Saturday, December 20, 2014

Watch the Horizon: "Pendragon's Heir" by Suzannah Rowntree is coming

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

The other day, if you recall, I named Pendragon's Heir as one of my top ten favorite reads of 2014. I beta-read a near-final draft this autumn and loved it, and I can't wait to re-read the published version! So today I'm happy to help announce the date on which we will all be able to do so: March 26th, 2015. In the meantime, you can add Pendragon's Heir to-read on Goodreads at this link, mark the release date on your calendars, visit Suzannah's blog (link below), and spread the word among other readers likely to be interested!

Author Bio
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at and is the author of two non-fiction books, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene and War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian life. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, springs from her lifelong love of medieval literature.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books Read in 2014

Today I'm linking up with Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly blog event hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, for my annual list of ten best books read during the year. This year's list seems like one of the most unusual mixes I've had—and it seemed like I had a bit of a harder time putting it together. Besides a few really splendid standouts that were easy choices, there were a lot of books that I liked (I'll talk about more of those in my general year-end reading roundup post after the New Year!), and it was challenging picking out just which ones were the best to round out the list. But here they are—in the order read, not order of favorites:

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
I was finally lured into trying one of Georgette Heyer's Regency books by  seeing rave reviews of this one from what seemed like my entire online acquaintance. The Grand Sophy did not disappoint: it's an entirely delightfully witty, madcap romantic comedy. Read my review here.

Thorofare by Christopher Morley
A big, rich, rambling, beautiful novel, this wins my award for favorite book of the year. Told mostly from the perspective of an English boy, the nephew of a college professor who teaches in America, it traces his journey to the States and the family's life in village, city and country on both sides of the Atlantic, exploring with pleasant humor and an incredible eye for detail the curious differences and similarities of English and American culture in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era. Read my full review here.

The Third Man by Graham Greene
Written specifically to serve as the source material for the screenplay of the excellent 1949 film, this novella has comparatively less material, but it's definitely worth reading for its crisp storytelling and wry wit, and its slightly different angle on the story through the medium of fiction. I actually read it through twice. If you've seen the movie and liked it, you'll probably enjoy the way the book complements it, as I did.

Until That Distant Day by Jill Stengl
Here is that rare thing, at least in my experience—a recently-written historical novel that completely captivated me. Though it's billed as historical romance (and there are satisfying touches of love interest involved in the plot) this is more a story of a family, a sister and brothers struggling to survive and preserve their relationships with each other as they are pulled different ways by the tumult of the French Revolution. Extremely well-written and very hard to put down!

The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan
A play, not a novel—I seem to have read quite a lot of plays this year (more on that in my year-end roundup). I saw the 1999 movie years back and liked it, but reading the play impressed me even more. The characters and the pre-WWI setting are alive on the page, the play itself an absorbing and thought-provoking study of justice and the cost of standing for conviction. I ended up reading this one twice, too. Find my (short) Goodreads review here.

Pastoral by Nevil Shute
A novel of life on an R.A.F. bomber base during WWII, centering around the sometimes difficult progress of a romance between a young pilot and a female signal officer—deceptively understated, with a feel for everyday life, like both of Shute's books that I've read so far. It's not the kind of book that grabs you with a flash and a bang, but rather one that creeps up on you quietly till you're entirely absorbed. Review here.

Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag
Once again something very much out of the ordinary for me makes my top-ten list. In fact, I can't quite compare it to anything I've ever read before. If you move in any of the same online circles I do, you may have heard ought of this book: an ambitious planetary fantasy written in a stunningly grand and gilded style. My review here.

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
An unusual and interesting piece of WWII and film history, this book traces the wartime experiences of five famed Hollywood directors, the effect of those experiences on their lives and careers, and the often complicated and controversial role of documentary filmmakers in the army. (And isn't that old-movie-poster cover pretty cool?) Read my review here.

Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts
This is detailed, excellently-written, fascinating historical fiction, based around Burgoyne's invasion from Canada and the campaigns leading up to the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. I couldn't believe how much history I learned that I'd never had a clue about before (full-scale naval battles on Lake Champlain, anyone?), especially since I've walked over some of the very ground where it took place.

Pendragon's Heir by Suzannah Rowntree
This one is slated for publication in 2015, but I read an advance version of it in 2014 and it definitely belongs on my best-of list—I literally couldn't put it down all day. A splendid historical fantasy and fascinating twist on Arthurian legend—you're going to want to keep an eye out for this one. As a matter of fact, you can check back here on Saturday the 20th for an announcement of the release date!

A good half of this list I acquired via library; The Grand Sophy and Until That Distant Day I bought on Kindle, while for Plenilune as well as Pendragon's Heir I was fortunate enough to be an advance reader! Thorofare, meanwhile, was an impulse purchase of an out-of-print used book which really paid off.

Previous years' top-ten lists: 2011, 2012, 2013.

Friday, December 12, 2014

December's Chatterbox: Night Shift

The topic of Chatterbox for December is waiting fulfilled. I couldn't find a suitable scene on that subject in any of my in-progress or in-planning-stages manuscripts; and since I gather this really ought to be a Christmas Chatterbox anyway, and I figured it would satisfy my usual December impulse to write something Christmasy—in short (as Mr. Micawber would say), I have been inveigled into writing a piece of flash fiction again.

A few remarks. First, I find that I really love writing about winter weather. That's writing something I do know, and it comes so easily! Second, I'm a bit fascinated with old-time aviation stories—I'm pretty sure reading Nevil Shute has helped with that. My lack of technical knowledge has kept me from venturing any writing of my own on that subject, however. I've tried to edge around anything too technical in this piece, and I hope I haven't made any really egregious mistakes. And once again, this turned out much longer than I thought it would be. So long that I've put a decent portion of it beyond a click-here-to-read-the-rest jump break, to keep it from entirely swallowing up my blog. I am apparently unable to cram the passage of two hours into anything less than two thousand words.

Ted Grandy twisted the dial on the radio, in an unsuccessful attempt to tune the static out of the Christmas music coming faintly through. He shook his head. The storm was playing havoc with the radio tonight.

Outside the brittle ice-frosted windows of the tiny office all was a dim stormy shade of blue, the silent line of empty barracks and hangars half obscured by the blowing snow. Further out, the runway lights gleamed faintly on the edge of a wide expanse of field, the only thing that looked a bit like Christmas out there tonight.

As Ted slid off his headset and turned away from the desk he noticed there was someone in the narrow, bare semblance of a waiting-room that adjoined the office. It was a girl in a plain gray coat, with a dark-green scarf folded inside the collar. She was walking up and down the room, her hands folded under her arms as if they were cold—and they probably were; that room was always an echoing icebox. Ted wondered how long she had been there—he had not heard the car or taxi that must have brought her, with this wind. He glanced at the clock, which said five minutes past ten, and then opened the half-glass communicating door a little and leaned out. “Miss, would you like to wait in here? It’s not much warmer, but there’s a heater.”

The girl turned and looked at him for a second, without unfolding her arms. “Thank you,” she said, and walked slowly toward the doorway.

Ted held the door open for her and shut it once she was inside, the small evergreen wreath on the outside of the door swinging precariously on its nail with the motion. There was not much room to move about in the office, with the desk, the radio equipment, the heater and some filing cabinets crowding close, but the closeness and the bright electric light seemed to add to the impression of warmth that was mostly an illusion to begin with.

The girl sat down in the single swivel chair that Ted pulled out from the desk for her, and folded her gloved hands in her lap. She was an ordinary-looking girl with dark-brown hair, rather pretty. She sat quietly, but her eyes strayed to the frosted window over the desk with the fine-grained blowing snow sliding past the pane.

Ted, with a slight furrow of curiosity in his forehead, glanced at the clock again. “There isn’t another passenger flight until two o’clock, you know,” he offered tentatively—wanting to be helpful, and yet not wanting to come across as patronizing or prying if the girl was not there at this hour by a mistake.

“Yes, I know.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Introducing Toll Free Books

Today I'd like to introduce you to a purely-for-fun project that I've been working on for a little while. During the last few years of enjoying public-domain books for free on my Kindle, it's crossed my mind now and then that it would be nice to start a blog or website spotlighting all the wonderful classics and forgotten popular fiction available for free download. I'd seen one or two with sort of that intent, but they seemed a bit random in the books they chose and the way they were presented.

Well, the long and the short of it is, after saying "What if?" for a long time, I finally went ahead and did it. You can visit Toll Free Books and read my introductory post with a little more detail about the blog's set-up (and have a look at the sidebar to see the bit of poetry that inspired the name). Regular posting will begin after New Year's and will feature books that I've divided into ten different genres! So in the meantime, do spread the word around among book lovers (especially frugal ones) looking for recommendations for their e-readers—and you know, even those without e-readers might discover recommendations for something they've missed. So take a look!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Fine Romance

When I set out to write a retelling of Cinderella, I had a couple of points in mind from the first where I wanted to do things a bit differently. To begin with, I knew I wanted to give my Prince Charming character a definite personality and initiative of his own. The Prince seems to be rather a nonentity in most traditional tellings of the tale—we're never really given any good reason for Cinderella to fall in love with him, besides the fact that he's a prince, and we're told (but not often shown) that he's charming. Second, I wanted my hero and heroine to meet early in the story, so they had time to develop a friendship before the climactic "ball" sequence. In most versions of the story, Cinderella meets the prince for the first time at the ball, which means invoking the old standby, love-at-first-sight (at least on his side; she could have loved him from afar, I suppose).

I wanted to avoid love-at-first-sight for the simple reason that it has been done so often, besides being a bit less believable. It's not the most irritating romantic cliché for me (that award would go to the misunderstanding that drags on for half a book when it could be cleared up by someone speaking one sentence), but I think it is one of the most over-used. I'm sure it does happen sometimes in the real world, but there it's probably in the minority. Fiction seems to reverse that statistic. Oh, it's definitely useful in terms of plot; I can see that—it raises the stakes and kicks the story into a higher gear right off the bat, and in "these days of rush and hurry" when we have to capture and hog-tie the reader's interest as soon as possible, I've no doubt it looks attractive to authors. But common sense keeps me from becoming too enchanted with it when I write. Attraction or interest at first sight, definitely—that can give your plot a nudge and hint to the reader that there'll be something doing later on. But in nine cases out of ten, you've got to give these characters some time to at least get acquainted before they can start considering whether this person is someone with whom they could spend the rest of their life. To me, that has a more authentic feeling.

Another cliché I've observed is the brand of forbidden romance with an Unsympathetic Parent obstructing the course of true love. As with love-at-first-sight, one can see its advantages plot-wise: instant conflict. But I think it's also been overdone to the point of saturation. Now, that's not saying I'm in favor of arranged marriages or parents exerting an unhealthy amount of control over adult children's lives; and I know there's enough bad parents in the world to provide material for a hundred books. But that's just the point: they already have. I think fiction could use a healthy dash of families where children and parents respect one another's judgment and share each other's ideals enough that they're not likely to come into conflict over something as important as the children's romantic choices.

Again, that's not saying I'd never use this plot, any more than I've sworn off gunfights in Westerns. As a matter of fact I have used it more than once. But I try hard to keep it from being just a clichéd wail of "They don't understand!" In "The Ranch Next Door," for instance, I made a point of having my heroine say she knows her parents would never object to her sweetheart on a personal level had things been different; it's their unreasoning feud with his family getting in the way of their judgment. In another yet-to-be-published story I took it tongue-in-cheek for humorous effect.

“But Lainey”—Gerald gestured helplessly—“you don’t understand, girl. Why, I always figured for you to marry some nice feller who’s got himself set up proper in the world, and—and have the right kind of house, with one of them newfangled cookstoves, and glass in the winders, and them—doilies on the rockin’-chairs in the parlor.” 
“Pa, we’ll come to all that later. Bob wants to raise horses for the army; he—”
“Yeah, an’ Johnny Wagner wants to be a cattle king!”  
“I don’t want to marry Johnny Wagner!” 
“You’re doggone right you don’t!” barked Gerald. 
They glared at each other for a minute, slightly sidetracked.
~ "The Mustanger's Bride"

I even have a sketch of an outline for a novel where a parent's disapproval drives a good half of the plot. But my general rule of thumb is, if there's going to be a parent/child conflict over a romance, there'd better be a darn good reason for it, at least in the minds of the characters. If a parent is misguided, they ought to at least believe they're in the right, not just take a random unreasonable dislike to a potential son-in-law to complicate the story. Because that would pretty much make them a cardboard character and invalidate them as a source of wisdom on any other subject.

Do you find any of these plots overdone in your reading experience? Can you think of any examples of books with a refreshingly different or original take on the romance plot?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Never Judge a Book by its Movie II

Back in the summertime, I did a post featuring pictures of classic movie stars reading the books on which their films were based. It was so much fun that I've been keeping an eye out for more of the same sort of picture, for a follow-up post. Most of this second batch are pretty clearly publicity photos, but a couple of them could be candids at a pinch:

Judy Garland with The Wizard of Oz

Jennifer Jones reads Since You Went Away by Margaret Buell Wilder—a collection of Wilder's letters to her husband during World War II, which served as the inspiration/source for the film. I haven't read it yet (on the good old to-read list!), so I don't know how much of the film's actual plot was drawn from the book.

What is it with Alan Ladd and giant books? We can forgive him for looking a little overwhelmed; that much of The Great Gatsby would overwhelm anybody, I think.

More giant books. Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer in (pun not originally intended) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp. This is one of the books Agatha Christie spoke fondly of in her autobiography; I'd like to track down a copy one day!

Cora Sue Collins appears to object to Treasure Island, or at least Jackie Cooper's reading of it.

Elizabeth Taylor reads Father of the Bride by Edward Streeter.

Robert Montgomery reads Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake in preparation for directing the film version.

Joan Fontaine and Brian Aherne (married to each other at the time) inspect the source novels for each other's latest films—Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (of course) and My Son, My Son! by Howard Spring.

Mae Clarke and Phillips Holmes reading House of a Thousand Candles by Meredith Nicholson—I've never seen this movie, but the book, which looks like a rather entertaining old mystery, is on my Goodreads to-read shelf, and I got a kick out of the fact that it has the exact same cover as this edition (the first edition from 1905, I believe!).
Pictures courtesy of A Certain Cinema and this Pinterest board.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

A very happy Thanksgiving to all—here's hoping you enjoy a warm, safe and happy holiday and a delicious dinner. And if you're looking for a bit of literature to go on the side, here's a cute old holiday story from Louisa May Alcott:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Simplifying the Nuts and Bolts

I don't usually talk much about the nuts and bolts of indie-publishing on here; it's not really the focus of my blog. But since the indie author community is one where we learn largely from each other's shared experiences and advice, I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I've learned myself this year. I feel it's mostly been a process of simplifying and streamlining the processes of both publishing and marketing—gradually learning which things are not worth the time and effort, and cutting down on them or eliminating them altogether. After all, if you're trying to be a full-time or even part-time writer, the simpler and less time-consuming you can keep your publishing and marketing efforts, the better.

First off, I've finally had it with Nook Press. I've been exasperated for months over how their "Manuscript Editor" takes an upload of a complete, working .epub file with a built-in table of contents, and still insists on "detecting" chapter breaks and giving them placeholder names. I've never been sure whether, if you ignore this, your book goes to the reader with the TOC you built or the automatic one detected by the Manuscript Editor. So I went through and renamed all the automatically-detected chapters just to be sure. But then, still, the M.E. apparently ignores it when you uncheck a box to take automatically-detected things like a copyright page out of the TOC, and then the TOC doesn't even work in their ebook previewer. And it's next to impossible to figure out if your changes have been applied when you upload a updated file for an existing book. In short, I was going through all these hassles and still not sure what my ebooks were coming out looking like for Nook customers.

So the other day, after going through all this yet again trying to update an ebook, the simplest of solutions finally came to me: just close my Nook Press account and distribute to Nook through Smashwords. Theoretically, direct-upload is supposed to be better because you have more control over the quality of your ebooks, but with the Manuscript Editor I'm just not sure I do anymore. I want my books on Nook for the convenience of readers, but it's my smallest sales channel, anyway, and I'm confident enough in the quality of my Smashwords ebooks that I'm willing to distribute that way.

A sidenote to anybody who does direct-upload to Nook or Kobo (I love Kobo, by the way; their dashboard is the nicest and easiest of anybody's): each time you put a new book on Smashwords, you'll want to check your Channel Manager and opt-out of distribution to anywhere else you're direct-uploading, otherwise you'll get duplicate ebooks in those stores. Yes, I know this from experience.

Marketing still seems to me the most subjective and non-guaranteed part of the process. What works for one author or genre doesn't necessarily work for another. I've yet to hit a magic formula, so to speak, that produces tangible results from a particular marketing effort. What I have learned is to stop wasting time repeating things that don't work for me. I've become disillusioned with the usefulness of two things in particular. First, multi-genre group sales. In the three years I've been self-publishing I've participated in several of these with little or no result—a common factor was that my books, as historical fiction, were very much in the minority among genres represented.  Personally, I figure the success of a multi-genre promotion assumes that (A) it'll reach multiple groups of readers, each interested in a different genre represented, or (B) it'll reach individual readers willing to try books from several widely differing genres. I don't foresee either of those things happening very often. For me, the minimal-at-best results are just no longer worth the time and effort of participating.

Second, release-day giveaways. This is easy: all I had to do was start looking at it from a reader's point of view. When I enter a giveaway, do I go and buy a copy of the book before I find out whether I'm the winner? Of course not! I strongly suspect that giveaways involving a copy of the book cannibalize sales from that first day or first week if they're held at the time of the book's release.

So for my next release, a second collection of Western short stories, I'm just sticking to what I've heard called a soft launch: simple release announcements through any available social media, and that's that. When it finally comes time for me to launch a full-length novel, I'm going to limit my focus to advance reviews, which I suspect are probably the most valuable thing you can get. I haven't really been able to test this theory yet, since relatively few reviewers are interested in short works and that's all I've published so far.

Look for news of that aforesaid collection early in 2015. And that's the last promotional remark you may expect to hear from me for a while...except for the obligatory year-end reminder that I do have a Christmas story out there, which incidentally has just had its ebook spruced up with a few new frills just in time for the holidays.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

O. Henry's Full House (1952)

I've wanted to see this movie for several years, and the other night I finally settled down and watched it. I went into it with only moderate expectations—literary adaptations, you know—but I was pleasantly surprised; I really loved it! It is actually five separate short films, each based on one of O. Henry's most famous stories, linked together by segments with John Steinbeck narrating some background on O. Henry's life and writing. For me, as someone who has read the Complete Works cover to cover and never tires of recommending them, watching the camera pan over the familiar titles of the collections on the spines of beautiful leather-bound copies and listening to Steinbeck talk about the stories I've loved so much was lovely in itself. (For the curious, the little introductory scene, in which O. Henry—his face never seen in the shadows of a prison cell—overhears a remark by another prisoner and writes it down, was actually drawn from his story "What You Want.") The individual adaptations are very well done, considering that so much of what is couched in crisp, humorous narration on the page has to be conveyed visually and through dialogue. The settings of the stories are opened up and moved around a bit, but the spirit of the original is maintained.
The set begins with "The Cop and the Anthem," in which park-bench bum Soapy (Charles Laughton), determined to spend the cold winter months comfortably in jail, repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to get himself arrested, with comic results. The script gives him a sort of sidekick in another tramp (David Wayne) who tags after him, in order that Soapy may explain his schemes for the benefit of the audience; and his personality is that of a decayed gentleman with a florid vocabulary incongruous beside his ragged appearance, providing the opportunity to work a lot of that narrative humor into the dialogue. Very well done, and Laughton's performance, particularly in the climactic scene, is spot-on.

In "The Clarion Call," police detective Barney Woods (Dale Robertson) recognizes that a recent murder and robbery was committed by a former friend of his, Johnny Kernan (Richard Widmark)—but since he owes Kernan a long-standing debt of a thousand dollars, he can't bring himself to arrest him until matters are squared between them. This one is well-scripted too, and I liked Robertson as the detective, but Widmark noisily overplays the eccentricity and nastiness of his character, coming close to spoiling the effect. The moments where he is more restrained allow you to pay more attention to the story.

"The Last Leaf," in my opinion, is the pièce de résistance of the film. The story of a despairing young girl ill with pneumonia (Anne Baxter), who becomes convinced that when the last leaves fall from the nearly-bare vine outside her window, she will die too, is one of O. Henry's most emotional on the page, and the film version does it wonderful justice. The script gives it extra depth, I think, by making the two girls sisters and giving Joanna (Baxter) a failed romance as part of the reason for her despair. The performances by all three key characters, including elder sister Sue (Jean Peters) and the girls' upstairs neighbor, irascible old painter Behrmann (Gregory Ratoff), are excellent, and the final scene is just as beautiful as in the story. Bring along a handkerchief for this one.

"The Ransom of Red Chief," is, unfortunately, the weakest of the bunch, though based on one of O. Henry's most famous tales, in which two hapless con-men  (Fred Allen and Oscar Levant) kidnap a small boy and wind up driven to their wits' end by his antics. The dialogue is clever enough, but the pacing is very flat—it doesn't have the same snappy hilarity as the story, with the two men reduced to exhaustion by the end. I think part of the problem is that both Allen and Levant play it with a kind of deadpan humor; I liked Allen's performance, but thought it would have been better if he'd had a more goofy or excitable partner-in-crime to play off. Lee Aaker is just right as "Red Chief," but his part seemed small compared to the story. (I understand that this segment was actually dropped for the first theatrical release; I can understand why.)

And finally we have "The Gift of the Magi." You all know this one. The famed Christmas story of a young couple (Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger) trying to find a way to buy Christmas presents for each other, in spite of having very little money, is given a very sweet and faithful adaptation—again, using the dialogue and a scene with the couple looking in shop windows to expand the background of the characters. You might want to save a corner of your handkerchief from "The Last Leaf"—it's a lovely way to end the film.

One of the things I loved best about O. Henry's Full House is the period-correct atmosphere: the Edwardian-era clothing and hairstyles are excellent, much better than one usually sees in a film like this; the setting of old New York City with its brownstones and shop-window displays and the rattling and roaring of the elevated trains is brought to life wonderfully. Besides the original music by Alfred Newman, the score is filled with old popular songs, hymns and Christmas carols, adding to the old-fashioned feel (you can hear "After the Ball" playing in the background of the short scene with Marilyn Monroe in "The Cop and the Anthem"). It'd make a great holiday-season film, I think, considering that three of the five stories have a wintry setting and the final one winds up at Christmas!

Of course you know I'm going to finish by recommending the original stories. Viewers who already love O. Henry will probably enjoy this film most, but I think even those not yet acquainted with him will probably like it too. It's available on DVD and on Amazon Instant Video (and currently here).

Monday, November 17, 2014

lento e costante

And so autumn rolls on. I will forbear to quote you Robert Burns on the subject of best-laid plans, or even ordinary decently-laid plans, but he had something there. I caught a nasty cold around the end of October, which basically knocked all my writing efforts to splinters for a couple of weeks. When I have a cold, I am not good for much of anything but curling up in a corner and trying to keep myself from going stir-crazy by reading something cozy and comforting like L.M. Montgomery or P.G. Wodehouse.

I still feel like I haven't got all my energy back, but I am getting back to work on One of Ours—very s-l-o-w-l-y. I am not a fast writer as a rule, but the slowness of last week's progress found me treading through one of those sticky periods akin to the outskirts of the Slough of Despond. My writing seemed flat; the characters weren't coming out on the page the way I knew them in my head; I determined that I'd probably have to end up doing extra research and rewriting most of my description. It was a moment for taking a breath, taking a complete break for a couple of days, and reading Jennifer Freitag's very opportunely timed post on persevering through just such difficult spells. The method seems to work.

I think I've made a step forward in accepting that most of what I'm writing will probably have to be rewritten again. I've expanded the outline of the story so much since the raw first draft of four years ago that this go-round is basically to get the plot hammered out; other elements will have to be refined after that. And it's a wonder how much a new idea, however small, brightens one's outlook. Today it was the realization that two apparently differing characters share a personality trait, which gave me a new angle on a scene between them. I admit that before that idea came to me, I was not looking forward to today's writing session, but that little spark of inspiration for a scene that's still far down the line cheered me greatly, and I got a fair amount done (by my slow standards).

During my off-hours, I've been continuing my education—what fun autodidacticism is. (I did not invent that word; it's in the dictionary.) Rachel Heffington and her Shakespeare-quoting detectives put me onto the trail of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, which I found to be a gold-mine of delight: I read through it using the Kindle highlight feature copiously and noting down the names of authors to explore further. Poetry and English classics have always been areas where I felt I could improve my knowledge, and I've discovered half a dozen more things I want to read to that purpose. (First up was the Bard himself: I read The Tempest and enjoyed it even more than I expected.) And one reference leads to another, which leads to another...that's the joy of literature: there's just so much out there to explore. Count me in for the lifelong adventure.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Three I's of Being a Writer: Instinct, Information and Imagination

While on Pinterest recently, I happened upon this quote, which struck me as one of the best deconstructions of the write-what-you-know cliché that I've ever seen:

That is true. While bits of our own experiences do find their way into our books, I'd hazard that the vast majority of writers do not literally experience everything they write about (and I'm talking about people who write successfully about things, not people who patently don't know what they're talking about). This also explains how successful writers can create characters who are nothing like themselves, who do things and think in ways that the writer would never do. ("These are fictional characters! They are not me!" I always find myself wanting to preface a work when I hand it to somebody I know.)

So all this got me thinking: what are the qualities that go into making up a successful writer, in this sense? I pondered a little, and sorted out the results under three headings. I call them the three I's:

Instinct: I think all successful writers have some degree of natural perceptiveness about them. They have an inbred curiosity about life—an instinctive sensitivity to the way the world works, to the way human nature behaves. This quality may be partly born and not made, but one can cultivate it by training oneself to take an interest, to notice things and wonder about the whys and wherefores.

Information: The ever-changing, ever-accumulating sum total of the knowledge we gather throughout life. This is why it's important for a writer to be a voracious reader, too. Information doesn't just mean facts we purposely store up, but everything we absorb from reading, from observing, from living. It all gets distilled into a store of knowledge from which we will be constantly and almost unthinkingly drawing when it comes time to create something of our own.

Imagination: This is what fuses the first two things together—what allows us to create fiction based on the combination of information we've gathered and instinctive understanding of how people behave. This is what allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of characters unlike ourselves, and make them behave as they would behave, not necessarily as we would behave, and still be authentic. This is what allows us to vicariously experience things we've never actually done, and write about them in a way that seems real to the reader.

I don't know if any one of these things is more important than the others. Perhaps the instinct is necessary for a start, because it may have something to do with our impulse to write in the first place. But it can't carry far without the others. The best results probably come from a balance of all three. What do you think?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fairytale Blogathon: First Love (1939)

A few months ago, while preparing for the launch of my own little fairytale retelling, I stumbled across the news of an upcoming movie blogathon on fairytales in film. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to revisit and spruce up my review of one of my favorite movies, which also happens to be a Cinderella retelling, 1939's First Love. So here it is, as my entry for the Fairytale Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently.

As the film opens, orphaned Connie Harding (Deanna Durbin) has finished boarding school and is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, the Clintons, in New York City. She quickly falls into the position of a typical poor relation—often overlooked, fetching and carrying, and generally living in the shadow of her pretty but spoiled cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish), society belle and the darling of magazine photographers. Her scatterbrained, astrology-obsessed aunt (Leatrice Joy) and supremely lazy cousin Walter (Lewis Howard) aren't much help either. Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette), a man of few words, is only visible ducking between his workplace and his study when the coast is clear, seemingly making it his object in life to spend as little time in his family's company as possible—and it's hard to blame him. But Connie quickly endears herself to the household staff (Charles Coleman, Mary Treen and Lucille Ward), who become her firm friends and allies.

Prince Charming enters the picture in the form of Ted Drake (Robert Stack, in his film debut), an eligible young man whose attention Barbara is bent on monopolizing. After an awkwardly comic first meeting on the grounds of a country club while employed as her scheming cousin's go-between, Connie is smitten too, and sets her heart on attending a ball hosted by Ted's parents. Barbara, by no means welcoming competition, does everything possible to prevent her from getting there, but Connie's friends the servants pitch in to see that she has a suitable dress, and conspire with the cook's policeman brother (Frank Jenks) to keep the rest of her relatives from getting to the ball before midnight so she'll have a little time to enjoy herself. (One of my favorite lines in the film comes here from Coleman, the perennial movie butler: "You will have an escort of six white bikes, miss!") Though the ball proves to be a dream come true, the stroke of midnight of course heralds disaster...and it's up to Connie's old schoolteacher and friend, the grim-faced Miss Wiggins (Kathleen Howard) to play fairy godmother and try to mend the situation with the help of a silver slipper.

First Love seems to be a relatively obscure movie today, even among classic film fans. At the time of its release it was a big affair, for Deanna Durbin was Universal's wildly popular singing star, and a flutter of publicity whirled around the movie because it contained her first screen kiss. Perhaps the rather generic and unimpressive title has something to do with its slipping from view—one source says it was originally supposed to be called Cinderella 1939, which would at least have been a bit more descriptive of the story! But it's such a clever, charming adaptation of the Cinderella story, I still wonder that it's not better known. The script is sprightly and humorous, filled with amusing scenes—the frustrated Clintons delayed by the laid-back policeman on their way to the ball; Barbara and her so-called friend (June Storey) sweetly trading barbs about each other's clothes and dispositions; and the hilarious climactic scene where Pallette's Uncle Jim finally blows his top and lets his family have it.

The whole cast is good, but I was particularly impressed by Helen Parrish as the spoiled Barbara—I'd seen her before playing such sweet, naïve characters, her performance here seemed that much better! She played the "mean girl" to Deanna Durbin's heroine in a couple of films, but off-screen they were good friends; Parrish was a bridesmaid at Durbin's first wedding. They eventually got to play sisters in Three Smart Girls Grow Up, the sequel to Deanna Durbin's first film.

Though the setting is contemporary 1930s all the way, there are a couple little touches that remind us of the fairytale background. A moment where Connie's reflection in the mirror unexpectedly answers her back might be magic...and then it might just be her imagination. And a lovely special-effects moment comes when Connie and Ted are dancing at the ball, as the other dancers momentarily fade away to leave them waltzing alone to the dreamy strains of a melody from Johann Strauss' "Roses From the South," one of my very favorite waltzes. As in any Durbin film, there's some wonderful music—a spirited rendition of "Amapola," a medley of Strauss waltzes for the ball scene, and finally, Puccini's "Un bel di" (sung in English), in a wonderfully out-of-context performance that suits its new usage beautifully.

First Love is available as an individual DVD which seems to be currently out of print, and also as part of a Deanna Durbin box set DVD with five other movies. You can click here to see more film stills and behind-the-scenes clippings and trivia at the Deanna Durbin Devotees fansite (all pictures in this post courtesy of the same page).