Journal as Story

I recently finished a re-read of Andrea K Höst’s Touchstone series (I almost wrote trilogy, but since she’s added two books to the original three I think it’s definitely a series now), and am currently reading Melissa McShane’s “The Summoned Mage,” which is a fantasy written in journal format (I’m about halfway through and enjoying it so far), and both are reminding me of the experience of writing From the Shadows.

I don’t generally write even in first person, so writing FTS was a new experience for me in a lot of ways–first person, journal format, and oh yeah, my first time writing science fiction. It was also the first time I wrote a novella and then stretched it out into a novel (a short novel, but a novel nonetheless).

Journal format is interesting, because it lets you inhabit your main POV character in a way even first person doesn’t. It feels very real, and I know FTS felt far more personal to me when it was finished than Magic Most Deadly or any of my other (non-published) novels. Even though Riss wasn’t me (yes, we have a lot in common, but this was not a thinly-disguised autobiography), by the end I had almost become her, so to speak. Which sounds a whole lot creepier than I intended.

It’s also a challenge to write in journal format without making it sound too tedious or ridiculous–nobody actually writes in a diary or journal the way we have to do it in a novel, reporting conversations in dialogue and giving background information and the like. So the author either has to ignore that and hope the readers can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story, or else give a reason for why everything is written the way it is. I went the route of “someday this might become historical record and I might become the official recorder for this journey so I’m going to start organizing my entries that way now,” and I think it worked pretty well, though there obviously still has to be some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. However, since FTS started with time travel and involved aliens, faster-than-light travel on spaceships, and a future earth where humans live in harmony with nature, the story format was not likely going to be the thing a reader got hung up on (though I will say I did MOUNDS of research so as to make all those things, if not believable, at least as easy-to-accept-and-move-on as possible. It involved a lot of conversations about physics with my engineer husband, also, weirdly enough, conversations about infrastructure).

The biggest difficulty for me with using the journal format for FTS is thinking about replicating it in any possible sequels (not that there’s been a great call for sequels, as the book has a pretty small readership as of this point, but you never know). For Riss, her journal was her safe place to express her feelings. By the end of the book (this is spoiler-ish but only in terms of character development, so I think it’s safe to continue even if you haven’t read the book) she had gotten to the place where she doesn’t need to rely on it anymore. So why would she pick it back up? Another historical record-type thing? (Like in the Cecy & Kate books?) Because she decides she likes the act of writing down her experiences, even though she doesn’t need it in the same way? I don’t want her to go backward in character development, that’s one thing I loathe in a series, where each book starts with the main character somehow back to where he or she had been at the start of the previous book, and all that character development in said book is wiped out (or in TV shows, where that sort of thing is all too common).

Or would it be possible to write any future books in straight first person, not as a journal? Or even in third person? I’ve written a few short stories* set in the FTS world, and in all of them, including the Riss-centric ones, I use third person. Which works for a short story, but I’m not sure if it would be too jarring in a novel. Megan Whalen Turner might be able to get away with switching POV characters and bouncing from first to third POV (and back again), but hoo boy, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach her level of prose mastery.

So I don’t know–I don’t know that I’ll ever write another story in the FTS world, or if I’ll ever write another story in journal format. I am, however, deeply grateful for the experience of having done it once, and reading the stories that I am right now are making me smile as I remember the experience. I loved that world, and those characters (I think I might have to do another post sometime soon on how the story and the characters developed), and I know working on it made me a better writer overall, no matter if I never use that style again. I can’t give much higher praise than that.

*I have written six short stories revolving around the FTS characters at different points in their lives, but I haven’t yet figured out what to do with them. Offer them up as freebies here on the blog? Publish them together as a FTS short story collection? Release a second edition of FTS with one or two of the stories included at the end? I’m still undecided, but once I’ve made up my mind, I’ll let you all know.

The Last Defense

My short science-fiction story, The Last Defense, is available today at Empyreome Magazine. If you enjoy that sort of thing, go check it out!

The Last Defense

This is my first traditionally published story, and I’m very proud of it. It was a real challenge to write and stretched me outside of my comfort zone more than once, but the end result was worth it.

Happy reading!

February Into March

For such a short month, February sure packed a lot in this year.

February 9th, I received my first short story acceptance! My science fiction story “The Last Defense” will be appearing in the April edition of Empyreome Magazine

I started working on writing and submitting short stories this September, as the school year tends to make the long, sustained effort required for novels tricky. Along with being easier to produce in the midst of homeschooling a fourth-grader and second-grader, short stories have also been a good way to work on improving my writing, most especially to get away from my tendencies toward, uh, wordiness. Also my tendency to give too much explanation and bog the story down.

“No, no! The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

So I am so pleased to have a story accepted, and hope that it leads to even more improved writing and more acceptances!

That same day, February 9th, Carl received an acceptance letter of his own: Cambridge University accepted his application for their PhD program. Whether we go or not is still dependent on funding, but it’s still pretty thrilling.

Related to that, on the very last day of February, Tuesday the 28th, we bought two plane tickets for Carl and me to go to Cambridge this month to visit, meet people, and get a feel for what life might be like over there. We woke up in the morning with no thought of visiting, and went to bed with the tickets ordered, the girls set to go to Grandma’s while we’re gone, and our heads whirling with adventure. Neither of us have ever been to Britain–I’ve been dreaming of visiting or living there ever since I was a little kid reading the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit and The Secret Garden and all the rest of those traditional English children’s books. I am thrilled.

I decided the day after ordering the plane tickets that the next Whitney & Davies book will have to be set in Cambridge! I have no plot yet, but at least the setting will be researched in person for a change.

In between all these happenings, we had snow, and we had seventy degree days, we suffered the usual February doldrums, the kids and I went to the MFA with some of our homeschool group, we rested during February break, the kids started taking piano lessons, and we looked forward to spring.

And now it is March! Hello spring, last-of-winter storms, visit to England, and who knows what else!

The Importance of Story

(Note: This is the first part of my presentation at the H-W Library, edited for this blog. The rest of the talk was on From the Shadows specifically, which may or may not make it into another post; we’ll see.)

I believe stories are immensely important—even essential—to us as human beings, because they convey truths we can’t get at in any other way. Which is a tricky point to attempt to elucidate, because as soon as you ask, “what sort of truths, Louise?” I say, “well, I can’t exactly explain them, that’s why we need stories,” and there we are. But I would like to try to delve at least a little bit into what I mean by that.

Truths we can’t get at in any other way: what does that mean, and how does it affect us? What sort of truths, and why do we need them? How can “mere” stories help us live fuller lives? We’d need far more than a blog post (or two) to fully cover this. But I think we can at least touch the edges of the concept.

There’s a moment in Tolkien’s Return of the King, toward the end, when Gandalf and the hobbits are nearing the Shire and realizing that there are problems there needing to be dealt with. Merry comments that they won’t have any difficulties there, because they have Gandalf with them. Gandalf’s reply is this: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.” All their epic adventures—the greater story they got caught up in, as Sam mentions more than once—was preparation for living an everyday life. The great journey, the destruction of the Ring and overthrow of Sauron, the establishing of the true King, as great and important as those things were in and of themselves, they weren’t the end goal. They were giving the hobbits the tools they needed to live more deeply and more completely. They have returned to their own world, but not the same as how they left. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf continues to them. “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” And of course he is right. They overcome the trouble in the Shire with wisdom and wit, mixing mercy and justice with a shrewd hand, and restoring to right all the ills that had been done there.

In mulling over this point, I realized I had come up with a catchphrase for my own writing: carrying the epic into the everyday.

Something that is epic is, by its very nature, larger than life. Gods, magic, and heroes, as in The Iliad or Beowulf, which are two of the first stories that come to my mind when I hear the word “epic.” Stories that are meant to inspire, to carry us out of ourselves and into greater realms where a hobbit can be a hero and a schoolboy become a king. But we cannot live in that exalted realm, after all. We are not gods or monsters; we are human, living in a world of school and work, families, paychecks and taxes. We live in the everyday; we need the epic to help us make it a glorious adventure in and of itself.

This is what stories do: they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us. As the hobbits found their grand adventure—their story—was giving them truths and tools they could then carry back to their world and use to live a fuller life, so we find the wondrous epics of story make us more fit for living in our world. The very best stories do far more than entertain or even enlighten us; they transform us into more than what we are, into the better version of ourselves, so to speak. One comes away from the best stories saying, “Yes, I may not be able to put it into words or even understand it completely, but something about this story makes me see things a little more clearly, love more deeply, speak more truly.” They show us truth about this world, about ourselves, about all possible worlds, in ways we never could have seen on our own. They can raise us up or humble us—sometimes both at the same time—encourage and exhort us.

But they are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun. No, one starts with the story—whether it be the characters, the plot, even the setting, whatever seed it is that each writer’s story grows from—and it shows one its own truths as it grows. That is the only way it can reach the reader. Otherwise there is no joy in it, no life, and no truth. That’s the miracle of the best stories: they start as one simple thing and grow to become more than themselves—which is just exactly what they do for their reader, as well. We can feel, after reading Return of the King, as ready to face the small troubles in our world as the hobbits were for theirs, because we have journeyed right along with them, to Rohan and Gondor and Mount Doom, and have grown up right along with them. Or take Narnia—when the children are told, at the end of various books, that they have gotten too old for Narnia, it is not a punishment or a statement that Fairyland is only for children. The point is that they have gained what they needed from Narnia, and now they must apply that to their real world. Narnia was their training, so to speak, and now the training is complete and they are ready to put it to use. And in The Last Battle we see that even the real world had its ending for them, that they had learned and grown and gleaned all they could from that and were now ready to move to yet deeper and truer adventures. How lucky are we as readers, that we are able to return as often as we need, to remind and refresh ourselves of those lessons and those truths!

I could list so many books to illustrate my point—Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; Lloyd Alexander’s—well, everything he ever wrote, really, there’s a reason he is my favorite author, but especially his Prydain Chronicles; Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Diana Wynne Jones’ books … all of them able to delight and entertain us, as well as strengthen us. They give us a little piece of epic to tuck in our hearts and carry with us to strengthen us for the everyday. Are there other mediums that can do that as well? Yes, of course. Art, music, dance—I am a passionate lover of figure skating, which also has the ability to move and transport its viewers. But a story works more directly, and, I believe, is more universal. But I admit to being biased. After all, I AM an author. In any case, it doesn’t have to be a competition—one can appreciate and respect the nature of story without in the slightest diminishing any other artistic mediums.

You may have noticed, when I rattled off the authors I find inspirational, that they were all writers of speculative fiction—speculative fiction, for any who are not familiar with the term, is the catch-all phrase covering fantasy and science fiction. I mention them specifically not because I don’t think you can convey profound truths through everyday, realistic stories. You can. I love LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens … and don’t get me started on my love for mysteries, which is a post for another time! I have enormous respect for those who can convey truth and beauty powerfully through realistic fiction. But I think the kind of truths I’m speaking of here, that epic in the everyday, are most easily conveyed through speculative fiction. As Neil Gaiman puts it so succinctly in his paraphrase of GK Chesterton: Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. Speculative fiction allows us the best kind of symbolism, the kind that stands on its own at the same time it stands for something deeper. One can read Lord of the Rings as a fantastic adventure—because it is! But even reading it on the most surface level leaves one with a sense of satisfaction that evil can be beaten, that good can overcome due to the efforts of the smallest and most humble of all, and that everyone has a vital role to play in life, whether we can see it or not. And that’s only one level down beneath the obvious! One can go deeper, and deeper again—or, as Lewis puts it, “further up and further in.” There are always richer truths to be discovered behind the fantasy. I believe speculative fiction strikes chords within the human heart that other kinds of fiction cannot reach.

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Still round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun. -JRR Tolkien

Book Signing and Talk

On Wednesday, March 2, at 7:00 pm, I will be doing my first-ever book signing and presentation at the Hamilton-Wenham Public Library in Hamilton, MA. Any of my blog readers who are in that area, I would love to see you there! The topic of my presentation is “The Epic in the Everyday,” and I will be discussing the importance of Story in human lives, and why I love speculative fiction specifically. I’ll have books for sale, and will, of course, be signing them. Do come if you can!

If you can’t make it, I will likely be posting the substance of the talk here on this blog at some point soon, and I am always happy to mail any of my readers autographed bookplates free of charge. And if you can’t make this one but you think you’d like to have me do a signing and/or talk at your local library or bookstore, get in touch with me and we’ll see what we can arrange! I’d love to come to you, if you can’t come to me.

Coming … Soon!

So.

It’s not exactly the end of November, but I have a publication date for From the Shadows. Provided all goes as planned (rap wood), it will be out …

December 18, 2015.

Just in time for those last minute Christmas gifts you totally thought you’d already gotten and are now panicking over!

And in case you are a new reader to the blog and wondering what From the Shadows is, here again is the cover and blurb:

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Whisked from her troubled, solitary life to a spaceship centuries in the future, widowed folk musician Riss Waldon must first figure out how she got there, and then if it’s possible to get home. Before long, she is visiting strange and deadly planets and meeting new alien races, and forming friendships with the crew. Even as they strive to discover a way for her to return, she wonders if it possible to step out of the shadows of her past life and stay here. But when the well-being of the entire crew rests on her shoulders, she isn’t sure she’s up to the task. What if she fails them? All she can do is try …

I love this story ridiculously much, and I hope, come December 18th, that you do too!

Switching Mental Gears

I have been working exclusively on Rivers Wide (my 1930s Thousand Islands novel) for quite a while now, trying to get it to the point where I can start serializing it (I have to at least have it in a coherent draft form, and then I can edit/polish each installment as I go). So it took a wrench today to set it aside and immerse myself back in From the Shadows just for a day. My editor’s schedule has cleared, and she is ready for me to send it to her for line edits, and I had just a few issues I wanted to fix before mailing it off to her.

A wrench, yes, but exciting. Because – line edits! That’s a big step closer to publication. And as much as my head is full of Julie (of Rivers Wide) and her cousins and siblings, and their world of dairy farms along the St. Lawrence River in 1935, it was fun to revisit Riss and the crew of Caledonia and polish them up to meet my editor.

September was an exhausting month, with school starting back up (for Carl, for the kids, and our brand-new Classical Conversations homeschool group), the kids’ extra-curricular activities starting, Carl and I going through church membership classes, weekly Bible Studies, and a lovely whirlwind visit from family in the midst of it all. Not much time for writing at all, frankly.

But I knew that was going to happen, which is why I pushed so hard to get so many first drafts done this summer. Because, for me, second drafts/editing/polishing/et cetera, require much less intensive effort than the initial story creation. So I can pick a story up and do a little at a time without it taking me an hour just to get back into my characters’ heads and figure out where the plot is going. It’s still slow going, but it is progress.

And seeing that progress advance another entire step for From the Shadows is tremendously exciting, and I really can’t wait to hear what my editor has to say about it! Only another couple months before publication, guys!