An Interview with Joseph M. (#4 in a TMW Interview Series)

Today we conclude our interview series with reflections from our most senior writer, Joseph M. Click here to view the full series of interviews.

For all the aspiring artists and writers in room, this one is for y’all.

What artists or writers inspired you the most growing up?

There are quite a few, but a couple of my favorites would have to be Hergé and Jeff Smith. Both are in the unique position of being both visual artists and storytellers, and I recall spending many hours reading and enjoying the sleuth/adventure series Tintin at a reasonably young age, and the fantasy epic Bone by Jeff Smith once slightly older. Both men are some of my favorites to this day.

Which artists inspire you the most today?

This really depends on the week, but below are some different artists I have been looking at/reading over the past year or two. Once again, just as with Hergé and Smith, these artists primarily contribute to comic books:

  • Watercolors: nothing beats a detective noir story cast with anthropomorphized animals -and Juanjo Guarnido does an impeccable job using watercolor to portray the many adventures of the main feline protagonist in Blacksad. Another artist I particularly like for their watercolors would be Jean Pierre Gibrat -who uses the medium to tell a variety of period pieces set during the first and second world wars.
  • Inked Linework: My two latest favorites for visual storytellers who use pen and ink would be Francois Schuiten and Sergei Toppi. Both bring masterful draftsmanship to bear in their comic book stories while maintaining distinct styles.
  • Fantasy: while not contributing to comic books, Frank Frazetta’s unique take on fantasy settings is one I have found interesting. Another artist, Mark Schultz, who produced the comic Xenozoic, is another fantasy artist I have enjoyed a lot.

What is your writing process? Has it changed at all over the years?

My writing process is normally an afternoon or evening of adrenaline-fueled panic to meet a deadline (for example, to get something posted on this blog every fourth Tuesday). I would say my approach to writing has become less structured as the years have progressed and life has gotten busier with other activities -not a recipe for success, but reality, nonetheless.

When you write, do you have any tips for minimizing distraction?

Setting aside dedicated time to write is important for being able to settle into a focused groove without other distractions, even if for just a short period of time (remember: multitasking is a myth). Also, minimizing internet access can be useful. If writing involves a lot of research, I find it better to do that research in advance if possible -given the nature of modern web business models, trying to productively write AND surf the internet for information is all too prone to end up on a three hour binge of random YouTube videos.

If you were to give an aspiring writer one piece of advice in pursuing the craft, what would it be?

Whatever you do, write regularly. A regular, repeated, approach to any subject you want to progress in -even if for just a short period per day -will reap long-term rewards. It is just like compound interest except for life skills -the sooner you start making those small daily investments the bigger the long-term gains will be.

What is the worst book you have ever read, and why?

That prize would probably have to go to the textbook for my Management class in college because other than learning that “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” is a thing, I remember nothing and got nothing out of it. 

If you were trapped on a desert island with 3 works of literature: The Scarlett LetterPlato’s Republic, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which work would you burn first as kindling for a signal fire, and why?

Definitely the Scarlett Letter. I have nothing against Nathaniel Hawthorne, but given my time on this island may be quite extensive, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plato’s Republic strike me as offering more varied and deep food for thought as my brain slowly descends into the madness of isolation.

Have you noticed any changes in the literary landscape since you were in high school?

I do not feel that the landscape has altered so much as my perception has changed. I now realize more fully how much good literature existed prior to my birth and how little now being created will likely be remembered after we all die. I do not think this is unique to our day and age (after all, who remembers most of the penny dreadfuls?), but nonetheless I appreciate time’s ability to cull the less rewarding works from the common cultural consciousness.

Who are some modern authors whom you admire? Do you think people will be reading them in 50 years?

Brandon Sanderson comes immediately to mind, and for more regional flavor Tim Geautreax. Whether people will be reading them in 50 years is quite uncertain -I think that the way Tim Geautreax is able to capture a time/place/people in his short stories is quite natural and relatable -but who knows once those places and people are gone how appealing his stories will still be. Sanderson is certainly talented, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any of his books and he is competing in a pretty active genre (young-adult/adult fantasy series).

What factors do you think elevate a work to the level of classic? What factors can limit a book’s generational impact?

I think that there are a variety of factors. If a work captures something ‘true’ about the human condition, relationships, etc -that story can transcend any single culture, race, or time period. If we look at the many timeless classics though: Les Miserables, Hamlet, The Divine Comedy, etc, etc -they all contain truths about human beings that are universally applicable -and thereby relatable regardless of people group or generation. As far as generational impact goes, that both depends on the culture of the author and the reader. I think that stories that are heavily colored by aberrant generational views inherently will wane as time progresses, but insofar as those views reflect reality they stand a chance of continuing.

I know you are a fan of graphic novels…favorite graphic novel?

Well, it is more of a mini-series, but Bone by Jeff Smith is what I would want if I could only have a single comic book to read for the rest of my life.

What motivates you as a writer?

Epinephrine released in response to the harsh driving our dear editor (jk). In all seriousness though, writing has been a great way to systematically study and seek to process new ideas or subjects.

Are you working on any larger projects you can share about?

There are always a few ideas banging around in the attic. Lately I have been considering trying to write a short story in the cyberpunk genre. However, more realistically, some essays or possibly longer pieces related to recent/ongoing studies through the Gospel (Sonship study), Law (Bahnsen), and demon possession (Kraft) will be more likely to happen in the near future. 

An Interview with Jack M. (#3 in a TMW Interview Series)

TMW has embarked on a series of weekend posts comprised of interviews of us blog writers (scroll down a couple posts to see the last two entries). Today, the esteemed Jack M. provides his perspectives on various writing and book-related matters.

Please note, Catdust respectfully takes exception to some of the comments in Question #7.

Interview

1. What form does your inspiration usually take? As in, do you usually start with a concept, a character, a plot, or something else?

The threat of a deadline is the usual source of inspiration, but I cultivate a backlog of ideas to pull from when I need to write. Some ideas begin with a phrase – Death & Taxis, for instance – whereas Frank’s Social Experiment was inspired by a conversation with a friend about a what-if question: what if someone found a way to go literally months without social interaction? What would they be like after all that time?

2. Pick a favorite author, and tell me what you like most about their writing style.

Walker Percy conveys subtle humor into his writing, and he can turn simple topics into entertaining reading. cf his essay, “Bourbon, Neat”

3. What are two or three writing traits that you most want to emulate? What are two or three writing traits that you most want to avoid?

Traits of Percy I most want to emulate? Humor, and the ability to flank comprehensive barriers – or instance, to describe a concept such as biblical love, but in a way that moves past the cultural clichés associated with that word and into something that breaks through to understanding by use of a different vehicle – often fiction.

Avoidable writing traits in general? Loquaciousness and sentimentality and reliance upon convention. I haven’t read enough Percy to have identified traits of his I’d want to avoid.

4. Name a book that you didn’t expect to enjoy, but did.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins – or at least, I read the first several chapters and enjoyed them more than I expected.

5. Do you think the book is always better than the movie? If so, why so, and if not, why not?

No, but I can’t think of an example that would settle the matter.

6. What is your favorite piece you’ve written for TMW, and why?

“My Neighbor,” because it was something I didn’t write for myself, but in honor of a friend.

7. What is your least favorite piece you’ve written for TMW, and why?

“George and the Werewolf,” because the subsequent authors in the story ruined the concept! 😉 But the story is now attached to my name and reflective of my writing ability.

My least favorite pieces are my movie reviews because they were cheaply written and of limited use. I don’t read movie reviews, and find that most people don’t – the level of critical discernment isn’t there: I’m not going to read a 600 word essay to decide whether to watch Hot Rod. Instead, I’m going to spend 30 minutes surfing Netflix before choosing Hot Rod because the trailer looks dumb and it’s a 98% match. But I do read stories and come back to them.

8. What are you reading at the moment?

These questions.

Also, Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

9. What’s a book you’ve had on your shelf to read, but haven’t yet?

Worship Matters, by Bob Kauflin

An Interview with Arrietty (#2 in a TMW Interview Series)

The weekend is here and that means it is time for another writer’s interview here on TMW. In case you missed the memo last week -for four consecutive Fridays TMW will be posting a new interview with each of the contributors here on the blog (scroll down a couple posts to see last Friday’s entry). This week’s interview is with Arrietty -ENJOY!!

Interview

  1. When you were younger, what motivated you to write?

My early writings were primarily poetry, and my two main sources of inspiration were my cat and rain.  I would say my general writing motivation was sharing things I thought were interesting that I learned about in books or school.  Poetry was a niche all to itself in my early writing life, and my motivation to write poems was trying to craft something beautiful that expressed what I felt about the people, animals, and nature around me.  And I also loved to make my poems rhyme, no matter how nonsensical it made the result, so rhyming was perhaps another motivation.

  1. In the beginning, what types of things did you enjoy writing the most?

Poetry was my favorite type of writing and in some ways still is, although I also really enjoy reviewing books and writing literary essays.  I wanted to write stories, but they were always a lot harder for me, so I generally found poetry more fun.

  1. Now that you have been writing for several years, how have those initial motivations to put pen to paper matured and changed?

Well, I don’t just write to rhyme anymore.  I have also developed a passion for nonfiction genres, from essays to reviews to personal reflections.  Fundamentally, my motivations to write have remained what they were when I was little: 1) writing to share information I find interesting and 2) trying to make beauty with words.  However, my subject matter and inspirations have broadened and matured.  I would say that a new, more mature motivation is my desire to help people through my writing.  I think that developed a lot because of my work as a university English tutor.  Sharing my knowledge about English and grammar and helping students improve their writing turned out to be a lot of fun.

  1. How have the types of things you write changed as you have grown more adept in your capabilities?

As I’ve grown more confident, I have tried to expand the topics I write about and push my comfort zone by trying different genres.  My work has become more focused on writing advice as I have grown more adept in my writing capabilities.  I have also learned to be more flexible about how I write.  I try to be more informal in some of my writing and create a more personable voice, even though third person is my de facto setting.

  1. Do you feel that worldview makes a difference in the approach an author takes to their writing?

Yes, I think worldview shapes every aspect of life, including an author’s writing.  What we think about and write about, how we think and write, our perceptions of other people and ourselves, and the topics and messages we choose to write about all stem from our view of the world and where our hearts lie.

  • Why do you think this way?

I think worldview influences an author’s approach to writing because worldview affects people at their core, and writing very often comes from the core of who we are—or at least aspects of writing do.  The way we see the world will shape how we portray it for others and our motives for writing in the first place.

  • If yes, how has your worldview shaped your approach to the craft?

As a Christian, I aim to bring glory to the Lord by showing the beauty of creation through my poetry, the image of God in my stories about people, the truth that God defines in my essays and devotional pieces, and the wonderful, God-given intricacy and loveliness of language both through my writing itself and in my essays and reflections about language.  To take a page out of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I seek to “[r]ejoice in the Lord always” and cause others to do so too (4:4).  I also desire to bring to the forefront and cause others to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” for as Paul tells Christians, “[I]f there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

All around us, but especially on blogs and other rabbit holes on the Internet, I see so much negativity, criticism, and plain meanness.  I rarely read comments but once got carried away scrolling through 200+ comments on a blog post because they were such nice, touching, uplifting notes.  It all felt a little too good to be true, and sure enough, by around the 150th comment, everything fell apart and people started giving know-it-all advice and then retaliating and name-calling.  I had to laugh a little because I needed this dose of reality, this sharp but sad reminder that sin can permeate even the “nice” things in life (for some reason, “nice” makes me think of that song from Into the Woods; what does that say about my worldview?).

While I cannot erase the blot of sin and should certainly not try to pretend it doesn’t exist, I think it’s important to fight darkness with beauty, light, and truth.  Helping readers grow as writers, sharing information that might be useful, focusing on the beauty that surrounds us even during challenges and sorrows, and bringing joy or laughter to others are a large part of what drive me to write.

  1. In your opinion, are there personal benefits to practicing writing beyond just exercising your creative outlet (let’s ignore writing for financially motivated reasons)?

Of course!  I think practicing writing has quite a few benefits.  For me personally, exercising my writing skills helps me clarify my thoughts and forces me to learn more about subjects that interest me so I can share more about them.  Writing opens up new horizons and lets us explore where our imaginations can take us, and if we never practiced, we would never go anywhere.  Few people accomplish anything great without practice, and I think that’s true for writing as well.  We need the trial and error, the writing muscle stretches and pain that come with regular practice if we are going to reap the rewards of sharing our ideas effectively or reaching our readers.

  1. You like to write poetry -what would be some advice you have for those interested in learning how to write poems of their own?

First, write about something you know well or that interests you.  Don’t just choose a topic because it seems poetic.  Also, you don’t have to always use a scorched earth strategy.  Some topics deserve to be poeticized countless times, like rain.

Second, do your research, whether it’s observing a bird or discovering what material the Statue of Liberty is made of and the fact that the green stuff that appears when copper oxidizes is called “verdigris.”

Third, focus on rhythm and strong word choices before you try to rhyme.  The former are usually much more important to good poetry than the latter.

  1. What poems would be in your top five of all time, and what do you find makes them particularly impactful/enjoyable/appealing?

That’s a really hard question.  I’m not overfond of superlatives, but I’ll give you five of my top poems (not necessarily the top five).

“I Never Saw a Moor” by Emily Dickinson.  I love Dickinson’s simplicity.  She captures in this tiny poem the essence of imagination and faith and the worlds waiting to be explored within the covers of a book.

“My Kate” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  This may seem like an odd choice.  Probably literary critics would call it old-fashioned or accuse Browning of supporting the Victorian patriarchal ideal for women, but “My Kate” has always touched me with its sincerity.  This tribute reminds me of people I know who do good for others in little, invaluable ways that leave an indelible mark and a hole in life that can’t be filled after they’re gone.  At its core, this poem feels to me like a tribute to ordinary people who change the world in their own important way.

“Daddy Fell into the Pond” by Alfred Noyes.  I’ve loved this poem since the first time I heard it.  It reminds me of my family and tells such a clear, funny story that makes me feel like I’m there.  I also have fond memories of this poem because I once used it in a Father’s Day card and had the best time pasting clipart raindrops all over the cover of the card.  Daddy probably didn’t appreciate the card all that much, but the poem was about a daddy, so I felt that it was appropriate at least in its main character, if not in its tone or general details.

“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy is beautiful.  I love the picture of a tiny bird seeing joy and hope in a world that is dark to man’s eyes.  This thrush and its uncowed cheerfulness remind me of the Carolina wrens I enjoy watching.  God’s creatures are often wiser than we are.  Hardy’s religious beliefs are a matter of debate and he seemed to struggle with Christian ideas throughout his life.  But this poem is a reminder that even broken men can reflect God in their work, if perhaps unintentionally.  Hardy shows how he struggled with darkness and longed for a hope that a bird could see but he could not.  While this poem expresses the author’s doubt and struggles, it also reflects the beautiful Hope that really does exist and should elicit joy from our hearts as well as from little songbirds.

“Opportunity” by Edward R. Sill.  This is a very rousing poem and tells a story that rings with knightly romance.  My favorite part, though, is the theme about not making excuses but using that which is given to fight for a cause, even if winning seems hopeless.  Kind of reminds me of Gandalf’s advice to Frodo in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.  ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”  When given an opportunity, even if it’s not the gleaming sword or the grand adventure we might have wished for, the real test of who we are is what we do with it.

  1. Who is your favorite contemporary author, and why?

If by contemporary, you mean someone who’s still alive and writing, I think N. D. Wilson is the winner.  His books are fun adventure stories, and I love his quirky writing style and creative twists on fantasy worlds in The 100 Cupboards series and The Ashtown Burials.  I think what makes his crazy stories feel real is that he draws on his own experiences as the initial inspiration for his settings, characters, and adventures.  This especially comes through in Leepike Ridge and Boys of Blur.

Some authors who are close contenders in their own way would be J. B. Cheaney, Brandon Sanderson, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, and Gary D. Schmidt, but none of the authors have quite the consistent pizzazz of Wilson, and I also don’t think they influenced my writing or literary tastes quite as much.  If Lloyd Alexander were still alive, he would rank up there too.

  1. What are you reading currently?

Glad you caught me on a good day!  My reading list varies quite a bit and might give people a weird impression of my taste in books if I were to answer this question on another day.  I’m currently listening to Howards End by E. M. Forster and reading Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller, and How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

  1. What does your continued pursuit of this craft look like going forward? Do you have any specific long-term goals or aspirations?

I want to write more stories and fiction in general.  One of my goals is to try my hand at new genres, gain more mastery over dialogue and character development, and build larger story arcs.  Mystery, romance, adventure, and fantasy are all genres that I want to explore, but we’ll see how brave I am.  For a more short-term goal, there’s a story sitting in my drawer that is covered in crossed-out sections and handwritten notes and is patiently awaiting an ending.  Another of my goals is to write a long poem.  Perhaps not an epic poem, but something with a larger narrative than my usual ones.  With my poetry and my fiction prose, I feel like I am more of a sprinter and need to train to become a long-distance writer.

Probably my biggest aspiration is to create a story and world that I believe in and feel is so real I can step into it and look around and just write about what I observe happening in it.  I’m discovering that being a writer takes a lot of believing, imagining, and suspending one’s disbelief.  And at least a pinch of something magical.

An Interview with Catdust (#1 in a TMW Interview Series)

Normally, we TMWers are all about the solitary writing life.  But we’ve decided to try something new and collaborate a little.  Every Friday this month, we’re planning to share a series of special posts where we take turns interviewing each other about our literary and writing lives.  This week, Arrietty is interviewing Catdust.  (Aka, Catdust is this week’s victim, sacrifice, whatchamacallit…and I didn’t know how to spell that until just now.)

As I suspect is usual in these cases, I posed questions that I wanted answers to, but that I know I would struggle to answer if asked.  I hope you enjoy Catdust’s insightful responses.

The Interview

A: What’s your writing muse?  What animal, setting, object, or person inspires you in your writing or often becomes part of your work?
C: Most often, my muse(s) are the people I’m surrounded by, and occasionally events I attend. I’ve written pieces inspired by my family members (“‘’Coon”), college roommates (“How to Get the Guinea Pig”), middle schoolers I was teaching (“Required Statements”), and boyfriend (“Lilies in Water”).

Of course, though “The Wedding Ballad of Lottie and Paul” was based on a real wedding I attended, the evening didn’t end quite so dramatically.

A: What has been the hardest genre to write in?
C: Oddly enough, I’m going to go with “fiction,” broadly. I write a lot of it, but it never ceases being hard. Making dialogue sound natural, and trying to actually write the nuances of tone and gesture is can be a very frustrating endeavor.

Also, to be honest, I have little patience for writing descriptions of things, or places, or appearances – a rather essential aspect of most writing, I know. I’m an admirer of short, powerful descriptions, and live in holy fear of writing unnecessarily flowery or detailed passages, and have yet to master the happy medium to my own satisfaction.

A: If you could have a writing superpower, what would it be?
C: I would love the ability to recreate my witty and dramatic phrasing exactly as it sounded in my head when I was taking a shower (or otherwise unable to write). All inspiration seems to flee as soon as I touch a keyboard.

A: Who were three of your favorite childhood authors?  Why?

  • Gail Carson Levine. She wrote children’s and young adult fantasy novels. While I of course adored the magical settings, fairy tale trappings, and romance, I also appreciated the strong female leads that appeared in most of her books. I use that phrase, “strong female lead,” very unironically. It was their personalities that made them strong – their cleverness, their kindness, their bravery, their “moral fiber,” to use an old-fashioned expression. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, I consider her novel Ella Enchanted to be, well, one of the “most bestest” books ever.
  • E.L. Konigsburg. While much of my reading as a young lass rarely varied from the fantasy genre, E.L. Konigsburg could get me to stray off that beaten path. She didn’t write fantasy; she wrote realism, but her novels were fantastic studies of character. The Second Mrs. Giaconda might be the best of them.
  • Lloyd Alexander. Though most known (in some circles) for his Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander was quite a prolific author, writing several other series and numerous standalone novels. They can be light, humorous works, or deeper, darker stories, but each one has sparkling characters, unique settings, and involving plots. His Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen) is supremely underrated, in my opinion.

A: Have you ever read a book based on its cover?  If so, did the book live up to your expectations, or did you become a firm believer in the proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover?”
C: Sometime in my early childhood, I remember being chauffeured around the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, and seeing a cover which intrigued me. It was green, and brown, and gold, and there was a girl holding a sword and facing a grisly dragon – I was looking at the c. 2000 paperback edition of The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. Right up my alley, or at least, it would be several years later once I requested it from the library. It’s now one of my favorite books.

I like to think I’m a pretty good, if harsh, judge of covers – at least, I can’t think of any time my harsh judgement has steered me too terribly astray. Now, as for all the books that I might have liked, but misjudged, well, let’s not talk about those.

A: What are three pieces of advice you would give other writers based on your personal experience?
C: Don’t get too attached to your writing. Sure, sometimes you write something that you know is good, and other people think so too. But much of the time, people will tell you how much they loved some piddly piece of writing you did, while heaping no praise on that other work you thought was much better.

Don’t wait until the last few hours before a deadline to write something. You may occasionally produce something truly inspired, but more often than not the result will be mediocre and you will not be happy. Please note that I rarely listen to this advice.

Do embrace the potential of “word vomit.” Sometimes just writing something, anything, however horrible it is, is all you need to get those creative gears turning.

A: Is there a writing genre you’ve never tried but always wanted to?
C: Mystery. I admire a well-crafted, suspenseful story, but whenever I’ve brushed the edges of this genre, I’m never satisfied with the outcome – my prose sounds dumb and my clues too obvious. Thus, I’ve avoided writing a full-blown mystery or detective story.

I have a similar problem with romance and horror, but slightly less of a desire to write either.

A: What intimidates you when you’re preparing to write a new project?
C: Having to write “the middle.”

Let me explain: I know how I want the story to start, approximately, and I know how I want the story to end. To be honest, I often have the ending fully-formed. But, in order to get from the beginning to the ending, and to make that ending meaningful, you must slog through the middle, the details of how you got from Point A to Point B…and there’s all that description you have to write. It just takes such a long time to physically write…

…I’m not sure I would have lasted as a writer prior to the invention of the keyboard.

A: What are five books that have really influenced you as a writer?
C: “Influenced” may be too flattering of a word; it may be more like “inspired,” and may not be a good thing. Please also note that this is a slightly different list than “Books that have Influenced Me as a Person,” although there is some overlap.

  • 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. The first novel in a trilogy is fantastical in its plot, economical in its story beats, and walks that line of quirky yet realistic dialogue.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Absolutely some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, and not because it’s super flowery or anything like that. Beagle’s command of strategically selected and placed adjectives results in exactly the sort of descriptions I wish I could write, and creates a story that, though other times amusing and other times strange, is ultimately heartrending.
  • Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. This one takes (even more) explaining. Each of Robin McKinley’s books has influenced my writing in some way. I can point to each one and say, oh, this one taught me this, and that one taught me that. And Spindle’s End is actually not my favorite of her books, by a long shot. However, McKinley does always have a tendency to write prose with a lot of parentheticals, meandering sidebars, punctuation-on-top-of-punctuations-and-hyphens-too, and seemingly random tangents for the sake of tangents. It’s less pronounced in her earlier works, but she is in rare form in this novel, which taught me that you can have that many parentheses and that much wandering prose and still be a popular, published author. Thus, I’m including this particular novel on the list to make the point that not all influences are good influences.
  • Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris. I think this might have been one of the first real novels I ever read. It’s a fairytale, a comedy, a romance, and introduced me to the idea of really messing with those ol’ fairytale tropes.
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. This is a semi-autobiographical novel, not a fantasy story, and I draw upon its sense of comedy every time I write any humorous story about my own life or family.

A: If you could assume the writing voice of an author and write a sequel to a book or series, what book/series would you choose, and why?
C: I’m going to go with my gut reaction on this one, even though I know better. I would assume the writing voice of Dodie Smith and write a sequel to I Capture the Castle. It’s a nearly perfect book, structurally, and really needs no sequel. “It really does end precisely as it should,” I tell myself. And yet…the ending made me so sad. Not because anyone died or some overwrought drama occurred; it’s actually a more light, humorous book. But the truly human emotions present in that bitter, bittersweet final chapter make me want something more every time, even if it is against my better judgement.


Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

Header image: Created by Arrietty

A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

Novelette

Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Novella

A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.


Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,            http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”  WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,             http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”  WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.

The Writer’s Quandary

This poem sums up what forms my writer’s block most of the time when I’m creating stories and poems.  I hesitate because I worry my work isn’t novel, special, or worthwhile.  Instead of pushing my limits, I am paralyzed by the idea that someone else can write my thoughts better than me, tell my stories more creatively.  Or even worse—has already penned and published my idea that I imagine is so unique.

“The Writer’s Quandary”

Have all the poems been written?

Has every story been told?

Are all the metaphors spoken,

And are all the similes old?

 

Can I add to mankind’s canon?

Can I make a new connection?

Or am I merely an echo,

A well-traveled intersection?

 

Am I even the first to have

Thought this, wondering what remains?

I doubt it, yet I continue:

For many great songs have refrains.

 

And perhaps I can add a gem

Of value through the work I do,

Whether repeating a truth once

More or sharing something that’s new.


In this age of ever-multiplying information, is there anything left to be added?  I’ll argue that no matter what, we can always keep asking questions and searching for answers, which is what I love to do…And perhaps that pursuit is not limited to research papers and essays, like I so often assume.  Asking questions and finding answers is one avenue where creative writing, from stories to plays to poems, can also expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world and each other.

Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Canva.com

Worldbuilding Resources

What do writers do when they are procrastinating while putting together a story? They go hunting for writing resources to help them with worldbuilding! This is a concept I’ve always struggled with as a writer—I relish the dialogue but drag my feet with the setting. In developing the world for Death and Taxis, I have been researching writing resources for assisting with world development.

Reddit – 100 Worldbuilding Prompts

https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/comments/als11s/100_worldbuilding_prompts/

This seems like a good list, filled with some offbeat questions to get the mind thinking differently about their world – such as question 17:

It’s late at night and I’m hungry, what food venues are still open?

The Novel Factory – The Ultimate World Building Questionnaire (131 questions)

https://www.novel-software.com/theultimateworldbuildingquestionnaire

This resource is broken up by category and therefore gives more structure to the world development than the previous resources. The first section pertains to the physics and nature of the world, the second section to geography and natural resources, etc.

As an added bonus, Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite fantasy authors, teaches a course at Brigham Young University on novel writing, and all the lectures are available online: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL

That’s all for today. Back to procrastinating worldbuilding.

An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm

A Dash of Grammar

I was banging my head against the figurative wall of writer’s block as I became more and more frantic for a spark of inspiration for today’s post—when it suddenly hit me.  Why not conquer two birds with one stone?  1) Satisfy my grammar-loving curiosity by looking up an answer to a punctuation question that I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time and 2) share my new knowledge with my dear readers.

The hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—).  You may not have realized this nuance existed, but there really are three versions of the “dash,” and these punctuation marks have their own sets of distinct rules.  While they all connect words and ideas, they do so to different extents that in some ways relate to their lengths.

Hugging Hyphens

The hyphen is meant to connect extremely close ideas, often compound words (daughter-in-law, user-friendly, etc.).  As an article on The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains, “The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related.”  This little line performs an extremely powerful function in language because people can use it to combine several words in order to create an entirely new word.  Hyphen originally came from Greek words meaning one, together, and in one.

Going the Distance with En Dash

Like the hyphen, the en dash connects ideas, but these connections are usually related to distance, either in time or space.  Here are two examples: “From September–May, most children are in school” and “I have to read chapters 23–30 by next week.”  The en dash functions where the word “through” would normally function when describing a range.  An interesting rule regarding the en dash is that they are meant to be used when connecting “a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II” (“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”).  The origin of en dash is that the dash was the width of an N in printing.

Breaking and Filling with Em Dash

em dash examplesLike parentheses and commas, the em dash indicate a break in thought and is used when adding a side-note or additional thought to a sentence, as I used in my opening sentence for this post.  In my experience, the closeness of the idea determines whether you should use a comma, em dash, or parenthesis to set off the extra information or to indicate a disrupted thought.  The closest ideas work best set off by commas, while very tangential ideas should be enclosed in parentheses, with the em dash falling somewhere in the middle.  Another function of the em dash is to indicate that something is missing.  An unfinished bit of dialogue might end with an em dash (e.g., “What is that—!”), and it can also serve as a placeholder for curse words, for people’s names (think Austenian novels), and more.  Like the origin of en dash, the term em dash comes from the fact that the dash was the length of an M in printing.

Now, next time you want to invent a new word, describe a range in time or space, or build suspense as your reader wonders whether your character has just been eaten, you will have just the right tools to accomplish your task.


Works Cited

“Em dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“En dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes.”  The Chicago Manual of Style Online,            www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html