Breaking down prose: Raven Boys

I just finished reading Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Boys. Great book! It’s got two separate plot ideas that are woven together: a girl whose true love will die after she kisses him, and a group of teen boys who are tracking leylines to find an ancient Welsh king who may or may not be sleeping, not dead, like Arthur.

So it deals with ghosts and psychic reading stuff as honestly as it deals with the messed-up home lives of all the main characters. It’s exciting and endearing and intriguing. I wanted to highlight some passages I thought were great writing. It’s a way to analyze her technique and figure out how to improve my own writing with it.

Description is always used to set a mood. I don’t think there’s a superfluous bit of description in this whole book.

Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.

And later …

“Come on, Gansey,” Adam said with some heat. “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel …?”
“Feel what?” Gansey despised fighting with Adam, and somehow this felt like a fight.
Unsuccessfully, Adam struggled to put his thoughts into words. Finally he replied, “Observed.”
Across the parking lot, Noah had finally emerged from Nino’s and he slouched toward them. In the Camaro, Ronan’s silhouetted form lay back in the seat, head tilted as if he slept. Close by, Gansey could smell roses and grass mowed for the first time that year, and further away, he smelled damp earth coming to life beneath last year’s fallen leaves, and water running over rocks in mountain crooks where humans never walked. Perhaps Adam was right. There was something pregnant about the night, he thought, something out of sight opening its eyes.

And a bit later …

Outside, a midnight bird cried, high and piercing. The little replica of Henrietta (the town) was eerie in the half-light, the die-cast cars parked on the streets appearing as though they had just paused. Gansey always thought that, after dark, it felt like anything could happen. At night, Henrietta felt like magic, and at night, magic felt like it might be a terrible thing.

A character description:

Pushing open the door, Blue found Persephone sitting at the card table beside the window. When pressed, people often remembered Persephone’s hair: a long, wavy white-blond mane that fell to the backs of her thighs. If they got past her hair, they sometimes recalled her dresses–elaborate, frothy creations or quizzical smocks. And if they made it past that, they were unsettled by her eyes, true mirror black, pupils hidden in the darkness.

A piece of conversation:

“You’re the wedding planner,” Gansey said as a dog ripped out of nowhere. It barked furiously, trying to bite the Camaro’s tires. “Shouldn’t dates be your realm of expertise?”

“That means you don’t remember,” Helen replied. “And I’m not a wedding planner anymore. Well. Part-time. Well. Full-time, but not every day.”

Helen did not need to be anything. She didn’t have careers, she had hobbies that involved other people’s lives.

The narrative is always used to paint pictures and feelings. Forget the technicalities of adverbs and dialogue tags. This is some good stuff here.

Or how about this one, with all its latent horror. Perfectly ordinary fear becomes something else.

Two narratives coexisted in his head. One was the real image: the wasp climbing up the wood, oblivious to his presence. The other was a false image, a possibility: the wasp whirring into the air, finding Gansey’s skin, dipping the stinger into him, Gansey’s allergy making it a deadly weapon.

Long ago, his skin had crawled with hornets, their wings beating even when his heart wasn’t.

Look at how punchy the sentences are. When it comes down to shock value, it’s delivered in one sentence. Wings beating even when his heart wasn’t.

I guarantee you this didn’t happen in the first draft. This is revision work, polishing, pushing from the editor and the author slaving over every sentence to make them sharp as knives.

Notice the rising tension in these paragraphs. They build to a punch line, almost. The full scene is the same way–rising action or tension that keeps your fingers ready to turn the page.

I looked up Maggie’s interviews about this book. She said she wrote it when she was 19, but it was a giant sprawling mess. After she wrote the Shiver trilogy and Scorpio Races, she went back to that old story and rewrote it.

I think that’s one reason the characters feel so alive. They’ve been in her head for a long time. 🙂

Christians and werewolves

I’ve been chewing on the idea of a Christian Werewolf Romance. I’ve been able to parse the Werewolf Romance fine, but the Christian element is stumping me.

I got on Google and started looking for “a Christian perspective on werewolves”. There are loads of articles about Christians talking about vampires, Twilight, and why such things are bad and evil. There’s articles from non-Christians making fun of Christians for their views.

But I can’t find any Christians tackling the werewolf mythos head on. So I guess that leaves me.

First, werewolf mythos in general. These are some great quotes from The Book of Were-Wolves by S. Baring-Gould.

WHAT is Lycanthropy? The change of manor woman into the form of a wolf, either through
magical means, so as to enable him or her to gratify the taste for human flesh, or through judgment of the gods in punishment for some great offence.

And Herodotus:–” It seems that the Neuri are sorcerers, if one is to believe the Scythians and the Greeks established in Scythia; for each Neurian changes himself, once in the year, into the form of a wolf, and he continues in that form for several days, after which he resumes his former shape.”–( Lib. iv. c. 105.)

But the most remarkable story among the ancients is that related by Ovid in his “Metamorphoses,” of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who , entertaining Jupiter one day , set before him a hash of human flesh, to prove his omniscience, whereupon the god transferred him into a wolf:

In vain he attempted to speak; from that very instant His jaws were bespluttered with foam, and only he thirsted For blood, as he raged amongst flocks and panted for slaughter. His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked; A wolf,–he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression, Hoary he is as afore, his countenance rabid, His eyes glitter savagely still, the picture of fury.

Pliny relates from Evanthes, that on the festival of Jupiter Lycæus, one of the family of Antæus was selected by lot, and conducted to the brink of the Arcadian lake. He then hung his clothes on a tree and plunged into the water, whereupon he was transformed into a wolf. Nine years after, if he had not tasted human flesh, he was at liberty to swim back and resume his former shape, which had in the meantime become aged, as though he had worn it for nine years.

Curse of the Worgen, copyright Blizzard Entertainment

And it goes on. Only wicked people turned into were-wolves, and they always roamed around and ate people. Real lycanthropy is a mental illness where a person believes they’re an animal, and I imagine some of the stories come from that.

You know in the Gospels when Jesus casts the demons out of the dude who’d been living in the tombs, and the demons said their name was Legion? Yeah, I imagine that sort of thing contributed, too.

So, bad werewolves are typically the lycanthrope kind, the ones Hollywood uses. Big nasty monsters and all.

But what about the other kind? The Twilight wolves, the modern day ones formed by studies of real wolves living and hunting in a family unit and having a close-knit society?

Werewolf fans refer to these as “shifters”. It’s a person who can shapeshift into a wolf, but it’s not a monster. A lot of times they retain human memories and intelligence, too. This is closer to fairytales and fantasy, where people can turn into an animal of their choice.

There’s no black magic involved–it’s usually genetics, similar to the X-men, who get their powers at a certain age. In Twilight they were all Native Americans who had inherited the ability to change into spirit wolves, and the proximity of vampires was triggering their transformations. (Which is brilliant, if you ask me.)

Which gets us into shapeshifting, period. This shows up a lot in mythology and fairytales, and Wikipedia has an interesting take on it.

An important aspect of shape-shifting, thematically, is whether the transformation is voluntary. Circe transforms intruders to her island into swine, whereas Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, becomes a hawk to escape an evil wizard’s stronghold. When a form is taken on involuntarily, the thematic effect is one of confinement and restraint; the person is bound to the new form. In extreme cases, such as petrifaction, the character is entirely disabled.

Voluntary forms, on the other hand, are means of escape and liberation; even when the form is not undertaken to effect a literal escape, the abilities specific to the form, or the disguise afforded by it, allow the character to act in a manner previously impossible.

From Afar, by Nambroth. Click for original image.

It goes on to talk about fairytales where people were turned into animals, like the prince who was turned into a bear in Snow White and Rose Red, or the seven brothers who were turned into swans. That’s always a Bad Thing, like an evil spell of some kind.

But a person who can turn themselves into animals is always a freedom issue. Think of Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who escaped prison. Or Animorphs, or any number of stories where being able to turn into something else is a good thing. (Remember the girl who turned into a guinea pig in Sky High?)

Now we’re getting away from the whole “is it Christian” thing and into the realm of imagination and storytelling. The Bible has all kinds of stories that aren’t particularly Christian, like the trees trying to elect a new leader, or Jesus’s parables. Because Jesus told stories about unscrupulous servants and unrighteous judges, does that make his stories bad?

Jesus was making a point.

So if we want to write stories about people who can turn into animals, and yet go to church and see their alternate form as a way to explore and enjoy creation, well, that’d be a fun read. We can make our point, too.

Christians are writing vampire and werewolf books, like Never Ceese, which started out self-published. Lycanthropes are always bad, but it’d be fun to see somebody tackle the shapeshifter idea, too.

Critique guilt

There’s this weird thing that happens in creative circles. Critique is always desired, but not everyone can handle it. And when somebody gets their feelings hurt, the critique person feels bad.

I’ve been in an active critique group for over a year now. Between them and my crit partner, I’ve had my stories torn apart and rebuilt in much better ways. I’ve learned pitfalls to look for and how to critique other people’s work. (Tip #1: Always temper with praise!)

But occasionally someone will join the group who can’t take the heat. There’s been people who dropped in massive slabs of stories and never critiqued anything in return. I slaved over crits on their stories–and the person vanished, never to be seen again.

It always makes me guilty and second guess myself. I mixed in praise with the critique, right? All I nitpicked was stuff from various self editing books, like passive voice, repetition and adverbs. Or massive backstory dumps that bog the story down.

Bam. The writer is gone.

How do you handle this, in your creative circle? Can you take it when somebody says, “Hey, this is good, but it could be better and here’s how”?.

Weird critters in Arizona

So I’ve been researching Arizona for a story I’d like to write. And there are some WEIRD critters out here!

Ever seen a Gray Fox?

Gray Fox by James Marvin Phelps, via Wikimedia Commons
Gray Fox by James Marvin Phelps, via Wikimedia Commons

Or a Ringtail Cat?

Ringtail Cat by Pixelfugue, via Wikimedia Commons
Ringtail Cat by Pixelfugue, via Wikimedia Commons

Or a Jaguarundi?

Jaguarundi by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons
Jaguarundi by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Or a white-nosed Coati?

White Nosed Coati by  Benjamin Keen, via Wikimedia Commons
White Nosed Coati by Benjamin Keen, via Wikimedia Commons

Or that we even have jaguars??

Jaguar by US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons
Jaguar by US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Not to mention the deer, pronghorns, kangaroo rats, wolves, ferrets, bighorn sheep, and even some introduced bison somewhere!

I was prowling around the mountainy areas around Flagstaff in Google Maps, and I can definitely see all those critters living up there. Some dense coniferous forest up there. There’s even some deciduous here and there, where the rivers cut through and there’s actually some water. It’s refreshing to look at cottonwoods and things. I’d love to drive up there just to look at trees. Down here in the Phoenix valley, it’s all cactus and mesquite and things.

All in the name of research!

I have yet to spot a pyrrhuloxia, though.

Pyrrhuloxia by  Snowmanradio, via Wikimedai Commons
Pyrrhuloxia by Snowmanradio, via Wikimedai Commons

Inspirational paranormal werewolf romance

Recently I pitched the idea of writing an inspirational paranormal werewolf romance to my writing group. They thought the very idea was hilarious.

Out of curiosity, I poked around on Amazon. There aren’t any Christian werewolf romances out there–or at least, Amazon refused to search for that particular string because there were no results. Obviously this is a niche that must be filled!

Either that or nobody wants to read it.

Anyway! I’ve been using Wattpad to test out story ideas. I just finished the first draft of Dragonblood Vampire, and I’ve been wanting to tackle a werewolf romance just for the lols. The ones on Amazon are really steamy–it seems werewolves don’t do “sweet romance”, the kind where they don’t have pages of onscreen smut.

And Christian werewolves? Pff, forget THAT.

So I’ve taken this as a challenge! If Kerry Nietz can write Amish Vampires in Space, (and he’s not the only one) I can totally write a Christian werewolf romance.

I took a look at the back cover copy of a bunch of inspirational romances, and I’ve been writing up a bunch of my own. They’re plot nuggets that nicely encapsulate a story. They’re all kind of barfy–I mean, that’s the way romance is–but fun anyway. Below are a bunch of ones I’ve come up with–let me know which of these you’d likely pick up and read. If any. 🙂

Plot 1:

Aimee is an English major and desperately writing her thesis when not working part time as a parts runner for an auto shop. She’s also a werewolf, and her pack bosses her unmercifully–most of them are family and the alpha is her uncle. She’d really like to run away and write books for a living–she has a couple hidden in online storage and an interested agent–but the pack doesn’t approve.
Nathan is a werefox looking for a place to settle down. Unaware of the local wolf population, he settles in Prescott and takes a job as a mechanic in the shop where Aimee works. But as their romance blossoms, her suffocating pack may descend upon Nathan and destroy him.

Plot 2:

Nathan runs a successful campground and ski slope in Prescott. The werewolf pack all have similar jobs–firemen, forestry, loggers and such–because they stand between Prescott and the were-apes who have taken Flagstaff and are moving south. Nathan refuses to join the pack and is an outcast.
Aimee comes to Prescott seeking rest and anonymity after her boyfriend was shot in his fox form. She’s sworn never to transform again. While camping she meets Nathan and she’s attracted to him fiercely. But werewolves kill werefoxes, and wereapes kill everything. Their relationship may end in both their deaths.

(More Christiany) Plot 3:

Nathan is a Holy Wolf–a werewolf born on holy ground. His family hid him from the local pack. Now grown, Nathan is a popular youth pastor and apple farmer. But he also fights evil creatures of the night at certain seasons of the moon, and his actions have caught the attention of the Alpha, who wants Nathan as his daughter’s mate.
Aimee is a werefox. She arrived in Prescott with only the clothes on her back because her bus ticket didn’t take her any farther. Nathan opened the church’s resources to her, got her an apartment and a job–and they’re deeply attracted to each other. But Aimee is being hunted by a kelpie, which already killed her family. Between the wolf pack and the death horse, one werefox’s life may not last long–unless she opens up to the Holy Wolf. But by then it may be too late.

(More paranormal) Plot 4:

Nathan is a vet-turned-lycanthrope after a patient bit him. Now struggling with the beast within and its taste for blood, his life is falling apart–he’s missing work and church and all the singles activities he used to do. Even more alarming is the question of his soul–now that he’s a monster, is he damned for eternity? Does God hear the prayers of monsters? The local lycanthrope pack comes knocking, and Nathan is horribly tempted to join them.
Aimee is a shifter–born with the power to transform into a red fox, she retains her humanity even when transformed. She’s just moved to Prescott, unaware of the local lycanthrope problem, and when her cat falls sick, she finds herself in Nathan’s vet office–and sparks fly. But after a few dates, Nathan disappears during the full moon, and reappears days later–Aimee catches on. Is there any future for a bloodthirsty lycanthrope and a fox shifter, or will the local pack kill them both?

As you can see, there’s certain elements I want to write–the person at odds with the local pack, a werewolf and a werefox, etc. (This has nothing to do with Rosalee and Monroe from Grimm. Nope. Nothing.) But I can dress up those elements in any form.

How to screen small presses

As I’ve been learning about publishing, marketing and all that jazz, I’ve been developing a method of screening small presses.

First and foremost, check their guidelines. Do they publish the stuff you write? If yes, great! If no, find another press and start over.

Next, check out their stable of books. Good cover art? If the cover art is bad, RED FLAG! Run away!

If their book covers look decent, time to check marketing. Go to Amazon and type in the publisher’s name. Amazon will spew forth the publisher’s actual track record in the form of prices and reviews.

If this is a decent publisher, they’ll have a decent amount of books to scroll through. Are there both paperbacks and ebooks? How are the prices?

If the ebook prices are 5 bucks or higher, RED FLAG! Current convention says 2.99 and 3.99 are the sweet spot for sales right now. The publisher is either desperate to recoup costs, or out if touch with market trends.

How about reviews? You’re looking for ten to fifty reviews, or an average higher than five. Also watch stars. Most books will have four or five stars, but obvious stinkers will have less. If 3 star books are the trend, RED FLAG! If most books have 5 or less reviews, RED FLAG! Marketing and/or a good product don’t matter to these people.

Final litmus test–read a bunch of sample previews. Are the books well edited? Do the stories start without a cliche?

(Common cliche openings: waking from a dream or sleep, a description of the weather, a character thinking, an epic battle scene, a character complaining about being bored).

If you spot plot holes, typos, misspellings, or for heaven’s sake, writing on par with any random word-vomit on Wattpad, RED FLAG! This press’s editors either don’t know a thing or they sign any author who waves a query at them.

The final test is to follow them on Facebook for a while. If you come to hate their very existence, RED FLAG! These will be your co-workers and business partners. Make sure you can stand them.

This is my personal screening test for small presses. I’ve chewed through lots of presses and I have a list of potentials who I’d like to submit books to.

Did I miss anything? Are there any other critical steps to weeding through small and medium sized presses?

Living books

I’ve been trying to educate myself about how to, we’ll, educate. This is our first year of proper homeschooling, and I want to do it right.

I’ve been reading the Charlotte Mason companion, and it talks about the importance of living book. A living book is simply the opposite of a textbook–written by one person, often historical or biographical. Paddle to the Sea and Seabird by Holling Clancy Holling are examples. I’d venture that the Magic Schoolbus books are, too.

So I’ve been pondering what else to get, and if I could even find some. Anybody have any suggestions? At this point I’m interested in picture books, because the kids are small.

Weekend random

I was chortling to myself. Back in California, the kids asked for umbrellas, and I waved them off, because it never rained. Since we’ve lived here in the Arizona desert, it’s rained on average once a week. So I guess they really do need umbrellas. Actually, it’s thundering outside as I type this.

The sort of skies we get:


And the sunset across the sky:


Got a short story edited and submitted. Feeling pretty good about that.

We made oven s’mores last night. Upon my first bite, I went, “Yum! Just like camping!” Then I tried to swallow and went, “SWEET! TOO SWEET!”

Also, roasted marshmallows just don’t taste the same without bits of charcoal ash embedded in the marshmallow.

It’s great to have a library book in your sweaty little hand–then you go to renew it and someone else has placed a hold on it, so the library is going to charge you 25 cents a day. Uh, no thanks. Amazon, you are my only friend.

I love weekends when my hubby has them off.

Weekends aren’t so great when he doesn’t.

What does one do when one discovers that her son’s friends have been offering him cigarettes?

Animal group names

I was lying in bed last night, pondering what a group of velociraptors might be called. Then I started trying to remember group names of other animals. Thank goodness for the internet! I found a big old list of them.

Some that amused me unduly:

A shrewdness of apes
A battery of barracudas
An obstinacy of buffalo
A destruction of feral cats
A coalition of cheetahs
A quiver of cobras
A gulp of cormorants
A cast of falcons
A flamboyance of flamingos
A skulk of foxes
An implausibility of gnus
A glint of goldfish
A kettle of hawks in flight
A bloat of hippopotami
A charm of hummingbirds
A richness of martens
A scourge of mosquitoes
A rhumba of rattlesnakes
A dazzle of zebras

A lot of these terms describe people’s opinions of these animals, or the animals’ behavior. Apes sit around and look shrewd. Foxes skulk around. Do rattlesnakes do the rhumba with their tails? Do cobras quiver?

People like martens if a bunch of them is a richness, whereas mosquitoes are a scourge.

So what about extinct animals like dinosaurs? We don’t know about their behavior or what we’d think of them. Would duckbills nesting together be a shout? Or a mess? Or a hive?

Would a bunch of velociraptors be a cunning? A preen? A strut? A pride?

What about sauropods, the long-necks? A hydra? A pod? A surge? A thunder?

What about tyrannosaurs?

What about a bunch of megamouth sharks? Or sabertoothed tigers, or mammoths, or any of those other weird extinct mammals?