Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

Excerpt from Susan Cooper’s The Dawn of Fear March 29, 2007

Filed under: books 2007 — itsy @ 11:09 pm

I wanted to share this passage, which I came across in the book today. Cooper is a master at creating a sense of danger in children’s literature. She does this very effectively in The Dark is Rising series. Without actually putting the kids in physical danger, she creates the suggestion and anticipation of it which is more than enough. In this book, there’s a more concrete, pressing danger: it’s WWII and the Germans are bombing England.  And what a fabulous end to a scene? It sent chills down my spine.

Derek clambered across the foot of his bed toward him. Even without the blackout curtains, it would have been a dark room, for two large wardrobes were set across the French windows as protection against broken glass. But in the place where his father stood, you could see out of a window, through the apple trees in the garden, and over the fence to the eastern horizon. Lightening was still flickering at one side of the sky, but it was a small local storm and moving quickly away. Derek felt vaguely that his father had not been looking at the storm. He gazed ahead through the gap in the trees, to where the search lights were making their usual weaving crisscross pattern in the sky, blind white groping arms sweeping to and fro. And he saw suddenly that below the searchlights the sky above the horizon was red.

There in the east, it glowed with a reddish orange haze he did not remember having seen before, like a strange, misplaced sunset, glowing in the night sky. “What’s that?” he said.

His mother had quieted Hugh and come up behind them, and when she spoke, there was the same curious, taut note that he had heard in his father’s voice.

That’s London, burning,” she said.


screeching halt

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 5:08 pm

I started a short story a few days ago to try to dig my way out of this rut I’ve fallen into figuring if I had something that I could submit I’d feel a lot better (okay, until the rejection letters start rolling in). I got through about 4 pages… then this morning I was thinking about my story and realized my original climax was not going to make sense. Given the context and the people, it would just never happen.

So now I’m left with what feels like a rotten piece of wood, crumbling away from my fingers. Back to square one.  I wonder if I should try to salvage my story. It’s tempting to do so, yet I feel there’s danger in settling or forcing something  that shouldn’t be.

This feeling underscores a more general resistance I have with rewriting. When rewriting, I no longer see all the possibilities of plot or character development. I’ve already chosen a set path, and breaking out of it becomes increasingly difficult the more I’ve written. Part of it is the physical work that happens. If I alter this scene I’ve set off a cascade of plot and character inconsistencies that I now have to go and fix. And if I change those I’ve potentially set off a new batch. But the worse part is that I no longer can see as many alternatives. So I end up tinkering with what I have, and end up with something in between the original and what a proper rewrite should be.

I’d much rather start fresh, nothing but a blank page and an infinity of possibilities before you. Hence the drive to constantly start new projects, and maybe that’s where writers are forged, in the moment between giving up on a manuscript to start a new one and deciding, while battling nausea at the thought, to take on an existing piece for the second last time.



Filed under: writing — itsy @ 12:52 am

 This is my second post today, which is usually a sign that things aren’t going well. I’ve been writing, or trying to write, anyway, for the last few days, but its been like moving through overcooked oatmeal. And just about as delectable.

I’m frustrated because I don’t feel I have the skills to write how and what I want, because everything takes so much bloody time, because rewriting is like pulling teeth. I’ve lost sight of what feels right and of what I think constitutes good writing. I feel as if my hands are deformed, pawing at the keyboard so that the words that I intend to write aren’t the words that end up on the page, and I can’t seem to change them. I’ve tried writing in different genres, taking on a new project, or even writing in a completely different voice and style. But I can’t look beyond the triteness of my writing, my tired, insipid characters. I’m beginning to feel like one of them, trapped somewhere between concept and reality.

Maybe I need a break. Maybe I need a job. I could do with one of those. Oh yeah, and throw in a life-affirming experience too, while you’re at it, because I could definitely use one of those.

And still I plug away, trying very hard not to look back, and even harder not to look forward.


back to the formative years March 28, 2007

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 5:54 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of kid’s books lately, some old favorites and some new ones I haven’t heard of.

As a child I hated reading. In fact, my mother would drag me through the house, force me to sit at my desk and read. I’m not sure why I hated it so much, maybe it had more to do with my mom’s aggressive attitude than anything else, but probably too it seemed such a chore, and I would much rather have played with my stuffed animals (my sister and I had boxes and boxes of them).

I remember one of these nights, tears in my eyes, resentfully opening a new book required by my English class. I read the first page. I liked it, though I didn’t want to admit it to my mother, who was sitting on my bed watching me. After I had done the assigned reading and my mom left me in peace I reopened the book and read some more. I couldn’t put it down. The book was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, and it changed my life.

As an adult I read the rest of the series (there are 5 in all), and was astonished by how mature some of the themes were: sacrifice, loss, hope against all odds, but also faith, hope, and love. It’s no mystery this book hit a chord with me–these are the same themes that move me now.

Currently I’m reading Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and am thinking to myself, gosh darn it, this is the book I wanted to write. Because in some way children’s literature will always be the holy grail for me, and if I can write a good kid’s book I’ll feel my life is complete.

Next on my list, The Dawn of Fear, by Susan Cooper (I love The Dark is Rising series). I read the first chapter–it’s a dark story, as conveyed by the title, taking place in WWII Britain. I admire authors who take on a difficult topic like war and make it understandable. The first scene starts out with a air raid, but the miraculous thing is, kids are kids are kids, and these are completely believable. Also will read Redwall by Brian Jacques.

Any recommendations? What were some of the books that moved you as a kid?


Thank you, thank you very much… March 27, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — itsy @ 3:25 pm

I am touched that Fluent awarded me with a thinking blogger award, and glad that my ramblings here are of use to someone other than me.

It also makes me realize that writing is writing is writing. That is, the owner of Fluent is working on a memoir. I’m working on fantasy fiction. And yet, we can share much about writing. Genre doesn’t matter – pursuit, intent, and heart that do.


contests, and such March 26, 2007

Filed under: insecurities — itsy @ 11:18 pm

To date I have not entered a single contest, nor submitted anything for publication. I guess I feel that as long as I don’t get rejected, I can pretend I’m a real life, breathing writer.


Well, this year I’m determined to enter at least one contest, or submit something for publication. The problem, of course, is that I don’t write short stories. I’m gonna try, but honestly, I’ve never felt comfortable with the genre.

Nevertheless, I’ve got to try, at least. So here it is, my promise to the world.

Oh, and the more I think about Pressfield’s The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great the more I like it. Written in the first person, the book commands your attention. The Alexander Pressfield creates is entirely convincing, his voice valiant and braver than I could ever imagine being. At times, I felt like an eye on Alexander’s shoulder, watching these epics evolve. My only complaint was the intensity of the military language and descriptions – I felt I was taking Ancient Military History 101. But in reading more books on Alexander’s tactics I’ve gained a new appreciation for it, and will have to reread passages of it now that I have a clearer picture of the battles. Now, I only wish Pressfield’s Alexander hadn’t sounded like a 50-year-old veteran. Sure, people probably aged faster in those days, but Alexander was young, only 33 when he died, and I wish more of this had come through.


Sweet, sweet endings March 25, 2007

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 6:52 pm

Everything, recently, has been ending. I’m reaching the ending stages of my magnum opus. I’ve finally critiqued the last chapter and epilogue for my writing buddy (it’s been nearly two years since we started exchanging works, one chapter a week), and, I’m approaching the end of my new writing project. Except that I keep evading it – according to my schedule, I should have been done two days ago. Still, I’m two chapters away, and just as I set about writing the end I find something else to do. Oh right, I wanted to add a scene where my character does this. Or I need to rewrite this scene – it’s really terrible. Or man, this table is dirty, I should clean it. And gosh, has the floor always been so scruffy looking?

Then it hit me. I have ending anxiety. I’ve battled with these characters, shared their heart ache and triumph, encouraged them when all hope seemed lost – how can I leave them now? But more than that, I’m not quite sure how to end the durn thing. I had one ending all plotted out; I don’t think I have the heart to execute it at this point. After reading Maurice, I started toying with a happy ending… but neither of those options felt very satisfying.

And when it comes to endings, I’m tough to satisfy. Only about one in three books I read have an ending I feel I can really chew on. I wonder if writers just run out of steam or paint themselves into a corner. Struggling Writer is thinking about writing the ending first, an approach I think has merit.

So what makes a good ending?

I’m a firm believer in keeping the action, suspense, drama, tension, character development, or whatever is the driving force of your novel, tight and relentless until the last minute. I like books that keep me wondering, how the heck is this going to end? Good endings tie up the loose ends. There should be a sense of completion; the journey has ended, and we have reaped its rewards. Having said that, though, I do like books that have a touch of ambiguity at the end (will they live happily ever after??). After all, life never just ends. Well, unless you die. Which is another thing I hate, books in which everybody just dies. It’s a cheap way to end it.

But the best endings, by far, have a transcendent quality, as if the author has boiled down the essence of the book and taken it just one step farther. Tolkien’s The Return of the King has accomplished this (movie watchers, you’ll have to read the book to know what I’m talking about – its one event I can just only barely forgive Peter Jackson for omitting). Maurice another of those. I suppose it pays off to ruminate well on the ending. In some ways, the ending is the point of the entire piece. And on that note, I’ll end this, and get back to ending my darn story!