensembles, too, but since we're all playing the same instrument it feels even more pronounced in bell choir. You're ringing along, and a section or a key change or a weird rhythm or whatever just isn't working for you. You keep screwing it up. And it throws you off and you feel like you've thrown the people around you off, too, because now they're all ringing at the wrong time and missing notes. Then you realize--it's not you. It's everyone. Everyone struggles with the difficult stuff. I think in writing we often look around and see others not struggling, so feel we're the only ones with issues. Your issues might be different from someone else's--but everyone runs into trouble, whether it's with writing the first draft or editing or query letters or getting to publication or writing the second book or all of the above. Or with a nasty key change that some sheet music printer felt was best placed directly after a page turn.

In case you've finished the first video and want a second--this piece is more complicated and less "sentimental" than the one above. The recording is also a bit too dominated by the high bells--a common bell choir problem, actually. We've been working on this piece recently, as well--it's one of my favorites that we've done. Again, not our choir featured.

4) Don't put difficult key changes directly after a page turn. In the piece being played above, another piece we're working on, there's a terribly difficult key change within a run of notes that happens--you guessed it--first measure of a new page. Sure, good ringers will figure out how to deal, but it makes things rougher. And here's your writing tidbit--your readers are right when they say you've made something more difficult--or easier--than it needs to be. You're writing for them, just like that music is written for the ringers. If something isn't working for any of your readers (and this is subjective, but you know when it's not just one person not liking it but everyone saying it just isn't jibing) it needs to be changed. That's what beta readers are for--they catch stuff you never would have seen because you're too close to it and don't have to read it for the first time with fresh eyes. I've had this happen so often--I know exactly what I mean, so at first someone says they don't get it and I want to explain it to them. No, I need to make it clearer so the reader doesn't have to ask. I need to rework it so that vital but difficult time-signature change doesn't come during a page turn. Hear me, bell music composers and printers of music?

5) It's all about the layers. You might have noticed that in each of the two pieces above, there is a simple melody line that begins the piece, but then layers form above and below them to add interest. The emphasis shifts from higher bells to lower bells and back, the rhythms change up now and again, different techniques are used in different sections by different bells (notice the suspended malletting in piece #1?). This may verge into my opinion, but I think good writing it like that, too. Very few measures in music do only one thing--they have melody and harmony weaving together into something greater than either by itself. So, too, with writing--each paragraph, plot point, dialogue, sometimes even each word should be doing more than one thing. Your conversation between two characters moves the plot along, but it also reveals their personalities. Your description of your protagonist's house sets up necessary info for a plot twist later, lets us know about her through her choice of surroundings, and showcases some lovely language. Nothing is superfluous--the language might be beautiful, but it's doing something, too. This is a hard one for me--I love words, I'm happy reading and writing beautiful, striking usage of language. Most people aren't, and even those who do lose patience eventually. Embrace the layers.

And I hope you haven't yet lost patience with me seeing pithy aphorisms for writing in everything! Where do you learn about writing away from your computer and books?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Poll results

Results are in! What's your favorite period to read, write, or recreate?

Ancient up through Medieval--lots to enjoy in antiquity! (37%)
The Renaissance--brocades, velvets, allure... (0%)
Exploration, Colonization, Revolution--so much happening in such fabulous clothes! (37%)
Regency, Victorian, Edwardian--delicate flower-women, romantic men, an undercurrent of smoldering je ne sais quoi... (25%)
The Twentieth Century--tragedy of the Great War, excess of the Roaring Twenties, glamour of Old Hollywood and the conflict and romance of WWII (0%)

I have to admit--I was a bit surprised not to find any Renaissance-ophiles. Less surprised that the Twentieth Century didn't get much love--after all, many of us remember a decent chunk of it!

As for me, my favorite is the same as one of the high scorers--Exploration, Colonization, Revolution. Honestly, I can take or leave Exploration--I'm an eighteenth-century nut, all around, fascinated by the intellectual, sartorial, political, cultural, and domestic history of the period. Can you tell?

That's me hauling a box! It wouldn't be fun except it's an eighteenth-century styled box and I'm wearing stays! So it's fun! I'm also freezing because it's 40-odd degrees out and I couldn't wear a coat around the cannon for safety reasons! But it's still fun!

I also have a fondness for the early twentieth century, from WWI through WWII and all the dissonance and struggle in between. So many good stories, and unlike other periods of history, we still have a few folks around who can recount those stories from their own memories. This is another reason this era fascinates me--it's one of the first eras that's been properly studied through interviews and recollections of those who were there. We have the primary sources; they're still breathing. And, of course, I'm also fascinated by the complications of combining the study of history with memory. That's another post entirely.

Surprised? Want to make a last-ditch plea for why your favorite era is the bestest? Want to tell me I'm a goof for thinking it's fun to haul a box around? Hit the comments!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

F is for...

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

This book winked at me a few times from the bookstore shelves before I finally decided to pick it up on sale. The concept appealed to me--a historical novel set against the backdrop of a natural monument and real historical events. And a few browses through a few random paragraphs (page 99 test, anyone?) showed me that I enjoyed Buchanan's writing style.

After finishing the book, I can say--quite a writing style. Buchanan writes beautifully, recognizes the power of poetry to create imagery through words. The plot is a quiet one (more on my reaction to this later) so that often what propels the reader forward is not a sense of "what happens next" but rather "what will she say next." It's a lovely blend of literary and historical in terms of the writing quality.

My one quibble with the style is that Buchanan writes by turns in present and past tense. Though I am sure she did so quite deliberately, for the life of me I can find no pattern nor reason for what is in present and what is in past. I tend to enjoy when writers play with rules a bit, but this didn't jibe for me. Unlike, for instance, The Piano Teacher, in which some sections (entire chapters) are in past, others present, to dilineate the perspective and storyline timeframe, Falls dips in and out--and I'm afraid I found it irritating.

Not, however, such a big deal that I would put down the book. It's an enjoyable, though, as I mentioned, slow-paced read. The essential storyline is simple--a romance entwined with the mighty falls, interupted by WWI, culminating with an alliance that threatens to destroy what the main characters love about each other and the falls. To be honest, I'm making it sound grander than it's written--it's written quietly. On one hand, this made me happy--I like quiet stories and I like that one was published in today's market that seems so often to demand quick hook and fast pace. On the other hand, there were elements to the plot that seemed to drag a bit. I would have liked the agony of the main character waiting for her husband's return from the front drawn out a bit more, for her parents' disapproval of their marriage to be more sharply defined. These seemed like they should have been major plot points, but were glossed over, in my opinion, too quickly. Not only would heightening many of these conflicts bring more interest to the book, I felt they would make it more realistic. Do not be surprised as well when you are not surprised. The plot is fairly predictable. The lovely writing and seeing how the characters would react to the plot points I guessed were coming kept me reading.

Another element that I found of interest was the underlying current (current? river? get it? sorry) of struggle between the encroaching hydroelectric plant and the natural, unspoiled beauty of the falls and river. This is why I chose this book for "F"--the falls are more than part of the title and the setting, they are an integral part of the book. Buchanan did a lovely job making this conflict a part of the larger plotline, but was less effective, in my opinion, at peppering the book with newspaper articles and photographs that were supposed to evoke an archival quality.
So, a bit of a mixed review, I know--if you like poetic writing and are intrigued by the concept, worth a read.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Block Print Caraco

Well, my bolt of linen arrived (yes, bolt. There is currently a bolt of fabric leaning in the corner of my husband's study/our storage room). With that linen for the lining, I now have everything I need to finish the block-print caraco I decided to make this winter.

I am using J.P. Ryan's caraco pattern as pictured at right--a quick review, if you're interested: This is a very simple pattern to use, and most of the techniques used are very basic. Modern construction techniques are used in her instructions, so you do not need to be an expert in eighteenth-century "plain sewing" to acheive a lovely finished product. The only tricky bits--you need to know how to sew a box pleat (this is very simple to understand on the back center pleat but a bit trickier on the sides--you may want to practice if you're unfamiliar). Also, I've found that the stomacher does not attach quite nicely following the instructions--I will be experimenting with a new way of attaching it and will share if it's successful. Finally, fit: I've a longish waist, but the piece fits without much modification. Short waisted ladies may need to adjust. Also, I've found the sleeves to be rather tight--you may want to test this on a muslin before working on the final piece. You will, as her instructions indicate, need eighteenth-century underpinnings to acheive the desired effect. However, I've found from lending my old version of this out that if you bone the front of this garment, it can pass as a not-quite authentic costume without stays beneath it.

I'd already cut and seamed the shell before the linen arrived. Yes, I am using modern technique and sewing the shell and lining separately--partially because I wanted to get part of the project knocked out before the linen came and partially because this piece turns out well using modern interior construction. This is the fourth time I've made this pattern. The first was for my poor heavy cotton caraco that used to be a lovely claret and is now a pathetic washed-out pink. Too many days in the sun have reduced it to a far lowlier state than it appears here:

Please note--my facial expression is rather odd because I was scanning the ground for a lost knife. Obviously a concern given the horde of clamoring children behind me.

I also made a silk version for my mother, of the pleasantest periwinkle tafetta, and a heavier brocade for a friend's daughter. This one was, by the way, my most proud finished caraco because I managed to match the stripes along the back in a delightful chevron pattern--unfortunately, I have no pictures of that accomplishment.

Differences this time: I plan to try an alternate method of attaching the stomacher this time so that it's wider and lays flatter than in the phot above, and will be using boning to stiffen the front. I've not had to do this in the past given that the fabric I used was heavy, but as I intend this garment to be a summer piece I wanted to use a very lightweight cotton.

Pictures of the finished product forthcoming!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Poll!

So there are a lot of history fiends (er, friends) dropping by and reading...use the poll in the sidebar to let me and, you know, the world at large know what your favorite era to read, write, or recreate is. Extrapolate on why or expound on how asking you to pick only one is so terribly wrong in the comments.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Introduction to George, Farewell to William

In the world of eighteenth-century living history, we often see two big groups emerge--the military reenactors with their drilling, their precise uniforms, their weaponry and the costume afficiandos, the ladies and gentlemen in the ballrooms and parlors. But there's a third, less dramatic, less glamorous group that provides a vital look into the facets of life that most people in the past engaged in. These are the reenactors with civilian impressions rather than military, depicting trades and lifestyles of the not-so-rich-or-famous. Gerry and his team of four oxen are among the creme de la creme in this category. They are enthralling--everywhere they go, the team pacing steadily with Gerry's confident guiding voice beside them--they are met with amazed onlookers.

Sadly, one of the team, William, died suddenly last week. His yoke-mate, George, is in need of some help--often, when an ox's yoke mate dies, the grieving ox dies as well. So Gerry is trying to put George back to work as soon as possible, the best antidote for oxen grief. My reenacting-world friend Ye Doctor has given more info and linked to how you can help if you're so inclined.
But mostly, in tribute to William and in honor of George, I wanted to introduce you to these fine gentleman (Gerry included). I first met these fellows at an event in Indiana where we participate as an artillery unit. Appropriately, our deployment point onto the battlefield was right by these placid boys--appropriate because artillery units would have made good use of oxen to haul their wagons of powder and shot and their heavy artillery pieces. They bewitched me as well as most onlookers--they have such personalities!

Also--I had never heard that the ox grieves for his yoke mate, but I found this beautiful passage from George Sand's The Devil's Pool:

The day was clear and mild, and the soil, freshly cleft by the ploughshare, sent up a light steam....An old man, whose broad shoulders and stern face recalled Holbein’s ploughman, but whose clothes carried no suggestion of poverty, was gravely driving his plough of antique shape, drawn by two placid oxen, true patriarchs of the meadow, tall and rather thin, with pale yellow coats and long, drooping horns. They were those old workers who, through long habit, have grown to be brothers, as they are called in our country, and who, when one loses the other, refuse to work with a new comrade, and pine away with grief. People who are unfamiliar with the country call the love of the ox for his yoke-fellow a fable. Let them come and see in the corner of the stable one of these poor beasts, thin and wasted, restlessly lashing his lean flanks with his tail, violently breathing with mingled terror and disdain on the food offered him, his eyes always turned toward the door, scratching with his hoof the empty place at his side, sniffing the yokes and chains which his fellow used to wear, and incessantly calling him with melancholy lowings. The ox-herd will say: “There is a pair of oxen gone; this one will work no more, for his brother is dead. We ought to fatten him for the market, but he will not eat, and will soon starve himself to death.”

Giveaway--Fabulous Historical Fiction

If you like discovering fabulous historical fiction and reading about the research and writing process, pop on over to June's blog for an interview with the inimitable M.M. Bennetts, author of May 1812. I first discovered Bennetts' work on the Harper Collins Authonomy site. Not only is the work excellent, but the author is as kind an old soul as you'd ever hope to meet, and offered not only beautifully written critiques but plenty of brilliant banter while I was active on the site.

I particularly admire Bennetts' work for its dedication to historical accuracy while maintaining the highest literary form. This is a rare treat for those of us who are history geeks and lit nerds--so rarely does an author combine the facts with the fiction so flawlessly and loose nothing of either in the transcription.

Plus--June is giving away an autographed copy of the book. Read the interview, leave a comment, you buys your ticket and you takes your chance.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Five Necessities for a Road Trip Weekend

I'm heading out of town this afternoon to visit a friend in the far reaches of the frozen northern tundra--ok, just northern Indiana. She happens to live near a town where we used to have a reenactment, and when my mother and I showed up one year and rolled down our window to ask the nice toothless man at the gate of the parking lot where to park, he replied "I was wondrin' when all the purdy ladies is gonna show up," so I have certian prejudices against this area. Strangely enough, the next town over has a beautifully serene Japanese restaurant with the best bento boxes. Indiana is a strange little state of conradictions.

Anyway, thought I'd share the five things I'm most excited about packing up and heading out with:

1) A friend. While I do enjoy the occasional solitary car trip (great time for reflection and for singing along embarassingly badly with the radio), four hours of dull scenery is also a fabulous time to reconnect with a good friend. And, in this case, still sing along very loudly with the music. Which happens to be....

2) Music. I don't recommend relying on the radio in the booneys. Though you can find some really amazing programming (like the time my husband and I found the old-timey country music hour and bopped along to Patsy Cline and her ilk until the station fuzzed out), it's hit or miss. Mostly miss. My travel buddy and I have a set of must-haves with us on all car trips, most of which are sing-along-able. Included are the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, the best of the Andrews Sisters (in which the classic "I Love You Much Too Much" became, inexplicably, "I Love Your Butt Too Much" in my car), and some Loreena McKennit for contemplative moments.

3) Coffee. Or other hot drink. Or soda. Except not too much soda because one time we were rear-ended on the highway and it took the police forever to show up to make the report and things were getting a bit desperate toward the end.

4) Printed copy of WIP. Last time we headed up north, I was at about this stage in my first project, and just sitting with it in the coffeeshop while one friend read, another graded, and we all sipped delightfully named specialty drinks was so beneficial. I started to really make connections and forge the overarching structure more solidly. Plus--sidenote--wow, I printed out what I've done so far and I didn't realize how far I'd already come on December (working title for WIP)! Sixty-four scrunched up single-spaced pages! Yay.

5) Those bento boxes. Ok, I'm not packing those. They'll be there when we go out for lunch. And here's the thing--it's not just the incredible spicy tuna roll that I'm psyched about (though, yeah, I'm psyched. And for the inari). It's that we're forming a tradition together, my grown-up friends and I, of not letting our friendship go flat just because we aren't in college living in a cardboard shack of a rental house together.

Looking forward to a relaxing, yet productive weekend in which I don't check my email a single time and the thought of queries or agents doesn't enter my mind. Because we all need a break once in a while, right?

Please feel free to share your road-trip essentials!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"E" is for...

Ethel from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

Confession--I read this intending to post for "H" but I can't get one character, Ethel, out of my head. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, two stories run parallel to each other--in 1942 young Henry Chen falling in love with Keiko, a Japanese girl at his school; in 1986 older Henry Chen dealing with the loss of his wife, his son growing up, and a fascinating discovery at a boarded-up hotel. Yet for me it was a secondary character, Henry's departed wife Edith, who made the biggest impact.

This book has been making the blog tour rounds recently, so it's likely you may have already read bit about the plot and the main characters, Henry and Keiko. The two meet at school where they are both on "scholarship"--that is, they help in the cafeteria in exchange for free tuition. Henry is Chinese and the son of a man wholeheartedly proud of his Chinese heritage--so proud that he identifies the Japanese as the enemy long before Pearl Harbor because of their attacks on his homeland. Keiko is Japanese and the daughter of parents who see themselves as American first, yet are herded off to internment camps as the US becomes more deeply embroiled in WWII.

As I said, however, it's Ethel that fascinates me. Her presence in the story gives it its realism. Things don't always work out neatly in life, and it is her presence in Henry's past that lets us know that the story will have bittersweet ends. It's Henry's complicated grief over her death that gives the 1986 chapters emotional viability. At the same time, she's barely a shadow for most of the book--a name mentioned with a quiet reverence, but not the intrigue with which Keiko is recalled. Toward the last of the book's 1940s chapters, we see her in person, and realize that she is both catalyst to Henry's loss of Keiko and comfort when Henry is left alone.

Because the love and marriage of Henry and Ethel has an overtone of manipulation and device by Henry's father, I can't help but wonder at what Ethel's side of the story is. Obviously, we never know--she was clearly a devoted wife and mother, and it is only through her death that Henry can return to his youth and explore his relationship with Keiko. Does Ethel know that she was perhaps second-best? That her husband remembered with such intensity the Japanese girl of his youth? It's a complication that brings out a richer texture to the story to never know Ethel's thoughts.

I had perhaps only one complaint about the book, and that was the fact that Henry and Keiko were only twelve when they meet one another. This fell a little flat for me--I was twelve once, I know twelve-year-olds, and their emotions are not this passionately developped. Perhaps I'm turning into an old fogey, but I see twelve as barely emerging from childhood, not old enough to sustain the emotionally intense relationship Keiko and Henry share. Ford has said that he chose young ages to imbue the relationship with innocence, which I respect, but for me it took things in the other direction too far. Perhaps another reason that Ethel resonated with me--her relationship with Henry felt more realistic to me, as they were teenagers dating rather than kids playing in the street together in my mind.

An enjoyable book, and a page-turner as you just have to find out what happens to Henry and Keiko and what secrets are hidden in the basement of the Panama Hotel. It didn't have the lyrical, poetic quality I generally enjoy in books--the writing style is quite straightforward. Still, a pleasant afternoon or two--with a cup of the green tea Henry favors by your side.
PS (later addition) I read a few more reviews of the book that also mentioned the ages as a problem in terms of accuracy--that kids that young wouldn't have been allowed boyfriends or girlfriends, wouldn't have run about on their own, and wouldn't have snuck into jazz clubs and met secretly as Henry and Keiko did. Interesting point--but I wonder. Kids always do, and have always done, what they're not supposed to do. And Henry seems to have a pretty good idea that his actions put him on thin ice. Does this bother you from an accuracy standpoint, or do you figure that kids will be kids and will stretch the limits regardless of the time period?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Linen Addiction

So, one must ask the question--what does a reenactor do all winter? True, some rascals put together winter camps and winter treks and other activities that must be prefaced with "winter" so that you know it's going to be cold, wet, and possibly induce frostbite. These people are quite plausibly clinically certifiable. I know some of them, which only goes to back up the point.

Others, more sane folk (as some call us, wusses), use the winter to catch up on the projects we put off from spring through late fall when our weekends were eaten up by events. You see, just as life in the eighteenth century was hard on clothing and gear, recreated eighteenth century life imparts its wear and tear, too. I finally had to yeild one shift to the scrap bin, and my husband's shirts are--well, "stained" is a polite way to say "in no way white anymore, period."

Other sad facts from the inventory: My caraco, which used to be a lovely burgundy, has faded to an odd pinkish-red with white along the seams. The eyelets on my stays have lost their overstitching and do a lovely job tearing through staylaces. I have two petticoats that require new waistbands. Quite frankly, I'm a bit of a mess.

Priorities first, though--the linen. Shifts and shirts simply must happen this winter, and to do this, we need linen. I also found a lovely block print for a new caraco, and that needs lining. More linen. Here's the trouble with eighteenth-century living history. We have to keep the fabrics authentic, and linen was one of the staples. It was cheaper than cotton in the period, so a person's basics like undergarments and working clothes were made of it. The trouble? It's more expensive and less desirable for most people today than cotton is, so it's tougher to find in the fabric store. So I stick with my favorite linen purveyor,, whose site claims "Our Linen is Addictive."

Yes, yes it is.

But I was a good girl and "only" bough 20 yards of lightweight linen for shifts, shirts, caps, lining summer clothes, and ruffles. Certainly, I don't need 20 yards right now--but this is in the same logic as why I buy toilet paper and paper towels in bulk--I don't want to do this again in a few months.

...And I snuck enough lovely green linen in the cart for a petticoat. Several of mine are torn and burned on the hem (klutzy?me?) so it was (almost) a necessity.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Page 99 Litmus Test

So I picked this up from the lovely June and Noelle--both writer-friends picked up from ye olde webernet: page 99 as the litmus test for the novel, the page upon which you can base your opinion with neither the rush of just-starting giddiness nor the tumult of the climax nor the cosyness of denouement. To quote its originator, Ford Maddox Ford, turn of that last century English novelist, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

After reading these ladies' entries, I thought I would give it a whirl myself. Do you want to know what page 99 of my currently-being-queried project is? The big reveal, the grand test of quality for the whole novel? In my formatted manuscript, it is:

..."and acknowledged, 'I, as well.' "

Yes, that's right. Page 99 is one of those awkward spillover pages before a new chapter starts. Five lines of acquiescence, and that's it.

It doesn't exactly make me want to read more. Unless the font was a really good one.

But to play fair, and post something worthwhile, and bare my literary soul to anyone willing to read, let's take a look at page 98, shall we? (Setting--Charleston, 1780 for those unfamiliar.)

The Reverend began the prayer to close the service, and though Anna bowed her head, she did not think of prayer, but of the feeble magnolia leaf overflowing in the wake of the much stronger rain and of her own helplessness. It was not only her physical inability to escape the conflict that was no longer a distant war belonging to men leagues away, she realized as the Lord’s Prayer rose on a hundred voices around her. What provoked her was her was her inability to own her place in the rising tides. Her brother was a part of the war, as was Benjamin--they forged their own places within it. Yet it was only happening around her, changing her reality as a flood changes the course of a riverbed.
Anna realized that the women had begun to rise from the benches and gather their children, while the men had broken ranks to retrieve their hats. The mistress of the house, whom Anna heard called Mrs. MacIntyre, emerged in the midst of the women as they moved toward the steps.
“Please, if you will consider sewing a few shirts for the army, or providing old linens for bandages?” She grasped hands fervently and nodded in encouragement as women offered their time and fabric. “I’ll host a little sewing circle here tomorrow afternoon, if anyone would like to work at their shirts here.”
“Marjory, why don’t we come?” Anna found herself saying before she had thought through the proposal herself.
Marjory seemed taken aback by the idea. “I suppose we could,” she conceded, “though I don’t know the first thing about sewing shirts.” She raised a single, delicately arched eyebrow at Anna.
“I don’t either,” Anna laughed. She grew more serious as she added, “But to think that they might aid our brothers, or some other boy--man--gives me some comfort.”
Marjory did not balk at Anna’s frank words, but merely nodded and acknowledged, “I, as well.”

A couple comments:
  1. Funny, because this isn't intended to be a Christian inspirational novel, and this is the only church scene in it. I wonder--would a reader judge the entirety of the book as having a Christian overtone from this page? My intention was more to acknowledge the active role of religion in the lives of eighteenth century individuals and in the American Revolution--on both sides, actually. Though this is a preacher with Patriot sympathies, Anglican ministers prayed with their congregations each week for the health and victory of King George.
  2. Strangely, most of the main characters actually do get mention here. And one rather extraneous character, too.
  3. This is probably one of my favorite scenes, atmospherically speaking, in the MS--it's a Sunday church service gathering on the porch of a fancy house during a rainstorm. I love it because I actually attended church service at a reenactment on the porch of a fancy plantation house during a light drizzle--there are images neatly lifted from that experience. There are others I did not include, namely having ones' nose run profusely during the sermon because of the chill.

What do you think of the Page 99 Test? How do you test out books before buying or picking at the library?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How Writing is like Winter Driving

So, apparently Mr. Phil the Punxsatawney Groundhog saw his plump little shadow this morning, setting us up for six more weeks of winter. Given that I live in Indiana, I was already prepped for at least eight more weeks. I grew up in northern Indiana, so I learned quite a bit about driving on nasty winter roads--and then moved to southern Indiana where the winters aren't as bad but they don't really believe in plows. All this driving on slippery, icy, snowy roads got me thinking--about how it's a lot like writing.

Yes, this does carry shades of "How is a raven like a writing desk?" But stick with me. When driving in wintry conditions, a few bits of advice:
  1. Avoid the well-travelled roads. At least until the plows get out. It's counterintuitive, but driving on the snow-covered roads is a lot easier than driving on the roads that have been milled into slush by every passing motorist. That greyish sludge of frequent travel gives much worse traction than fresh snow. And so it is with writing--if you do the same thing as everyone else, it's going to be harder to gain a foothold. Don't do the stuff that's already been done to death--sure, it might be hot now, but what's going to let you shine is something original.
  2. If you find yourself sliding, no sudden movements. That includes slamming on the brakes. You might need to let up on the gas a little, but you'll only make problems worse--in your manuscript or on the road--if you try to correct with a major overhaul all at once. On the road, if you slide, let up on the gas, steer slowly out of the slide, but don't crank the wheel or overcorrect or hit the brakes hard. In your writing, when you notice a proble--plot gap, character hole, whatever the case may be--slow down a little, but gain perspective before hacking things to bits.
  3. Try to avoid stopping whenever possible. Dirty little secret of driving in snow--don't stop. Don't stop at stop signs, don't stop at red lights. Clearly, don't run them--slow down to a crawl. Sometimes you do have to stop. But when you can keep moving, however slowly, you run much less chance of losing traction and spinning your wheels. Same goes with writing. It's much harder to get started again when you come to a complete stop, at least in my experience.
  4. Practice, and make your mistakes where it doesn't matter. A colleague at work who recently moved from California asked what she should do about learning to drive in snow. I told her to wait for the next snowstorm, then go to a big, open parking lot and drive. A lot. Do stupid things like those outlined in number 2 above, especially slamming on the brakes. See what it takes to make the car slide, and how to correct yourself when that happens. Think of first drafts and to an even greater extent writing prompts and creative writing exercises like the big open parking lot of perfecting your skill. You can screw up here and no one cares. You can whip a complete literary donut and if the piece careens out of control, it's ok--you're not going to hit anything. And if you can learn to spot the mistakes here--and how to fix them--you can do so when you're writing out on the open road.

Safe travels, everyone! How do you feel about a longer winter--enjoying every snowy moment or ready for the crocuses to spring?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Clean Shelf Giveaway Winners!

Thanks for entering! You have, by your efforts, helped me keep my shelves clean. Watch for more giveaways (especially as I work through the Alphabet Challenge) of more books...and who knows what else might crop up, too?

And the winners:


Miss Bluestocking (of

(Highly scientific selection process including your names written on paper scraps and my husband choosing two involved...must employ one of those online randomizers next time!)

Please shoot me an email at hyalineblue079 at yahoo dot com with your address (that's zero-seven-nine). And how's this for a challenge--first one to email gets first dibs on her first choice. (If you already own one of these, let me know and I'll make appropriate accomodations :) )

Thanks again for entering, and have a lovely week--any predictions on whether Punxsatawny Phil will see his shadow tomorrow? I'm going with yes--and, with my luck, a silhouette worthy of one of this lovely eighteenth- and ninetenth -century silhouette art. Sadly, they don't seem to have any groundhog pieces on display...
Happy reading, everyone! What are you reading this month to get you through the end of the cold winter?