C - Catti

Let all the nations be aware, 
And let the cities tremble there, 
Let them know the time is near 
For the world to be reordered. 
Babel rose and touched the skies, 
Rose with whips and piteous cries. 
But every nation falls and dies, 
For the world will be reordered. 
Let the gods cast down their spears, 
Tremble with unmeasured fears. 
Let the rulers bow, and seers— 
For the world has been reordered.
an old catti song

The image I have given you, though not made by me, is an accurate representation of the Catti species: indomitable, savage, grim, war-like, staunch, a force to be reckoned with and not one that appears susceptible to reason.  Taken as a whole, this assessment is very true.  The tribes of this cat-like people living outside the Faerie Empire, and among the ebbing surf of the Empire's fortress-studded shore, if they ever knew a time of peace, have long since lost it to memory as they battle the constant threat of subjugation by the fairies and the steady inroads their oppressors have made into their lands.  Given another iron-fisted Emperor with a keen military sense and (very important) funding, another generation might see the total crushing of the Catti people.

Well, perhaps not total.  The Catti clans are, a little like the Highlanders and Lowlanders of Scotland (to claw through our history for some semblance of analogy), divided into two groups, the Dunr and the Black.  While both proudly war-like and devoted to their clans, the Dunr might eventually learn to bear the burden of fairy rule, to learn the sense in law and order and straight roads; the Black Catti, I think, never could.  Blockheaded and insensible to fairy logic the Catti have always been, but given enough time and gentle wear, the Dunr folk could twist the fairy psyche a little to a shape they liked, and perhaps even become used to being ruled by their orderly overlords.  They might one day become a powerful political bloc in the Empire.  But the Black Catti, seeped in their black forest mindset, even further removed from the creeping influence of Faerie rule, react only two ways: kill all fairies and live, or, short of that, die before being conquered.  There is no middle ground, no light to be found in law or civilization.  It would take so many generations to bring them around to that kind of thinking that it is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.  Any fairy general worth his salt will turn his mind toward the barbaric north and know that the far black woods must be razed and the Black Catti blood drained before Faerie will ever plant her raven banners there with any stability.

“You’re asking me to lay out hundreds of years of animosity and bloodshed and say, ‘Even though that lies between us, I shall not lift my paw against thee’? That is a hard thing to do, my lady; very, very hard to do.”

Inhospitable, perhaps?  Yes, as a general rule Catti are tough nuts to crack - tough horse chestnuts with angry sea-urchin spikes all over them...  But once you do crack them, they have remarkably tender insides and even a set of morals that they hold to admirably (if not always by the spirit yet definitely by the letter).  The side of themselves which they rarely show the stockade walls of the border forts is a tender side, full of love and warmth and the magic of living a simple life.  And if you can win their hearts (though it may cost you your own) they will go with you to hell and back and you will have never known a better friend.

The Sounds Our Hearts Make

The Queen took up a little cithern saying, "O my lord, I will sing a sonnet to thee and to you my lords and to sea-girt Demonland."  So saying, she smote the strings and sang in that crystal voice of hers, so true and delicate that all that were in that hall were ravished by its beauty.
The Worm Ouroboros

In February Abigail and I made each our own posts on our favourite things.  She has begun the idea anew now, not with favourite things, but with favourite sounds.  One doesn't always talk of near-and-dear things, so it was pleasant even for myself to read her list.  And now I am going to do the same, discovering as I do so that, as with my February post, this is not so easy as I had initially thought. And I wonder - is it that we like the sounds we hear, or that we like the sounds our hearts make when we hear them...?

the cadence of the written word // my husband calling me "baby-doll" //  hot running water in the shower // my cats calling for me // boots running on stone steps // "it's dinner time" // the drum of horse hooves // a thunderstorm at night // my mom calling me "jenny-jenjen" // wind in dry autumn leaves // "are not all lands, all airs, one country unto us, so there be great doings afoot to keep bright our swords?" // the crackle of a fire // daddy reading books aloud // high heels on hardwood floors // snow underfoot // my family's laughter // "sir, we would see jesus" // lord brandoch daha's footstep on the printed page // the bbc aslan's voice // a coffee-maker percolating // falling waves // "as bright and moth-wing blue as the blue in the heart of a flame" // anna's voice in my head as I read her letters // rhodri's silence // the clatter of my fingers on my keyboard // daddy giggling irrepressibly // Chesterton's poetry // 2009 Mr. Knightley // my phone ringing when I know it is my husband calling // my husband's voice - period

What are your favourite sounds?  What sounds are music to your ears?

B - Beowulf

"Stories never really end...even if the books like to pretend they do.  Stories always go on.  They don't end on the last page, any more than they begin on the first page."
Cornelia Funke

Beowulf

I am sure I will get mixed reactions when I own (to those who did not already know) that it was the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf which gave me the inspiration for AdamantineBeowulf, like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Song of Roland, belongs among a range of old poetic classics that everyone would have liked to have read and feels a certain hesitance to do so.  When you do sit down to read them you often find they were not so daunting as you had first supposed.  Beowulf is no exception.  I confess I, too, was daunted at the outset...until I became swept up in the plot and the characters and the rich, abbreviated style of poetry and dialogue.  I loved it.  I loved it like autumn and bonfires and tea and spice.  It was all of those colours and tastes to me and I just had to, after the last page and the last line and I was left sitting in a hollow shell of sadness and longing, I just had to write something more.

I was glad to know that Rudyard Kipling wrote Puck of Pook's Hill, for, upon closing A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck was the character I wanted to know more about - and there was more to read!  But there was no more Beowulf when I closed the book, no more to read, though the story went on...so I would have to write it myself.

There was, of course, no more Beowulf.  The understanding of Beowulf may be a little abbreviated itself among those who haven't read the story.  Everyone knows about Grendel and his watery mother and the triumph of the Geats' champion over the Danes' monstrous oppressors.  What gets perhaps far little press (though around this time of year in 2012 people are unwittingly raving about another book heavily inspired by the second half of Beowulf) is the gentle reign of Beowulf, the prosperity, the love of his people, the many conquests that are strung like pearls upon a string of time throughout his life...until the end, when a runaway servant sneaking into a sleeping dragon's lair steals a cup and gets away, only to wake the dragon's self-avenging fire across the land.

Does that sounds familiar now?

As the representative, governor, and champion of his people, Beowulf, having now exchanged a golden beard for one of badger's grey, sets out to slay the dragon.  There is no champion like him, no one else capable of tackling such a foe, and Beowulf is determined to do or die.

And so Beowulf's followers rode, mourning their beloved leader, crying that no better king had ever lived, no prince so mild, no man so open to his people, so deserving of praise.

There is no happy ending.  Old and valiant Beowulf is pressed by the dragon almost beyond bearing.  At the last moment, when he most needs his sworn followers, every man turns and abandons him.  Every man save his young kinsman Wiglaf, who alone runs forward to save his king from destruction.  Together they kill the dragon, but the cost was heavy and high: Beowulf has been dealt a mortal wound.  With the last great trophy, a dragon's head, the Geats' great king passes into legend, breathing out his last in the arms of the one man who loved lord and loyalty over his own life.  It is no happy ending.

But what of that young man?  After I had cried and been angry and cried some more, I wondered, what about that young man?  What about Wiglaf?  Surely such a hero had the beginnings of a splendid story.  He shone like a star on the page but he deserved even more than that.  So I sat down at my computer, opened up a new Word document, and began a new story, a Puck of Pook's Hill for Wiglaf. 

All Is On the Hazard

Talent is cheap.
What matters is discipline.

We are over halfway through the month of September (and we have dined nine times at Rosings!) and, as Abigail and I are going to be at the beach for a week in October, for us, at least, November is going to be here before we know it.  Commence warning tremors of panic.  Abigail has put her upcoming novel Tempus Regina on stand-by, waiting to tackle it during the rush of NaNoWriMo.  While I have participated at least once in NaNo, I don't think I ever began a novel during the month of November.

I cheated.  Yes, I cheated.  Whatever novel I was working on - I think it must have been Between Earth and Sky at the time - I did not begin it on Day One of November.  And I am going to do the same thing this year.  November 1st I am going to open up Plenilune, same as I always do, and launch another 50,000 words forward into the plot by the time my birthday (November 30th) rolls around.  I am currently approaching the crux of the plot (I thought the day would never come in sight!) and I am eager to find where the 50,000 words of November put me in the plot.

But while I like to bend the rules, I don't like to break them.  The whole point of NaNo is to get people who would like to write a novel to actually sit down and write.  My character (myself, I mean, not Margaret) lacks discipline.  I love writing.  I love the heady sense of fire etching events on the page before my eyes.  I love the sudden bloom of foreshadowing, the splicing dark-and-light of the moral gamble, the tumble of some thousand years' worth of philosophical and theological thought falling into the minds and events of my characters and story.  It is simply too much thrill not to love it.  And yet I lack discipline.  If I am disinclined to write, I don't always sit down to do it.  If I am a little stuck the mole-hill may easily be made into a mountain.  It is a plight, I am sure, which you have experienced before.  So I bend the rules - but I don't break them.  I will be starting NaNo with an enormous wordcount, but the wordcount before November 1st I won't give weight to, and the prizes offered the winners (here is assuming I cross the finish line) I will not partake in.  That would not be fair.  But they are not the point!  Plenilune is treasure enough for me.  And so I will be one of the number of eager, frightened little creatures working November 1st to write 50,000 words in a month.  But you cannot count on me to start writing at midnight on the last day of October.  I am not that beside myself with insanity.

Skander crossed to the window and stood by her, looking out on the scene.  Through the heavy grey light and wind-surf noise came back the sound of dogs barking; the hawthorns were bare, the barberry wind-stripped; clouds lay thick in the lower parts of Seescardale and obscured the view within a few miles. 

How I love the autumn!  Mirriam (to whom I have been sending shards and chunks and untidy skeins of writing) has informed me that my writing is best read in autumn - which is gratifying, as I swear it is autumn in my heart all year long.  There is a cool cleanness in the air which sweeps away the muggy sluggishness of summer and lets the brain work freely.  I think many of us are like-minded in this regard.  I am looking forward to NaNo and I am sure you are too.  If you do not follow Abigail's blog, I do want to refer you to an excellent post she just put up for NaNo and organizing one's time during November: A Novel Month.

November is coming.  God willing, I'll see you there!

A - Adamant

Brief introduction: I have so enjoyed Anne Elisabeth's own A-Z series for her novels that, as I am not actively working on Adamantine and so don't often get the opportunity to talk about it, I decided to follow her lead and begin an A-Z series of my own.  And Adamantine conveniently starts at the beginning of the alphabet.

Adamant

I've talked about the main character of Adamantine before.  She's a shy, naive girl, technically an orphan though she has other relations.  She was born in 1827 and at the time of our story is seventeen years old (and unmarried! but that is less of an issue for her than it is for her harried cousin Margaret).  In writing her I have found her to be a sweet, intuitive, well-meaning girl; though she had lost both her parents, her life with them was one of confidence and safety, which engendered in her a good temper and a pleasant countenance, which was more than her cousins could boast living with their bulldog-jowled father and their wedding-worrying mother.

Unfortunately her quiet life heretofore had not taught Adamant strength and survival, as it had taught her cousins; upon moving from London to live with her relations Adamant experiences a cold shock of jealousy and hatred from her cousins and a sense of unbelonging from within.  But what she lacks in physical strength and worldly knowledge she makes up for with faith, conviction, and charity.  In Faerie, a world of stark ambition and self-serving ideals, of conquest and oppression and racial hatred, Adamant is an alien spirit of sweet loyalty.  While she looks bewilderedly on her friends and relations, uncomprehending their sharp, bitter attitudes toward God and life, they stare back at her in mingled mockery and confusion as she holds fast to the certainty of Christ and her own quest, a servant of the servants of God.

Choking out an angry, crying howl, she jerked the weapon she found at her side from its sheath and found herself running, running for all she was worth, alone, to help the grey-bearded king.
adamantine

My Ashes Scatter On the Wind

there's people been friendly
but they'd never be your friends
sometimes this has bent me to the ground
now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
'cause it's the finest thing I have ever found
"elijah," rich mullins

I seem to be a preeminently approachable person.  I do not say this as a boast, for I do not really mean to be this way.  But the evidence gives weight to the conclusion: when I was walking the High Line in New York City I was stopped by complete strangers and asked to take their picture for them; in the Boston subway station, an Asian woman swung round on me and asked me the way to...some place that started with an A (thankfully there was a native nearby who could help, because I couldn't).  In the grocery store, in shopping centres, I'm stopped by complete strangers and chatted to.  I am usually not alone, and yet people always stop to talk to me.

You know me.  I'm a writer.  I'm an introvert.  I'm five feet tall with half an inch tacked on as a kind of salt-rub in the wry wound.  I've got plain-jane brown eyes, a mane of hair highly susceptible to humidity; due to chronic kidney infections as a child and the medicine I had to take for them, my teeth are permanently stained.  I am not a quick thinker on my feet and I am painfully aware of all my defects.  I have little to nothing to recommend me.  So why do people stop me?

I'm not sure, but I have a suspicion.  This morning at a clothing store, as I was on my way to the cashier, I passed by the manager who was talking to another employee.  I had already breasted them and gone past when I heard the manager ask how I was.  I was in full forward tilt but, realizing I was the one he was speaking to, courtesy demanding I turn back.  And I did so.  I get so peeved with people who mumble, "Fine, thanks..." and shuffle on without making eye contact.  I always make a point of making eye contact, being sincere in my response when asked how I am, and I try always to ask how the other person is doing himself.  So I did so - looking back on it, I think I gave my head the most childish little tilt to the side, too, which only amplified my naive aura.  I'm not sure I want to know what the manager thought of me, but my modus operandi seemed to turn the cashier's haggard expression into interest; she commented on the shirt I had bought and what a nice colour it was, on this and that and the other thing, and she was really nice - I was glad I had taken the time to be nice to her.  The same thing happened at the grocery store, and the Sephora store when I went down to restock on my mascara.  People were polite - you have to be polite in business or you don't get any business - but they seemed to open up more when I looked them in the face and took the time to think and reply and be kind in return.

I know I am a naive creature.  I combine a paradoxical mix of starched cynicism and unflagging naivete, and I am aware of that.  Yet I am always pleasantly surprised by a show of friendliness in other people, and I think people, likewise, are pleasantly surprised by a show of friendliness from me.  My sister-in-law calls me a free spirit and I try to take that sunshine with me whenever I go out.  People seem to brighten up because of it.  I make a point of looking at them like they are real human beings that actually matter in the scheme of the universe, I make a point of asking them how they are as if how they are really matters.  It doesn't matter what they look like or where they work, how good or bad a day they are having: I could make it better just by smiling and being my sincere, naive little self. 

I find it hard not to smile when I am out in public: it's my default setting.  And I think people see that.  I think that might be why they come up and talk to me.  In Rosemary Sutcliff's Bonnie Dundee, John Graham of Claverhouse is described as one who looked at you as if you were the only man in the world.  I want to be like that.  I want to look a person in the face as if they were the only person in the world, smile as if that smile were for them alone, and really mean what I say.  It could be I restore their faith in the basic kindliness of man to man - could be I show them a charity only heaven's kind knows.  Whatever it is, they do matter, and though I may not see them again this side of Judgment Day, I want them to know that, if only for one moment.  I want them to know that to at least one person on the planet their existence was not taken for granted.

It will never hurt you to be kind.  It may be the thing that heals them.

Kick Up the Leaves and the Magic is Lost

'cause you had a bad day
you're takin' one down
sing a sad song just to turn it around
you say you don't know
tell me, don't lie
you work at a smile and you go for a ride
you had a bad day

I sat down to work on an informative post about "verbal sparring" in writing for an upcoming blog convention.  I got two paragraphs in and found myself opening a new document and writing the following one-shot.  This is largely for Mirriam, but I hope everyone enjoys it.  Additionally, I would love to hear people's thoughts on "verbal sparring" as I go about writing my post.  Read and think about it!
* * * * *


“How could you be such a jerk!” I shouted.  “What is wrong with you!”
Vince was agitated, not, I quickly saw, because he was remorseful, but because I had hounded him down since I had passed Li in the hallway, routed him out with the ruthlessness that would have impressed our Roundhead ancestor, and pressed him for an answer.  He wanted to squirt away and I would not let him; he was growing hot under the collar when he turned on me and shouted back,
“I just got tired, all right?  Honestly, does anyone take this seriously?  I’m on the brink of my career.  I have other things to think about.  I can’t have perfume and nail polish and hair styles and magazines gumming up my brain.  You said yourself I needed to focus on my work.  Get off my case!”
For a moment I stood in the little grass quad, staring at him, choking on disbelief.  I knew my brother was stupid.  I even knew, though I did not want to admit it, that he had all the ramshackle making of a no-good.  I never really thought he would hear me when I kicked him at his studies and told him to take them seriously.  I never realized he would be so stupid as to chuck the most important relationship for a career.
But then I have always been the quixotic one.
“Don’t you leave,” I snapped as he was turning away.  “I am not done.”
“Well, hurry up,” he snapped back.  “I have a class in—”
“An hour!  I think I can get everything out in that time.”
He pushed back his jacket and shoved his hands into his pockets, slouching in that most irritating, arrogant way.  He sniffed, too, distain wrinkling his little button nose.  How I wanted to punch it!  It would have been easier that way.
“You still don’t get it,” I started out, knowing even as the words came out of my mouth that they would only drive him farther away.  “I told you to buckle down to your studies and take life seriously because people are depending on you to do it.  That isn’t your money you are wasting by blowing off classes.  Grandfather is depending on us to do well and make that money count for something.  You need to take your work seriously because your employers will be depending on you.  This culture is so totally lacking in dependable, honest workers—we might at least try to be two.  You have no idea how valuable a dependable worker is.  The same goes for Li.  She was depending on you.  She had plans—and they included you.  She was depending on your steadiness, your sensibility, your seriousness in your relationship.  You don’t chuck it all in the river just like that! just because you got tired!”
I listened to my last words.  Vince knew I had not finished because I had made a long habit of pausing for breath before barrelling on, and as I listened to my words I realized the problem was much more serious than I had imagined. 
“You do you mean,” I levelled at him, “you got tired?”
He shrugged.  “I just got tired of her being everywhere all the time, always demanding my attention.  Honestly, it was like having a puppy.  I would want to go out with my mates and she would get cross because I would go without her!”
“Well, small wonder you wouldn’t take her, with the mates you have,” I snorted.
“Always!”  He began pacing.  “I would always have to pick her up, take her here, there, to class, to the store, out to lunch.  I know she hasn’t got a car but I never had a moment to myself!”
“You idiot.  You never get a moment to yourself when you are in a relationship.  You don’t generally want one.”
“Well, I did!”
“Well, you’re going to get a long one!  Look ahead to a long, lonely, cold life, completely devoid of any sensible woman because you are a jerk!”
He flung out a hand at me, accusingly, militaristically.  “Why are you taking her side?  What does she have to do with any of this now?”
I sat down heavily on the stone bench, feeling the damp seep into my trousers, and not caring.  I put my head in my hand.  Clearly against the black of my eyelids I could see Li pushing her way through the little press of girls, displacing an Egyptian exchange student with a bump and a little cry; she had rushed on, her face turned from them, but I had seen.  I must have looked like an idiot myself, poised on the edge of the scene, caught in surprise when I saw that her almond-round, Asian face was crushed in pain, a pain barely suppressed.  She had run on as if late for a class, but I could not help noticing that she was headed toward the girls’ room.
“You made her cry,” I said through my hand.
“Girls cry.”
I exploded off the bench.  “You made her cry!  You made a girl cry!  That doesn’t make you feel like a monster?  You can just stand there and tell me ‘girls cry’?  What do you think girls are?  Are you so totally medieval?”
He looked at me quizzically.  “What are you talking about?”
It was useless.  In a minute I would be strangling him and be charged with first degree murder, and even then he would not understand.  I had tried and suddenly I realized that I did not want to mend the breach between them.  I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed, sending him staggering backward.
“Hey!”
“Shut up,” I snapped.  “And God help,” I added, doubling back a moment as I was about to leave, “God help whatever woman you do marry.”
He took a step after me.  “Where are you going?  Trent!”
“I’m going to apologize for you!”
I barrelled out of the quad, my precipitous exit and shout startling a wandering group of Indian students.  I swung wide of them and went on, hardly seeing where I went, until I found myself in the same colonnade wherein Li had brushed by and disappeared.  I had to ask several girls in a staggered, Orion’s-belt pattern across campus where I would find her; though I was in no mood to talk to anyone I was also in no mood to go banging in stall doors in the ladies’ lavatory. 
Don’t have let her walk back to her dorm alone, I prayed, moving at a quick half-shuffle, half-jog down a long dipping sidewalk.  I scanned the crowds as I took a left and dropped down a flight of broken stairs that had seen better days and worthier feet; stunted yews grew over the staircase and shut off the sunlight, shut off the world, and I soon found myself wrenching open a narrow wicket gate into the butterfly garden, cut off from the world, alone, save for the uncertain notes of a thrush and the muted but ever-present rumble of the traffic. 
I stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked around the garden.  The watered sky, empty from last night’s rain storm, arched above me, pillared by the ancient weathered stones of the surrounding buildings.  The garden was a wet mess, a tangle of flowering bushes and tracts of dewy lawn, but nowhere did I see Li.  My informants had assured me she had ducked down here; the only ways out were by the stair or the decrepit chapel, generations since unused, which formed the east end of the butterfly garden.  With a sigh I struck out from underneath the yews into the face of a sudden sharp wind, trekking up the aisles of damp toward the chapel.  I supposed that, if I were a girl, I would go cry in a place like that too.
I walked until the dew had soaked my socks and stained my Oxfords, fighting sprays of honeysuckle, until at last I stepped up on the broken threshold of the chapel and slipped into the dank dark of the vestibule.  The sound of traffic was silenced behind me; somewhere in the gloom as my eyes adjusted I could hear the soft rushing sound of running water.  I took a few careful steps forward, for the chapel, like the kingdom, had seen better days—like the stonework stairs, worthier feet—and I did not want to catch my foot in a hole and break my leg.
The chapel was very small, very long and narrow, with no chairs or pews but an altar at the far end—undecorated now—which was lit up by a single high window in the south face of the walls; the north-facing window had been boarded up, but the south-facing window’s board had been pulled down and lay scattered on the floor under years of dust.
The altar was not the only thing lit up in the early morning light.  Sitting on the floor, propped up against the altar, was Li, her arms around her dirty updrawn legs and her face hid in her knees.  My stomach clenched but I forced myself to walk calmly across to her.  She did not seem to hear my coming; hesitantly, silently, I set my hand on her head.
She started and looked up; her mascara had streaked and was running, the soft pink winging shadows of her eyes had been rubbed and smudged on her temples.  Her little dark eyes were puffy from crying, but the odd thing was that the vulnerability, the complete dashing of all her careful feminine appearances that made her look unapproachable like a goddess, only endeared her to me still further.  I swore softly and dropped down on the balls of my feet.
“What are you doing here?” Li sniffed and, turning, hid her face from me.
“I come here every Thursday,” I replied glibly to her blunt, stupid question.  “This is where I worship.”  Then, when she said nothing, I added quietly, “I made Vince tell me.  I’m…I’m really sorry.”
She shuddered and hitched her arms further around her legs.  It was a bad position to be in: her skirt was too short even to walk about in, I thought, and the cold stones were raising goose-bumps on her skin.  Wordlessly, because I was suddenly angry again, I unbuttoned my cardigan and flung it around her knees. 
“You shouldn’t have come down here on your own,” I told her more forcefully than I should have.  “It isn’t safe.  This place is far too secluded and—” I almost mentioned the skirt, but thought better of it just in time.
But I had said enough.  Drawing herself up, fury clenching her face—she had, apparently, not got done crying and I had interrupted—Li retorted, “What do you care?  Why can’t you just leave me alone?”  She balled the cardigan into one hand and thrust it back at my chest, nearly knocking me over.  “Go away and leave me alone!  I don’t want to hear about Vince.  I don’t care what you have to say in his defence!  He made himself perfectly clear and he won’t get me back—you tell him that!”
“Stop shouting!”  I recollected myself and unfolded the cardigan again.  “Someone might think I was hurting you.”
“Maybe you are!”  Her voice rose to a reckless pitch.  “It’s all you men ever do!  Well, I’m tired of it!  I’m tired of your lies!  I’m tired of your stupid, stubborn brutishness!  Do you think I’m just a scarf, to be put on whenever the weather gets cold and taken off and tossed in a corner when you get too warm?  Do you think I’m just a toy that a boy can get bored of?  Do you think I’m not good enough?  Maybe I’m not good enough!  Maybe Vince is right!  Maybe I was kidding myself all along, thinking this would come to anything.  Why would anyone want me?”
She was spiralling out of rage into self-guilt and I had to do something before she pulled us both in over our heads.  I laid the cardigan back over her—my hands were shaking rather desperately, and I did not know why—and cut her off by saying levelly, “I didn’t come here to defend Vince.  I nearly throttled him a moment ago, if that means anything to you.  And I don’t think you’re not good enough—it was Vince who wasn’t good enough—and you’re not a scarf.  You’re just in pain and you’re blowing this all out of proportion.”
She looked at me in silence, her narrow, angry eyes telling me “Don’t you lie to me” with a force that was almost physical.  It chilled me.
“What do you want me to do, apologize for the entire male sex?  That is a tall order, even for me.”  I shifted and thumped down on the floor beside her, my back to the altar.  “I came to apologize for my brother’s assish behaviour—that’s the best I can do.”  After a pause I added, “I really mean it.”
“You really mean what?”
To be honest, I was not sure.  I sincerely meant my apology for what Vince had done—for what Vince had undone—but after a moment’s reflection I found what I really meant was that she deserved better.  People were stupid and cocky and did not see how vicious the world could be nor how vulnerable life really is: but in the half-light of the chapel, with mascara streaking her face and her bare legs shivering, one had only to look at Li once to feel how delicate the beautiful things of life were and how easily they were crushed.  Did no one care?  How could Vince look at this girl and think, “She doesn’t need me and I don’t need her”? 
On an impulse I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.  She tensed, but did not resist.  “I mean that I’m sorry I can’t fix everything.  I’m sorry you think you are rubbish, and that there are people like Vince in the world, and that—here.”  I dug into the pocket of my cardigan and pulled out my handkerchief.  Li started back as I scrubbed at her mussed face; mascara came off in blurs and smudges, but she looked a little better.  She would have to dry her face and do it all again once she had stopped crying—she had not, quite, even now, but the tears were tracking silently out of her eyes—but the worst of the mess had come off on my once clean, starched kerchief. 
I pressed it into her hand.  “A gentleman never goes out without a pocket handkerchief,” I said.  “He never knows when he may need to assist a lady in distress.”
She hid her face in the handkerchief.  Her pale cheeks began to colour with embarrassment as it dawned on her through the torture that she looked as though she had got in a fist-fight with a road-worker.  “Who said that?”
“I did,” I admitted in a gallant tone, though I felt suddenly awkward.  “Are you feeling any better now that you have punched me in place of Vince?”
There was a pause.  “No…  But I think I can stop crying.”  But then she sobbed again and hid her face further in the cloth, and I sat in the damp chapel, swimming in its watery morning light, my arm around the shoulders of the beautiful Asian girl I had come to know so well.  The world was a skin-thin place, starkly normal, going about its normal business, and it came to me as a crude, circus-coloured thing, and I was glad yesterday’s quiet gathered in yesterday’s chapel, hiding us while the huge world of Li’s heart cried itself in pieces. 
After awhile she stopped, and long after that she broke the silence shyly.  “I am sorry I was mad at you.”
I lifted my head off the side of the altar.  “You weren’t mad at me, no more than I was cross with you.  We were both mad at Vince, that is all.”
She nodded and we fell silent again, listening to the soft purl of water down the old stonework and, from the butterfly garden, the full-breasted trill of the thrush.
Li said presently, reluctantly, “I should go.  I have class.”
This stirred me to action.  Rising, I held out my hand for her.  “Not today,” I said as I pulled her up.  “You are much more important than class.  I am taking you back to your dorm so you can change out of that ridiculous skirt—please don’t wear it again—and then I am taking you for ice cream.”
“But—class—” she began, looking frightened and bewildered.  Her eyes were at once humorous and adorable widened like a startled doe’s.  “I don’t want ice cream—”
“Yes, you do.  Dorm first, then ice cream.”  I helped her over the rough chapel floor and out into the sunlight.  “There are times in one’s life when it is perfectly acceptable to run from trouble.  This is one of them.”
The wind, when we climbed up the stairs and out from under the yews, caught us in the face.  Li’s thrush-brown hair flew back into the level morning sun, sparking wild fire, and suddenly I laughed—I could not help myself.  Would that a spirit of the past might visit my brother years from now and show him a glimpse of what he might have had, what he had forever lost.  Li looked at me quizzically, but pleasantly: I saw the rage and much of the sorrow had been soothed from her face.  Contented with that I put her arm in mine and walked her down the long south road, her hair and the cardigan, hitched up over her shoulder, flowing in the wind behind us.

As Bright & Moth-Wing Blue As the Blue in the Heart of a Flame

Rachel just featured an intriguing post on eyes.  She said she is guilty of describing them too much in narration and, when I think about it, I probably am guilty of that too.  But, as she pointed out, eyes are the window to the soul - they really are - and can one go wrong fixating, even to detriment of other physical description, on the character's eyes?  How much one can learn about a character just by looking in the eyes, watching for that one unguarded moment when the person's eyes betray the thoughts beneath! 

So I like describing eyes.  Indubitably I describe them a little too much, but that's what editing is for, I suppose.  There is a crazy range of colour for eyes, which are well worth studying even if you don't like studying.  (I would also suggest a dip into biology so that you have a basic understanding of how eye colour shakes out and so that your choice of character eye colour makes sense.)  Julius and Julianna - you've met them - are both albino, and so have the characteristic violet eyes of albinos - which are caused by the lack of pigmentation and the filtration of blood through the eye, which sounds far less romantic than "violet," I admit.  The de la Mare line of Plenilune is famous for its pale, ice-blue eyes, which makes looking at them all the more unnerving...  The royal family of Thrasymene waver between brown and yellow-brown, but the heavy speckling of people with yellow-brown eyes throughout the lineage has given them some fame as well: their yellow eyes turn out owlish and uncanny, and really very beautiful.

Skander and I have the same eye colour.  Though his mother was from the de la Mare family he got his father's stark brown eyes.  Just brown.  You have to look really hard at our eyes to conjure any romanticism about them.  They have some falcon-barring of gold and black, but mostly they are just that rich, dominant, chocolate brown which is warm and familiar and totally unremarkable.  But then his, at least, fit him: he is a warm, familiar, chocolate brown kind of man and only occasionally, when severely provoked, will you see the falcon-barring flutter in agitation.  So I like to think there is something to be said even for the dull, dominant brown that is almost never looked at twice in the faces of the whole world over.

In this high-tech, sleek, graphic world of film, we're used to seeing the richness and starkness of colour.  You can over-describe anything, I know, but eyes are worth description!  Eyes are actually very complex just in colour, let alone in their anatomy (which would get boring if you tried to include that, so you probably shouldn't go that route...).  I like watching people's eyes: the way the light plays on their surfaces, the way different-coloured lashes or eyeshadow mute the irises or make the colour stand out more.  Stare at your eyes in the mirror.  If you do make-up, take a good look at what your eyes do when juxtaposed to different colours.  Stare at other people's eyes.  Stare creepily.  And then run and hide and use a pen-name. 

Inclining round to the soldier, [Rhodri] asked, “Was anyone killed?”
The soldier hesitated.  He looked as if he might have refused an answer, but Rhodri unexpectedly lifted a brow and fixed him like a basilisk, so the soldier said in a quiet voice, “I don’t know, sir.  I don’t think so.”
For a moment longer the two regarded each other, the one caught in the other’s gaze.  Then Rhodri released him, turning his head away.  “Very good, soldier.  We will be out of your way in a moment.  Thank you for the drinks.”
“Sir.”  The soldier half-drew to the salute, checked himself, and swung away to the jinkeh-jink of accoutrements.
Adamantine

God, We Reach For Ancient Skies


May you be brave in times of trial when others lay crosses on your shoulders.

"What happened to Between Earth and Sky?"

No, I'm not suddenly veering off from Plenilune to attend to yet another novel jostling in my head to be written.  But Joy asked me this question on Facebook and I figured, hey, I haven't talked about Between Earth and Sky in a long, long time, so I thought I would jot down a little about it and tell you why I put it aside for awhile. 

I told my husband just last night, after reading back over a theological, philosophical discussion that had made it into the manuscript of Between Earth and Sky, that the novel is like The Shadow Things, but on steroids.  Honestly I haven't picked the manuscript up in over a year, but having run an eye over it again, I can truly say that it's good stuff.  I recall being peeved and fretful over it before, but after a brief perusal I found it to be tightly-knit with sound dialogue and description and (my favourite, and the hardest thing for me to work in) foreshadowing.  I was actually really pleased with what I found and really excited to begin on it afresh.  I can't right now, of course - I'm in the middle of Plenilune.  (Figurative middle.  I have no idea how far into the plot I really am.  Plots are like that, you know...)

Why did I stop?  Two reasons.  Well, three.  One, I was in the middle of seriously editing Adamantine.  I always have shards of ideas coming off my imagination, but I don't multitask on two demanding stories very well so when the second reason for my leaving off working on Between Earth and Sky hit I had that excuse to fall back on.  The second reason is that I got stuck.  Probably no more stuck than I normally get in the course of writing: I just got gummed up.  The third reason I stopped is that, at that point, I had not learned to push on.  I've learned through writing Plenilune that if I put my back into it, more words will come.  I simply have to plough through the mess.  Back then I hadn't learned that, so between Adamantine, being stuck, and having a bit of a squishy backbone, Between Earth and Sky was put down.

Don't despair, though!  I love that plot.  I love those characters.  It will demand everything and more from me, but I am looking forward to it, to the curve-ball questions characters will throw at me, the moral conundrums we will find ourselves in, the stepping out into the darkness in faith which all of us experience.  Perhaps I was too small for the story before, and that is why I put it down...  But now I am wildly afraid of it as you are afraid of a huge wave that is about to break over you, and yet loving to be caught up in the ruthless glory of it.  It will demand everything and more from me, and I am glad of it.

The manuscript of Between Earth and Sky is only 74,341 words and, where I left off, I was only just cupping the little ember of its plot in my palms and blowing it to life.  What is it about?  It's about the demands placed upon a man of God, serving a people who do not know Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth.
Walking alone. 
Valerian’s face returned, distant and contemplative; but always sure of itself, as though from some high and lofty quarter, an eagle’s eyrie, perhaps, the man could see the world as it turned.  Had Valerian known?  The thought chilled him colder than the brisk evening wind.  Had the man stood beside him that honey-yellow evening in the cloister and thought, ‘This boy will walk alone’? 
He might never know.

We Are Glad the Dauphin Is So Pleasant With Us

There is a balance of realism and artistry to be found in writing dialogue.  It is not always an easy balance to find. I confess that a personal pet peeve is to find contemporary dialogue in "pre-modern" settings: such as a Revolutionary soldier saying "Okay" or Charles the Mad saying "Darn" after killing the Bastard of Polignac...  But speaking of Charles the Mad, my particular psychosis which we are going to indulge today has to do, not with period-accurate slang, but with the use of names in dialogue.

use of names

When the character is in a group the use of names in dialogue is rather necessary.  In this instance literature does not quite reflect reality: in a realistic situation you would not keep saying "Well, Euripides, I think - " "Of course, Euripides, I see that - " "Euripides, when you put it like that - " etc.  In reality you would rely on physical prompts to tell people who you were talking to directly: the inclination of your eyes, a gesture of the hand: unspoken signals that may, if used excessively, gum up a piece of writing.  But in a piece of writing, repeating the character's name over and over is unrealistic and undeniably tedious.  Look to strike a balance between the use of given names (or even pet names) and nonverbal prompts to keep the dialogue on a level with smooth, polished literature but recognizable as reflecting reality.

use of character relationship

This gets me probably more than the excessive use of proper names.  It may be a mere pet peeve of mine: I will let you judge.  Very few people, except perhaps Mrs. Bennet, can get away with referring directly to a sibling as "sister" and "brother" all the time in conversation.  Typically, brotherhood and sisterhood are relationships that people do not consciously think about, nor, when they do, do they tend to assign "brother" and "sister" a place of proper noun-ship.  In some time periods and cultures you can get away with this on occasion (Mrs. Bennet) but in my perusals of writing I have found it to be often the mark of amateurism.  Avoid referring to the obvious.  This also goes for an excessive use of "mother," "father," "lord," and "lady," though those titles are closer to being proper nouns in some instances than "brother" and "sister" might be and, as such, have a little more leeway. Again, look for a balance between realism and a translation from the image in your head to the written word to the reader's imagination.

judging by emotion and situation

I gave you some don't-do examples, now I'll try to give you some examples in actual settings.  Dialogue encompasses the entire range of human emotion and just about every circumstance humans can find themselves in.  Names will be used (or not used) differently depending on these factors, and they can mean different things depending on these factors.

Anger.  Everyone knows that you are only given a middle name so you will know when your parents are mad at you. Calling a person by name is a way of grabbing hold of them - in the right tone, it acts in lieu of a physical shaking.

“We need a Caesar! If you can see another way, God help you, but we cannot. Rome cannot help us—she made that very clear. She can barely help herself.” There was a heavy silence, hollow and dark; Lord Alan’s next words fell in the silence like the ghostly pall of snow upon his heart. “We are alone, Ambrosius.”

Contentedness.  When God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, you don't tend to refer to your friend by name while talking to him.  You don't need to get his attention: you already have it, and you're both in a happy state of friendship.

Love.  Again, pet names aside (and those can be many and varied and are up to the discretion of your imagination), people in love don't tend to refer to each other by name when conversing.  They know intuitively that their minds are linked and have no need to draw the person's attention.

Fear.  When you are afraid every moment counts: you won't take the time to string out the entire name of a Spanish character - you will stamp him by his short little Christian name and that will be that.

Embarrassment.  Avoid names.  Using names is like making eye contact, and when you are embarrassed you do not want to have anything to do with the other person.

Extreme happiness.  Unlike contentedness, when you are absolutely, full-to-the-brim happy, calling out the other person's name acts as a relief and to link the other person with your own ecstasy. 

These are just some random feelings and situations that I plucked out of the dark attic of my mind.  Again, think about realistic situations in which there is dialogue and then think how best to translate that into writing.  Things will have to be tampered with when they go into writing otherwise something will be lost in translation (such as nonverbal indicators), but in general keeping a firm touch of reality goes a long way to keeping tabs on names in dialogue.  It may be apparent in these examples I gave that I steer away from using proper nouns in dialogue.  I do that, not because I think it is taboo, but because people don't usually speak that way.

Sum up: keep in touch with reality, attend to period-accurate address, and maintain a good feel for when proper nouns are used by what emotions in what situations. 

A Quiet and Teachable Spirit

it is easy to give advice
none too easy to take it
and nearly impossible to implement it

I confess I have been so caught up in working on Plenilune (which has been going well, by the way) that I have been somewhat neglecting my email inbox and The Penslayer.  Though I am not sure you would be so very angry with me for that...

I have a Shadow Things announcement to make before I roll into the bulk of my post.  First of all, Elizabeth Rose (whom I have had the pleasure of hosting here on The Penslayer) has read The Shadow Things and recently posted her book review on Living on Literary Lane.  If you wanted to hear someone else's views on the book, please check it out!  Additionally, I had the honour of being the first individual ever interviewed on author Audrey Hansen's blog just this morning.  I was really peached by that piece of news and really pleased by the questions she asked me.  So be sure to check that out too!

Now on to the main event!  Which, incidentally, features yet another blog - The Destiny of One, by Sarah Holman.  I recently read an excellent, concise little post by her on how to handle criticism.  As I mentioned with honesty and chagrin in a comment on the post I am a very sensitive soul (do you think it shows?) and I don't tend to take anything but the kindest of criticism well.  Thankfully I have gotten almost nothing but the kindest of criticism, but that is unusual and as I am at the mere beginning of my literary career I can expect harder nails to claw at me in the future.  Sarah Holman's post was brief, and I will add to it with a few of my own thoughts, but her points were so excellent and so spoke to me that I took the liberty of reposting them here.

1. Know that you cannot please everyone. Even the books on the bestseller lists get negative reviews. There will be people who don’t like your genre, your style, or the fact you mention God. However, there will people who love your book for those same reasons.

2. Give the book to some friends first. Tell them you are learning and would like their opinions but can’t take harsh ones yet. Your friends will often respect that and you will learn to take some criticism, along with the good things they have to say about your book.

3. It is okay to give the book to people you know will like it. Family members and friends who will like it no matter what can help boost your confidence and make taking the criticism better.

4. There are some days that you should never try to read what others are saying about your story. Make sure that you are emotionally ready to handle it.

5. Know that as long as you are honoring God in your story (this does not mean it has to be preachy) he is pleased with your work.

These are really good, down-to-earth pieces of advice for writers.  Just because someone doesn't share the same taste in style and genre as we do doesn't automatically make us failures at our craft.  I've already said that a touch of blind "I-am-the-greatest" attitude will further you in your writing, because that nagging sense of not doing a good enough job while you hone your craft will only discourage you and drag you back.  Of course you have room for improvement.  We all do, and we always will.  But fixating on that is detrimental to your morale, trust me.  Tie up your own boot-straps, put up your own chin, and stride out among your own scrawled words with a sense that you own the place.

If you have good friends (our choice of family, as was the case with Mr. Bingley, cannot be helped), they are the sort of people you can assume know you best and can make a good assessment of your potential.  In short, they will heartily give praise where praise is due and urge you on to do better.  Invest in those friendships!  

Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl has said several times that she does not go out of her way to find reviews.  I am guilty of doing this (if you can call it a guilt) because I like to know what people think.  However, her point is very valid, especially for souls like hers and mine.  Glowing reviews are always wonderful, but that one negative review, heartless and demeaning, can ruin everything.  So don't tempt the devil, as it were: don't stick yourself out there to be criticized if you aren't ready to handle it.  And, as always, there are many different aspects of our faith that we may address in our novels: but so long as we adhere to the faith, so long as what we write is not only done "to the glory of God" but accurately reflects his own self-revelation, I would say you have nothing to fear.  The content of your writing is sound, even if your skill may need improvement.

Those were Sarah's points and I am really appreciative of them.  I have just one more overarching piece of advice to give and that is: have a quiet and teachable spirit.  We are in an ancient and venerated business - the writing of books - and there is no place here for a puffed up spirit.  We have countless people to teach us our craft, many of us have a good crew of folk still alive to come alongside us and point out from a more objective viewpoint where we have done well and where we need to improve.  These moments may sting, but then blessings have been known to come in disguises.  Take stock of your own smallness in this literary world, the sheer dependence you have on the writers who have gone before you, the miles of improvement you have left to go, and learn to bear gladly the criticism of others.

I'll be learning it with you.