Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Or you can read a book and tear your eyes away from the pages now and then to glance at the scene before you.
(I'm terrible like that.)
This Sunday I took Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry with me. It's a slim little book that I'll using as a teaching resource this year, and believe it or not, I had never read it before.
*jaws drop* and you call yourself a bibliophile, schuyler.
It's a beautiful book. And here's what I thought of it.
The Book (cover photo above and description below via Goodreads)
Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen often think of life before the war. It's now 1943 and their life in Copenhagen is filled with school, food shortages, and the Nazi soldiers marching through town. When the Jews of Denmark are "relocated," Ellen moves in with the Johansens and pretends to be one of the family. Soon Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission to save Ellen's life.
Number the Stars has so many good things going for it that I was enchanted. First of all, the plot is really tightly woven, so much so that even the little, seemingly-random details Annemarie recalls about her family growing up all turn out to be vital and important. It must have been written and re-written to include only the vital details like that. As a writer myself, I am in awe.
Lowry does a beautiful job of contrasting Annemarie's sweet, warm home life with the danger of the Jews and the soldiers in the streets. I enjoyed the relationships Annemarie had throughout the story. Her memories of her big sister, Lise, her little sister Kirsty's toddler moments that Mama deals with so skillfully, and the way Annemarie's mother and father and Uncle Henrik gradually include her in their plans. Annemarie is honest about the emotions she experiences as a child, without thinking she's superior to her parents. I was expecting her to take matters into her own hands and add extra danger to the climax, but that wasn't the way it worked at all. Annemarie's ability to listen and work together with adults was the key factor that helped them call on her when it mattered most.
I was reading this with an eye to stylistic details I'll be pointing out later, so I paid special attention to the adjectives. They were placed lovingly and skillfully, and I enjoyed all the little details about cream in porridge and fish skin shoes and the gnarled apple tree that Lowry included.
And last, but far from least, the overarching theme of bravery--of doing the right thing--was skillfully woven throughout. It starts as Annemarie remembers how all of Denmark stands bodyguard for their king, and she tells her papa she will be the king's bodyguard too. It continues on as Annemarie wrestles with whether or not she could be brave, even to laying down her life for her friend. And it comes to a triumphant, stirring climax that, as the introduction to the book says, would encourage any young reader to be brave, just like Annemarie was.
I would gladly give this book to my children. It will introduce them to bravery and sacrifice and the cruelty of the Nazis in an age-appropriate, valuable, non-scarring way. I am so glad to have made the acquaintance of Annemarie and this beautiful classic, and I definitely want to return to it myself.
Right now I'm reading Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (for the first time) and loving that one as well. Look out for another book review soon!
Friday, August 11, 2017
While I'm in the midst of editing War of Loyalties, I'm thinking a lot about feedback. Not only has my most recent round of feedback been from my editor, but over the years, I've also gotten feedback from a lot of generous people who looked at various drafts of the book. All of that has been a necessary ride, and I've been treated with kindness by each person that has looked over my work. I'm so grateful for them all. But many times other people's kindness and competency sometimes had to filter through my own hangups, and I thought it might be worth while to talk about how to deal with insecurity and shame in receiving feedback.
We're in this together. *group hug* *minky blankets for all*
The vulnerability of creativity has always been a challenge for me. I am constantly torn between my desire to share my work almost immediately with whoever wants to read it, and the strange feeling I get when a piece of my work is critiqued. I'm not even talking about a bad kind of critique. Just the good kind, when you send it and ask people to tell you what worked and what didn't.
When I click send on a piece of work, whether it's to friends or beta readers, I generally click it in a moment of desperation, just throwing it out there before I can think about it. Once it's out of my hands, I can forget about it until they write back--and even if I know it still has mistakes in it, I'm still eager to see what they will think of it.
But when feedback returns to the inbox, especially when I know it's feedback that points out mistakes, I have a reaction that is hard to put into words. It's not hyperventilating. But a couple of times, it has been scrolling through critiques while reading as fast as I possibly can, like diving into a cold swimming pool to get over the shock of how the water feels. I skim through them and close out--hide the papers--shut it all away until my system can balance out and return to them with some degree of objectivity. Then I come back a few days later and read the comments more slowly, actually weighing the improvements that need to be made.
I have a few parts of my work that strike me with so much embarrassment I don't try to remember them too often. When I come back to those edits, I feel physically repelled--like when you put two magnets together and you can feel the force driving them apart. The magnet of shame and the magnet of the critique drive me apart so strongly that it can take a long time to fix that portion of work.
So how does one silence the inner screaming in those times?
1. There is no shame in asking someone to fix your work.
Somehow, deep inside, there must be a lie niggling away at authors telling them they should have been able to do this whole thing themselves if they just tried harder. That's simply not true. A good piece of work can't be produced alone. It must be thrown out into the artistic community, discussed, and put through the filter of other people's perspectives to cover the blind spots we carry. It will always be better and more expensive, with bigger heart, when you have the additional ingredient of other people's perspectives and feelings and questions to take it beyond what you could do on your own.
The trick is to find good artistic community. When you know that the group of people who are tearing your work apart are, at their core, on your team, you can survive it. Throughout all the years of working on War of Loyalties, I have been blessed with critique partners and an editor who have been kind even while sometimes having to give very tough critiques. Hard knocks lead to growth, if only I can let it.
Sometimes shame comes from the fear that we should have known better, and people will think we're lacking in some way. It's so hard for me to remember: just because you feel ashamed of your mistakes doesn't mean for a moment that your artistic community feels ashamed of you. You're learning. That's acceptable. You made mistakes. That's acceptable as well. No one will fault you for that. You can't even start walking or get through school without the try and fail and try again process. Mistakes and critiquesares the perfectly natural and normal progression of trying to publish a book or create a piece of art.
2. You'll like the next result much, much better.
Facing your mistakes is the bitter taste that later turns to sweet. As you acknowledge and fix them, you start feeling a sense of relief. "That problem my story always had--it's getting better now." "I never knew what to do with that, and now I can make it clearer." "I really like this new scene--it shows instead of telling." "I can face people with my work more confidently now that this is fixed." It is hard to face mistakes, and there are moments of needling self-doubt, but all in all, I love the better final product that comes from the feedback others have given me.
It's a sweet relief, because, deep down, we all know our work has flaws. The best antidote to that is not hoping that other people won't notice them, but getting help to fix them. The relief of fixing something is much more lasting than the relief of hoodwinking people about your weak spots. So lean into critique. It's on your side.
3. Remind yourself this draft is better than the last one. And the next draft will be better still.
I always like to sigh with relief when I get a round of feedback and think "At least they didn't see the draft before this one." All of us have those drafts stashed away. ;) Some of the scenes in the first, handwritten draft of War of Loyalties would make me break out in a sweat if anyone saw them. (No one is ever going to see the scene where one character transports luggage to the train station.) They can be quietly lost in oblivion. What you've shown people is better than the first draft, times one thousand. *sigh of relief* What you write next, will be even better still. You'll get to live that feeling of excitement and having done a good job all over again, and that feeling never grows old.
4. Turn on some music to distract the brain while you fix it.
So here's what you do. If you're sitting in a chair, writing a blog post and procrastinating, instead of facing your work and fixing it (like I was last night) then turn on Spotify, pick a really loud and fast piece of music, (or any music, really) and let that music distract your mind while you sit down and get to business.Or text a friend and tell them your dilemma so they can keep you company while you write. Sometimes the faster you face and fix a mistake, the less painful it is. Don't stop. Don't get bogged down in it. Don't wallow in the shame. Take someone's hand, get back up, and throw your whole heart into improving it just like you threw it into creating in the first place.
The Hidden Pride in Shame
Here's the artistic sweet spot: if you can dive down into the deep pool of emotion and throw that into your work with all the authenticity you can muster--if you can put your beating heart on the page--and yet have enough humility to give it to someone whose honesty you respect and ask them to show you how to make it better--then you can make it.
So I must learn, somehow in all of this, that shame is pride. There is humility in quietly accepting that my work has errors and I need help in fixing them. And I must learn that the wrong kind of strength can be pride as well. It is humility to admit that my self-mustered tenacity is sin, and I need a different kind of strength entirely.
So gratefully lean into critique, and forge ahead into allowing that critique to make your work a better thing. Pray for a humble spirit to accept the advice that you receive. Rely on God-given strength. Take a deep breath before you open that feedback.
And then get to work and make your book better than you ever thought it could be.
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
But oh, my was this a good book. A satisfying book. Can you believe all the good books that have come out this year? I can't. I feel like so much creativity and warmth and depth and originality has been springing out of publishing houses. Some of the books I really enjoyed weren't even published this year, I just discovered them this year. But others were, and Roseanna White's A Name Unknown, hot off the press, is a WW1 novel you won't want to miss.
Check out Goodreads for all the descriptions and whatnot here.
The premise grabbed me right away with its creativity--World War One (a favorite, because I write WW1 literature, and the time period isn't super common) a novel about London thieves, and a novel about spying, offered so much to enjoy. And guys, it's a really, really fun story. Definitely worth adding to your TBR this year.
First: the characters and setting are effortlessly creative. I love the Cornish setting (hadn't really paid attention to that before or read books with that focus) and the micro-level settings of the library and Peter's study offer so much fun. As a WW1 author myself, I loved reading about some of the historical details (did you know paper clips were around pre-WW1?) as well as the time where people were straddling electricity and non-electricity, carriages and motorcars.
I loved Rosemary's background. It has a very Dickensian streak to it, with the London pub, the close sense of family, and the thievery that they resort to to stay alive. And Peter...Peter was my favorite. He's so kind, with the way he writes heartfelt letters to people, and so funny with his messy library and the way he shushes you when he has some novel inspiration he doesn't want to lose. I'm afraid this will sound like gushing, but it's not meant to be. It's just an honest love for a good fictional friend. I liked how Roseanna capture the perspective of a writer, because as a writer, I can resonate well with that. :)
I also really appreciated the romance. Peter and Rosemary have a very natural, good progression from employer/employee to mentor/mentee, to Peter praying for her in a crisis, to friends. They exchanged thoughts and opinions and worldviews, and I really resonate with worldview exchange plus gentle kindness in moments of vulnerable distress, (those two things basically sum up why I love Peter Holstein's character). The character arcs are alive, feel very natural and real, and the relationships of the characters to one another and to God are so well-written, it made me really enjoy the book.
The paperback edition is nice to hold and read. If you want a fun WW1 historical novel with intrigue and a dash of really well-done romance, A Name Unknown is the perfect choice. You can find it on Amazon. I can't wait for book 2 in this series!
I received this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.
Friday, August 4, 2017
So this post is more of a groundwork set-up to tell you a little bit about how I watch movies and filter them. I watch a lot of movies in the British drama line, as well as a few modern ones. I've enjoyed everything from the Kendrick Brothers to Masterpiece Theatre to Star Wars to Andy Griffith to The North Avenue Irregulars. (Wide variety of genres there).
When we find a movie we like, we like to own it and watch it multiple times. (I am a hoarder and keep my personal stash in a separate place from the family collection.) And as I've grown older, and learned more about writing, I learn to appreciate good movie adaptations even more. A clever script. A really well-done variety of characters. A twist on the original novel (if it's a book adaptation) that enhances the story and remains in the original spirit of the book. There is so much to love and be inspired by.
(i'm still not hugely excited about movie commentaries, though.)
So I've never really written a formal movie review, and I don't want them to be too formal in tone. But in future, I'd love to share with you some movie discussion posts that go through what I think/especially appreciated, thought was poorly done, or got really excited about. We'll try to keep it light (lots of fangirling) but still productive (something to chew on). I'll also try to throw in a mini-content guide for sensitive and mature content.
Speaking of mature content, Schuyler, tell us how you deal with that.
That's a good question, actually. It takes longer to explain than it does to actually put into practice. There are several approaches to dealing with sin in movies. First of all, sin should never be condoned or celebrated. But if I'm watching a book-to-movie adaptation, I sometimes run into characters who commit sin and sometimes just plain tragedy that happens. What do you do when Fanny Price goes home to her drunken father and he takes the Lord's name in vain several times? Or when there's a flashback scene of Molly's violent back story in Great Expectations? Or when Andrew Davies decides we need a scene of Willoughby's philanderings at the beginning of the 2007 Sense and Sensibility? How about the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings? Should I throw out a movie because it has a bad statue in a couple of scenes? What about the objectifying comment a gentleman makes at the dinner table in Little Dorrit? These are good questions, and they should be addressed. The approach I have found that allows me to watch valuable, lovely stories while not relaxing standards with inappropriate content is to learn how to edit those sections.
Here are three hot topics and how I deal with them when watching movies:
Language: As you know, I'm pretty sensitive to language around here. If I watch characters use language without filtering it, it starts slipping into my mental vocabulary, and that's the kind of edifying thought life Christians are encouraged to have. Some people might not be affected that way, but I am. So whenever possible, I watch the movie, write down a list of keywords that will remind me where to mute, and then do my best to mute the instance whenever I watch the movie again. That system has worked pretty well in addressing the problem for me, because I like to think of muting the words as a way of signaling to my mind "this isn't ok". It's the same as using white-out in books. Since I'm going to watch it multiple times, and I don't like language, I might as well learn how to take it out. That's really worked, opened up a way to watch edifying movies I couldn't see otherwise, and made a lot of book-to-movie adaptations a lot more comfortable to watch. Some movies go above my preferred amount of language (like Middlemarch), and those movies I wait on until I can watch them with a filter like VidAngel that would filter out the language for me.
(Let's be honest though, watching 7.5 hours of Little Dorrit every 18 months doesn't give much practice time.)
Sex: Obviously I don't watch sex scenes. That should be a given. If I'm watching a book-to-movie adaptation that has a brief scene of a married couple in bed together, (The Young Victoria, for instance) I fast-forward. If there's a bad piece of statuary, and I'm watching it on my laptop, I cover it with my hand or find another place on the screen to look. If someone makes a crude comment, I mute it out. Again, it's another way of enjoying a good and profitable film while still training your eyes that modesty is important and to be maintained. It's not couch potato time.
Violence: While this isn't a hard and fast rule for me, if there is a murder on screen (Great Expectations, Little Dorrit), I generally fast-forward, but if it's a battle scene (Lord of the Rings), I generally feel comfortable watching it. Battles move faster, and in a lot of movies, are fairly bloodless. Murder scenes are full of malice and calculated violence, and often disturbing to watch on screen.
In saying these things, I'm not at all referring to filtering movies that are chock full of evil here (that wouldn't be profitable for anyone). I'm talking mainly about movies where you can spit out the scattered seeds and still enjoy the fruit of it. So far, in pursuing entertainment choices that match with my pursuit of Christlikeness, and my love for classic literature, this is a system that has worked well for me over the years. I really hope it can be helpful for some of you, too!
Future Movie Reviews
I'm really excited for the future of discussing movies with you all. There are myriads of good movies out there to talk about, laugh over, discuss, watch again and again, and celebrate. There are tons of issues we can unpack about fantasy movies, movie theatres, how to pick out and watch a good movie, and things like kissing and costumes. And, since so many movies are based on books, I feel like it will stay true to the spirit of this blog (book-related) while opening up a new avenue of things to think about.
Now for picking out the first one to be reviewed. ;)
Do you have a movie you want to see reviewed here? Questions about this movie watching process? I'd love to discuss with you!
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
I'm back! I'm alive! (One cold later, with a conference trip combined.)
Last week was a week of decadence, spiritually speaking and edibly speaking. On Thursday we stopped at The Cheesecake Factory with friends for the first time ever, and great was the rejoicing thereof. The cheesecake was rich--the whipped cream was piled high in the most elegant swirls--and the restaurant itself was ritzy. After eating that, we meandered further on to a coffee shop for a confab with more friends, and I tried a London Fog from Starbucks.
You know when you want to try something and you anticipate it and savor it in your head, and then you go in for that first sip?
It was everything I imagined it to be. It was this song put to drink form, and so, so perfect for story inspiration.
We listened to some amazing teaching on speaking truth in our heart, went for French fry runs after ten at night, and stopped at a pizza place that looked a little suspicious (perfect for story atmosphere) on the way home. It's one of those weeks that you savor in memory.
And then when we got back from the conference, I saw one of my favorite modern singers in concert--and that experience was everything I hoped it would be. Having an active imagination means that joys and sorrows are heightened, and sometimes, when you look forward to something, the flies gather over the ointment, leaving you rather disappointed on the whole. But that really didn't happen last week, and I'm so grateful for that--I can hold the memories golden, looking back and saying "Remember when? Yeah, that was good."
Enough meanderings. I'm going to ease in today with the book cake tag, compliments of Jennifer Frietag over at The Penslayer, Cait at Paper Fury, and Elisabeth Grace Foley over at The Second Sentence! This looks super fun. :D
(a dark book you loved)
I don't think I'm really the one to answer this question. I like probably more elements of dark in my book, so it might take more dark for me to realize it's dark? I don't know. But Patrick Carr's The Shock of Night fits into dark really well. It has a grittier cast with some pretty intense mind-reading abilities.
(a light read)
Old Friends and New Fancies is the perfect, fluffy, Austen-inspired read. I had so much fun reading that in the sleepy time of a Saturday morning when you've stayed up late and you don't want to move anywhere too fast.
The Brethren, by H. Rider Haggard, came up in conversation recently and that really gives me mixed emotions. Because Haggard made a really gutsy decision that fit with the story, but I really, really hate the decision he made. It was well done, but hateable. :P
(recommend to anyone)
L.M. Montgomery. Dickens has a different flavor, and I almost put Rosemary Sutcliff, but L.M. Montgomery’s books embody beautiful writing, universal themes, a good size novel without being too long, and stories that ripen to an even better flavor over time. Anne of Green Gables and Jane of Lantern Hill are always good ones to start with. (This was a total cheat answer, I know.)
(started but never finished)
To echo Elisabeth Grace Foley’s protest, who never finishes coffee cake? It always gets eaten at our house, especially with streusel topping. But, I suppose, a book I never finished was Les Miserables. I started quite a bit, but I didn’t like his worldview (though to be fair I love some of the musical songs), so I passed it by. I honestly like the story through shorter means just as much, and can enjoy my favorite parts that way.
(left you wanting more)
Tracy Groot's The Maggie Bright. It left me wanting anything she's ever written as an author, it was that good. While the book was a stand-alone, I loved her writing style, her historical atmosphere, and the whole story, and can't wait to keep following her career. If you've seen Dunkirk recently, you'll love this book!
(4+ book series)
The Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters. While they have some language I don't like, they are like cupcakes--short and deliciously consumable. You can read them quickly, and they're like a really good cupcake--they don't leave you disappointed in the flavor and texture.
(not what you expected)
I actually don't mind fruitcake! And I have no idea for this? I guess Peter Pan didn't hit me in the way I was expecting the first time I read it, which made me really sad, because I was expecting magical feels-inducing things that would take me by surprise, and somehow I just didn't feel those things for the first read-through. Maybe I can try it again someday.
(fav american novel)
I don’t know what constitutes an American novel, so I’ll fudge a point and say a novel by an American author? I mean, I think that qualifies? Anything by Gene Stratton Porter. I really liked Her Father's Daughter--it's set in California and has some really good themes of education, homemaking, friendships with guys, and facing subtle abuse.
So there you have it. I love this idea, and want to create something similar of my own to match characters with flavors! Have you done the Book Cake tag?