A hero with a cat… works every time


My First Ever Book!

I received a lot of compliments on the cover of His Forgotten Fiancée (though the credit, of course, should go to the Harlequin Art Department). I think it’s mostly the fact that the cover features a tall, handsome man and a kitten. Something about that combination is irresistible.

For example, look at the Japanese movie trailer below. A tall, handsome Samurai, a ruthless warrior, who has one assignment that he cannot fulfill: to assassinate a cat. Instead, he adopts the animal.

Samurai Cat

I am reminded of the “story” that KD James gave out about how she came to be the human caretaker of a small white cat. Is that story true or was it just a cover for a darker truth? I mean, the name she gave the beastie was “The White Ninja.” Pretty suspicious coincidence, methinks.

To the manor born… or at least to the manor accustomed

Domestic servant ironing
Just saw a PBS series called Manor House. A group of 12 men, women, and children gathered together in one of the grand old English country houses to live as authentically as possible exactly as they would have lived if the year were between 1904-1914. A man, his wife, her sister, two children were the ‘above stairs’ cast. The rest of the people were servants: a tutor, a lady’s maid, butler, housekeeper, footmen, and maids.

It turned out to be more of a reality show than a social experiment. Lots of conflict between the cast, some of it with a suspiciously manufactured feel to it. But after three months of these people playing these roles, it was fascinating to see how these people started to grow into the traditional mindset that they would have had if they actually were the master of the house, the scullery maid, etc.

The people I felt sorriest for at the beginning of the show were the lowest of the low. The scullery maid, for example, worked 18 hour days and had to get up before everyone else so she could start the cooking stove fire and make tea for the next servants, who themselves got up to start the fires for the rest of the house. The first two women who were given the role of scullery maid quit within their first week on the job.

Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
By the end of the show, on the other hand, the people I felt the sorriest for were the master and mistress of the house. They’d spent three months living as the elite in the Edwardian age, and their whole existence had been a dream of beauty and gilded ease. The man and woman playing these roles were a successful business man and his wife, an emergency room doctor. Not, at a guess, people who’d led sheltered lives. Throughout the show they acted like the stereotype of the stiff-upper-lip English, who do not believe in showing emotion. Yet both of them became choked up and teary eyed upon leaving the house.

It was fascinating how much the servants knew about their masters, and how little the upstairs group knew about the servants. This influenced the servants’ attitude toward the people they served. They knew full well that the people upstairs had no idea how they lived. The master of the house didn’t even know where the kitchens were until the end of the show–and that strongly influenced the servants’ attitudes. They were polite enough, but there was very little respect for the upstairs people.

Considering how thoroughly these people became immersed in their roles, I’d say it’s a safe guess that this was a good representation of how servants felt through the ages toward the people they served.


Tangential note: I know Shakespeare used the phrase To the manner born, but more recent authors, such as in the 19th century, used the phrase To the manor born. There are arguments on word geek blogs as to which is correct or whether both versions are correct for different meanings. I like the way the Word Detective explains the two phrases.

A Wrinkle in Time… “the worst book I have ever read”

Have you seen this article on A Wrinkle in Time? I hadn’t realized how much loathing the manuscript generated when Madeline L’Engle’s agent sent it to publishers.

Publishers hated it. Every firm her agent turned to rejected the manuscript. One advised to “do a cutting job on it—by half.” Another complained “it’s something between an adult and juvenile novel.” Finally, a friend advised L’Engle to send it to one of the most prestigious houses of all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John Farrar liked the manuscript. A test reader he gave it to, though, was unimpressed: “I think this is the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” Yet FSG acquired it, and Hal Vursell, the book’s editor, talked it up in letters he sent to reviewers: “It’s distinctly odd, extremely well written,” he wrote to one, “and is going to make greater intellectual and emotional demands on 12 to 16 year olds than most formula fiction for this age group.”

It’s been a long while since I read it, but the book left a strong impression on me. I was so young that I didn’t grasp that the opening line was a cliché, but I appreciated Meg not fitting in at school and I liked the way Meg’s mother was able to be a practicing scientist who still had a strong faith.

I’m not quite confident about the movie that’s coming out. The “witches” don’t look anything like the characters in the book. Even as a child, I knew that they weren’t really witches, and while they might be intimidating they weren’t scary. So I’m not sure why Oprah’s had that makeover.

On the other hand, maybe the movie is like the book in that you have to take a chance and trust it to lead you in the direction it wants to go. I think so many publishers turned the book down because it didn’t conform with their expectations of what a children’s book should be. So I’m thinking I’ll watch this move even if it doesn’t conform with my expectations of what it should be.


When a good description turns into bad writing

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation
I love reading the winning entries for the Bulwer Lytton contest. It’s a contest devoted to writing the worst possible opening sentence of a novel. Deliberately bad writing is not as easy as unconsciously bad writing, in my experience. I’m great at writing badly when I’m not paying attention. But reading deliberately bad writing is not only funny, it’s often useful.

Writers are told to include sensory detail. I’ve had a contest judge ding my writing because in one scene I only included sensory detail from three senses (sight, sound, touch) instead of all five. I don’t think the reader notices or cares whether you use all senses in describing a scene. Writers get so focused on including the sensory details that they miss the reason for including the details in the first place.

One day—though this was no average day, it was gloomy; uncharacteristically forecast for mid-July, yet not extraordinary considering the geographic location, on the northern coast of Germany, where drastic changes in weather are indeed quite common although not so common that they were expected yet common enough to leave no one shocked by the small gathering of clouds above their heads—Linda went on a walk down the street.
— Benjamin Matthes, Founex, Switzerland Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

I’ve read stories where the writers devote a page or more of meticulous description in precise detail, for example a clinical description of the taste, sound, scent of eating an apple. The problem with that? Clinical detail, by its very nature, is detached from all emotion. I don’t need to know what eating an apple is like. I need to know what this character feels about it.

Description is an elegant way to tell the reader how the character views their world. It slips information into the scene subtly, providing details in the background while the main action is going on.

She was the most desired object in the room, not unlike the last deviled egg at an Easter Day potluck.
— Christine Hamilton, Atlanta, Georgia
Dishonorable mention, Bulwer Lytton contest

Description is also a good way to set the tone. If you want your readers to know you’re writing a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an opening sentence like the following would definitely work.

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.
-Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
Winner, 2017 Bulwer Lytton contest

Being Creative vs. Being Online

Only Connect.
-E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

Every writer is told, repeatedly, that they need to be on social media chatting, promoting, being visible, putting themselves out there.

The trouble is that you can overdo the being visible part. You get used to being on social media all the time. It becomes a habit.

Derek Beres wrote an article on writers need to balance between being online and sneaking off to a hiding place to write. Not just writers, anyone who does anything that required creativity needs to step back from the keyboard/phone from time to time.

What seems to be lost in being “connected” is really irreplaceable time gained to focus on projects. Without that time, he says, you’re in danger of rewiring your neural patterns for distraction.

Actually, I’d say that applies to everyone. Especially at this time of year, when people are rushing around trying to get all their holiday shopping done, writing all their Christmas cards, attending all the holiday parties, doing All The Things.

Once in a while, stop. Unplug. Breathe.

Ferry tales are for dreamers

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (10 of 15)
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.” -G.K. Chesterton

Once upon a time, I went to grad school. One of the seminars was on Children’s Literature. It turned out to be the site of the fiercest arguments and the most passionate advocates of any class I ever attended.

Most of my fellow students were teachers in schools where the majority of the student body had parents who were themselves not literate, or who didn’t speak English as their first language, or who were so preoccupied with trying to keep a roof over their head that they didn’t have time to sit down and read to their children.

These teachers formed a cadre, united by their passionate belief that it was absolutely wrong to try to teach children fairy tales, or any kind of fantasy at all. In their opinion, literature’s sole function was to serve as a mirror. It reflected back to the reader exactly the reality that the reader saw all around them. Their fear was that children would not become interested in reading if they read about worlds different from their own.Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (3 of 15)

I was in the other camp. To me, literature should be a window, not a mirror. It lets you look out onto landscapes you would never see otherwise. Sometimes when you look out of a window, you catch sight of your own reflection there. It never looks quite the same as the you in the mirror though. This is like looking at yourself from the outside and seeing a new side of you.

Terry Pratchett wrote an essay about the importance of fantasy for children:

… let’s not get frightened when children read fantasy. It is the compost for a healthy mind. It stimulates the inquisitive nodes. It may not appear as ‘relevant’ as books set more firmly in the child’s environment, or whatever hell the writer believes to be the child’s environment, but there is some evidence that a rich internal fantasy life is as good and necessary for a child as healthy soil is for a plant, for much the same reasons.

The cadre were right about one thing: not everyone is going to enjoy reading fantasy or science fiction or anything that does not reflect the immediate world around them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be introduced to these stories. For some students, the experience is like opening the door on a whole new world and stepping into your kingdom. You don’t know which group a child is going to fall into until you let them discover for themselves what they like.

Let the children explore. Let them read fairy stories. They might become ferry tales, carrying them into a different world to help them understand their own.